Friday, July 30, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Minority Report

Minority Report (2002, Steven Spielberg)

One of the great science-fiction storytellers of modern cinema, American Steven Spielberg’s filmography during the aughts showcase a somewhat spotty record, with films such as The Terminal (which I personally don’t like), Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which most people don’t like) and A.I. (the merits of which which people are still debating) hurting his recent credentials somewhat. If wasn’t all bad however. In the early parts of the previous decade the acclaimed director found inspiration in the works of a certain Philip K. Dick, known to many readers as one of the premier sci-fi novelists of the 20th century. The story in question was Minority Report, which takes place in the future at a time when the police force in the United States is equipped, both with the help of technology and more mystical means, with the ability to ‘correctly’ predict murders even before the crimes transpire. Pre-crime is what they call it, but with that come certain ethical issues regarding the arrest and imprisonment of someone who has not, at least officially, committed any crime. Spielberg’s vision of the story is founded on the same general thematic outline, but offers far more thrills and action sequence than author Dick would have ever wanted to put into his novels. Tom Cruise is John Anderton, a Precrime Chief who believes in the system with all his mind and heart, that is until the day the precogs, unique beings with the ability to predict future crimes, reveal that none other than Anderton himself will kill someone in cold blood in the very near future. Suddenly, friends and allies become enemies when the hunt is on for John, who must go against his own instincts and beliefs in trying to demonstrate that the entire foundation upon which Precrime bases itself is flawed.

Of all the worlds director Spielberg and his creative departments have mustered over the decades, be they wholly original or inspired by other source material, I firmly believe that the universe of Minority Report is one of the more sophisticated, elaborate and fascinating. This sentiment I hold pertains no merely to thematic and moralistic implications of Precrime, but echoes for the visual style employed for the entirety of the picture. On a more story related level, Minority Report sports a phenomenal setup, with the unique and surprising artillery utilized by the Precrime police force upon arrested soon to be criminals, as well as the impressive headquarters where John Anderton and his team anticipate every next prediction by the precogs. The holographic interface used to fully contrast the scenes of crimes once the general predictions have been made (the precogs tell the police whom will kill whom, but not necessarily where) has since been used in many big budget films, most notably the Iron Man films, but seeing it in this film first made for a real visual treat. It’s slick, sophisticated, intricate, and shows that the Precrime unit still has to work a lot before they proceed with any arrests, it isn’t as though the precogs do all the work. Not to mention that there is often a time limit the unit has to work against when researching where the crime will take place, which is surely an additional stress to deal with.

Of course, once Precrime jump into action, they don’t come with simple batons and pistols. No sir, the units where fancy jetpacks to improve their mobility in the event of a chase (although John seems to outdo them rather handsomely when it is him they must fly after...). It might a little bit bulky, but the overall effect is pretty cool. Additionally, some other agents, such as the feds, come after John with these super sonic pistols that essentially blow other people quite a few yards into the air. On paper it sounds silly, but when realized on film, such as when Precrime and the federal agents, led by Colon Farrell, pursue their hunt for Anderton in a car factory. The moment doesn’t last very long, but when Cruise’s character takes hold of one of those guns, the results are both hysterical and exciting. In fact, to put it in blunt terms, most of the action scenes in Minority Report are hysterical, surprising and exciting. Spielberg, as he has demonstrated time and time again including with this film, is one of the best visual directors working in the Hollywood system and seems to understand how to setup and properly execute a darn good action sequences. I hadn’t seen the film in a few years, so I was surprised, probably for the second time, at how well realized the high octane moments were.

Complimenting the action and solid storyline is a cinematography which at times is a bit jarring. The picture itself is especially grainy, but there is also the issue of the overall colour palette. The lighting seems overdone with many of the colours appearing especially dark. Apparently this technique is called ‘bleach-bypassing’. I will admit that it required a few minutes out of me to grow accustomed to the visual style of the picture, but slowly and surely I began to like it more and more and by the midway point I had trouble imagining any other way the film could have been presented. The story itself, the themes it touches upon and the central character of John Anderton all have significant shades of metaphorical darkness about them, and therefore the intentionally stark contrast between the lighting and darker colours ended up being essential.

