Sunday, December 16, 2007

Action Gender Studies

I like “Action” movies. I don’t say that as some sort of guilty pleasure confession; I just like the genre. I think it’s the kind of thing that cinema does better than any other medium. Drama and musicals work best on the stage and comedy is well suited for TV. But a semi-truck chased by alien spacecraft leaping over an exploding skyscraper… I want to see that on the big screen.

I like Bruce Willis. I like how he “gets” what his action-movie-star counterparts don’t seem to get, that once you’ve been paid $20 million dollars four or five times for movies in which pretty much everything you don’t actually shoot still explodes, the pressure is off. You can do community theatre if you want. You can take odd little roles in odd little movies for the minimum salary just because it looks like it, too, might be fun. Consider what Lamberto Maggiorani was paid for Ladri di Biciclette in1948 and get over any notion that connects salary to quality.

The original Die Hard movie is a classic. Well-written and very well-made, it defied the convention that required all “action heroes” be muscle-bound masters of martial arts, i.e., super heroes. Instead, it introduced the action hero as everyman. Willis’ John McClane is not a man of extraordinary skills and abilities. He is a NYC cop on vacation that gets caught up in circumstances beyond his control. In every film in the franchise, the character gradually has the hell beat out of him to be left at the end of the film, bullet-riddled, cut to pieces, bloody, but the last man standing.

Nineteen years after the original film hit the theatres and twelve years after the last and weakest installment in the series (Die Hard with a Vengeance) Willis decided to bring John McClane back in a fourth film, Live Free or Die Hard.

The story is about an attack on the country’s infrastructure by cyber-terrorists who hijack control of transportation, communication and power systems by typing really, really fast.

Who knew, growing up, that in the future battles between good and evil would be represented by a clash of the typists?

In one scene in his basement “command center” Kevin Smith, a “digital Jedi” named “Warlock” has a keyboard on his lap and his fingers dance across it in a manner that makes you ask “What could he possibly be typing?” Most of what the characters actually DO with their computers are things that would mostly involve mouse clicks. Lots of mouse clicks. I have to think that the dilemma must be that, no matter what you do, it’s just impossible to infuse dramatic tension into a mouse click.

Typing then becomes the visual “action” associated with computers.

In science fiction films (e.g., Minority Report) one of the first things to happen is that keyboards disappear and people find new physical ways to interact with computers. In contemporary settings the best we can do is come up with cooler keyboards like the one used in many action sequences here, a full size keyboard that rolls up into the size of a Cuban cigar. In the 21st Century size still matters, but smaller seems to signify better.

And Willis plays McClane as a man out of time. The film’s theme song – CCR’s “Fortunate Son” – is an interesting pick. Fogerty wrote the song in response to Richard Nixon’s attempt on his life (ala the draft and Vietnam). Willis’ John McClane “ain’t no senator’s son, no.” No.

The film’s politics are rather odd. In the current political climate one might expect the villain here to be a crazed jihadist with a computer science degree. But the enemy, though clearly constructed as the “bad guy” by the number of people killed without hesitation for simple convenience sake, is domestic; an insider, self-described patriot determined to demonstrate the country’s vulnerability to this kind of attack.

In the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the basis for the original Die Hard film, the hero was trying to save his daughter (rather than his ex-wife) and the addition here of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy Gennero is a kind of slight nod to the book.

John McClane was introduced to feminism the same way that most of the blue-collar men of his generation were, by way of their daughters. We first see Lucy in the front seat of a car necking with a young man determined to get to first base. As Lucy peels his hand from her breast a second time the car door opens and the kid is yanked from the car by John McClane whose first spoken line in the film is: “No means no, jerk-off.”

But McClane hasn’t missed the point of those “Take Back the Night!” marches he was probably assigned crowd control duties at in the late 70s, and his daughter has her father’s left hook. The film never takes Lucy to the magnificent heights of Bridgette Wilson’s Whitney Slater, Jack Slater’s daughter in the misunderstood and brilliant Last Action Hero (1993), but she definitely establishes herself as something more formidable than helpless movie victim girl throughout the film.

One of the best lines is an exchange between Lucy and good-guy hacker Matt Farrell when she tells him “Maybe you’re just gonna have to reach way down and find some bigger balls” to which he replies, “Wow… I know that tone. I’m just not used to it coming from someone with, you know, hair.”

The other major female role here is that of the head bad guy's lover-henchwoman, Mai Lihn (Maggie Q), a mixed racial martial artist who engages McClane in the longest fight scene of the film in which they both beat each other senseless repeatedly until her demise in an exploding SUV at the bottom of an elevator shaft (you have to see it).

A pre-feminist McClane would have had serious reservations about “hitting a girl.” The post-feminist McClane, not so much. I was explaining to a friend just the other day that one of the triumphs of feminism is that my opposition to Senator Hillary Clinton’s candidacy can have absolutely nothing to do with gender.

The film, set during a 4th of July Independence Day holiday in Washington, D.C., engages in so little manipulation of post 9/11 iconography that it might actually be the first example of a post-post-9/11 action movie.

We can only hope.

By the way, I watched both the “theatrical” and “unrated” versions and oddly I would strongly recommend the “theatrical” version. There aren’t many differences other than a few lines of dialogue that are better in the theatrical version and a very odd increase in a specific kind of violence. In the theatrical version when McClane shoots a bad guy he shoots 3 or 4 times. In the unrated version he shoots 11 or 12 times, which just seems both unnecessary and ill-advised for a cop with limited ammunition.

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