Film Club / and Everything All Goes Exactly How You Want It To

Die HardDie Hard
Directed by John McTiernan

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

“Yippee-Ki-Yay, Motherfucker!”

It’s a great line. The rhythm of it. The sound. It’s almost sing-song nature. Quotable. Useful in most all social situations. And also it works as a pretty good summation of the appeal of Die Hard itself. The first “Yippie-Ki-Yay” is like an old classical black and white cowboy thing right? Like it says in the movie – it’s like a Roy Rogers type thing. You know: one good man in a white hat standing up against the bad guys, cleaning up a dirty town and making the world safe for the poor and the down-trodden. And the “motherfucker” is the updating it for the cruel and crazy world of 1988 and putting the cowboy in a skyscraper, taking off his hat and shoes and leaving him with nothing but a string vest and having him fight German terrorists who are actually (spoiler) only in it for the money: morals be damned.

Is Die Hard the perfect Christmas movie? I mean I guess how you compare it to the other contenders – and if not Die Hard then what? Home Alone? The Wizard of Oz? Bad Santa? Elf? But then it all depends on: what do you want from Christmas / what do you want from a Christmas movie? There’s a kinda unclosed loop at the heart of most Christmas movies in that pretty much all of them are about people discovering the true meaning of Christmas which means that there’s always a gap, a destination that you can never quite reach, a definition that always contains the word it’s trying to define…

But hey: family, self-sacrifice, the domination of the patriarch: this is what the festive season is all about no?


Also: seriously tho – after years and years and years of everyone telling me that Elf was the perfect Christmas movie – I finally watched it last year in the ideal circumstances surrounding by a bunch of kids and have to admit that I was pretty horrified by how fucking awful it was. I mean the first 15 minutes or so was ok when they’re still at the North Pole and it’s super-cute and stuff – but by the end the whole thing kinda disintegrates into this crass and garish mess that’s feels as festive as a mass-produced plastic turd – but hey: maybe that’s just me?

But back to Die Hard – the thing I love most about this movie (and come on: who doesn’t like Die Hard?) is the next-level ninja style indirect exposition. I mean – the first few minutes is a masterclass in getting all the basics down in a way that all just feels completely natural and unforced: he’s a cop, he don’t like flying / heights, he’s down to earth, him and his wife are having issues…

McClane types, "McClane, Holly".  Pause.  The screen replies,

It’s all there. If you watch out for it you can feel the movie setting up the chess pieces for all the moves it’s going to make later on – but otherwise yeah: I mean – the first few times I watched it that kinda stuff would have just passed me right by (and I mean that in a good way! Movies are kinda at their best when you don’t really realise what they’re doing I think…)

Also well yeah: I’m an absolute sucker for movies that start off with a simple premise in a fixed location (terrorists in a skyscraper) and then do just about everything they can to twist and squeeze every single last idea, position and permutation out of it (see also: Cube, Train to Busan, Dawn of the Dead, The Shining, Evil Dead 2, The Andromeda Strain, The Thing – in fact yeah a lot of my favourite movies lol).

But hey: what about you? What’s your favourite thing about this movie? And which Die Hard sequel is your favourite? (and would you think me strange if I admitted that I’m actually quite a big fan of Die Hard 4?)

Barbican Comic Forum

There has been some skepticism of the planned prequel to Die Hard, understandable, but also misplaced. Yes it will *probably* be a rubbish by numbers “he’s a tells it like it is cop that plays by his own rules” and is obviously ignoring the fact that Die Hard doesn’t need a prequel (does anything?). But how did John McClane’s marriage hit the rocks? How did someone so capable lose his way? You could imagine him graduating as a detective, cracking some difficult cases before being assigned to a series of elaborate heists which not only baffle the police but often leaving them looking clumsy and incompetent. As McClane, obsessed over connections between these uniquely well executed crimes – connections only he can see – his friends and family watch his career go in to tailspin until, clutching at shadows, he loses confidence in himself. Unlike McClane the audience sees snippets of the preparation by Gruber and his gang for one major heist involving a skyscraper, a fake terrorist attack involving the FBI and an uncrackable safe. Finally after chasing a lead (which he finds by driving a motorcycle off a moving truck into the main window of Bloomingdales or something) all he finds is a grainy CCTV picture of a nearly identifiable Hans Gruber. Defeated, McClane decide to drop the case and gets on a plane to rescue his marriage. It would be a terrible action movie but it might bring a new tension to Die Hard when Gruber and McClane meet into something like the scene in Heat where Hannah and McCauley confront each other.


