Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Please don't let me die!"

Some movies are so good that you don't need to rewatch them very often.

That seems like a strange thing to say, but it's true. I think I've talked about that on this blog before. When these movies come up for discussion, you just nod, and you don't even need to say anything. It's understood that they're great, and even if you haven't seen them in ten years, that doesn't mean that they are any less so, or that you appreciate their greatness any less or any differently.

Die Hard is one such movie. It might be 15 years since I've seen it all the way through, though I've certainly seen little pieces here and there since then. Monday night, we decided to watch the whole thing, as a final bit of our Christmas season on my last paid holiday until Memorial Day. (Don't forget, Die Hard takes place on Christmas Eve.)

I didn't feel as viscerally enthralled watching it as I expected to feel. Some visceral thrills are possible only on a first-time viewing, and never repeat themselves. But I did appreciate the hell out of it, especially the minor details.

I frequently refer to Die Hard as the greatest action movie of all time, but I think that's a pretty commonly held sentiment. It definitely ushered in a new golden era of action movies -- or more accurately, like any trendsetter, it spawned a sting of inferior imitators. (Everything for about the next decade was pitched as "Die Hard on a ______.")

The thing that made it so different from many of the action movies in the Schwarzenegger mode that had preceded it, as well as many of the action movies that have followed it, is the simple understanding of what would make us love John McClane so much:

He's human.

The feats McClane pulls off in this movie are, for the most part, in human scale. Sure, it's questionable whether anyone could truly survive the gauntlet of physical abuse he endures. Sure, it's helpful that he picks the exact right moment to jump off the roof before the bomb is detonated. And sure, it's really helpful that he can defy physics while falling down that shaft, first falling out toward the center of the open space, then falling back in the opposite direction toward the outer walls, allowing him to improbably grab the lip of an opening on the way down.

But no individual feat is presented as something there's no way a human could pull off. And even when the movie starts to veer toward that territory, McClane's reaction to the feat in question brings it back to human scale.

Take that moment on the roof. McClane is muttering to himself about what he's doing and why he's doing it, and the fact that he must be crazy. It's a trademark Bruce Willis character trait, showing up prominently in Pulp Fiction and other films as well. A lot of it is conventional comic relief, and therefore not all that noteworthy.

But this moment stands out:

"Oh God, please don't let me die!"

He's about to plunge himself over the edge of a skyscraper, relying only on the fire hose tied to his waist to stop his fall and prevent him from pancaking on the sidewalk below. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Charles Bronson (when I first saw the poster for Die Hard, I thought it was in the vein of Charles Bronson's ouevre -- that tells you where action stood at the time of its release) would never say such a thing -- they would be stoical in the face of such steep odds. Which might make them extra macho, but wouldn't do much for their believability as characters.

A great action hero, pleading with his lord and savior not to die? Before Die Hard, we assumed it would rob him of all his authority. On the contrary -- it made us relate to him, and consider his feats all the more impressive because they were performed by a real person, just as scared as you and I would be in that situation.

(And speaking of his "lord and savior," I couldn't help but notice on this viewing that McClane does make a couple references to a higher power. At one point he talks about whether or not he'll get out of this situation alive, and says "That's up to the man upstairs." The funny thing is, you could say things like this back in the late 1980s without it being a political statement, because there was not a religious divide dominating the country the way there is now. Oh sure, there was still that debate -- the fundamentalists were called The Christian Coalition back then -- but it didn't seep into our sociopolitical fabric to the extent that it does now. I'm sure none of us thought John McClane's several invocations of God's name meant that he was a Christian or that Die Hard functioned as some kind of right-wing propaganda. Ah, to return to those simpler times.)

Oh, and having just seen Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, don't think I didn't notice how much the Burj Khalifa sequence owes to this scene. I won't go into any more details for those of you who have yet to see it.

