We can’t help it; it’s become ingrained in all of us. We hear the first few bars of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or hear some rambunctious cowboy-type spout “yippee ki yay,” and our thoughts immediately turn to Die Hard.
John McClane embarks on his fifth (mis)adventure this week in John Moore’s A Good Day to Die Hard. This time around, John is in Russia and ends up inadvertently teaming with his son Jack to stop a nuclear weapon from falling into the hands of some very unsavory characters. What is it about this series and this character that hasallowed him to remain alive and well in the imaginations of audiences 25 years after the first film? To understand the longevity of this franchise, it is important to not only to analyze the appeal of the first film, but also to understand how its defining characteristics have been stretched, altered, and redefined.
Ordinary Guy Extraordinary Situation
Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were Alfred Hitchcock’s go-to leads for many years. Why? Because they embodied his prototypical hero; the ordinary man in the extraordinary situation.
Bruce Willis as John McClane is simply the action movie iteration of that same character. While he too is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, contemporary audiences connect with him because he is not as passive or out of his element as Hitch’s heroes. His law enforcement training casts him in a natural protector role that compels him to forge headlong into trouble. This has been a threadline through all four existing movies.
RELATED: Naughty or Nice: 'Die Hard' Vs. 'Reindeer Games
It’s ironic that the new film is called A Good Day to Die Hard, given that John McClane hasn’t had a good day in quite some time. The guy has terrible luck, and though it may seem absurd how often these things keep happening to him, on some level, we relate to his seeming inability to catch a break. Additionally, what we like about John is that, again pursuant to his status as a regular guy, he gets hurt in the line of duty. And this is not the single flesh wound of most action heroes. By the end of all the Die Hard films, McClane is bruised and bleeding profusely. By the closing credits of Die Hard with a Vengeance, for instance, McClane looks like the lone survivor of a horror film.
Even Live Free or Die Hard, which is the most widely reviled sequel, saw McClane physically decimated by the end. The problem however is that Live Free or Die Hard pushed the envelope as to what McClane was able to survive, bloodied or otherwise. All of a sudden, he could surf fighter jets and walk away from fifty-foot plummets onto concrete overpasses. He also began inexplicably throwing cars at helicopters. Die Hard 2, arguably the second weakest entry, may have involved a few overzealous stunts, and the fall from the cable onto the cargo ship in Die Hard with a Vengeance may have been a bit over-the-top, but there is only so much disbelief we can be required to suspend with this character.
So Funny It Hurts
One of the things we have loved about these movies from day one is John McClane’s wry sense of humor. Even when he is in dire situations, he still manages to trade insulting jabs with the bad guys. McClaine is also unsure of his own means. He would often be heard quipping, “this is a bad idea,” whenever attempting some makeshift explosive or leap into a dangerous situation with barely a look beforehand. It was a subtle note of self-effacing humility that has underscored each and every entry.
RELATED: 'A Good Day to Die Hard': Bruce Willis Is Not the Hugging-Type — Trailer
This emphasis on comedy to lend personality has also been evident in the franchise’s supporting cast. Though also providing some of the film’s most heartfelt interaction, Die Hard’s Sgt. Al Powell provided a wonderful comic complement to Willis’ otherwise solitary hero. Reginald VelJohnson’s outside-looking-in beat cop didn’t even enter the Nakatomi tower, but he is regardless an indelible part of this series. Powell was brought back for a cameo in Die Hard 2. Furthering that trait, to a rather diminished effect, McClane was aided by a janitor named Marvin later in Die Hard 2.
It was in Die Hard with a Vengeance that this concept was extrapolated into the creation of an actual sidekick who accompanied McClane through the whole movie. Samuel L. Jackson played off Willis so well that the franchise skirted what could have been a tumble into the generic buddy cop film rut. This trend would also explain Justin Long’s presence in Live Free or Die Hard, though his spastic hacker sidekick was a poor complement to McClane and only served to emphasize the fact that the villains went from formidable terrorists/thieves to jumped-up Best Buy employees. Hopefully John’s own son will offer a fitting counterbalance to his antics in A Good Day to Die Hard.