Boring observation 1: Bruce Willis can act, I don’t know why everyone finds this so surprising. When I got in to films Bruce Willis was already that action guy, alongside Stallone and Arnie. It was therefore noted repeatedly, as if he was a dog that could talk, when he turned in great performances in 12 Monkeys, Pulp Fiction, Unbreakable etc that he wasn’t some sort of meat robot gurning into the camera while dispatching people of Middle Eastern origin. Indeed John McClane is kind of Bruce Willis doing an Arnie impression, wise cracking and unflinchingly violent, but not being so invincible that he can’t sell his role as low status detective surviving on his street smarts. Indeed the little touches like his bare feet serve to highlight is vulnerability which makes the movie feel less like a side-scrolling beat em up. He’s right there when Takagi is executed and he simply can’t do anything about it. It’s hard to imagine Arnie or Sylvester Stallone cowering helplessly during such as scene. The vulnerability and tiredness that he manages to convey while leaping around smirking is a hallmark of how good the script is, and why you can imagine an actually passable prequel, and this is the thing often missing from many of its predecessors and copycats.

Boring observation 2: I saw recently Tom Hiddleston had written to Joss Whedon thanking him for giving him the role of Loki which he described as his Hans Gruber. Whatever you think about that comparison, the majestic performance from Alan Rickman is just remarkable and is the real legacy of the movie. Sure Gruber is cold and calculating but he also wise cracks, he improvises, his sustained reaction expressions are better than whole pages of dialogue. It’s rare when you watch an action film and would much rather be the villain than the hero, but his first 10 minutes on screen he is the coolest character in the whole movie by some distance.


So we have a tough cop (who gets results you stupid chief!), calculating bad guy, a helpless female character, and some racial stereotyping, is Die Hard just a well written Arnold Schwarzenegger/Dirty Harry movie or was it the foundation text for modern action movies? Certainly Alan Rickman and Bruce Willis worked very hard between them to keep these character tropes on screen. Alan Rickman even plays Hans Gruber in Sense and Sensibility.

Weird end note: The actress who plays Holly Gennero/McClane is MacCaulay Culkin’s aunt, and clearly McCallister and McClane would be an amazing team up for the Die Hard prequel. Or maybe Home Alone is just the prequel to Die Hard we didn’t realise we had.


[Grits teeth] Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen…

I was listening to an interview about poppy fascism the other week with former soldier Joe Glenton. He talked about how soldiers were obviously trained to hate the enemy and were also encouraged to hate other branches of the military and even other units, but the people they despised the most were civilians. The outcome of fostering this Them and Us attitude was fierce comradery deemed essential for the effective team work and discipline required when invading countries in the Middle East.

Hans Gruber might be a cold, calculating, exceptional thief but he is not above some banter with his crew. His dialogue, with Theo in particular, shows a sort of collegiate respect you would like to see in a well managed team. When Gruber’s listing off terrorist groups he wants freed and Karl mouths “Asian Dawn” and Gruber just quips “I read about them in Time Magazine.” Its a beautiful moment between 2 colleagues sharing an in-joke.


This feels like a rare feet in action movies where either you get generic (and often racist) terrorists in, for example, True Lies or criminals so sympathetic that half the film is about them, such as Heat. But it’s OK for bad guys to to be bad AND people. The improvised scene where, preparing to gun down the SWAT team Al Leong eats a candy bar apparently prevented his character getting killed off early, but it’s such a nice little humanising moment because you totally would chomp all the sweets if you were taking cover behind a confectionary counter, wouldn’t you? The film also uses the same trick to make you somehow be for John Mcclane but against the SWAT team who are theoretically trying to save him by valorising loyalty over authority.

There’s some similar bits in Iron Man 3, not just with Ben Kingsley’s character but also the henchman who says “Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird.” It feels like yet another boring opinion but putting humans with normal motivations in your movies rather than video game NPCs is good.


