A Good Day to Die Hard

GoodDayDieHardI will cut right to the chase as I’ve wasted enough time already enduring this so-called entry in the Die Hard canon.  John Moore, director of such ‘memorable classics’ as The Omen (2006) and Max Payne, rides into the land of 20th Century Fox studios and takes the reigns of all things Die Hard, only to make the marginally decent fourth Die Hard look like the class-act original Die Hard. Moore’s 97-minute implosion stems from an anemic script by Skip Woods who seems to have written an entirely different protagonist, but simply swapped out a name for John McClane.

Where do we find America’s favorite wrong place-wrong time cop, McClane (Bruce Willis)?  He’s trotting about Moscow in an attempt to rescue his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), a CIA operative trying to extract an important Russian informant with a target on his back.  In the midst of protecting said Russian man, the estranged father-son duo exchange shallow barbs with each other and fire machine guns in all directions. Jack’s mad at Daddy for not being around much.  McClane doesn’t get it.  Boo-hoo. Do you think the banter is ever as biting and fresh as what we got from Samuel L. Jackson and Willis in the third Die Hard?  Heck, I would even take some Justin Long/Bruce Willis banter at this rate.  The studio and even Bruce Willis, himself, clearly had no intent to make a worthy installment.

Seriously.  The meeting for this movie went something like this.  “We have an idea for a Die Hard slogan: Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia.”  The studio executive says: “I love it. Perfect poster.  Green light.  Starting shooting tomorrow.  Worry about the script when you’re halfway finished.”  Willis jumps aboard and zones out the entire time.

Mr. Willis clearly isn’t here to play his most famous character.  He simply bobs around the international landscape taking a backseat to his son’s attempts at executing a plan.  None of what makes McClane the hero we love exists in this lazy cash-grab featuring a nonsensically convoluted yet surprisingly thin plot that could fit through the eye of a needle.  Honestly, the plot is so invisible, you will wonder for what reason all this mayhem took place when the end credits roll.

Yes, we get all the insane action and violence the CGI budget of a $92 million production can offer.  But McClane was never much for technology.  Willis’ continually yells, “I’m on vacation!”  Five times he repeats this.  I kept yelling to myself—no you aren’t!  You flew to Russia to save your son… What does that have to do with vacation?!  I concluded the catchphrase was intended as foreshadowing regarding what Willis was going to do with his hefty paycheck.  Consider this cash cow milked.

 

 

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Looper

Looper Science fiction movies like this don’t come along very often.  Though Looper has all the hallmarks of the genre, such as time travel, futuristic weapons, and head-scratching plot twists, it offers something rather unique among its peers of late: a unique and compelling story with enough grounding in a familiar reality to keep even casual moviegoers interested.  This smartly directed actioner-slash-head-scratcher does not dwell on the ins and outs of its central conceit too long, and instead focuses on keeping the pace solid and the action tight.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a Looper, whose job it is to dispose of the scum of the earth…from the future.  30 years from now, when targets are captured by criminal organizations they aren’t just offed and dumped in a river like in The Godfather.  Instead they are sent back in time where Loopers blow ‘em away and burn the bodies.  No fuss, no muss.  What could possibly go wrong?

All is well and dandy for a while, and Joe goes on living his shallow life of partying, doping, and hooking up with women at the local strip joint until he finds himself staring down the barrel of his blunderbuss at a particularly troublesome target: himself.  This, in Looper parlance, is known as “closing the loop.”  It’s the point at which a looper paradoxically ends his own life, thus resigning himself to three decades to live, until he is captured by the criminal organization in the future which sends him back in time to the present, at which point he shoots himself in the chest.

Confused?  Try this trick: just don’t think about it.  This sentiment, trite as it may be, is actually recommended to us by Joe as he converses with his future self in a diner.  Older Joe (Bruce Willis) urges his younger self to not dwell on the whole past/present/future thing too long, and soon afterwards the two of them are firing weapons, breaking windows, and dodging bullets like one would expect in any action movie.

Instead of dwelling on the nuts and bolts of temporal displacement and other quantum conundra, it’s best to just enjoy Looper for what it is: a smart, well-paced above-average popcorn flick with a healthy dollop of cerebral icing on the cake.  Think of it as this summer’s version of Inception, but a bit more dark and a lot more violent.

