Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why Die Hard is a Classic

Today I sometimes think we take the movie Die Hard for granted. After all, the film has aired countless times on television, produced three sequels, and inspired an inordinately large number of imitators. It is true that it holds a 94% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an equally impressive rating of 8.3 stars out of 10 possible at IMDB (which places it at #123 on that web site's Top 250). The movie also came in at #39 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Thrills list. Ultimately, however, I think the average viewer has forgotten or (for those not born yet or not old enough to remember when the film came out) are simply unaware of the impact the movie had when it first came out.

The simple fact is that Die Hard, released in 1988, was a huge departure from the action films of the Eighties which preceded it. The film is a wholly different animal from Rambo: First Blood Part II or the many Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the era. What is more, it introduced a whole new plot element to action films, creating its own little subgenre which thrived in the Nineties. Not since Seven Samurai had a film had such an impact on the action genre.

The vast majority of the impact of Die Hard rests on the fact that it is, quite simply, a very well crafted movie. Particularly for an action movie made in the Eighties, Die Hard has very few plot points that appear contrived or forced. In fact, for the most part the various plot developments are spurred by characters. Rather than being a plot driven film, as some action movies are, Die Hard is largely a character driven movie.

Indeed, the characters in Die Hard may well be the movie's greatest strength. The villain Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) is not a simple cardboard cut out, but a three dimensional character with motives wholly his own. Holly Gennero McClane (played by Bonnie Bedelia) is a strong, independent, and intelligent woman, a sharp break from the way many women were portrayed in action movies of the era. Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is an ordinary cop who finds himself in an extraordinary situation, and comes to respect and admire the the hero.

As to the hero himself, John McClane (played by Bruce Willis), he was a total break from the heroes of the Rambo movies and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the era. John McClane is not some one dimensional character with superhuman abilities who comes out of every scrape untouched. Instead, McClane is a sympathetic character, in some respects an average man who simply finds himself in the wrong place at the right time. Not only is McClane going through a rough patch in his marriage, but as the movie progresses he finds himself beaten, tired, and even bleeding. What sets McClane apart from the average man is his enormous resourcefulness and his sheer determination to survive and save lives. When Hans Gruber claims McClane is "Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon," McClane simply replies, "Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually." McClane's exchange is more telling than the simple smart alec remark it appears to be. Unlike many Western heroes, Roy Rogers' characters avoided taking lives unless entirely necessary and always strived to help others in need. And while McClane does rack up quite a body count through the movie, it is notable that he generally reacts only in defence of himself or others.

While Die Hard has well rounded characters, it also benefits from some great action sequences. In fleeing from Gruber's terrorists, McClane must go through fan blades, run along a catwalk, go down a ladder, and work his way down an air vent into a boardroom. Another impressive action scene is McClane's battle with Gruber's ubermensch Karl (Alexander Godunov), in which McClane must use his resourcefulness to defeat a stronger opponent more skilled in fighting. Towards the climax, McClane must make a daring escape from the rooftop, which Gruber has rigged to explode with C4. The direction and editing in these sequences is superb, making them some of the most riveting action sequences to appear on film.

Not only was Die Hard a well made film, its originality went beyond having a hero who was merely human, albeit one who was resourceful, determined, and persistent. Based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, the plot of Die Hard centred around terrorists seizing control of an entire skyscraper. The success of Die Hard resulted in its plot being recycled again and again in the film's imitators. In fact, in the Nineties many of the films were described as "Die Hard on a....," such as "Die Hard on a ship (Under Siege)," "Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57)," "Die Hard in a sports arena (Sudden Death)," and "Die Hard on a bus (Speed)." Not since The Seven Samurai (which has inspired films ranging from The Dirty Dozen to A Bug's Life) had an action film more or less created its own subgenre.

Die Hard was released on July 15, 1988 to almost entirely positive reviews (Roger Ebert was among the few dissenters). It did relatively well at the American box office, grossing $83,008,852 (roughly the equivalent of $152,430,577 today). This is a very respectable amount for a movie released in mid-July when the summer movie season is slowing down (The Dark Knight was a huge exception to this rule). Ultimately, however, the impact of Die Hard cannot be measured in the reviews it received or even in dollars and cents. Consider, the top grossing film of 1988 was Rain Man. And while the film is well remembered, it did not produce a slough of imitators, nor did it produce its very own subgenre. In the long run, then, Die Hard has a greater pop culture cache than Rain Man.

