Month: June 2013

Man of Steel I: “Some time ago a friend asked me a question…”



            I say a friend… It was what you might call an interview of sorts, held once a week, often in the same room.  The walls of that room were half wet brick, half new stone and where they met dark pools stole the corners.  In an ocean of dark, in the middle of an impossible room, a bright white light fell in a spiralling cone onto a circular table from a cord lamp.  The long electric twine sneaked up to the ceiling, presumably…  Lost as it was in the dark and wrapped in a barbed wire of crisp dead leaves.   Below I sat patiently and immobile as always, as in front of me long, thin, white hands laid playing cards on the table.  One by one the cards went down, the bony wrists snaking purposefully from loose orange cuffs.  Within three cards the question was asked.

Chapter I

It was a question that had long trod many a scattered page of Action Comics #1 into the dust ground.
            “Batman vs Superman? Everyone says Batman…  why?! For the sake of argument, let us assume that Superman is not playing nice anymore…  Maybe Batman killed Lois to piss him off …  So we have, bloodthirsty Superman vs Batman ….  who’d win?”
            My response wasn’t circumspect in the swirling light.  The comic traditions are quite clear and I said it:
            “It’s Batman! It’s Batman! It’s always Batman!”
            I paused.
            “Look at Dark Knight Returns…” I continued, quickly rejecting the idea that Batman would kill Lois Lane to, er, piss Superman off – “The stories are more likely to show a dystopian tilt (or exacerbation) of the American state, sufficient enough to bring the two opposing super-ideologies to blows.”  I pointed out that Batman is “the most dangerous man on Earth” as a Jack of Diamonds was laid flat.
            In return I laid out some proof.  I referred to the late twentieth century JLA, a series that began with Grant Morisson’s freshening up of the Justice League.  Not only did this hark back to the League’s original line up, but injected reverence and hard sci-fi back into the League itself with excellently plotted and seminal stories.  It was particularly impressive as that run started out with the Transformed ‘Lectric Superman of the ‘90s, a storyline that was red, external, pants.

Chapter II

Early in that JLA relaunch, one story was the oft told tale of benevolent aliens who hide a sinister plan: New World Order.  It was simple and derivative to a point, but sold on its climax.  The powerful aliens’ takedown of the JLA was a great, concise reintroduction to the core League members: Atlantean Prince Aquaman and Amazon Goddess Wonder Woman, imaginative power ring wielder Green Lantern (at the time the inexperienced Kyle Rayner) and Scarlet Speedster the Flash , Enigmatic telepath J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter and of course heavy hitters Superman and Batman.  In New World Order, Having subdued the metahumans of the League, the villainous aliens dismissed the escaped Caped Crusader as a mere mortal, failing to abide Superman’s stern warnings to the contrary.
            Inevitably, the puny flying rodent man takes them all down with extreme prejudice.  Grant Morrison’s gleeful storytelling was realised in Howard Porter’s sublime artwork, and it just got better – typically deeper, mythic, sprawling and metaphysical.  Later stories such as Mark Waid’s brilliant Tower of Babel continued the good work on the Dark Knight, channelling Batman’s personality (disorders) through the centre of the League’s stories – an un-galactic, City focussed philosophy is not easy to reconcile with a moon-headquartered global superteam.
            Tower of Babel was recently adapted as the animated film Doom, where Batman’s measured but paranoid, pre-prepared defensive strategies to take down each of his team mates if they turn ‘rogue’ were stolen and used with devastating consequences.  It split the League in the comics (Divided they Fall) – and it’s that moral approach to life, the tension between the Alien, the Goddess and the Man (the trinity) that powers the Justice League concept.  That’s where Batman vs Superman originally comes from, two ideologies.  Two ideologies that often end in a punch up.
            This time the lean white fingers lay down a King of Clubs.
            And Batman often wins.
            “So there’s the answer,” I said. 
There’s a long history of Batman trashing Superman in the comics – Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is a key example.  The recent videogame Injustice: Gods Among Us brought the same argument into living rooms – and the result of Batman victorious brought disbelief, surprise, umbrage and bewilderment – but the fact remains that Batman does often win.  And he often wins because he cheats. What else is Batman but a cheater?  A cheater with good reason he may be, but a cheater he is.  “Supes may be the most powerful being on the planet, but Bats is the most dangerous human.”
            The lamp had stopped swirling, the hands had stopped moving.

