Thursday, December 26, 2013

Die Hard and its Presidential Pretenders

It was this or a picture of Chrissie Hynde.
I love "Die Hard." I'm one of the increasingly large and insufferable mass of people who watch "Die Hard" each Christmas, and I genuinely think it may be the best action movie of all time. Naturally, it's spawned lots of pretenders--not least of which are four other "Die Hard" movies--which I've lately been fascinated by. Fascinated enough that I got together with my Movies Schmovies brother Jon, and we watched a double-feature of "Die Hard in the White House" movies, "Olympus Has Fallen" and "White House Down," which are part of the slightly broader "Die Hard with the President" subgenre that began (as far as I know) with "Air Force One."

"Olympus Has Fallen" was generally pretty joyless, though Aaron Eckhart's turn as recent widower President Benjamin Asher gave me lots of opportunities to say "I believe in Presi Dent," and to imagine the Gotham politics that got him elected, along with Speaker of the House Lucius Fox. Jon remarked that Bruce Wayne told Harvey "One fundraiser with my pals, you’ll never need another cent," and apparently that meant "no matter what office you run for." The film features North Korean commandos taking over the White House, in order to get the codes for the failsafe system that can detonate any American nuclear weapon, with hopes of destroying all of them in their silos and exploding the country. Only ex-Special Forces, ex-Secret Service agent Gerard Butler can rescue the President's son and also, if there's time, the President.

Of the two Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies from this past year, "Olympus Has Fallen" is the less Die-Hard-y of the two, which I think is a lot of why it was so boring. There are a couple of big things that I think most of the imitations miss about what makes "Die Hard" compelling, and "Olympus Has Fallen" misses them more than most.

First, there's the character of John McClane. During their first walkie-talkie conversation, Hans Gruber asks if John is "Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?" It's an important contrast, Dillon and Wayne being symbols of the classic cowboy adventurer, moral to a fault, paragons of virtue, and champions of the rule of law. John McClane is a good cop, but he's more shrewd and pragmatic than lawfully virtuous. But the more important contrast, and the one that most of the "Die Hard" wannabes miss, is the comparison to Rambo. "First Blood" was only six years old when "Die Hard" came out, which was the same year that "Rambo III" hit theaters. And while John Rambo was a mostly stoic, super-capable one-man army ex-special forces agent, John McClane most certainly wasn't. One of the things I most appreciate about "Die Hard"--and most dislike about more recent films in the franchise, like "A Good Day to Die Hard"--is that John becomes progressively more injured and weary throughout the film. When he finally takes a bullet from Karl's gun, it's a big deal. When he's pulling shards of glass out of his feet, it feels like an actual injury, and he's limping and trailing blood for the rest of the movie. By the time we get to that final confrontation, John is exhausted and bloody; his voice is ragged. It actively shocks Holly to see him like that. He's not the "Last Action Hero" only-a-flesh-wound action movie protagonist. He's not a one-man army who can ramp a car into a helicopter. He's just a resourceful cop with an attitude. His conversations with himself show that he's not super-confident, and his dialogue in the actual heat of battle is the kind of nonsensical angry stuff that any of us would say if grappling with a giant German on a staircase ("You motherf***er, I'm gonna kill you! I'm gonna f***in' cook you, and I'm gonna f***ing eat you!"). John's at his most clever when he's talking with Hans on the walkie-talkie, and a lot of that is bravado. He doesn't get the James Bond post-killing quips that have become standard action hero fare.

Gerard Butler's Agent Mike Banning is not John McClane. He is that hyper-capable, ex-special forces agent who knows all the ins and outs of the White House. He doesn't have to take notes or look at maps the way John McClane does. He's actually at his least clever when talking with the North Korean villains, though a lot of that is because this movie was apparently scripted by pulling lines from the Big Book of Action Movie clich├ęs. "Die Hard" is thoroughly quotable; "Olympus Has Fallen" is littered with "but it's against protocol!" and "the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists" and "where's my son?!" Mike Banning doesn't talk to himself, doesn't question himself, doesn't feel any ill effects from his injuries, and as a result is a much less interesting character.