Today we tend to take Die Hard for granted. The fact remains, however, that not only did it receive largely positive reviews upon its release (an accomplishment only a few action films can boast), but it changed the action movie genre for years to come. It introduced a hero who could tire, be seriously injured, and did not have a never ending stream of bullets. It also introduced a plot line that would form the basis of what can be called the "Die Hard subgenre" of action films. While it is hardly the masterpiece that The Seven Samurai is, in many respects it revolutionised the action genre in the same way that The Seven Samurai had over thirty years earlier.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Christopher Lee is Now Sir Christopher Lee

In Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday honours today, Christopher Lee, best known for his roles as Dracula in the classic Hammer films and as Lord Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, was named a Knight of the British Empire. Sir Christopher Lee is 87 years old.

The honour was a long time coming for Christopher Lee, whose career spans over sixty years. Lee made his film debut in the movie Corridor of Mirrors in 1948. He appeared in small roles in various action movies for the next decade, showing up as a Spanish captain in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., Georges Seurat in Moulin Rouge (1952), and a French Patrol Captain in The Dark Avenger. It was in 1957 that he appeared in his first Hammer film, starring as the Creature in Curse of Frankenstein. It would be his next Hammer film, however, which would turn him into a star. In 1958 he starred as Dracula in the Hammer movie of the same name. He would play Dracula for Hammer films several more times, in addition to playing the title role in their version of The Mummy, Dr. Pierre Gerard in The Man Who Could Cheat Death, and Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out.

Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies he continued to appear in movies made by other studios than Hammer Films, including The Hands of Orlac, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, The Creeping Flesh, and, what may be his most famous movie besides Dracula, The Three Musketeers, The Wicker Man. He starred as Fu Manchu in a series of films produced by Harry Alan Towers made in the Sixties. The Seventies found Lee also playing the villain Francisco Scaramanga in James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. From the late Seventies in the Nineties, Lee appeared in such films as Circle of Iron, 1941, The Salamander, The Return of the Musketeers, and Sleepy Hollow. He appeared as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones and as Sauron in The Lord of the Rings films. He set to reunite with Hammer Films in their movie The Resident, slated for release next year.

Not only do I think Christopher Lee fully deserves knighthood, but, quite frankly, I think he should have been dubbed "Sir Christopher Lee" long ago. The man went beyond acting legend long ago to become an icon of the horror and fantasy film genres. While Bela Lugosi may have been the first to play the role in a talking picture, it was Christopher Lee who is the quintessential Dracula for many. Lee's Dracula was not only frightening, but for the first time in film history sexually provocative as well. Lee went beyond playing Dracula to play other great roles as well, not the least of which was Lord Summersisle in The Wicker Man. Indeed, Guinness World Records names Christopher Lee as the actor with the most screen appearances to his name, over 300. Not only is it doubtful than any actor will ever match Lee's Dracula on screen, but it is doubtful that any actor will match his career. At 87 years old, he is still acting and going strong.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Great Dave Simons Has Gone on to His Reward

Comic book and animation artist Dave Simons passed on Tuesday, June 9 after a long battle with cancer. He was 54 years old.

David Lloyd Simons was born on December 10, 1954 in New York City. He wanted to be a comic book artist from when he was eight years old. Throughout school his art teachers encouraged him. Following high school Simons joined the Coast Guard. It was while he was in the Coast Guard that he began attending art classes conducted by the legendary John Buscema. It was at a convention in 1979 that Simons showed his work to Rick Marschall, then editor at Marvel Comics. His first work was inking a story featuring The Falcon, pencilled by Sal Buscema and written by Mark Evanier.

At Marvel much of his time was spent inking the work of such artists as John Buscema, Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., and Marc Silvestri. His inking appeared in such titles as Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Star Wars, and Thor. Simons also did a good deal of his own pencilling, working on such titles as Spectacular Spider-Man, Bizarre Adventures, King Conan, and What If. He also did cover art for such magazines as Ghost Rider, Power Man & Iron Fist, Machine Man, and Moon Knight. His best known work at this time was perhaps that he did on Ghost Rider, working with artist Bob Budiansky.

In the Nineties Simons moved to DC, where he worked on such titles as Deathstroke The Terminator and the D&D spinoff comic series Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.

Simons not only worked in comic books, but in animation as well. He first worked on the TV show Gem from 1985 to 1987. He would go onto work on such series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures, Conan the Adventurer, and Courage the Cowardly Dog. In fact, he not only did the art for the series Courage the Cowardly Dog, but on its comic book spin off as well.

Dave Simons was one of the most talented artists of his generation. What always caught me about his work was his attention to detail, whether he was inking or pencilling. Indeed, when he left Ghost Rider there was a noticeable difference. Simons was more than a great artist, however, he was also a great human being. He was well liked by those in the comic book industry and always had time for his fans. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, he continued to communicate with his fans. He will certainly be missed.