Following Joe’s failure to close his loop, he finds himself on the run from his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels, chewing through scenery worse than Willem Dafoe in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. But gosh, it sure is good to see him in a grumpy-old-man role like this.) who simply will not tolerate this sort of failure from anyone in his organization.  Joe escapes to a remote farmhouse where he encounters someone who may, or may not, hold the answers to some of the questions that have plagued his future self for years.  The resulting shootouts and climax are taut and emotional, with a particularly poignant performance from child actor Pierce Gagnon that is certain to have some parents in the audience squirming in their seats.  Topping things off is Gordon-Levitt’s pitch-perfect imitation of Bruce Willis, which is so nuanced it ought to earn him an Academy Award for Impersonating a Co-star.

Looper doesn’t have the weight-of-the-world heaviness of Terminator 2, the flat-out action of Aliens, or the suspense of Predator.  But its tight narrative and thought-provoking questions almost earn it a presence among its cinematic counterparts.

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Die Hard with a Vengeance

Die Hard with a Vengeance Having essentially re-invented the loose cannon archetype for a new generation with John McClane (the character Bruce Willis was born to play) in the original Die Hard, McTiernan returns to the franchise to direct its second sequel and in doing so injects a whole new meaning to the phrase “over the top”.  After a string of middling successes following his early breakout triumphs of Die Hard and Predator, McTiernan went back to basics with the cop-versus-terrorists approach that worked so well seven years earlier.  And what a trip is is.  Vengeance is the most outlandish film in the series, and an experience that continues to up the tension and excitement with each act right up to the climactic Canadian finish.  But the spectacle never gets ahead of itself, and McTiernan keeps things loose with a healthy dose of humor and genuine on-screen chemistry between Willis and his new sidekick Zeus Carver (a masterfully-cast Samuel L. Jackson, playing his character to the hilt).  But while sizable portions of New York City end up as smoldering ruins, the focus is on the characters, not the action and explosions.  A trick Michael Bay might want to try out sometime.

The movie starts with an explosion outside a department store, which sets in motion a series of events crafted by criminal mastermind Simon Gruber–brother of Hans Gruber, the financial would-be terrorist handily dispatched via defenestration at the hands of McClane in the original Die Hard.  Naturally our favorite khaki-clad cop is at the center of it all, and is forced to jump through a series of hoops lest Mr. Gruber blow up more locales around the city.  Rather than have him go it alone, though, he is joined by a perfectly mismatched foil in Zeus Carver, an angry electrician who has a bone to pick with nearly everyone in the city.  Well, everyone who isn’t like him anyway.  The pairing of Jackson and Willis is what lends Vengeance its true charm, as their constant bickering and insulting is as explosive as a pile of C4.  Both reluctant heroes end up tearing through New York while being guided by the sinister hand of Gruber, who may or may not be using the entire act as a distraction for a much larger plan.

Die Hard 3: McClane, Carver, Laptop

John McClane and his new BFF Zeus Carver take a break from busting heads to play some 7th Guest and Monkey Island.

While the scale of the action gets continually ramped up throughout the film, there are times when things get a little too outlandish for their own good.  I can handle subway explosions, high-speed car chases through crowded streets, and elevator shootouts just fine.  But when refrigerator-sized (and shaped) plot devices appear out of thin air, or McClane literally surfs on the hood of a dump truck, things start to get a little silly.  I think McTiernan was sort of going for broke, though, and as long as he was capping the Die Hard trilogy he was going to throw everything at the audience that was even remotely within the realm of metaphysical possibility.  There is not one iota of plausibility in the entire film, but that’s not really the point.  Vengeance is in many ways the culmination of 1980′s action movie excesses, and it knows it.

One other troubling aspect of the film is the fact that the first half kind of wastes one of the most hardened, do-or-die action heroes ever committed to celluloid.  McClane and Carver, as pawns in Gruber’s diabolical scheme (you can practically hear Jeremy Irons practicing his Evil Villain Laughter™ offscreen), spend the first hour demolishing the five boroughs while solving riddles and mind puzzles instead of actually fighting bad guys.  Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh has said that the entire first hour of the film was taken directly from his original project with character names changed to fit the Die Hard series, and while the action is still as explosive as ever, it does feel out of place for a Die Hard film.  Even so, action film junkies need to look no further for a liberal dose of adrenaline.