Speaking of video games I heard a comparison by someone between the Nakatomi Plaza and the Overlook Hotel and while it certainly rightfully takes its place in the pantheon of movie locations it’s just not comparable. To give the filmmakers their due, they put a lot of effort into the vertical axis and indeed they tick off all the fears – flying, vertigo, clostraphobia and being shot at by a band of mercenaries, to highlight John McClane’s vulnerability and the fact the building is really really tall. But it does feel like just a succession of obstacles suggesting that the real inspiration for Die Hard was possibly 80s arcade classic Donkey Kong.


The building lacks character. Maybe it helped skyscrapers become passé as a film location but I feel Ghostbusters did it better five years previously, with the gothic ridiculousness of 55 Central Park West combined with the excellent staircase sequence. And so it seems a little breathless to invoke the Overlook which is so alive you can almost hear it scuttling about in the background while simultaneously looming over the characters with a very real sense that itsv foundations go all the way down to hell. Nakatomi plaza is non-descript and kind of too small somehow. Who sets their climax in an underground car park? No wonder the franchise ditched the location as soon as possible.

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

I’m currently reading Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman which – OMG you guys! – I would heartedly recommend by a factor of a lot. If your favourite bits of the book of The Princess Bride is the stuff in italics Adventures in the Screen Trade is basically italics from beginning to end and you know: talking about films and the business and art of making films in a way that means that I’m eating the whole thing up like it’s candy.

Speaking of… there’s this bit that comes in when Goldman starts talking about “comic book movies” which made me sit up with a start. I mean – Adventures was written in 1983 well before the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so hey – what the hell was he talking about? (Also well seeing how what you’re reading right now is on the London Graphic Novel Network – you might just guess that I’m already quite interested in comic books and movies and how the two interrelate)

have a few laughs

Anyway here’s the thing about Goldman’s idea about what a “comic book movie” is. He doesn’t use it as a pejorative so much (he says some of his favourite movies are comic book movies – (has anyone else heard of “Gunga Din“? Apparently it’s William Goldman’s favourite movie…I’ve never even heard of it before)… He admits that it’s kinda hard to define and it’s a bit of a “I know it when I see it kinda thing” but he does list 4 of the factors to look out for:

(l) Generally, only bad guys die. And if a good guy does kick, he does it heroically.

(2) There tends to be a lack of resonance: Like the popcorn you’re munching, it’s not meant to last.

(3) The movie turns in on itself: Its reference points tend to be other movies. If, for example, there had been no Saturday afternoon serials, there would have been no frame for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

(4) And probably most important: The comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we would prefer it to be. Safer that way.

Interesting huh? I mean obviously going by this rhetoric Die Hard is pretty squarely in the middle of the “comic book movies” Venn Diagram or whatever but also – HA! – so are pretty much all of the movies that I love. Which you know – got me to thinking in the way that movies have changed over the years particularly from 1983 (which coincidentally was the year I was born).

Adventures of the Screen Trade opens up by talking about Heaven’s Gate which had just opened and just bombed in the most spectacular way possible and even tho Goldman doesn’t quite realise it – it’s pretty much the end of a era and pretty much the end of a certain type of movie (coincidentally – the one that he’s had most success writing). In fact reading Adventures at times feels like reading about an Aztec talking about how to build better temples while at the same time suggesting that you ignore those boats with the big red crosses on the sails…


Uh oh.

Goldman complains about Jaws and Star Wars and E.T. and how the big films of 1982 have been Blade Runner and Wrath of Khan and Poltergeist and The Thing and really those kinda comic book movies aren’t really what cinema is about… Because you know: cinema is about characters and getting to know someone and relate and all the rest of it: it’s not just pure sensation and bombast.

But the fall of the kinda old idea of what cinema is supposed to be is already there in the rest of the book. The seeds that will eventually bring about it’s downfall – most particularly when Goldman describes a film he wrote called: The Great Waldo Pepper.

The Great Waldo whatnow? I hear you say. Me too. I never heard of it. But apparently it was supposed to be a big thing – starring Robert Redford at the peak of his popularity. Directed by George Hill who did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting (both of which you reaaaaaally need to see if you somehow haven’t already) and yeah written by William Goldman who you know – is no big slouch himself (and knows a thing or two about writing movies).