I think there are two principle issues that people can have with the film, one of which I slightly agree with, the other less so. The one I don’t agree much with is the notion that the film spends too much time enjoying itself with the chase scenes and all the bells and whistles that come along with them, leaving by the wayside the real meat of the subject matter, that is, what are the moral and ethical implications of trusting the precogs and subsequently arresting people who, at the time of their arrests, are in fact innocent. How certain can Precrime be regarding the predictions of the precogs. I think the scene when Cruise’s defends the system in the face of Collin Farrell’s skepticism by using the example of catching a ball that was falling before it hits the ground because it was ‘going to hit the ground’ is an excellent one. I for one was more on the side of the Colin Farrell character, who thinks the argument is a rather flimsy one when defending a system that imprisons innocent people. Only a few scenes later, Anderton himself is living under the threat of a precog prediction. Yes, the film has a lot of fun with punching, running, flying and hiding in tubs of icy water from robot spiders, but the point is that Cruise’s character is now the center of the debate. He believes in the system but refuses to believe he will murder the man the precogs say he will. Either those mystical beings are correct and John’s days as a free man or numbered, or there really is something screwy with the system, the latter thought which John would have outright rejected only hours ago. Naturally, it’s always easy to be certain of such things when you are not at the center of the issue. Once you’re the one in trouble, well then something’s gotta be wrong somewhere. The entire rest of the film is all about proving how the system is faulty and by extension morally reprehensible. There’s nothing wrong with having some fun while doing it.

The other aspect that earns the film some scorn, and the one I do agree with partly, is the nature of the ending. Given how I try to shy away from spoilers in my reviews, I certainly don’t want to blatantly give it away, so be warned that I will reveal at least the nature of the ending in the following sentences. I think the boldest thing Spielberg could have done would have been to have the John Anderton embark on his gargantuan quest to prove his innocence only to have him incarcerated for the murder, whether accidental or intentional, and end the story and be done with it. Prove that the system is right in the universe of the film. Tantalize the audience with the notion that what Precirme is morally unjust, that Tom Cruise is going to set the record straight, and then slap them in the face with a downer of an ending. I know there are theories floating around the internet about how the ending might in fact be a downer due to certain very specific details that are revealed (or not) in the closing moments, but I don’t entirely buy them. I think Spielberg wanted to have the audience leave the theatre with at least something positive after a movie that was filled with a lot of dark elements. I can respect that even though that isn’t the way i wanted things to turn out. Still, the ending isn’t enough to detract from my overall viewing experience. It isn’t a bad ending per say, even though I used to think it was, it’s just that there is a part of me that wonders what it would have been like to go one step further into the whole ‘film noir’ aspect of the movie and prove protagonist having him spend his life in The Big House for a crime his own system predicted. Oh the irony that could have been...

Minority Report
is one of director Spielberg’s finer efforts, providing plenty of visual treats for the audience as well as a little bit of food for thought at the same time. That’s a mixture I can get behind any day of the week.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Poll results!

The Predator poll I posted a few weeks back ended up being one of the least popular polls ever. I'd rather not even reveal how many people bothered to cast a vote. Nonetheless, there was a winner: a majority of voters want to 'keep those ugly mother fu***rs coming!' I guess so, although after Predators, which I liked (see here), I'm not sure where the franchise can go from there. Only time will tell.

Thanks to all those who bothered to vote.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Man on Fire

Man on Fire (2004, Tony Scott)

La Ciudad de Mexico can offer the best of both worlds. It is warm all year round and offers vibrant culture with many fascinating sights and sounds, which makes it one of the most popular places for tourists to visit. Sadly the city is also infamous for its internal violence involving gang warfare as well as institutional corruption. Judging by the headlines that appear on the news, one may be forgiven for thinking that it is the criminals who control the city, either by force or through money, although it’s probably with a little bit of both. For his 2004 crime thriller Man on Fire, director Tony Scott made the bold decision to film the entirety of his picture in the famous Mexican capital and tell a story which relates to one of city’s more sinister problems: kidnappings.

At the start of the film, the viewer meets a former assassin named Creasy (Denzel Washington) as he visits an old friend and partner Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in Mexico City. Creasy, judging by his body language and terrible beard, has been experiencing some troubles in recent times. While still happy to have dropped by to renew their acquaintance, there is an inescapable air of sadness and frustration about Creasy emanating from his every pore. When he asks his buddy whether or not God will ever forgive them for their past actions, we know something is deeply troubling him. Rayburn encourages Creasy to get his mind on other things by finding a job, a different job, in Mexico City, something to which the veteran shows some reluctance, but eventually agrees to. He is soon hired as a bodyguard for Pita (Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of a wealthy Mexican-American couple. At first Creasy takes his job very literally as he was hired to protect the child, not become a friend despite the girl’s inquisitive and friendly nature. As could have been foreseen, it is only when Pita, through her childish warmth and innocence, has begun to break through Creasy’s hard armour that all things go to hell. She is brutally kidnapped one sunny afternoon, with her bodyguard and new buddy left bloodied and on the ground after a furious shootout in the streets. When the ransom negotiations go awry and Pita is believed to have been killed, things take an even darker turn. With the one ray of shining light in his life taken away, Creasy chooses to rekindle with his old habits...and hunt down all the fools who ever thought they were to get away with their plot.