Chapter III

Across from me, each white hand lay palm down to the table, sequential Royal Clubs laid out in front.   The hands’ owner had a follow-up.
            “I was hoping you’d have some argument for Superman but I suppose… It is Batman then.”  I had won, was it as easy as that?  No, of course not.
            “How about this – who do you like more …  Batman or Superman?”
            The opening line was loaded like a joke gun.  In the calming light I saw the hint of a spreading grin.  This I knew: Batman may be the most dangerous mortal on Earth, but Superman is still the one to which all superheroes aspire.  And with good reason.
            Superman, last son of Krypton is a multi-layered enigma that has gradually built up over 80 years…  A myth mist that defines him as the greatest and definitive invention in superherodom, but has also consigned him to an irrelevant, and unfashionable sometime box-office mope in the past.
            The first returns of Man of Steel seem to have washed away the cobwebs of apathy that have surrounded the figure for too long.  With a Nietzschean nickname hanging precariously over an overgrown boy scout persona – with a generally mainstream repellent ‘alien’ origin to boot – the 21st century hasn’t been kind to Superman.
            I was broken from my reverie by a white blur.
            A King of Diamonds had joined its cousins on the table.
            It was time for a change of location.

(to be continued…)

Die Hard II: Essential Die Hard Moments and a Mission to Moscow

Die Hard Greatest Moments Jokertoon

McClane Dying Hard 2As the fifth Die Hard film is released for home viewing pleasure, the third and fourth parts of a dissection of a franchise that’s hard to kill. In conclusion, the essential moment of the Die Hard films and where the second trilogy has, so far, fallen down.

FOR THE RELEASE OF A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD IN MULTIPLEXES ACROSS THE GLOBE I CONDUCTED A TWEET NOTE DIE HARD RETROSPECTIVE AND DISTILLED THE 12 RULES OF DYING HARD. These are a set of rules mostly laid down by the definitive first film and then picked up, followed through, used or abused as seen fit in the subsequent four sequels. They become even more interesting when set against a franchise which has gradually diluted its central premise. The box office may not quite register the diminishing returns, but while the series has broadened its scope from time claustrophobia it’s also slided down the ratings. Part Five, A Good Day to Die Hard (AGDTDH) which Bruce Willis himself suggested had hardened up after part four, gained a 12 advisory rating in the UK. It must be said that in America the film was given an uncensored R rating and director John Moore is working on a director’s cut which may well cement its place in the franchise – but in any event, the toughness of the first film is long diminished.

3. Essential Die Hard Moments

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Of the 12 Rules of Dying Hard, Rule 12 may be one of the most crucial. The franchise is called Die Hard. While comprehension about what the name actually means may differ, the clout of the name can’t be ignored. It’s the words Die and Hard aligned in a beautiful piece of Hollywood 80s action nonsense. As examined in part two of this essay, much of the Die Hard franchise has been tacked together through adaptations, something which had added interesting depth and nuance. With that title and that eager star, it was a readymade to form the pinnacle of 80s actioners while injecting enough parody to nail the genre it sat atop. The second film built on the first film’s promise, though not quite reaching the same heights, while the necessarily delayed part three arrived in the mid-90s and set a new template. Shallow 80s films had continued well into the ‘90s with shallower action heroes, but in reality there would never be another classic 1980s action film released without Shane Black’s involvement (1989’s Lethal Weapon 2 or surprisingly, this year’s Iron Man 3).