But here’s the thing about The Great Waldo Pepper (SPOILERS for a film you haven’t heard of and will probably never see): in fact what the hell – I’ll let Goldman explain what happened:

(What you need to know: the film is set between 1926–1931 and Robert Redford is Waldo Pepper a guy who makes his living flying planes for entertainment…)

The plot set up was this: Susan Sarandon played the girl friend of Redford’s buddy. She begins the movie as this kind of wide-eyed innocent and, before our eyes, becomes obsessed with being the ” It ‘ Girl of the Skies.” A star.

The stunt the pilots agreed to try to draw a crowd was to have a plane fly right down the main street of a small town with Sarandon standing on the edge of one wing. Then, with the whole town watching, her clothes are rigged to come off. She’s supposed to stand there frozen and helpless (the barnstormers did this kind of thing, by the way) and then the plane is to come back to the field outside town and land and all the locals will come running and take rides and spend money and a happy time will be had by all.

Only Sarandon freezes in fear on the wing end, and the plane can’t land, because her weight makes the machine lopsided, and if it comes down like that, it will crash. Redford is not flying the plane, he’s waiting back at the field, but when the plane comes close he realizes what’s happened and he jumps into another plane, gets someone to fly him up close to Sarandon’s plane.

The two machines maneuver in the sky. Redford gets ready to switch from his plane to Sarandon’s, grabbing hold on the opposite side of the wing from her, because if he comes up next to her, his added weight may cause her plane to go out of control and crash. Dead silence from the audience. The two planes come close, Redford’s about to make the plane-to-plane transfer, but the planes are parted by the wind. Again they maneuver together. Again the winds part them. Tension, as they say, is mounting. (The actual stunt, by the way, was done by a sixty-eight-year-old man who got it on the first take.)

waldo 1

But the audience doesn’t know it’s a sixty-eight-year-old man. All they know is this: Susan Sarandon is clutching the wing of one plane, and Bob Waldo Pepper Redford is going to risk his life to save her. And he makes the switch! Thousands of feet up, a figure grapples his way from one plane to another. Everyone’s stopped with their popcorn now, staring at the screen. I was staring, too, probably just as caught as they were. The transfer is a really chilling moment because it’s shot from above and you can see the ground far below. No cuts to faces, no way to fake it. They ‘re up there.

Now the stunt really begins to get hairy. Redford makes his way slowly to the center of the plane, shouts to the pilot. Put the plane in a shallow dive to give it added balance-he’s going to make the move out to where Sarandon, speechless, stares blankly out. The plane begins a shallow dive. Redford, inch by dangerous inch, starts toward Sarandon, only now he’s talking to her, telling her it’s okay, everything’s going to be fine, he’s coming. No response from Sarandon. No sound but the sound of the motor and the wind. Redford is twelve feet away from her now now ten. Talking soothingly, telling her that all she has to do is take his hand, grab hold tight, just take his hand, take his hand. Eight feet away from her now. Now six. He reaches out his strong arm, still talking to her, still telling her it’s okay, everything’s going to be fine. Sarandon blinks a couple of limes. He’s getting through to her. The fear, which had her so totally, is beginning to break. On Redford comes, talking, arm out. Closer and closer. Take my hand. Just. take my hand. Five feet. Take my hand. It’s all right. We’ll laugh about this later. Four feet. Almost there. Still he talks, his strong voice soothing. Take my hand now. Please, that’s all you have to do. Take my hand. Take my hand. Now we’re on Sarandon. His meaning registers. The fear retreats even more. Now we’re on Redford-so close he can almost grab her, talking to her every moment. Now we’re on Sarandon again and at long last she reaches for him-and now we’re on Redford, stunned, alone on the wing.

She’s fallen.

We hold on Redford’s face a moment, distraught, stricken; he’s come so far, risked his life, tried so hard. But she’s gone.

So was the audience.

At first there was just this buzz. You could see people turning to each other, asking questions. Where’s the girl? What happened? Then the buzzing stopped-they realized where the girl was. Dead. And after the buzzing ended, there was silence in the theatre. But not the silence of a group held in suspense. No. They were furious. They felt tricked, they felt betrayed, and they hated us.