Tony Scott, as a director, is someone I’ve often had a love-hate relationship with. There are periods in his career that I admire, such as Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State and, yes, even the first half of The Taking Pelham 1 2 3 , but other efforts like Top Gun (sorry), Beverly Hills Cop II and Domino left me either bored or simply frustrated. Man on Fire seems to combine what I like and dislike about Tony Scott, but thankfully with a bit more of the positives than the negatives. First and foremost is his propensity to tell stories involving interesting and compelling characters, most of which are conflicted and might be difficult for certain movie goers to empathize with. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s Creasy, who starts off as someone living a version of purgatory, a period in his life during which he wishes to escape what has transpired before, but either fears that can never be or possibly fears his probable incapacity to find redemption in any shape or form. His is a brooding figure, a shadow of what a decent man should be and part of his problem is his inability to find the right direction out of his psychological and emotional storm. There is no map, no easy solution, but of course there are always quick fixes, like alcoholism, which do little but provide temporary soothing before the pains returns. Washington is one of the most versatile and trustworthy actor working in Hollywood today, and, were I to fall prey to the temptation of hyperbole for a brief instant, I regard as one of the best Hollywood actors of all time. His presence on screen in Man on Fire creates both creates both a sense of pity (or sadness) but also an underlying feeling of intimidation. I felt there was a force to be reckoned with behind the tired and sad eyes. When the fire returns to this Goliath, there will be hell to pay.

Coming from a director who tries to make his movies zip along as briskly and as frantically as possible, I was relieved to discover how much time was reserved for the development of the Creasy-Pita relationship. While avoiding any significant spoilers, I can say that the event of the kidnapping occurs a solid 50 minutes into the film. There is the introduction to the Creasy character, the not so subtle hints at his past for which he finds little pride, the initial encounter between the towering man and the cute blond girl, and the subsequent bond which germinates between the two. In fact I enjoyed the inevitability of the kidnapping. Granted, in many ways it must occur otherwise the film has nothing to propel the story into the more action intensive chapters, but Creasy’s navigation through the maze of Mexico’s gang infested underworld keep the story in sync with the malaise which has surrounded the character in his recent history. Even when trying to change the course of his life and the nature of connections he makes with new acquaintances, there is an inexorable pull which yanks him back to where fate seems to demand he stays: in the violent world of assassins where, as his friend Rayburn puts it, Creasy is an artist in death. When Denzel’s assassin character succumbs to his more violent inner callings, it is not because he relishes in the sport of blood, but because he has no idea how else to react. Do the kidnappers deserve the severe punishment Creasy unflinchingly inflicts upon them? That is for the viewers to decide, but for Creasy, it is arguably the only way he knows how to with the dramatic shift in events that have propelled his heart and mind back into a dark and damp pit.

While the setting, main characters and themes of the film lend it much credibility, there are the usual Tony Scott syndromes which continuously overtake many of the director’s efforts, most notably his material from the late 90s and onwards. His camera pans over cityscapes and even some smaller locations can get grating after a bit. Often saturated with overly artificial colour palettes and an editing style which suggests the filmmakers may have been on ecstasy, these moments which introduce the viewer to new scenes to the viewer quickly tried my patience and personal standards regarding a movie viewing experience. I can handle them in small doses, I honestly can, but Scott seems intent on injecting this artificial grittiness to the picture. The nature of the plot, the real world facts about what happen in Mexico and the dramatic weight of the Creasy character are more than sufficient in creating genuine grittiness, thus making Scott’s visual trickery useless and over-indulgent. The script also grows weaker as the plot evolves, with some of the latter scenes poorly revealing just who really was behind the kidnapping as well as an underwhelming (to say the least) final scene for an antagonist who is hyped up several times throughout the film. These issues, while not detracting in any considerable manner from my overall enjoyment of the film, were still little stains that I took notice of even though I liked most of what I saw.

