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Die Hard

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$5.55 at Amazon 

(5/5)

Pros: Action, humor and performances.

Cons: It’s Die Hard. No cons.

(Note: This review appeared in different form on Epinions.com.)

As far as action movies go, Die Hard may be the ultimate one of all time. Not necessarily the best (T2 and a couple of John Woo’s Hong Kong films are ahead of it). But I can’t think of any other film that mixes action, comedy and serious drama into a full package the way this one does and has the results come out this well.

What makes Die Hard stand out is that its main character is a human hero, not a superman. John McClane is simply an ordinary working New York cop who finds himself in the midst of a nightmarish situation that he has to deal with. For that character to work, the producers needed an actor who could make the McClane character believable. They made the right choice in picking Bruce Willis.

Willis, despite what some of his more recent efforts may lead us to believe, can actually act quite well when he’s in the right movie. His McClane is a character that is not invincible and that adds legitimate suspense that would not be there if the character were a larger than life superhero. Indeed we see him bleed when he falls down and despite the fact that he does die hard, it is not inconceivable that he may fail in his mission. That adds more weight to the story and elevates it above the normal shoot-em-up flick. There’s no way a Stallone or Schwarzenegger could have pulled this role off.

I won’t spend too much time on plot details, as most viewers have already seen Die Hard or doubtlessly heard about it. New York Cop John McClane (Willis) travels to Los Angeles to visit his wife (whom he’s separated but not divorced from) at Christmas time. She works for an international conglomerate that has its headquarters in a very tall office building. McClane meets up with her at her office and waits for the office party to break up. When, just as luck would have it, a band of international terrorists show up. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) leads the terrorists, who seize control of the buildings maintenance, shutting down telephone lines and putting the building on lockdown, and then pull off an armed capture of all the office partygoers. Their intent is to use the hostages as a means of distracting from their real intent, which is an electronic funds transfer of millions of dollars (at one point the head of the company asks Gruber “What kind of terrorist are you?” and Gruber chuckles and replies “Who said anything about terrorists?”).

McClane isn’t in the vicinity of the terrorist when they strike and so he retreats to an unoccupied sector of the building and from there laucnhes a private one man war against the villains.

Rickman makes an excellent villain. It’s a common view among many film critics that the quality of the James Bond movies is often determined by how good the villain is. That’s often the case there and it’s also the case in many action movies outside of the 997 series as well. Rickman has an appropriate level of charm and menace. He manages to dial down and not go screamingly over the top, except in situations where that’s warranted. Plus, he doesn’t go totally moronic when things start to go wrong, the way many villains do in Hollywood movies, making their defeat an obvious conclusion.

There is also the interplay between McClane and a local area cop named Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson of TV fame as Carl Winslow on Family Matters). There is a scene where McClane has utilized a makeshift bomb to take out terrorists who were shooting at a group of trapped LAPD officers and in the aftermath he asks if the building is on fire. Powell replies “No. But it’s going to need a paint job and a shitload of screen doors”. There are also some moments of genuine drama when Powell tells McClane why he left the street beat.

I do not want to dig too much into the action sequences, since there is a certain element of fun in seeing them for the first time without being aware of what is going to happen. Just let me say that you will see much had to hand combat and a few scenes that literally leave people hanging.

So yes, Die Hard is definitely a great action film. Yet, in some ways, it also transcends its genre and becomes a great movie regardless. That’s why it stands as a classic.

Derivative: imitative of the work of another person, and usually disapproved of for that reason. See: Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad

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$3.99 at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: Good cast.

Cons: So derivative, it makes you just wish you were watching the originals.

(This review originally appeared on Epinions.com)

Reuben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is one of the most obviously derivative movies in recent memory. It rips off Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables with a few elements of LA Confidential and Chinatown thrown in for good measure. Fleischer was obviously thinking of the axiom: If you’re going to steal, steal from quality sources. This movie however is proof that this doesn’t always work.

In the classic De Palma film, Eliot Ness set out to take down Al Capone as mandated by his bosses at the Treasury Department. To do so, he was instructed by a veteran Chicago cop that he would have to throw the rule book out the window. He followed this advice and began being a serious pain in the you know what to Capone. At one point, we see Capone take a Louisville slugger to the head of an associate who messed up.

In Gangster Squad, idealistic LA cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is assigned by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go outside the law to take down gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). To do so, O’Mara recruits a squad of fellow cops to assist in his war against Cohen. He soon starts being a pain in the you know what to the gangster. At one point, Cohen brutally slaughters an associate with a power drill.

So basically, Gangster Squad rips off the earlier film in most regards, It adds in a little unsanctioned romance, switches the time from the 30s to the 40s, the locale from Chicago to LA and the lead villain from Capone to Cohen. Other than that it’s an inferior rehash.

The Untouchabes had some fantastic direction, a great script by David Mamet and a truly excellent cast (Costner, Connery and De Niro). Gangster Squad has a very good cast (Brolin, Penn, Nolte, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone). But lacks in the area of direction and script.

Say what you will about De Palma as a director. But you can’t deny the man brings style to what he does. Flesicher doesn’t seem to be able to do that. His approach is suited for comedy as Zombieland proves. But crime noir may not be his forte.

The script meanwhile, in addition to being derivative, gives us characters. But doesn’t take much time to develop them. Cohen is depcited as an over the top psycho to rival Tony Montana. O’Mara is a family man who must go above and beyond to accomplish his mission. Ryan Gosling’s Jerry Wooters is the maverick of sorts. Emma Stone as Grace Faraday is the typical woman in pictures of this type. Yeah, the bulk of the people here are pretty two-dimensional.

I’ve seen some reviews that complain about the historical inaccuracies in Gangster Squad. Yeah it does play fast and loose with history. The Untouchables did too (Both Capone and Cohen went down thanks to the IRS). One particular review in Salon complained that it glamorizes the LAPD at a time when it should not have been glamorized. I won’t get into that. But I will say that LA Confidential is more accurate in that regard even if it is totally fiction.

Gangster Squad does offer some mild entertainment. However, it’s not really worth going out of your way for. If you’re looking for a cops and gangsters thriller of this type, just stick with The Untouchables.