In a franchise where dying hard is really the anti-objective, there should always be a killer scene in each film. Nailed down to one example per film, these key Die Hard moments have simple rules of their own. They must combine scale, John McClane, fire and one or more other massive jeopardies.  So:

  • Die Hard – The Hosepipe. Evading the exploding roof of Nakatomi Plaza via hose pipe McClane soon meets reinforced glass and then gravity. Truly the ultimate Die Hard moment. Never bettered.
  • Die Hard 2: Die Harder – The Ejector Seat. Quickly losing all the advantage he had engineered, McClane find himself trapped in a bullet riddled cockpit surrounded by primed grenades, his only hope is ejector seat from ground level.
  • Die Hard With a Vengeance – The Tube Train Explosion. Separated from Zeus for the first time, McClane cleverly locates the hidden bomb but can’t stop it exploding.  Lt. McClane remains remarkably polite throughout this process.
  • Die Hard 4.0 – The fuel lines. McClane doesn’t understand the internet (as stressed at length throughout the film) but having diffused a kung fu situation with a Jurassic Park homage riff, he quickly understands that he is at the hub of thousands of natural gas fuel pipes.

For the first three films, these Die Hard moments are definitive.  They are  often as promotional clips for the respective films, but Die Hard 4.0 bucks the trend by having its most famous action scene – the helicopter car ad lib – replace the Die Hard moment as its memorable scene.  Nifty it may be, but that stunt is not a Die Hard moment as there is precious little dying hard going on.  that there should have been is another issue.

With AGDTDH, it’s difficult to find a Die Hard moment.  This might be expected in a film where so much publicity revolves not around stunts but the highly grazed father and son standing next to each other. The final Helicopter confrontation may have made the grade, but it feels  derivative. The way it’s shot, the fact there’s a pool underneath, that it’s part of the villain’s rather strange kamikaze run… It just doesn’t make it.

4. The Second Trilogy: Die Rights and Die Wrongs

AGDTDH achieved almost universally bad reviews.  It was the first of the franchise to do so, but a little unfair. In hope that the director’s cut will cement the film’s status as not quite a disaster, the film’s main problem is that it uses the Rolling Stones’ Doom and Gloom as its end credit song. Misplaced irony if ever it appeared in a cinema.  Some people were fortunate to walk out before the end credits when I saw it.  but really, if you accept it’s not going to be Die Hard (which you really should) then it’s not all bad.  Masochistically vewing a new Die Hard film just to hero worship the first film is not only pointless but rather odd.

What A Good Day to Die Hard got right

While AGDTDH is barely a Die Hard film in comparison to the original, it actually manages to tick more boxes than you might think. Having tweet-noted the first four films as seen here I dutifully popped along to see the new film in a refreshingly child-free cinema so I could add it to the DieHardathon Nakatomi Christmas party (not on Valentine’s Day I may add). While tweet notes will have to wait, I was as pleasantly surprised as I was horrified with what unfurled during those paltry 98 minutes. AGDTDH actually registered fairly highly on the Rules of Dying Hard as follows:

  • Literal interpretation of Rules 1, 2, 4, 9 and 10
  • A little reference to Rules 3, 8 and 12
  • Very basic reference to Rule 11 and Rule 5
  • Missing in Action: Rules 6 and 7.

Shoeing in three quarters of the Rules of Dying Hard is more than expected this far into the franchise.  As the middle film in the second Die Hard trilogy it lays out its cards and in doing to, it hopefully sets up part six nicely. AGDTDH is film obsessed with aging gracefully. It’s highly reverential to the franchise itself. Within minutes there’s a joke about Frank Sinatra – of course the actor who had first refusal on the part of John McClane. It’s a joke that also neatly plays on and subverts the McClane and foreigners trope(Rule 4). Later, the rather non-descript villain henchman consciously refers to McClane as a cowboy, earning a wry smirk. This is a very forced return to the Mantle of the Hat that McClane carried three decades ago.  Shorn of its nuances, such laboured scripting may well have earned a wince instead.