It’s hard to go wrong with the ingredients at hand here: the exploration of an exotic location’s seedy underbelly, a great leading man capable of delivering a dramatic as well as completely bad ass performance, and some intensely vicious killings for which Creasy often toys psychologically with his victims. In the Tony Scott filmmography, I’m willing to place Man on Fire in the upper echelon.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Predators

Predators (2010, Nimròd Antal)

Wanting to inject new blood, green or red, into the overall sloppy Predator franchise, write, director and producer Robert Rodriguez put the wheels to his plan in motion not long ago when he and talented but relatively unknown director Nimròd Antal brought together a solid cast featuring the likes of Adrian Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Topher Grace and Alice Braga for one more adventures through strange woods populated by some of the most feared and repulsive hunters in the galaxy.

If there is one thing holding a movie like Predators back is the sense of familiarity which permeates throughout. The setting is almost identical to that of the original film and, more importantly, are the creatures which slaughter the antiheroes we’re following. And even then, with an quasi-identical setting from the first film, what exactly could be done anyhow to make this entry in the franchise especially fresh? I was still curious about the film enough to go seek it out, hanging on to a last glimmer of hope that the brand name could help produce at least something of reasonable quality, whether the end product be wholly original or not.

I am more than glad to report that Predators is not a bad film. After the disappointing Predator 2 and the miserable Alien versus Predator installments, I think the question on everyone’s mind was ‘How bad can this one be?’ which is something that saddens me given my fondness for the original, but it was, for all intents and purposes, the reality of the situation. Director Antal, working with a script from first time screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch, proves that he is a very effective as a conductor of mood and action. The film starts off with a crash, almost literally, with Adrian Brody’s characters waking up, discovering that he is strapped to a plane seat and dropping in mid air. His parachute opens in the nick of time and, before he can comfortably get to his bearings, witnesses a series of other people captives drop from the skies just as he did. With the exception of a confused and petrified doctor (Topher Grace), each and every one of them is either a hardened criminal of some sort of military combatant. An African warlord (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a Mexican gangster (Danny Trejo), a yakuza member (Louis Ozawa Changchien), an Isreali black ops sniper (Alice Braga) are just some of the people who have little choice other than to work together and survive the forest. Knowing nothing as to why they were chosen or what planet they are on, the danger element is heightened significantly once strange beasts with blood lust start hunting them one by one.

Predators is not going to rock anyone’s world. Not enough novelty or freshness is brought to this enterprise in order for that to happen, but what we do get is an effective action thriller that truly brings back an air of respectability to the franchise. Working behind the camera, Antal directs the film with a solid balance between steady cam shots which do well to set up the tone and atmosphere of the location, but also some well crafted and edited action oriented sequences that are, surprise surprise, easy to follow and visually interesting. There is even a certain grace to the camera work when the hellish hunters unleash their arsenal on the protagonists. Nothing too fancy is done, just enough to get the job done, which is something I admire sometimes. The movie even look like it cost 20th Century Fox all that much either. I'm not saying the movie looks cheap, which it doesn't, but it has a slightly more old fashioned look and feel to it. The creatures themselves have always been intimidating in my opinion. When they don’t have their masks on, they look like giant, killing cyborgs, and when they reveal their true selves, I find them appropriately grotesque. The mere fact that they are in the surrounding area and can cloak themselves via camouflage technology is enough to get me excited, if not scared per say.

Antal builds the pace with some interesting choices. The first 45 minutes are there for our group of mercenaries and criminals to explore the terrain a little bit and slowly take in what it is they might be a part of, that is, some variety of a hunting game. Little vignette-like scene go by with Adrian Brody’s character arriving at this conclusion as they pass through a series of quite vicious traps set up in these woods. We see the characters bicker and interact just a tiny bit, which isn’t enough to lend them any sort of three-dimensionality, but I wasn’t necessarily asking for any either. Give me some general traits for each of these scumbags and I’ll be willing to follow along. The predators only seem to populate the second half of the film, and even then it is only in the final 15 minutes or so that they earn significant screen time. For these reasons, Predators truly does feel like a re-imagining of sorts of the original film. Antal and company provide some different decorations here and there, such the class system within the Predator race, as well as the character of Noland, played by Laurence Fishburne, who has been residing in a secluded hideout for several seasons already and tricks the protagonists into believing that he is there to help them. Overall, there are several more similarities than differences between the two instalments, including John Debney’s score, which calls back to Alan Silvestri’s original work more than once.

Just because the film tries to rekindle with the spirit of the original does not make it as good however. The dialogue has some obvious weaknesses, such as the useless amount of f-bombs dropped. I get that most of these humans represent the scum of the earth, but does that make the use of the word ‘phuck’ so essential? I’m also not a fan of those dialogue exchanges in which one character says something along the lines of ‘We were brought here? Brought for what !?!’ with the second character in the conversation replying ‘Brought here to be HUNTED!’ with a overly intense tone in his voice. It sounds cheap, almost as if the screenwriters were trying to go for a laugh when none was called for. The script also does something very bizarre with the Topher Grace character during the film’s climax. Thinking on what had transpired before, I tried putting the pieces of his character’s puzzle together, but nothing fit very well. I think the movie simply wanted to surprise us without actually planning on how the idea in question would work.