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The Expendables

Fans of 80′s classics Cobra, Commando, Rambo II, Above the Law, Bloodsport, and Missing in Action should be rejoicing over Sylvester Stallone’s pool of testosterone in The Expendables, his attempt at delivering the highest-caliber shoot-em-up/martial arts/men-on-a-mission thrill ride featuring a discounted menu of Senior action icons.  Why is it that perhaps the most promising film concept of the season turns out to be such a dud?

The answer: Sylvester Stallone, the writer/director.

I’ll give the man some credit as the lead star—at age 64, he’s bringing it, botox and all.  Ripped to shreds, and pumped up with steroids (there just can’t be any other way), Stallone returns to cinemas as Barney Ross, leader of a mercenary squad hired by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to take out a former CIA operative, Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his drug-trading South American general Garza (David Zayas).  Stallone wants a payment of $5 million for his team which includes a list of hand-me-down single-trait killers.

Among the line-up we have Jason Statham as Lee Christmas, a blade-wielding expert, believing wholeheartedly that knives travel faster than bullets.  Jet Li plays martial-artist Ying Yang, but his sole trait is that he’s made fun of for his height.  Why don’t they call him Short-Round?  UFC fighter Randy Couture really has no traits except for awkwardly explaining his cauliflower ear.  Terry Crews is only memorable for toting an AA-12 shotgun (much like Jesse Ventura being memorable for sporting a Gatling gun in Predator).  Finally, Dolph Lundgren plays Gunner, messed up on drugs and a thirst for blood, an uncontrollable rage that gets him tossed to the curb and wanting to exact revenge.

After Ross accepts the mission from Mr. Church, he and Christmas head out to their South American location to scope out their targets and who all is involved.  The two end up launching an attack on the entire base after nearly being captured along with their informant, Sandra (Giselle Itie), the daughter of Gen. Garza.  Upon the boys’ escape, Sandra refuses to leave and gets captured by her father’s army.  Ross returns to listen to the team’s mechanic, Tool (Mickey Rourke), tell a Vietnam story about a woman he failed to save that has haunted him ever since.  That story apparently shakes up Ross clogging his brain with guilt and remorse, and he decides to return to the island and rescue the woman, but his men refuse to let him go alone.  Meanwhile, former teammate Gunner has given up his old team to Munroe and has plans to stop the ‘expendables’ from succeeding.

The Expendables has only one good scene—where Rourke pours his heart out over his Vietnam regret.  As potentially forced as Stallone’s dramatic change of heart may be following Rourke’s speal, the scene still plays out very well, and it’s the only real ‘acting’ moment in the entire movie.  I know some will be questioning about the obligatory scene featuring Schwarzenegger and Willis hamming it up with Stallone.  Well, as much fun as the scene should be, it isn’t.  It’s forced.  It’s awkward.  It’s poorly written, if scripted at all—much like the rest of the film.  Schwarzenegger plays a competing mercenary leader that used to work with Stallone, but they went their separate ways.  He tells Willis, “Give this job to my friend, he loves playing in the jungle.”  Bruce says of Arnold, “What’s that guy’s problem?”  Stallone: “He wants to be president.”  So much for what could have been.  But that’s the problem with Stallone’s entire movie.

This had all the potential in the world, and the movie disappointingly feels like a cut-and-paste assignment thrown together so sloppily because of Stallone’s desire to cram a bunch of action stars together.  He delivers zero character development, the plot makes absolutely no sense, and I hardly believe Stallone’s sudden transition in wanting to rescue this younger woman (suggesting an awkward romance between her and the action star who is 30 years her senior).  Also be sure to watch out for any of the dialogue, as it hits you in the gut so hard with its stupidity that you’ll be puking within the first 20 minutes.  I’m not talking about funny camp-style 80s one-liners.  I’m talking about terribly-written dialogue meeting awful line readings, one after the other—particularly from Lundgren and Li.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the film isn’t the bad acting, or the horrible writing, or the lacking camradery among the Expendables, but it is Stallone’s way of filming most of the scenes.  Shot almost completely in close-up the entire time, Stallone zooms in on these stars’ individual faces, even in multi-character moments, and it is beyond awkward.  Trust me, he’s not doing these old-timers any favors.  Even in scenes showcasing the location of the island, the extras in the town are shot in close-up, and it becomes unbelievably distracting.

