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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Predator

Action junkies know “Predator,” and know it well.  The film stands as my favorite among all guilty pleasures.  Its talented director John McTiernan went on to direct to action classics (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October) before descending into faded career oblivion (Rollerball, Basic) and curious legal issues.  Its ripped-to-shreds stars shined in their prime.  The exotic Mexican jungle locations made for an exceptional landscape to showcase some great visuals and cinematography.  The film is also an excellent combination of genres–an action picture that evolves into science-fiction and ultimately horror.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Dutch Schaeffer, leader of a Special Forces team consisting of five other men sent into the South American jungle along with Dillon (Carl Weathers), a CIA combat operative and friend of Dutch.  Their mission: to rescue a cabinet minister and American hostages held captive by drug-trading guerrilla fighters.  Upon arriving in the guerrilla zone, Dutch and his men encounter a crashed military chopper and a collection of skinned human carcasses.  What to make of this?  “This isn’t human,” claims Dillon.  And it certainly isn’t, as the men eventually realize they are the targets of a relentless hunter from another world.  They cannot see it, but it certainly sees them, and begins to pick them off one by one.

Once “Predator” evolves from a typical Scwharzenegger shoot-em-up into a suspenseful chase movie, things really pick up.  McTiernan is a master at creating isolation.  He continued this trend with Bruce Willis as a one-man army trapped inside a skyscraper against a team of terrorists in “Die Hard.”  In “The Hunt For Red October,” he squeezed a group of nerve-wrecked men inside a Soviet submarine.  In “Predator,” his first major feature, this group of combat soldiers have all the firepower in the world, and they demonstrate it quite well when they mow down acres of jungle in a desperate attack against their unseen visitor.  The men become overwhelmed with terror when they realize ‘they hit nothing.’  Their endless jungle  has now become their tomb, as their rescue chopper will not arrive in time for them to survive.

The tension in Predator knows no bounds.  The actual creature hunting the men is seen very little throughout most of the movie.  Although the audience gets glimpses here and there of what the predator sees (infrared heat vision) and hears (which it quickly learns to mimic), the creature never manifests itself until a good way into the movie.  Prior to this scene where the Predator must tend to his wounds, he is only seen in a spacesuit of armor that bends light around his body so that he is camoflaged, and all you see of him is a distorted blur in the shape of his body.  The special effects really accomplished something here, designing an impressive effect that still holds up by today’s standards.

In fact, even though “Predator” is the epitome of 80s action-movie brawn and bravado, everything about the film holds up pretty well by today’s standards.  Sure, we don’t get the macho action pictures we used to twenty-five years ago (unless they go straight-to-DVD), but the look of the film, the special effects, and major action sequences still impress all these years later.  Obviously the brand name still works, as two lackluster ‘Alien vs. Predator’ films came to be in the last six years, and a new direct sequel to the 1987 film finally saw the light of day this past week.  Amazingly, of these attempts at reviving the Predator character, none captures the dread, suspense, intensity, action, nor looks as good as John McTiernan’s film.

Part of this is due to the mystery and discovery of the Predator, and his reveal in the final bout with Schwarzenegger’s character.  Up until then, the audience is glued to their seats waiting to see the monster responsible for all the mayhem.  The film also succeeds because of the fact that the entire production was built around Arnold Schwarzenegger, delivering the man of muscle an enemy worth competing with.  Soon enough it is easy to figure out that Arnold is in trouble, and not even his mammoth build or ego can be of match to such a beast.  If Arnold is to represent the perfect physical human specimen, then to see him tossed around like a rag doll makes for an interesting viewing.  Finally, “Predator” above all else, works so well because of Stan Winston’s creature design.  Once his creation fills up the screen, it really becomes worth the wait, as many monster reveals in movies disappoint and are hidden for good reason, Winston has never made a creature so hideous and horrific.  When Arnold says to the creature, “You’re one ugly mother f-cker,” he ain’t kidding.

Many filmmakers would try to copy McTiernan’s genre-shifting ways, including Robert Rodriguez with “From Dusk Till Dawn” (he also produces the new “Predators”).  But none would ever capture the high-level energy and efficiency of this fast-paced masterpiece on all counts.  Sure, many view “Predator” as a decent action film from the 80s full of cheesy one-liners and a lot of macho-man antics.  Heck, I didn’t even mention Jesse Ventura’s scene-chewing and tobacco chewing.  But hey, it all works as a brilliant, tightly constructed men-on-a-mission thriller that turns into a mano-a-mano battle of survival of the fittest between Arnold Schwarzenegger and a giant alien hunter, and as such succeeds in the genres of action, science-fiction, and horror.  Count this as the best ‘guy’ movie you will ever see.

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