Thursday, July 31, 2008

Brilliantly absurd action scenes: An ongoing series

Bruce Willis improvises in Live Free or Die Hard

In most action movies, the hero seems as if he's born and bred to wreak havoc. He's highly trained. He's well-armed. In fact, you get the impression he's spent most of his life waiting for international arms dealers to kill his family already, so he could have an excuse to break out the machetes and the machine guns.

Not so with John McClane, the protagonist of the Die Hard films.

As played by Bruce Willis, McClane is a rugged-but-harried everyman, a New York City cop who just happens to cross paths repeatedly with highly-armed thieves, suave kidnappers and Internet-savvy terrorists. Sure, he can shoot off some kneecaps if he has to, but he's more worried about finding a parking spot at the airport or saving his frosty marriage. Where other action heroes revel in violence, McClane seems disgusted and panicked by it; you get the impression that no matter what he's doing, he'd rather be home watching the Jets game with a dog curled up at his feet.

One thing I enjoy about the character is that McClane's feats are usually realistic, at least in action-movie world. Sure, in the first film McClane escapes an explosion by dropping down the side of a skyscraper on a fire hose, but that's the exception that proves the rule, and McClane seems properly freaked out by the absurdity of it to buy some credibility from the audience. More telling is the confrontation with the main villain, in which McClane, who knows he will probably have to surrender the machine gun he has been toting, simply tapes a pistol between his shoulder blades. Remarkably for an action film, it's a trick that you could imagine a world-weary cop actually thinking of, and it doesn't involve him suddenly karate-chopping his way through dozens of henchman or jumping from a helicopter onto a moving train while riding a moped.

Which brings us to Live Free or Die Hard.

Live Free or Die Hard was charming and fun enough to win me over, but it was not a typical Die Hard movie.

First of all, the villain was basically a sinister hacker. I mean, yeah, he's played by relatively acne-free Timothy Olyphant, and he's not wearing thick glasses, but you can't fool me, Hollywood --he's a computer geek.

Second of all, the stunts are pretty ridiculous. They look fantastic and they're a lot of fun, but they're ridiculous. In the course of the movie, Bruce Willis survives being in an apartment that has 126,000 bullets shot into it; jumps a car into a helicopter; and jumps from an elevated road onto the tail of a fighter jet as it's in flight.

I half-expected the cockpit of the jet to open to reveal that it's being piloted by a super-intelligent great white shark, which McClane would then have to engage in hand-to-flipper combat.

However, the film redeemed the absurdity of its stunts in the final scene - spoiler alert, y'all -in which McClane finds his blue-collar mojo.

In it, Olyphant's poindexter-turned-terrorist is holding McClane at gunpoint. Olyphant has restrained McClane from behind, and has curled his gun hand around McClane's body, pressing the gun barrel into his shoulder.

So here's the simple, creative solution McClane comes up with: He gets ahold of the trigger and pulls it, shooting through his own shoulder and into Olyphant's chest.

Simple. Direct. McClane.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Brilliantly absurd action scenes: An ongoing series

Jason Statham takes care of a little bomb problem in The Transporter 2

One of the most exciting developments in action movies has been the rise of the cheerfully ridiculous Transporter series, which stars Jason Statham as a tight-lipped loner who transports dangerous cargo. He's kind of like a bicycle messenger, only he doesn't blog or talk your ear off about how great Vampire Weekend is.

Statham's character is always improvising his weapons. He uses fire hoses to trip bad guys; he uses gourds as improvised brass knuckles. If you attack him with a paper clip, he will break it in half, then use the pointy ends to gouge out your eyes.

While The Transporter is a great improviser, he is an even better driver. In one scene early in The Transporter 2, he jumps a car from one high-rise to another. Oh ... what's that you say? That doesn't sound impressive? Maybe that's because I didn't mention that he jumps it to a floor in the middle of the building. That's right, he doesn't jump it from roof to roof, because that's what a total wuss would do. If you were running from the cops and jumped the car from one high-rise roof to another, The Transporter would flame you later on transporting-related message boards.

But I digress.

There's a scene early in the film -- but after the roof-to-floor scene -- where The Transporter discovers there is a bomb attached to the bottom of his car. (He sees its LED numbers reflected in a puddle under the car.)

So here's what The Transporter does: He sees a crane with a hook on it. He races the car toward it, jumps it, then somehow gets the car to rotate so its wheels are facing the sky, allowing the hook to snag off the bomb in mid-air.

Oh yeah: Then he lands the cars on its wheels and drives off as the bomb explodes behind him, still on the crane's hook.

(I will take a break here to allow you to crap your pants over how awesome that is.)