If that’s not enough, even the fight sequences have little creativity and energy.  Granted, the final action bout on the island featuring the entire mercenary squad against a hundred or so faceless enemy soldiers works about as best as it can, if you can tell what’s going on—which is a rare occasion.  The battles also feature hilariously cheesy CGI blood and sloppy special effects surrounding the mayhem as the film’s MPAA rating was never decided on until late in the game.  Since the movie could have ended up being PG-13, I guess no physical fake blood was used during filming, and it really shows.

In fact, all of the film’s flaws really show.  It seems to be an embarrassing exercise in rushed filmmaking with little substance to build on from the get-go.  I love the concept of The Expendables, and I really feel as though I wasn’t expecting top-notch quality here.  But Stallone, who actually put out a solid and gratuitous fourth Rambo installment just two years ago, ought to know how to write and direct at this point.  It feels as though he did neither here, having his film fare about the same as these Direct-to-DVD actioners we see Steven Seagal and Van Damme releasing five of a year.  For the inevitable sequel, I hope Sly stays in front of the camera and allows another filmmaker to take the reigns, perhaps Quentin Tarantino?  Hey, I can dream.

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Live Free or Die Hard (Video Review)

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Surrogates

Surrogates posterBruce Willis has spent a lot of his career kicking in doors, but I bet this is the first time he’s had to do it just to get his wife out of bed. Surrogates is a disturbing story of man kind’s dependence on technology and susceptibility to control by fear.  In the not-too-distant future, mid-Sunday A.D., 98% of all humans live vicariously through life-like robots. They lie in chairs that look like the offspring of a La-Z-Boy and a virtual reality entertainment center (“stem chairs”), and rarely leave their homes. Their work, and all other interaction, is done by their “surrogates,” androids connected to their brain stems.

You may, of course, choose your own “surry.” You can be whatever gender, race, body type, or hair color strikes your fancy. It’s sort of a universal Stepford Wives. You see what your surry sees, and feel what it feels (except the pain, of course).

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

In the future, all murder scenes will look like this.

Needless to say, the casting crew had their work cut out for them on this one, even by Hollywood standards, searching for enough perfect-faced, perfect-bodied people to fill out the future streets full of sculpted robots. These, of course, are to be contrasted with the recluses controlling them from home, who have really let themselves go. Willis plays Tom Greer (and his surrogate), an FBI agent whose wife refuses to even set foot outside her bedroom “in the flesh.”

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer plugs into a stem chair.

Greer has bigger problems, however, because early in the movie, what starts as a routine vandalism investigation (below), soon appears to be a double homicide – the first two homicides in the western world in several years. It seems that someone has developed a weapon capable of sending a signal through a surry that not only destroys the surry, but liquefies the brain of the user.

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

Robocop meets CSI. Got enough crackers for all that cheese?

The initial theory is that this is subversive action by “Dreddies,” members of a colony where surrogates are outlawed. The Dreddies follow the leadership of  “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames, below), claim sovereignty over a small patch of ground, and spurn all advanced technology, using horses and buggies, and the like.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

Ving Rhames, trying way too hard.

In chasing his man, Greer narrowly survives, and has his surry destroyed. The FBI takes him off the case and refuses to issue him a new one. Now, for the first time in years, he must leave his home and track the killer (you didn’t really think he’d obey his captain and stay off the case?) with only his own weak flesh at his command. His investigation takes him first to the Dreddie colony. But is The Prophet what he seems? (I’ll give you a hint: I brought it up.)

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Would you tell this it wasn't your wife? Some guys are just never happy.

Willis could have earned a lot of kudos for this film if he’d allowed the makeup department to make his human self ugly. It appears however, that his agent fought not to lower his image one bit. Everyone else is hideous, giving a realistic portrayal of people who haven’t shaved, showered or brushed their teeth for several days. Willis’ acting is passable. His most memorable scene is probably one where he begs his wife, through the eyes of her surry, (Rosamund Pike) to let him see her again (above). The best acting in the movie is probably done by Rhada Mitchell, as the blond, buxom surry of Greer’s homely (work) partner, Peters. I say this because this surry is taken over by several different people in the course of the movie, so she’s always switching characters. She also gets a scene where she runs at incredible speed through the street, doing flips over cars, and so forth. Which raises a question that the movie never resolves: if the streets are now populated with super-strong, super-fast robots, why are there still so many cars?

It’s hard to say more without spoiling a decent flick. I’ll just say if you like sci-fi, or crime stories, Surrogates is worth a look. Not a classic, but exciting, involving and thought-provoking.

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