Chrome Domes

A bald cartoon man races across the country to save his family from the terroristic schemes of a government employee gone mad with power.

The plot of the new action epic, Live Free or Die Hard?

Sure, but also the same story behind this summer blockbuster .

Coincidentally both released by the same studio, 20th Century Fox, as summer tentpole attractions (and following on the heels of another "anti-terrorist" Fox product, the TV show 24), Live Free or Die Hard (from here on to be called Die Hard 4, because I'm too lazy to keep typing the whole title) and The Simpsons Movie have a surprising amount in common. Both franchises started in the late 80s (The first Die Hard in 1988, The Simpsons as a series of short cartoons on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987); both began with very low expectations (Bruce Willis was known primarily for his comedic chops on the wonderful TV show Moonlighting, and industry wags were aghast when this untested star got $5 million to be an action hero; Matt Groening had a cult following from the underground strip Life In Hell), but quickly redefined their respective genres of action movie and animated film; both franchises have now taken on the status of beloved institution; both have made their audiences wait a very long time for a big screen return/debut (the last Die Hard was released in the summer of 1995, around the same time that a Simpsons movie was rumored to be underway); and because of that weight, both now come freighted with very high expectations, which they can't possibly meet.

The Simpsons Movie is the relatively more successful of the two. Visually spectacular (the big screen really opens up the animators' imaginations, as the rich colors and expressive figuration remind you of what's lost in the stampede from hand-drawn to CGI animation), well-voiced, and full of heart, it starts with a comedic bang (I can never get enough of the socially awkward, utterly challenged Ralph), and finds enough funny moments along the way to keep the audience entertained. Some highlights: the introduction, post-credits, of the Simpsons as nothing but silhouettes against stained glass, their bickering about being late for church nearly overwhelmed by the sheer recognition of the iconographic familiarity of those shadows (like Jack Benny's whine on the radio or Ricky Gervais looking into the camera on The Office, we start to laugh before anything even really happens); Mrs. Krabappel flashing her chest at a Green Day concert, and Bart skating nekkid through the streets of Springfield; everything involving Grandpa; and Ned Flanders' parting line to his ginger-haired son, a reminder of the darkness that lies below all the 'goodness' of the Springfield denizens. I also liked the continuing development of Lisa-- Springfield's own Willow Rosenberg, but less whiny and self-absorbed-- and her crush on the Bono-like boy she meets.

The movie's largest problem is dealing with its new form, that of the feature-length film (I almost typed "show's largest problem" at the beginning of this sentence, a Freudian slip that probably reveals where I'm headed), which introduces two dilemmas: how do you remain timely (especially if your narrative is politically oriented, which this one is) and how do you expand the shape of your story without losing the wacked-out vibe of the sitcom? There are some good jokes about Al Gore and Green Day in the film, and about Bono's Jubilee work and Arnold Schwarzenegger's political career, but they all feel two or three years out of date, probably since there's so much downtime between when they began work on the film and when it was released. (Though the film's largest political joke, and its bleakest, is an implied one that never goes out of date-- that those who create the major problems are the only ones who get to escape them).

That's small potatoes, though-- the weirder thing to me was how the expanded running time created an oddly sentimental tone to the whole film. Sentiment has always been a part of The Simpsons, as early as the first Simpsons Christmas Special (the 1989 spinoff from Tracey Ullman that led to a regular show the following spring), but it's usually not as heavy-handed or occasionally treacly as it is here. The movie smooths out a lot of the more surreal impulses of the TV version, the way jokes suddenly come at you sideways, or flash on the screen in a moment of visual wit that just as quickly disappears, as if you imagined it. Like the dome that comes down over Springfield halfway through the film (an act of narrative suicide, as it cuts the "leads" off from the kinds of interactions with peripheral characters that give the TV show such flavor), everything in The Simpsons Movie-- as funny and elegant and inventive as it sometimes is-- feels too contained; ironically, Albert Brooks' maniacal EPA chief, with his desire for control, feels less like the film's villain than its creative muse.

Die Hard 4 has the opposite problem: everything's way too spread out. I'm hardly the first person to note that the first two Die Hards gained a lot of their suspense and excitement from their visual containment: Bruce WIllis in an office building, Bruce Willis at an airport (and in the best Die Hard pastiche, Steven Seagal on a boat): the audience knew the lay of the land, literally, and part of the fun was seeing how John McClane MacGuyvered his way out of tough situations. By the time Die Hard 3 rolled around in 1995, much of the spirit of the series-- Willis' humor, McClane's connection to his family, and that all-important claustrophobia-- had disappeared, as Willis and Samuel L. Jackson went on a wild goose chase around all of New York that was dull when it wasn't impossible to follow.