Despite these few glaring weaknesses, I would still recommend Predators to any monster movie fans or action movie fans. It is a strange recommendation since the film follows the plotting and setting of the original film so much, so why not just see that one instead, right? Nonetheless, I can’t deny the fact that I was entertained by Predators, was impressed with Adrian Brody’s ‘tough guy’ performance (who beefed up a lot for this role), and thought the action scenes were executed quite intelligently. I guess if there are any youth today who happen to be allergic to older films (like a lot are unfortunately) but would like to explore the world of the Predator creature, this movie isn’t a bad place to start at all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Predator

Predator (1987, John McTiernan)

By the late 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger had risen to stardom with his roles as an action man in films such Conan the Barbarian and Commando. In comes a relatively new director in John McTiernan, with an average budget (for a studio film at the time), with the task of creating a suspenseful action thriller which not only reunites him with Schwarzenegger, but also the likes of Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers of all people. A steep hill to climb if you ask me.

Somewhere very deep in a South American jungle, a small military task force, led by Dutch (Schwarzenegger), is tasked with the mission of locating and rescuing important hostages from local guerrillas. The guerrilla hideout is eventually found and completely obliterated. No hostages are found, but rather sensitive military documents are discovered instead. Everything seems to point the film towards an entry into the action genre reminiscent of Commando, that is, until the mysterious alien from outer space makes its presence known by painfully picking off Dutch’s men one by one in some gruesome ways. They also discover the bodies of Green Berets in the surrounding area, but these corpses are hanging from trees trunks and have been skinned to the flesh. Suddenly, members of the commando team are not feeling so confident as they had been only a short while ago, pressed with the realization that there is indeed something out there in the woods, something which is far more dangerous and ferocious than any of them are...

This is a phenomenal little movie. I say ‘little’ because, for all intents and purposes, much of what happens is on a smaller scale than anything found in most blockbusters. In fact, the most elaborate and extensive action scene happens reasonably early in the film, when Dutch and his force assault the enemy camp in the jungle. It offers some good old fashioned explosions, with stunt men flying in the air and giant balls of fire in the background. Following this merciless attack however, much of the film’s running length is reserved for some very slow but aptly paced tension. There is something genuinely eerie about a group of confident, totally ripped and testosterone filled soldiers slowly but surely beginning to sense their doom approaching and not knowing exactly what to do about it. Much like what director McTiernan would do a year later with Die Hard, the danger and tension is constructed a relatively small and confined geographical space. Admittedly, a jungle is typically something expansive and vast, but with those overbearing trees above our protagonists’ heads and the thickness of the leaves and bushes surrounding them, suddenly the jungle adopts an atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread. After the early stages of the film when the heroes were acting brash and very macho, this sense of dread which comfortably sets itself into the picture is quite exquisite. I don’t know why McTiernan liked making movies about danger in confined spaces, but he definitely handled the element of space and setting in his early films very well.

It’s often been written and said about how in monster movies, it is wisest to keep the creature hidden from view as much as possible for the audience fears what it cannot discern much more than what it plainly sees with the naked eye. At the very least, if you’re going to completely reveal the nature and physical aspects of the monster, than do so near the end, not at the beginning. This is yet another aspect with which the movie hits the bull’s eye. For the better part of the story, the viewer is only privy to the Predator in the shape of some odd, camouflage image. A silhouette is occasionally hinted at, but everything within the borders of said silhouette appears as ‘see through’; nothing but the leaves and trees behind it. The creature’s savvy and methodical hunting skills, as well as the particularly violent executions it performs provide some insight into the character and increase the level of danger and fear, both in the protagonists and in the viewer, but the film never chooses to offer any elaborate or concrete explanation as to why the Predator is in this jungle and hunting these specific men. Again, it comes back to the notion of keeping some things secret in order to provide the best effect on the audience.

