jon: day one

well, here we are again - queue de grâce time. jon has sent me a mountain of movies to get through, each day grouped by a theme with a bit of a prologue. to set today's tone:

we start things off with what, i have to think, is jon's rosetta stone. i am pretty sure it's no accident that this is first out of the chute - john mctiernan's die hard (1988).

i have a fondness for this one and i tend to agree with the nearly universal opinion that this is the definitive action movie, unrivaled by its contemporaries, the innumerable rip-offs that followed or its own lame successors in the franchise. i know it's hard to remember now, but there was a time in the dear, dim past when bruce willis was not known as an action hero. i liked him then, too. i think moonlighting was one of the best pieces of television ever made. it was smart, fast and funny. it had great chemistry and the show took risks. willis carried all the right parts of the david addison persona over to this film to make it the perfect antidote for all the other reagan era action pictures that featured superhuman AMERICAN heroes kicking ass and taking names, the way god intended. he was a wiseass, certainly, but they subdued that part of the character just enough - no one-liners after every kill, no implacable cool. there wasn't ideology at stake. they put his motivation squarely on the homefront. more than ever, it's obvious to me that he was running around that building, blowing things up and getting bloody footprints everywhere with one thing in mind - saving his wife. it all works so well precisely because he is that everyman. moviegoers that couldn't imagine themselves as arnold or sly could certainly see themselves as john mcclane. wrong place, wrong time, lunchpail guy doing what he could in extraordinary circumstances. it's brilliant that way. almost everyone could pull for this guy, not just the demographic that misinterpreted bruce springsteen's born in the u.s.a. don't get me wrong, i am well aware of the overall mulitcultural otherness of the bad guys and there is an awful lot of blowing shit up. i am not making a case that this is high art, just that it's a more subtle and interesting genre piece, deserving of its spot atop the pile. reason number one for that? john mctiernan is every bit as ruthless and cunning as hans gruber ever thought about being. if you don't believe me, go back and watch just up to the three-minute mark. in one scene, as mcclane's plane lands and he enters the airport, mctiernan wordlessly tells you volumes about this guy: wedding ring on the hand clutching the armrest anxiously - married, fear of flying, not superhuman. pulls stuffed bear out of overhead compartment - family man. brief nonverbal sexual tension with flight attendant - things not as rosy at home as you might have first thought. waiting for baggage he, the only character in the shot, is framed left of center. the right two-thirds of the screen are empty - there's a void in him, which he stands there balefully regarding, the only thing between him and it is the bear which now seems less a gift than an attempt to buy someone's affection. that all happens in about a minute and forty-five seconds. it is as lean and efficient as you will ever see in its genre. there are one or two clunky spots with reginald veljohnson and argyle's last line - "if this is their idea of christmas, i gotta be here for new year's" - is about as standard fare actioner as it gets, but they managed to avoid almost all of those pitfalls and, in the process, laid down the blueprint for decades to come. i always enjoy watching this one, though i have noticed i enjoy it just a little bit less each time. it may not hold its value forever. one thing will never change, though. ellis is a douchebag.

with jon making such a strong statement right out of the box, where could he go from there? apparently, he meant to turn this installment into an episode of dos and don'ts, as he followed this with renny harlin's laughable the long kiss goodnight (1996).

i know it's hard to imagine, but they outrun this fireball and jump through a window. man, we were cavalier about blowing things up pre-9/11.