In light of all that's happened in recent American history, there's an eerie prescience to some of the recurring images of violence in the Die Hard series: a skyscraper exploding, planes held hostage in DC, NYC streets bombed by terrorists. But where those earlier films' images took on a post-hoc power, Die Hard 4 comes at us heavy-handedly, with constant references to 9/11, to religious fundamentalism, to computer shutdowns and everymen stepping up to fight. Perhaps this is an inevitable move, esp. post-24, but it makes the film a lot less interesting to watch than its predecessors, and it's a claimed "seriousness," not an earned one (a much better post-9/11 action film is the underrated Spike Lee movie Inside Man , which really gives the viewer the shape of a city under siege).

It's also a hard film to watch. I don't just mean its violence, its faux patriotism, or its sadistic, occasionally misogynist glee. I mean it's literally hard to watch: in what might be another thematic move, director Len Wiseman (auteur behind the similarly moronic Underworld films) casts everything in shadowy grays, and sets much of the action at night.

(Who knew this poster would be Len Wiseman's artistic high point?)

I love chiarascuro, and this isn't a terrible plan, but combined with the film's ritalin-happy edits, it means that the film is hard to get a visual grip on, and even the wittier moments (like a brief jab at the Terminator films) are lost because the audience is never given enough time to get settled into the joke. It also puts spectacular stunt work to waste: we're often given only glimpses of moments that look like they'd be really cool (cars flying into airplanes, folks falling down fireball-ridden elevator shafts), if the framing and cutting would've allowed us to appreciate them.

The effect is like a visual version of a friend describing the scene to you later: it sounds great, but you don't get to experience it. And all of this awkard framing and cutting means not just visual, but also narrative enervation: after awhile, it's just kind of hard to give a damn, even in a blockbuster way, for what's happening on the screen: the set-up is dark and confusing, the characters introduced are sketchy even for an action film, and there's such a hopscotching around by the characters (Die Hard 4 one-upping its immediate predecessor by taking whole swaths of the country as its playing field, to greatly diminished returns) that the whole enterprise feels one-note (and there's no Alan Rickman, who more and more feels like the patron saint of my site, around to give the film a swift kick in the ass. I blame the government).

Die Hard 4 does have one very large thing going for it, though, and that's Bruce Willis. By now, Willis is a grizzled old man of action cinema, and yet he still doesn't get his due as a performer. He's very, very good, at a lot of different things: comedy (Moonlighting, the amazing Nobody's Fool); suspense (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable); drama (Pulp Fiction), and of course, action. Here, he moves like a combination of Robert Ryan and Paul Newman, taking the former's hardboiled physicality and the latter's WTF charm and merging them in a very pleasing way. When the camera slows down a bit, one of the real pleasures of Die Hard 4 is simply watching Willis move, with a limping gait that looks like a gimpy John Wayne. Age suits him: his stubbly scarred face, shining dome and haunted, uncertain eyes give depth to what otherwise is a silly, one-note cartoon character at this point (for a better version of Die Hard 4's "two men on the run" story, check out the taut 16 Blocks, where Willis is paired with Mos Def against a corrupt NYC police environment). That Mac guy, Justin Long, is ok as his sidekick (although I think the filmmakers missed a bet not casting someone like Adam Brody or Shia Le Boeuf, who could do the geek thing but also keep up with Willis's one-liners; Long's sleepy-eyed vibe suggests a less-committed Keanu Reeves), but this is really Willis's show, and he strives mightily (if futilely) to make it worth your dollar. He may yet end up as our version of Robert Mitchum.

In the end, aside from their individual merits/demerits, what interests me about both films is precisely this sense I noted above, of how they respond to their form's challenges. We might think about like a jazz riff: how long can you sustain it, how successful are your improvisations, and what happens when the thread gets lost? The Simpsons' cutting contest centers around time-- can they craft a narrative/series of jokes & visual puns that sustain for 100 or so minutes-- while Die Hard 4's are about visual space: how much freedom to move do we give McClane before it feels like any other action movie? And what might this teach us about blogging, which offers other challenges to sustained interest (said in a post that ended up much longer than originally planned)?


Popular Posts