Unless you have absolutely no experience with this kind of movie, it goes without saying that Arnold is the last man standing to face off against this horrific hunter from only god knows where. The final 20 minutes or so are almost as compelling as everything that came before, but things do take somewhat of a different turn. Rather than choosing to run away as fast as he can, Arnold does what Arnold does best: get down and dirty with a bloody and violent hunting game against his foe. As the saying goes, you sometimes have to fight fire with fire. I didn’t think this final section provided quite the same thrills as the earlier chapters, but it was fun to see The Terminator choose to be as ruthless and cunning as the monster itself, complete with one of those scenes in which the warrior paints his body (in this case the hero covers himself with mud in order to escape the Predator’s heat seeking vision) with that stoic and determined stare into the fire. Once Arnold and the Predator engage in their dance to the death, things are amped up just enough in order to provide a climax which feels both intimate, which keeps in touch with the overall sense of the movie, and large enough to be worthy of a final battle.

I should also mention that I love how violent and graphic the film is. I tend to have rather eclectic taste in film as some of you might judge by scrolling the movies I’ve reviewed over the past couple of years, and the action genre is one I’ve always had an affinity for, and sometimes it is simply proper for the blood and guts to start spewing. Now, perhaps Predator is not overflowing with graphic violence, but there is enough shown that warrants its R rating. I’ve heard arguments about how graphic violence is not a necessity for an action or horror film to be successful on an artistic level, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I disagree with that notion (my favourite franchise is the Bond series, in which we rarely see any gory violence), but the brutality of the killings in Predator really adds to the atmosphere of horror. It also leads to a Predator ritual which fans of the franchise are probably familiar with: the ripping of the skull and spinal cord from the recently deceased prey. Bloody good stuff in my opinion, no pun intended.

I really, really like Predator. It balances action and horror surprisingly well and doesn’t let up until the end credits start to roll. It is deemed a classic of the genre by many and I wholeheartedly agree. Just like the monster from the movie gathers trophies in the shape of skulls, I proudly own my copy of Predator.*

* No innocent people were slaughtered in the acquisition of my Predator Blu-ray.

Last minute additions to the summer marathon

Hey readers!

Seeing as how I posted a poll question in regards to the new Predators movie, it would seem a bit remiss of me to completely ignore the actual movie, wouldn't it?

This is why I've decided to make 2 last minute additions to the Homemade Summer Movie marathon: Predator (1987, John McTiernan) and Predators (2010, Nimròd Antal). Expect two new reviews this weekend!

Homemade summer movie marathon: Die Hard

Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)

John McTiernan’s career as a director is littered with some action films many cinfiles consider to be among the best ever, and others still that several people I know remember quite fondly. After the massive hit that was Predator in the summer of 1987, 20th Century Fox gave McTiernan some of the director’s spotlight with the story of a New York City cop named John McClane (Bruce Willis) who visits his ex-wife’s office Christmas Eve party in Los Angeles at Takatomi Plaza, only for the building to be taken hostage by a dangerous and vile group of so-called terrorists shortly after McClane arrives. When the employees are being huddled together at the point of some vulgar firearms, McClane manages to slip past the villains amongst the early chaos. Alone, he will do whatever it takes to secure the hostages and win back the woman he loves so much.

It is a simple plot, one that does not require the audience to think a whole lot, but that is not where the strength of the film lies. Whatever the shortcomings the film may have, the two elements of the film I am willing to defend to the death are the leading actors, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, the latter whom plays the ringleader of the hostage takers, a certain Hans Gruber, as well as the action set pieces. We never learn much about McClane’s past, other than that he was married with Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedalia) and they have kids who currently live in the City of Angels with their mother. What we get on screen as the movie progresses is more than enough for the audience to latch onto. He simply wanted to visit L.A. in the hopes of rekindling some fire with Holly. He isn’t an untouchable action hero who blows away villains without a drop of sweat or blood. He is the ultimate incarnation of a the reluctant hero, the man who we can count on even though his behaviour would have us believe that he’d rather be anywhere than right here savings our butts. A man has to do what a man has to do, like or not, and I think the character of John McClane, certainly as played by Bruce Willis, takes that saying to heart. He complains a lot, is often found whining about his predicament, but then again, why shouldn’t he? He’s forced to risk his life in a situation he never once asked for. Luckily, Willis has a gravitas that invites some empathy from the audience. I wouldn’t want to have people reading this review thinking that his John McClane is merely some grade A a**hole, because that would be an unjust assessment.

We know that ultimately, he is a hard working man who just wishes to have the women he loves in his arms once again. There is a great scene near the beginning of the film, just prior to the arrival of the criminals, in which he and Holly argue about their strained history. Holly walks off, frustrated with McClane’s machismo stubbornness, leaving the man alone. Rather than make some off handed comment about how his wife doesn’t understand, he scolds himself for being such a fool. The moment does not last very long, but it hints at enough to provide an extra layer of characterization to our protagonist. He may behave like a jerk much of time, but I still cheer him on because I know there is something humane beneath the tough skin. Willis is clearly enjoying himself in the role and so is the viewer watching him dispatch his enemies one by one.