To be honest, it was difficult to chose the most absurd scene from The Transporter series. But flipping a car in a way that will allow a hook to snag a bomb off it -- not only is that spectacular, but it will give you a leg up in the highly competitive field of transporting. And that's gotta be worth something.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Joker

The Dark Knight is on track to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time.


It's a dark, thoughtful and gritty crime story with moments of tremendous power. It's directed by the no-longer-underrated Christopher Nolan. It's got a sparkling cast, from Christian Bale's chilly superhero to Gary Oldman's wise Jim Gordon to Maggie Gyllenhaal's saucy, smart Rachel Dawes.

But the white-hot center of the film is The Joker, played by Heath Ledger.

The Joker has taken on many forms through the years, from Jack Nicholson's more-funny-than-scary take in Tim Burton's Batman to the complex monster of The Killing Joke.

But Ledger's brilliantly imagined Joker doesn't just belong among the greatest versions of the character. He doesn't just belong among the greatest screen villains. He deserves a spot among the great villains from literature and legend, those who terrified us before film was even invented.

The Joker's appearance is frightening, with his smeared clown makeup, scarred mouth and tallow-yellow teeth. And Ledger amplifies that appearance with a gallery of off-putting tics and eccentricities. Listen to how he lovingly draws out the word "commissioner" in the chilling jailhouse scene, or watch how he smooths his green hair back with one thumb when approaching the beautiful Gyllenhaal.

Underneath the considerable showmanship, however, is something even more remarkable: the filmmakers realize that what makes The Joker truly frightening is not his appearance, but his skill at creating chaos, and using that chaos as a tool to measure men with. The Joker constantly putting others up against gruesome tests, and is gleeful when they fail.

In one scene, The Joker gives Batman a choice between saving two characters who mean much to him; in another, he gives two groups of people the opportunity to destroy the other in order to save themselves. The message is clear. With the right nudge, The Joker is saying, anyone is capable of becoming a murderer, or insane -- just like him.

As he says late in the film: "Insanity is like gravity. Sometimes all it takes is a little push."

In that sense, The Joker truly is an heir to some of the greatest villains. Judge Holden of Blood Meridian, who leads a group of men from massacre to massacre in the American West, believes that all men eventually must bow to the spirit of war: "War is god," he states plainly, a sentiment The Joker likely would agree with. Iago, in his glee to topple the great general Othello, does so horribly; The Joker, in his toppling of the seemingly incorruptible Harvey Dent, could have been his pupil.

It is telling, and brilliant, that director Christopher Nolan chose not to give The Joker an origin story. In fact, the film itself points out that The Joker drops fully formed into the story. "Nothing his pocket but knives and lint," a character points out after The Joker is captured. With that decision, The Joker seems less like a man corrupted by some past trauma and more like a malignancy set loose upon the world. A roving symptom causing fear and doubt wherever he goes.

A great villain for our time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Profound Nature of Buffy

A friend of mine recently turned me onto "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which I had been avoiding for several years because it sounded silly. A teenage girl who fights vampires? C'mon.

(On a related note, one of my favorite movies is Bride of Chucky.)

Anyway, a friend of mine who has a sterling track record with recommending TV shows finally got me to watch it. And it's pretty damn good. Sure, the production values in the first season are a little lackluster. (The high school Buffy goes to appears to have about 17 students.) And some of the actors take a while to grow into their roles. But the acting is good, the writing is sharp and the series is able to summon both genuine warmth and dread at the appropriate times.

The thing that struck me most about the series, however, was how perfect a vehicle it was for articulating the difficulty of being a teenager.

Like all teenagers, Buffy feels the alienation of being an outsider. But where Buffy, as a series, races ahead of the pack is how specific it is about the nature of that alienation.

Buffy isn't an outsider because she hails from another town, or because she wears the wrong clothes, or because she carries sharpened wooden stakes in her bag. (Although these things don't help.) She's an outsider because, like all teenagers, she is burdened by knowledge she feels she can't share with anyone else.

That's perfect.

The thing that's often frightening about being a teenager is how specific an experience each teenager believes it is. When they face problems -- a complex social life, a confusing love life, the pressure of performing in school for stakes they are told are high -- it's possible for a teenager to feel as if he or she is the only one who has ever faced them.

It makes those problems difficult to beat down; more importantly, it makes them almost impossible to talk about. How can you talk about something that nobody else can relate to?

Where Buffy as a series is brilliant is that it dramatizes these feelings. While most teenagers can talk about their problems -- they just don't realize it -- Buffy really is burdened by troublesome knowledge: the existence of vampires and other ghouls. Few adults would believe her; almost all of her peers would mock her mercilessly. Buffy dramatizes the way many teenagers feel about their own world.