What We’re Watching – 12/14/11
Much of my adolescent movie-watching years were spent during Bruce Willis’s tough guy box office reign. Films like Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout, and even the rather disappointing Striking Distance were top priority for my film watching time. When the film Last Man Standing opened in 1996, I had just graduated high school earlier that year, and it was my birthday: exactly what I wanted, a new Bruce Willis action film.
Written and directed by action film vet Walter Hill, Last Man Standing is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars. Both films have stated inspirational credit to the works of Dashiell Hammett, in particular Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Incidentally, these are the same two novels the Coen brothers used for inspiration for Miller’s Crossing. Hill does a spot-on job of combining elements and nods to both films, as well as making reference to the original source material. Bruce Willis provides a voiceover that channels Hammett’s reoccurring character known only as the Continental Op. In a moment of reverence and self-awareness, Willis’s character, known only as John Smith, makes the comment in regards to the setup of the town he’s just driven through that it’s “like something out of a bad dime store novel.”
The film is lean and mean and cares little for character development or emotional audience attachment. Instead, it goes straight for the cool aesthetics of gangsters and dames, and the spectacle of gunplay violence. Voices are quiet and gun shots are deafeningly loud. What’s on display here is not the context of the characters but the iconography they inhabit as devices of someone else’s origins. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but its stripped-down approach to a story told several times already makes for an almost modern mythology, an archetype of the self-centered individual who plays the odds against each other and goes through hell to get away with it.
After watching Last Man Standing, I began thinking about Kurosawa and his American influences and decided I needed to finally watch Runaway Train, which he had co-written and was to originally direct. The film, which was eventually directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy, who also directed the testosterone pumping (to the point of hilarity) Tango & Cash, casts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as two escaped convicts who board a train that goes rogue, with no brakes and no conductor. Combining elements of a prison film, a chase film, and an action movie, Runaway Train has much to enjoy. It also has some things that make it almost intolerable at times. The characters are uncompromising; who they are is exactly what they are, and to that end they can be very unlikeable. To the film’s credit, they never sugarcoat these two men; they are annoying, arrogant, pompous, and above all, assholes, especially Voight’s character Manny. Eric Roberts’s character is just so annoying at times it almost made me want to stop watching, but then I also admire a movie that’s not afraid to give you a central character that you might not like.
There are moments here that purely echo Kurosawa—lots of wide open spaces with our characters framed against them. This especially applies to the film’s final shot, which is haunting in its own right. As a fan of Kurosawa it’s noticeable to point out which aspects of the script were left over from his draft; however, you can feel that a good majority of the final product most likely deviates quite a bit from what he had in mind. The film’s antagonist, the warden of the prison the two characters break out of, is more of a cartoon character than anything threateningly real. The scene in which he takes the comptroller in charge of stopping the train and immerses him in his own urine is off-putting to the legitimacy of the tension the rest of the film tries to create. In fact, it is with the employees of the railroad system that the film attempts to make its most pointed criticism. The railroads in the film have recently been upgraded to the control of a computer system—a business venture that has cost the railroad company 4.5 million dollars, a fact that is brought to our attention more than once. The engineer/comptroller who has his head doused in a toilet is attributed the final blame and responsibility of an upgraded, computerized system that for all its supposed worth cannot be used to stop the runaway train. To the system’s credit though, it is what essentially saves other trains from collision with the runaway. The film is certainly entertaining, and Voight is over the top just enough that I found myself enjoying his presence by the final frame.
It’s the holiday season, and that for me means Die Hard. It’s just about the only film I consider for watching every holiday season. Truth is, I’m not a fan of It’s a Wonderful Life, or Home Alone, or A Christmas Story. Those kinds of films don’t reach me on any resonating level. They’re fine, just not for me. However, Die Hard is exactly for me: tightly woven, spectacle driven, and a perfect example of the economy of environment inside a thriller. Not to mention it has some of the finest scenes of action captured in the American film market. I like to wait to watch Die Hard though, it being practically the sole holiday film for me. It’s not exactly time yet, so in the theme of Bruce Willis action films I recently decided it was time for Die Hard 2: Die Harder.
Directed by the Finish filmmaker Renny Harlin, Die Hard 2 is a great example of a good but unnecessary sequel. Die Hard in my opinion is a perfect action film, and further adventures of John McClane are simply not needed. They are, however, entertaining. At least Die Hard 2 is. Set inside and around Dulles International Airport, we follow McClane on a new adventure as he’s arrived to pick up his wife who’s flying in from LA. The film begins in the middle of a situation with McClane parking illegally and his car being impounded, and it just goes from there. In much the same way Walter Hill approaches storytelling, Renny Harlin also cares little for overly excessive exposition. His films are usually stripped down to the necessity of the spectacle alone. What more do we need to know about McClane and the terrorists than McClane is a cop, and the terrorists are bad, wanting to rescue a captured comrade? When the two meet, action ensues.
Like John McTiernan with the first Die Hard, Harlin knows how to shoot action. The camera remains steady, never hand-held, and each sequence is more spectacular than the last. As movie critic Gene Siskel was quick to point out, Harlin goes further to prove his great sense of camera placement by giving us the unexpected and much welcomed shot of the camera hovering above an exploding plane, worm’s eye view looking down, as McClane ejects from the plane’s cockpit and comes roaring, explosion in close pursuit, towards the camera to get close enough that we see and feel his expression of the thrill and danger of the moment. To further add to the enjoyment of Die Hard 2 there’s a nice plot twist that involves a Special Forces unit. And then there’s the nice little cherry on top of the dessert that is the appearance of Italian action star Franco Nero.
Die Hard 2 simply whetted my appetite for some more Renny Harlin action, and the apex of his action oeuvre just might be The Long Kiss Goodnight. Starring Geena Davis, The Long Kiss Goodnight follows the story of an average American single mother, who we learn almost immediately suffers from severe amnesia and has no idea who she is beyond eight years prior. Having hired private investigators to help solve the mystery, none are successful, until Samuel L. Jackson stumbles on a clue, blowing open a secret that fuels the rest of the film.
On the surface, this may just seem like a typical action film, but there is much more going on in the story’s machinations than meets the eye. One of the first instances of this can be witnessed in an early scene in which Samuel L. Jackson is driving in a car with Geena Davis when he sees an attractive woman running along the side of the road and in an attempt to get a better look at her ass, he swerves the car off the road, almost hitting the woman in question. This moment is followed by an exchange between Davis and Jackson where she asks him just what exactly was the point of his behavior. Does he actually think the woman enjoys almost being run over, just so he can get a glimpse of her womanly features?
While The Long Kiss Goodnight is written and directed by men, it seeks to examine the otherwise subjugated woman’s role in the world of espionage, assignations, and gunplay. Writer Shane Black even attempts to go one step further by applying his usual film setup of buddy action comedy and making his buddies two minorities in the realm of blockbuster action films: a black man and a woman. Davis and Jackson make a great pair and provide a more interesting dynamic than Riggs and Murtaugh ever did. In fact, Davis herself makes for a much more compelling action hero than the modern day likes of Jason Statham or Sam Worthington. This film really deserves a deeper focus look at its attributes and perhaps will be the focus of an upcoming Action Junkie article.