However, a hero is only as good as his villain, and here again we are in luck with the smooth and devilish presence of the fantastic Alan Rickman. His followers are not the most memorable or the most interesting bunch, but Hans Gruber is a peculiar beast in that through all his villainy and ruthlessness, the actor brings a modicum of class to his plot. He is clearly a planner, and a rather intelligent one at that. He also refuses to give in to hysteria, preferring to remain calm and think quickly on the spot whenever a hiccup in the shape of John McClane makes its presence known. It would be easy to lump Gruber into the pile of ‘run of the mill’ action film baddies, but Rickman is such an accomplished actor and poses such great threat to the hostages and McClane (what with his mixture of calmness and ruthless methods) that I must place above him above the crop.

The action scenes are very accomplished throughout the film. From the elevator shaft explosion, to the rooftop bomb that sends an FBI helicopter crashing down, to the gun fights McClane finds himself engaged in with Gruber’s goons, there wasn’t a single one for which I could find any complaints whatsoever. The sense of geography is consistently solid as is the execution. There are a couple, such as that elevator shaft bomb, that really had a sense of wonder about them that impressed me greatly even though I had already seen the movie before. The mere fact that McClane gets increasingly battered and bloody with each onslaught of mayhem adds to the sense of danger about the entire situation. If officer McClane is going to succeed in his quest, he’ll have to pay for it in wounds and blood.

For all its obvious strengths, Die Hard does not attain a status of ‘perfect action movie’ despite what many claim. For the film to have earned my unconditional admiration, it should have been more economical in the amount of side characters it throws at the audiences and what the film does with those side characters. Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), Argyle (De’Voreaux White), the television news reporter, the Deputy Chief of Police, Harry Ellis, special agents Johnson and Johnson, etc. Notice that I wrote ‘side characters’ as opposed to ‘supporting characters’, because I don’t think even half of the ones I mentioned above perform any supportive duties as the story progresses. The lone exception would be Sgt. Al Powell, who goes with its instinct and chooses to assist McClane through radio communication from outside the Nakatomi Plaza, but even then the film chooses to give his character somewhat of an arc which I think the movie tries to pay off in the final moments, but I thought the moment fell terribly flat. The movie continuously insists on giving each of these characters there ‘moments’ throughout the film but such attempts rarely added anything to the story and quite frankly felt distracting. The single character whom I thought could have earned some special scenes is Argyle, the limousine driver who escorts McClane to Nakatomi Plaza at the start of the film, but once Gruber and the terrorists make their move on the building, we hardly ever see Argyle for the remainder of the picture even though he’s actually in the building, unlike all the other side characters who keep getting added onto the pile. The manner in which the film disposes some of these characters or concludes their story arcs, much like with Sgt. Al Powell, tend to disappoint. What’s odd about this situation is that I hadn’t remembered finding the side characters so uninteresting or idle. Then again, I hadn’t seen the picture in a few years, but I was still surprised at how I found myself sighing a little bit whenever we saw anyone other than McClane, Holly or Hans Gruber on screen.

Die Hard offers some rousing entertainment for those seeking some exciting action in their movies. For all his faults, the central character is quite lovable and the villain is a more than worthy opponent. If the script and direction had been more judicious in its use of multiple characters and story arcs I think I would be singing even higher praises for it, but suffice to say that is it indeed a very solid accomplish within the genre.

Monday, July 5, 2010

More frequent posts

If any of you have noticed a trend in recent months, it's that I tend to post only on weekends, thus limiting the number of articles I can deliver to readers. Well, I'll try to produce columns and reviews on a more regular basis. The bulk of my work will still be appearing on weekends, but you can expect to see at least a few articles appearing during the week from now on.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: The Killer

The Killer (1989, John Woo)

We stay in the Far East for a little longer during this Homemade Summer Movie Marathon and take a look at one of Hong Kong’s greatest directors, and of the best action directors ever, John Woo. During the late 80s to early 90s Woo’s films became international hits. Audiences in both the East and West were thrilled with his confident, melodramatic (in the fun sense) and action-packed style which infused his films with a terrific sense of style that people hadn’t quite seen before. One of his favourite collaborators for these movies was actor Chow-Yun Fat (Yun-Fat Chow, depending on who your speaking with), who was the star in most of them.