There's also the issue of the villains. "Die Hard" makes itself a little more timeless, I think, by making its villains a multicultural cadre looking for money rather than achieving a political goal. Aside from the references to "West Germany," Hans Gruber could be upper-class Eurotrash from any era. Political motivations come and go, and while it'll likely be some time before North Korea and the U.S. have a friendly relationship, there's every chance that this plot will eventually seem as much a relic as all those films about Soviet terrorists, or about Rambo teaming up with the mujahideen. The multicolored group under Gruber also largely sidesteps the issue of racism, which is a very real problem any time you're casting one particular ethnicity as "the enemy."

One of the other things "Die Hard" does well is characterization. Every major character gets a story arc, from John to Holly to Ellis to Argyle, and even the minor characters have memorable moments, like the one terrorist who just wants a candy bar. In contrast, there's only one villain who gets even a little characterization in "Olympus Has Fallen," and even most of the heroic characters only exist as platitude-spouters. Everyone is a stereotype, and while that's a technique that can work well (see "Pacific Rim") it just comes off as lazy here.

"White House Down" provides a pretty stark contrast. It's a much more entertaining film, in part because it's not nearly so deadly serious as "Olympus Has Fallen," and in part because the screenwriter appears to have spent about fifteen minutes outlining his own story, then said "screw it" and did a find-and-replace on the "Die Hard" script. It's so slavishly devoted to aping "Die Hard" that the villains have a secret second plan, there's a scene with our hero on top of a speeding elevator, and there's even a "Mrs. McClane" moment. There are times where I honestly wished that it would ape "Die Hard" a little more--Channing Tatum is a hell of a lot more charming and compelling than Gerard Butler, with more humble origins as a secret service applicant who doesn't meet Maggie Gyllenhaal's (another "The Dark Knight" connection!) exacting standards, but he could still stand to be less sure of himself. We get a couple of bits of John McClane-esque "this is a bad idea" moments, but not really enough of them.

Otherwise, though, the places where "White House Down" distinguishes itself from "Die Hard" tend to be done well. Channing Tatum's politics-obsessed daughter is the Holly Gennero analogue, trapped in the occupied White House, and using her keen vlogging skills to leak information to the outside world. In most action and horror movies, cell phones are so inconvenient to plot contrivance that they have to be disposed of quickly, but this is one of the few things I've seen where a smartphone is not just used well, but made integral to the story. For much of the movie, Tatum is accompanied by Jamie Foxx's not-Barack-Obama President character, and the dynamic between the two is pretty entertaining--it takes a page from "Die Hard with a Vengeance," which is my second-favorite "Die Hard" flick, so that's a bonus for me.

"White House Down" follows the "Die Hard" formula with the minor characters, though it's not quite as skilled in giving them all good moments (the Glenn Beck stand-in is a fun idea but doesn't really get much to do). It does manage "Die Hard"'s trick of making seemingly innocuous lines and details, like a throwaway note about the tunnels that JFK used to sneak Marilyn Monroe into the White House or Tatum's daughter's flag-twirling, into more significant story elements down the line. It gives the movie a sense of cohesion that, again, too many of the pretenders miss. "Die Hard" is full of those moments, and it's really pretty shocking how much of the dialogue is foreshadowing.

I think the worst part of "White House Down" ended up being its politics, which are straight-up bonkers. The President has made a treaty with a bunch of nations that requires removing all the American troops from the Middle East, and in a world where even talking to Iran or withdrawing some troops is cause for major bipartisan pants-soiling in Congress, that broke my suspension of disbelief more than any other aspect of the film. Until, of course, it turns out bad guy James Woods's plan was to nuke the entire Middle East. I think the idea was to prevent the film from being too real-world political by inventing scenarios that were so over-the-top that they couldn't be owned by either major party, but it might have been better to go a little more subtle.

It seems I've come to the end of this rambling without an overall point. To sum up: "Die Hard" is an excellent movie, and is smarter than most give it credit for. Too many of its imitators (and sequels) are dazzled by memorable lines and explosions, and miss what made the movie clever and unique enough to stand the test of time. But if you're in the mood for a "Die Hard"-style flick that has a sense of humor about itself and also has an action President, you could do worse than "White House Down." Specifically, you could rent "Olympus Has Fallen." That would be worse.

Apropos of nothing, there's a line in "White House Down" (I think) which we misheard, and it sounded like something about Harrison Ford, which brought up the notion that to deal with the threat of White House-occupying terrorists, they needed to bring in the Battle President, and that would be amazing.

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