Next: Opening Up the World of Die Hard… for Better or Worse
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
The Accordion Effect
When academics breakdown the appeal of the first Die Hard, the word that comes up without fail is claustrophobia. The action in that 1988 disasterpiece was confined to a single high-rise building, but charted as much destruction as certain smaller war films. The problem with sequelizing a film like Die Hard is that the dogma of sequels dictates that each new movie must be of a grander scale than the previous entry. How do you make Die Hard bigger while still maintaining that closed-in feeling? In Die Hard 2, we stretch out only slightly from the Nakatomi high-rise to Washington D.C.’s airport. Then, Renny Harlin added a blizzard to the proceedings to successfully sever that airport from the outside world.
Die Hard with a Vengeance is the most interesting film in this respect. Now, McClane’s arena for battling violent heist men spans the entirety of the city of New York. With a setting that expansive, how could the returning John McTiernan possibly replicate the Die Hard formula? Simple. This was the first time we were seeing McClane on his home turf; having been a displaced lawman in the previous two films. That territoriality helps anchor him, confine him if you will, to the proceedings. There was also the highly personal aspect of Jeremy Irons playing Hans Gruber’s brother that locked him into the conflict.
RELATED: See Snapshots from the "A Good Day to Die Hard" Mural Unveiling
This is where Live Free or Die Hard failed. McClane was again out of his element, and the setting needlessly wide with no mitigating, anchoring components. This also represents the biggest challenge for A Good Day to Die Hard. McClane could not be more out of his element in Russia, so it falls upon the writers to create a sense of confinement even within that enormous foreign city. The bottle can be as big as you want it to be, but it still has to feel like a bottle.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Taking all these elements into account, we can postulate where the franchise may go for the recently announced Die Hard 6; that is, based on Willis’ recent statement that there will be another. Perhaps it’s time for McClane to go back to Nakatomi. He will have strayed so far at that point that a direct return to the roots of the series may be just what we need. Let’s say he’s hired to help develop new security measures for the building, which is being renovated again after twenty-five years. His wife still works for Nakatomi, presenting an opportunity for another reunion, and is once again in the building when a simulated hostage scenario becomes horrifyingly real. However, this time John is outside the skyscraper when this goes down, and a brash young upstart cop, one who idolizes McClane, is the man on the inside. John uses his expertise to guide our new hero through the drastic situation; becoming himself the Al Powell character.
RELATED: Like Fine Wine: 6 Actors Who Owned Their (Older) Ages
It’s a self-aware conceit, our young hero could experience all the same physical trauma as he’s caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the interaction between the older version of McClane and the new hero would be ripe for comedic banter. This could also represent a nice passing-of-the-torch moment. Not to say the franchise would need to continue with the younger cop in the lead, but instead effectively bookend the turbulent cinematic career of Detective John McClane.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox (2)]
From Our Partners:
Pregnant Kate Middleton Bikini Pics Spark Palace Anger (Celebuzz)
50 Steamiest Movie Kisses of All Time (Moviefone)
This year's Toronto International Film Festival, the 37th of its kind, announced its award recipients today. With a variety of awards at stake, Festival highlights such as Silver Linings Playbook and Seven Psychopaths took home big honors. In a ceremony that took place at the Intercontinental Hotel in Toronto, eleven awards were handed out for their achievements. The full list of winners is below.
Best Canadian Short Film
Deco Dawson for Keep a Modest Head. The jury--comprised of journalist and author Matthew Hays, journalist Katrina Onstad and filmmaker Reginald Harkema--remarked: "For the winner of this year’s best short, we chose a film that expands the boundaries of documentary, one that perfectly reflects its surreal subject. The award offers a $10,000 cash prize. The honourable mention goes to Mike Clattenburg’s Crackin’ Down Hard for its unpredictable zaniness."