In The Killer, Fat plays an assassin for hire Ah Jong who, during first hit job we see him execute in the film, badly injures a night club singer’s (Jenny, played by Sally Yeh) eye sight. Being an assassin who follows a moral code (Obviously. No other sort of hit men exist anyways, we all know that), Ah Jong chooses to repay his deep debt to Jenny by becoming something of a semi-guardian, semi-boyfriend to her, all the while never revealing his true identity as the one who caused her sad condition. Shortly after this incident, Ah Jong is commissioned one final job before sailing off into the sunset: the murder of an unlikable politician during a dragon race event. The mission unexpectedly turns sour, and suddenly his employers are out to kill him (without payment either. Damn it!), as is Hong Kong inspector Li Ying, played by the awesome Danny Lee. His only ally, besides to virtually blind Jenny, is his old friend from within the gang, Fung Sei (Chu Kong). What happens next is a roller coaster ride that will push all these characters to the very limits of what they can sustain, both physically and emotionally.

I suppose I fall into the same camp as most people who enjoy John Woo films. Whenever he has worked in his native land, whatever he touched turned to gold. However, once he ventured into the Hollywood system, things were not so rosy anymore, with a series of quite laughable efforts (Broken Arrow, for example) which truly were not worthy of his directorial prowess. The Killer showcases the John Woo we all know in his prime, pushing his aesthetic tastes to phenomenal boundaries. In one of the interviews on the Blu-ray I watched, the director explained how it was important for him to inject a great variety of genre elements into the story as was possible. Rather than create something that was pure action, he wanted a romance film, a bromance film, a commentary on human nature, comedy, and of brick tons of action. But even those action sequences were not going to be filmed according to the norm. Slow motion was to be used to heighten the dramatic effect of bodies being riddled with bullets and those little squiggles of blood giggling out of the ripped skin. Say what you will of what slow-motion action sequences have transformed into in our day and age of action films, but Woo certainly knew how to make a gun fight feel dangerous and a bullet wound feel excruciatingly painful. I hadn’t seen any early Woo films in quite some time and I suspect that I had become somewhat desensitized to the potential effectiveness of good old fashioned shootouts.

When, in the opening minutes of the film, Ah Jong knocks on the door of where his target is located and one the latter’s bodyguards answers, it is but the beginning of an especially violent ballet of death and destruction. Even that first unsuspecting sorry sap who opens the door for Ah Jong gets it really good, but the others will soon unequivocally receive their comeuppance. The quality of the camera work and the superb job by the actors and stunt men during these action set pieces make for a highly entertaining blood festival. I honestly found myself saying ‘Oh!’ and ‘Shit!’ on a couple of occasions when people were going down, even if they were the supposed villains of the film. That has to mean something, because I haven’t being saying ‘Oh!’ or ‘Shit!’ very often when going to see action films at the multiplexes in recent years. There is a moment when Ah Jong reaches his target, awards the man a few seconds to contemplate his approaching death, shoots him in the head and then proceeds to fire two or three bullets in his chest! This is not PG-13 stuff.

As for the elements of romance, bromance, comedy and the like, I’d still argue that Woo does a capable job of handling them as well. Subtlety is not the name of the game, especially when one considers that the final shootout transpires in a church with statues of the Virgin Mary getting blown to smithereens with rocket pistols, or whatever the heck those were. A lot of the character-driven elements are delivered in style akin to what cinefiles consider ‘melodramatic.’ This is a term that has earned itself a negative connotation in recent times, but when certain aspects of a film are tweaked correctly, then the melodrama can still produce some reactions from an audience. In the case of The Killer, it is the presence of the actors that brought that sense of respectability. Chow-Yun Fat and Danny Lee are a great pair and work off one another in clever fashion throughout. They bring an intelligence and a nice dramatic weight to their respective characters which I appreciated a lot. They both follow a code of honour even though they are on opposite sides of the law, and therefore when they come into conflict, leading to a delicious game of cat and mouse. There are moments when all their skills and wits are put to the test, with the results sometimes being thrilling and other times quite funny, which, again, comes back to this notion of Woo wanting to play around with several tones and moods for his individual movies.

The Killer brings many of the quintessential John Woo signatures to the fore, such as slow motion, melodrama, and even some pigeons who seem to know just when and where to fly by in order to give a scene that extra little pigeon-like ‘oomph!’ I’m being facetious about that last point of course, but I am more than sincere about everything else I’ve written in this review of the film. The Killer, for all its elements that people accustomed to early 21st century action movies might find silly and intentionally funny, is quite a fun little movie and reinforces the argument that Chow-Yun Fat is an indelible action movie star.