The most violent sneak reaction of recent years probably belongs to Rolling Thunder, where the audience actually got up and tried physically to abuse the studio personnel present among them. These people in Boston were much too civilized for open war- fare. They just sat, sullen. For the first hour of the movie, they were in love with us, and in that instant when the girl went off the wing, the affair ended. We’d tried to prepare them. We’d begun with death. We’d had people getting injured early on. We talked about pilots dying, we showed crashes. We knew it was a demanding moment and, academically speaking, we’d prepared for it properly.

They didn’t want to know about “academically speaking.” Waldo Pepper had let a girl die. Only he wasn’t Waldo, he was the golden boy of the middle seventies, he was the hero of his time. Errol Flynn didn’t let girls die from the wings of airplanes and neither, goddammit, did Robert Redford.

waldo 2

I truly believe that if Jack Nicholson had been in the part, he wouldn’t have been as good as Redford, but the movie would have worked for audiences. Because there is, inherent in Nicholson’s persona, something dark. They would have expected trouble with Nicholson. Or Facino. Or De Niro. Or the Redford of today. We know he’s not just a golden boy anymore. We saw his serious side in All the President’s Men, we know it from his Oscar-winning directing work in Ordinary People. But the Redford of 1975-alas no. Waldo was and is, for me, a quality adventure film. And usually a movie like that, especially one with a major star, finds a major audience. But the Bostonians who angrily left the theatre were typical of audiences all across the country when the picture was shortly released. We had given them something they didn’t want. No matter that we did what we could to forewarn them-we could not shake their expectations. There is an Eisenstein dictum that says: “You must go where the film leads you.” For a movie to work for amass audience, they must be willing to let you lead them toward your destination. They wouldn’t follow us with Waldo. No matter how we tried.

So erm yeah? The lesson Goldman makes it that Redford is miscast – but I’m not sure I agree. In fact – I think it’s number 1 on his Comic Book Movies factors:

(l) Generally, only bad guys die. And if a good guy does kick, he does it heroically.

I mean: people don’t like to see their heroes die and they don’t like to see anyone close to their heroes die either. In fact – the only people who are allowed (who must) die and if anyone else kicks the bucket well… it’s kinda a big deal (as I kinda went into at length in this thing here: I know I know). And yeah I can’t think of any recent movie I’ve seen which kills off a main character halfway through the film. I mean: at least with the ending it kinda helps it feel like an ending – but halfway thru? I mean – that’s only the kinda fate you’d diss out to a character that was already pretty odious… Someone that you kinda secretly want to die.


(Sorry Harry).

But actually – I think all of that is kinda by-the-by because the really important factor on the list of what makes something a Comic Book Movie isn’t the first thing on the list – but the last one…

(4) And probably most important: The comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we would prefer it to be. Safer that way.

Because erm yeah – isn’t that kinda all movies at this point? And isn’t the part of the era that Goldman is on the trail end of the kinda mindset that films that movies should be stories that are properly set up and fleshed out in an interesting and stimulating way and all that blah blah blah and what he doesn’t realise is that he’s on the cusp of an era which instead treat movies as idealized versions of life: where everything is exciting and thrilling and everything all goes exactly how you want it to – wish fulfillment basically. And well yeah – there’s no better example of this type of new cinema Comic Book Movie cinema then well… Die Hard. Comic Book Movie Exemplar.

I mean: in terms of the wish fulfillment stuff – one of the things I noticed watching it this time is how for the first 20 minutes or so (until Hans and his boys show up) it’s basically a whole different kinda movie. Sadsack New York cop with a a six-month backlog on New York scumbags he’s still trying to put behind bars trying to make up with his more successful wife who’s obviously moved up in the world. He’s a relic and she’s now out of his league and when you first watch it you could also be forgiven for thinking that the whole movie is gonna be the slow disintegration of what’s left of his marriage like some kinda French arthouse farce or something… She’s making business deals and he’s struggling to keep up and understand until of course – bad guys shows up and John proves his masculinity by shooting them all with guns (cough cough). And yeah yeah Arnie and Stallone are normally the ones that do this type but with Bruce the wish fulfillment is so much stronger and powerful because at the start: he looks and acts just like us! And it’s only through the power of bullets, blood and broken glass that he becomes… well: an action hero or wait even better – a movie star.


And that’s what the movies are all about – right?

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