The City of Toronto + Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film
Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways. The jury--comprised of producer and filmmaker Jody Shapiro, CPH PIX Festival Director Jacob Neiiendam, actor and filmmaker Valerie Buhagiar and director, writer and producer Patricia Rozema--remarked: "For its breathless cinematic energy and its entirely new love story, the jury felt honoured to watch such unfettered genius at play." This award is made possible thanks to the City of Toronto and Canada Goose and comes with a cash prize of $30,000.
The SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film
A tie between Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral and Jason Buxton's Blackbird was announced. The jury--comprised of producer and filmmaker Jody Shapiro, CPH PIX Festival Director Jacob Neiiendam, actor and filmmaker Valerie Buhagiar and director, writer and producer Patricia Rozema--remarked: "For Best Canadian First Feature Film, we have made a decision that reflects the broad spectrum of Canadian styles and voices. The prize this year has been split between Blackbird, for its authenticity and clear-eyed social conscience, and for its ambitious commentary and visual sophistication, Antiviral." Generously supported by SKYY Vodka, the award carries a cash prize of $15,000. TIFF takes great pride in our role of supporting championing emerging filmmakers and as such, TIFF will be doubling the prize, so that both Brandon and Jason will receive a cash prize of $15,000 each.
The BlackBerry People's Choice Award
The BlackBerry People's Choice Award is voted on by Festival audiences. This year’s award goes to David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook. TIFF explained in a press release that "the film is an intense, loving, emotional and funny family story from the director of The Fighter, David O. Russell, in which Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence find themselves partners in a secret arrangement to rebuild their broken lives. Robert De Niro yearns to get closer to his son (Cooper), as he tries to keep the family afloat with his compulsive bookmaking. The award offers a $15,000 cash prize and custom award, sponsored by BlackBerry. First runner up is Ben Affleck’s Argo. The second runner up is Eran Riklis' Zaytoun.
The BlackBerry People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award
Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. First runner up is Barry Levinson's The Bay, and second runner up is Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End.
The BlackBerry People’s Choice Documentary Award
Bartholomew Cubbins for Artifact. First runner up is Christopher Nelius and Justin McMillan's Storm Surfers 3D. Second runner up is Rob Stewart's Revolution.
NETPAC Award for the Best First or Second Feature World or International Asian Film Premiere
Sion Sono's The Land of Hope. The jury--made up of Laurice Guillen (Philippines), Shelly Kraicer (Toronto/Beijing) and Azize Tan (Istanbul)--remarked: "For its subtle, complex and artful account of the social and political aspects of a national trauma that ends in hope and love, the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival NETPAC Award for best feature film is given to The Land of Hope by Sion Sono."
Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award
The inaugural award went to Rola Nashef for Detroit Unleaded.
For the 21st consecutive year, TIFF welcomed an international FIPRESCI jury for the competition. The jury members consist of jury president Peter Keough (United States), Jon Asp (Sweden), Ashok Rane (India), Louis-Paul Rioux (Canada), Juan Manuel Dominguez (Argentina) and Brian McKechnie (Canada). The following awards were decided upon by the above jury.
The Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) for Special Presentations
Francois Ozon's Dans la maison (In the House). The jury remarked: "For achieving an exquisitely crafted entertainment that blurs the distinction between the storyteller and the story told, and that assuages with playful complexity the tragedies of life with the consolations of art, the FIPRESCI award for Special Presentations goes to Francois Ozon's In the House."
Prize of the International Critics (FIPRESCI) for the Discovery Programme
Mikael Marcimain's Call Girl. The jury remarked: "With an intense sense of cinema reminiscent of the American thrillers of the 1970s, Mikael Marcimain’s debut feature achieves a portrait of an obscure world involving women’s rights and political corruption. Marcimain deals with his sensitive subject with immense ease and craftsmanship. Because of these accomplishments the FIPRESCI Award for Best Film in the Discovery Programme goes to Mikael Marcimain’s Call Girl."
[Photo Credit: TIFF]
Follow Alicia on Twitter @alicialutes
7 Reasons 'Seven Psychopaths' Is One to Watch
Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence Give Career Bests in 'Silver Linings Playbook'
TIFF 2012 Acquisitions: Ryan Gosling, 'Great Expectations,' Eli Roth and More
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.