in case you haven't seen it, geena davis plays a milquetoast housewife with focal retrograde anmesia who, after an auto accident, finds remnants of her old stone cold assassin self bubbling to the surface. she picks up a guy who does a pretty decent samuel l. jackson impression and together they thwart a group of wolves in agency clothing who are a conspiracy theorist's dream cabal. it is simply unbelievable. i muttered the word to myself on more than one occasion for more than one reason. it lost me right out of the gate with a horrible, rushed and awkward voiceover and never recovered its footing. it is about as rote as it gets. not one single thing in this movie surprised me. every move was telegraphed like it was a fixed fight. plot points and details that the previous film would have let you discover in the periphery might as well have had flashing arrows pointed at them. case in point: almost immediately after the car wreck that triggers her reawakening, she approaches the deer she struck and breaks its neck. hold on, though. what happens in between, you may ask? why, a super-subtle rebirth metaphor as she wades through a river to reach the dying animal, that's what. everything was done in similarly bold/silly strokes. i have no problem when a movie fully commits to its own ridiculousness and goes at it tongue firmly in cheek - something like shoot 'em up (2007), for instance. the difference is that movie knew it was doing that ahead of time. this was the cinematic equivalent of tripping and then trying to turn it into some acrobatic thing that only ends up underscoring how much you didn't mean to do that. i think during the split personality/dream sequence business they snuck in unused reels from beetlejuice (1988). i'll tell you who the blame lies squarely at the feet of: shane black. he is the single most overrated screenwriter i know of. he's good at two things, basically - trafficking in shopworn clichés and patting himself on the back for his own perceived cleverness. the one time he's managed to get out of his own way resulted in the excellent kiss kiss bang bang (2005). unfortunately, there are only a couple of those small, honest moments here and they never manage to sustain themselves. the rest of it is him being in love with the sound of his own voice. it's a shame, really. all i could think of the whole time was that it was a wasted opportunity to have a great female action character. i know it's often cited as an example of such but that can only be because there aren't a lot to compare it to. i suppose it's a foot in the door but it's similar to the dilemma i see in bridesmaids (2011) - ok, ladies, so you can make a shitty film like your male counterparts. congratulations? there was one redeeming moment, though. for two seconds, robert altman's the long goodbye (1973) was on the television in the motel.

so now what? pop quiz, hotshot!

you are on a movie that is careening out of control down the expressway to yr skull. jon, the terrorist, has put a bomb on my television and he has an itchy trigger finger. do you stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?!?

i stay on. it's part of the deal.

with jan de bont's speed (1994), at least we are moving back in the right direction after that last one. keanu is doing his most appealing character type here - likeable doofus with the dead, dead eyes. never been a fan of sandra bullock, but the frilly ankle socks thing hits me where i live. and this guy makes a return queue de grâce engagement:

vitagraph favorite, joe morton, this time rocking that sweet mustache! if i was on a bus with a bomb and joe morton was anywhere in the vicinity, i would rest easy because i would know everything was going to be alright. overall, though, this one splits my vote right down the middle. credit for the bomb scenarios being unique and genuine tension being generated. demerits for ridiculousness like jumping a city bus over a fifty foot span and the impact not being enough to detonate the huge bomb attached to the undercarriage. it also undercuts the genuine moments of tension when everything is shot and cut in that hyperactive fashion. for instance, keanu and jeff daniels make their first appearance in a car going unnecessarily airborne like it's the streets of san francisco and then proceed to take part in the most intensely choreographed instance of TAKING OUR VESTS OUT OF THE TRUNK that you have ever seen. take off more points for the obvious attempts to generate catchphrases. so maybe it doesn't split me down the middle. maybe it's more like 30/70.

let's get this train back on the track. who's man enough to do it?

my old pal walter matthau, that's who! he gets down to brass tacks in joseph sargent's solid subway thriller, the taking of pelham one two three (1974). matthau plays a new york city transit cop who musters every ounce of his rumpled wit in a war of attrition with a group of hijacking thieves. i love everything about this movie. the script is taut and doesn't underestimate the audience. who steals a subway car? the fact that the hijackers are so far ahead of both the police and the viewer with such an absurd plan makes for a ride full of thrills that are not obvious. the cast is superb, with robert shaw and martin balsam turning in especially noteworthy performances. it is great to see new york city in all its early seventies splendor. it's the last era of the city that i feel any sort of fondness for, with its grouchy but communal feel, hanging on to its last splinter of innocence. the political and procedural angles of a city and police force held in the grip of terrorists are handled swiftly and deftly. it's lived-in, darkly funny, appropriately tense and written for adults, not a combination you see much in action thrillers anymore. plus, dig this near-perfect mix of music/opening titles.

hope you brought your notebook, twenty-first century! that's how it's done.

well, we end up triumphant today. i've known all along that tomorrow is the true test, though.

chief brody? is that you?


  1. Wow. Day one certainly lived up to my expectations. I was crying while reading your LKGN review. Seriously, there were tears.

  2. just wait for tomorrow. it's been a gold mine thus far.