Part of AGDTDH’s success within the series is its relocation to Moscow, handled far better than part four’s American vacation.  Moscow and, bizarrely, Chernobyl provide a gritty and ravaged landscape which is a step up from part four’s high tech complexes. I’m not a fan of a Die Hard film that works without a specified time limit, but the multiple location aspect was an unfortunate addition brought by the otherwise excellent Die Hard with a Vengeance. AGDTDH’s twist is alive and well and probably on a par with the third instalment. Extra points are also warranted for using the twist to mirror the McClane family lynchpin.

Because that’s what it’s all about, as the silent final scene proves. AGDTDH wants to resolve all those family issues that have been central to the franchise for years and it sets a bit of a trap for the sixth instalment in the process (Rule 2 s twisted completely).  Inevitably and eventually pairing McClane Sr with McClane Jr there’s the requisite awkward bonding and excruciatingly clichéd  father to father redemption scene, of course overheard by McClane Jr. Those scenes are always going to lull. While it’s always interesting to see the minor stretches in John McClane’s character – uncomfortable and taciturn taking to his son, all cocky machismo when a gun’ s in his face – it makes you pine all the more for when Die Hard’s emotional beats took place in the middle of the action.

And then, at one point, the unthinkable happens. McClane tells his son it’s actually been quite a good day. It’s the fruition of the Die Hard parody, but still resolutely straight-faced. It’s been a good day, and well it might be. The former trope of McClane stumbling awkwardly through everyday boredom (Christmas party, pick up from an airport, collapsed across a bar) is all gone. Here the strange opening scene in a NYPD shooting range is followed by a strangely truncated travel scene before McClane’s off – foot literally to the pedal as he tries to save his son from murder in Moscow. It’s not your average day and there’s no pretence about it. In AGDTDH, there’s no room for the rather reflective sadness of earlier films, where innocents die and the end credits cover a rather pyrrhic victory, where McClane’s body and soul is one of the main losers. Here McClane has rescued his son and together they’ve taken down some Russians.

AGDTDH quickly becomes a simple chase movie, where there’s a simple tipping point where the McClane’s take control setting time constraints of their own  – a far cry from early Die Hard films but allowing plenty of bonding time. AGDTDH’s structure may almost benefit from flashbacks if such things weren’t inherently un-Die Hard.

Fundamentally AGDTDH is a simplistic take on Die Hard, but one that wrestles with the central tenets of Rules 1 and 2. Again, the travel aspect helps, and the cold war-laden setting for the finale not only harks back to the series ‘80s roots, but also provides an ideology for the film to play with just as the first had seized on capitalism.

Crucially there are two problems with AGDTDH. One is the overt play on McClane. True, in real life he may question why these things happen to him, but then in real life it wouldn’t happen at all.  So, so confront this so obviously? Perhaps it needed to be confronted, but not in the one Die Hard film where McClane actually has to get a plane to his bad day. Along with the cowboy barbs, the film constantly tells us that McClane is the wrong guy in the wrong place. That is simply not true, as anyone who sees him with a machine gun can testify. He’s the right guy in the right place.  The wrong guy in the wrong place is surely McClane at a Nakatomi Christmas party all night if Hans Gruber’ s van had stalled…

Secondly, the fundamental Rule 6 of Die Hard is completely absent. In fact it just gets blown up with the courtroom. There is not only a lack of jobsworths, slease bags or media, but barely any Russian police – even when a Gunship totals a Moscow building. To show how important this rule is, even Die Hard 4.0 gets it right. Often authorities are exploited by the films’ villains to achieve their true goals, often in a very similar way:

  • Die Hard – Standard FBI procedure stipulates a block power shutdown, the equivalent of an EMP that releases the Nakatomi building’s sophisticated safe for Gruber’s lackeys’ waiting hands.
  • Die Hard 2 – Also part of the twist, the escalated response is of course in the villain’s hock.
  • Die Hard With a Vengeance – Procedures are used to the villain’s advantage once again.  The bomb found and then helped to detonate by McClane covers a huge heist in a nearby gold reserve. The police dutifully expect dump trucks to turn up to clear the wreckage while the bank’s alarms are disrupted by the blast.
  • Die Hard 4.0 – Possibly the neatest since the first film, a series of targeted online attacks culminates in an anthrax alert at FBI headquarters, triggering a copy of all America’s financial information to be downloaded to just one ‘secure’ facility.

