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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Die Hard

Action films, they've become synonymous with mindless cinema which seeks nothing more than to deliver some explosions, with plot as an optional bonus. I have to say this actually really pisses me off, because action films can deliver themes just as well as any other genre, they simply have a different approach to it, with maybe a little too much focus on aesthetics. But I'm not going to pour through action films looking for deeper meanings, or something more than the entertainment that I actually go to the movies for, I'm just going to look at the various sub-genres of the thing, and what I like and dislike about them.

First and foremost I'm going to mention Die Hard, the best Christmas movie of all time. The reason I do this first is that it defined the genre from then on, with many films seeking to emulating and failing to capture what made the original so great. Even its sequels never lived up to the original, and that's because they missed the most fundamental thing about it. It's like seeing something that is popular, than trying to remake it with a different setting, it doesn't work if you don't understand why it's good, and how it was made, a copy and paste just results in a poor mans imitation. The key to the original Die Hard was scale, it was just one man against the world.

The world here of course is not the actual world, in fact it is pretty much just 12 terrorists, with a great leader in Alan Rickman. This is why it differed from other movies like much of what Seagal and Stallone put out. Even laughably good movies like Commando feature one guy mowing down a huge number of expendable goons, without names or personalities, they are merely there to die. Every person in Die Hard had a name, and a reason for dying. IT was a personal struggle on a scale that was entirely reasonable to the audience, I mean compared to the other heroes 12 guys was nothing, but it was a real struggle to the real person of John McClaine. Relatable is the key word here. We can't relate to superman, we can relate to Batman.

So what made Die Hard effective was the realism, not in the explosions or really the activities of the terrorists, but of the main character, of the scope, it meant every death meant something, one more of an increasingly difficult list. The other thing is that audiences love an underdog, with John outnumbered and outgunned, but with good old American determination he was able to take out an entire group of foreigners. There's a bit more to it than that, but the home team does so love to win, especially in a situation like that. This is one of the reasons that Live Free or Die Hard failed, ignoring the PG-13 version and watching the R cut, because it was on a scale that just wasn't relatable, I mean sure crashing a car into a helicopter is cool, but it just doesn't work on a human level, that's a superhuman.

There's a reason that the Spider-man is one of the most popular superheroes, because he has regular problems and so the audience empathizes with him. Empathy is extremely important in these kinds of situations. By most popular I mean highest grossing films, with his 3 in the top 4, only topped by the Dark Knight, which is somewhat different than the traditional superhero film. But back to the failings of Die hard 4, it was no longer a personal story, even though McClaine's daughter was on the line, we didn't care as much because it seemed more artificial. Explosions do not make a film, which is key to understanding the difference between good action films and bad. Die Hard had explosions, 4 was about the explosions, a very key difference. Not that you can't have the action as the reason the film is made, but there is a way to do that, and that is with the heroic bloodshed genre where the incredibly artistic violence is the focus and what gives the film its strength, for themes about loyalty and truth. But I'll get into that later.

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