Another scene that has always stood out to me for its realism is the scene in the bathroom, when McClane has to pick all the glass out of the soles of his feet. That more than anything serves as his second act crisis, the moment when he loses confidence and is not sure he can go on. Just think about that -- after being shot at, punched, kicked and dropped down air shafts (some of his more perverse tortures still lay ahead), the thing that could finally stop him would be scampering over a floor covered with glass. A screenwriter for a standard action movie wouldn't have even considered that as a stumbling block for its hero, because the presumption is that Arnold Schwarzenegger's feet are made out of iron that's impervious to a million little cuts.

As he's picking the chunks of glass out of his feet, he's nearly crying. Yes, this kind of thing would be extraordinarily painful, and he's not just going to bounce back from it. It's going to take every ounce of his remaining stamina just to be able to keep on walking.

And regarding his running commentary to himself ... how great that instead of stoically beating up Alexander Godunov's character, he's screaming at him that he's going to fucking kill him while he's doing it? The rage and adrenaline are building up in this man, possibly the only thing that allows him to continue surviving. It's what a normal human would do. A conventional action hero, on the other hand, would consider it a solemn responsibility to beat up this man, not the act of fury and vengeance indicated by the stream of profanity Willis lays on Godunov.

I don't suppose these observations are new to the discussion of Die Hard -- I mean, of course they're not. But just as we take great films for granted, we sometimes take for granted why they're great, and writing a few paragraphs on it on a January morning can be a nice reminder.


Dan O. said...

This is one of those perfect action flicks that just gets better and better with any viewing. Good review.

Thaddeus said...

Nice post! It's a movie that never gets old and I'm so glad I saw it in the theater. I still remember how excited I was watching it. I love all the stuff you highlighted, but then again, I love the whole film. In fact, I reviewed it a couple of weeks ago as my holiday movie!

It's really like the flipside of Miracle on 34th, and just as awesome...

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Dan! I wish I could say it got better for me this time -- I did feel like I liked it slightly less well than when I was younger. But, of course it also prompted me to come in and write 1,500 glowing words the next day, so clearly it hasn't gone down much in my estimation.

Thaddeus, I'd love to hear more on this Miracle on 34th Street connection. Care to expand?

Thaddeus said...

Actually, sorry. In this case, I meant It's a Wonderful Life. I mixed the use because Miracle and Die Hard are my two favorite X-Mas movies.

As to the IaWL connection, they're both Christmas movies, right? Well, both actually deal with men who've reached a tough point in their lives and are becoming alienated from others. Both protagonists have their perspectives restored by a big shakeup that makes them re-prioritize.

What's amazing is that these two movies have a perfectly holiday message where 1 angle and 1 man's courage and police training allow them to realize how important they are to the lives of others. It's just that the high-quality classic involves being a good person and telling some guy that his attitude sucks. The other, also high-quality, movie involves calling someone "mofo" and dropping them off a skyscraper.

Between the two of them, you can pretty satisfy whatever your particular holiday cinema needs are. Thoughts?

Vancetastic said...

Sounds reasonable!

However, I do think the fact that it's Christmas is somewhat incidental to Die Hard. Then again, you could say the same thing about It's a Wonderful Life. Since it's a look back at George Bailey's life, most of it obviously does not occur at Christmastime. This differentiates both movies from a classic like Elf, which is intrinsically about Christmas. (This is not a fully formulated thought, I'm just thinking of it now as I'm typing it out.)

Thaddeus said...

Well, it's funny, because though, DH is not about the holiday itself, Christmas is such a backdrop to the movie! From the music (which is full of lots of "jingling"), to the office party itself, and the hat on the first dead villain... It goes on and on.

You're right in pointing out how this sort of/sorta not connection matches it even better with IaWL. I find it funnier that the spirit of the season is there in John's desire to reconnect with his family, and his gradual acceptance of his wife's choices. Then again, that was caused by nearly losing her and getting glass in his feet, not so much by seeing that the spirit of Xmas is forgiveness, happiness, and peace...