One, three and four are very neat. In five, the odd high level political wrangling is obscure and its otherwise complete lacking in the escalation of authority the series was previously so dependent on.

So, considering that AGDTDH lacks authority escalation, overdoes McClane’s character parody and even lacks a definitive Die Hard moment, it’s remarkable that it registers so highly on the Rules of Dying Hard. In fact, it’s remarkable that it got so much right when its predecessor didn’t.

Where Die Hard 4.0 went wrong

Die Hard 4..0 was always going to have an upward struggle, coming 12 years after the fifth part. True to form, it was an adaptation of the script for Returning to McClane so much later was one thing, but tying it to the vast world of cyber crime when its prequels had solely lived pre-internet was a step too far. However, what’s really unforgivable is that Die Hard 4.0 missed

a massive trick that’s central to the franchise.

On paper, translating the action to Washington, is a nice one, but in reality the four states solution comes up short. McClane treks to Washington DC from New York overnight – a rather problematic plot lull – and he doesn’t stay put. He then cavorts to West Virginia and two stop-offs in Maryland,  propelled by the cheap fuel of coincidence.

The series had previously constrained McClane in an LA building, Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, and the entire of New York City. There was an escalation, but four states was an odd misstep. Particularly in the view of the film’s MacGuffin:  Although the internet is inherently un-Die Hard (bar the sole comedy hacker), it also captures the essence of the series.

With a foe who can control the (cyber) infrastructure of America, Die Hard 4.0 could have easily provided McClane with the largest playground but the most claustrophobic day of his life. The film does touch on the idea, but fails to deliver on a McClane whose every move is monitored and anticipated. The backdrop of the whole of the US would have neatly referenced Die Hard while continuing the location escalation in a very satisfying way. It really is one of the greatest tragedies of Die Hard; that they continued the franchise but stalled on the idea. True, it was nine years after Enemy of the State brilliantly picked up on a man’s every move under surveillance (while referencing 1970s classics such as The Conversation). But Die Hard 4.0 was also released just a year before Eagle Eye made a fairly decent stab at the same idea. Just think, that film but with Bruce Willis instead of Shia LaBeouf.

In the event, the family element of Die Hard 4.0 feels quite stuck on – and undermines the overall danger in a way his wife on a plane in part two never did. It’s as if they remembered some off the Rules of Die Hard mid-script; too late to save it. Another miss is Matt Farrell, a poor addition to the strong line of McClane allies. While Zeus’ problem solving and links to a particular school in Die Hard with a Vengeance is a stretch, in the world of cyber crime it’s all far too contrived. That’s Rules 2 and 5 diluted while Rule 1 just leaves a massive crater. McClane’s fish out of water essentials are reduced to puzzled grunts whenever firewalls are mentioned. History now records part five as the weaker and lower profit film.  While it didn’t make up for Die Hard 4.0, it showed that the Rules of Dying Hard can be massively diluted – and some pretty definitive parts of Die Hard ignored – but it can still stay on track.  That that may come to bode well.

What Part Six needs to do… Die Hardest

Willis has signed on for the sixth part of the franchise, which you can only hope will be the final instalment – and so the chance to redeem the second Die Hard trilogy and do the whole series justice. It’s a tall order, but it’s essential that the film’s creators go right back to basics, taking cues from the Rules of Dying Hard and ticking as many boxes as possible.  References to earlier parts of the series are essential, but without dipping further into parody and Bond style-invincibility. Early rumours suggest a Japanese setting and the promise of a return to a Nakatomi building is a tantalising one.  Family has to be there as does really a tip of the hat to New York. A fiendish plot and jut one location.  And it must be Christmas.  It’s been a while.

My punt?  A retired John McClane, one Christmas Eve searching desperately to get his grandson the hottest kids toy in New York’s newest state of the art mall.

Call me Fox, yippee kai call me.

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