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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why I Hated Die Hard (Or: Evolving Genres in Contemporary Culture)

That's right. I hated Die Hard.

and it's not that I don't love a good mindless action thriller. A perfect example: the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, which I caught this week and loved.

It should be noted here that I have not seen the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, so what follows is in no way a comparison to, nor a commentary upon the 1974 film. In fact, as far as I can tell, the original looks much better than the remake. But the remake was available for instant streaming on Netflix and the original was not, so the remake is how I spent the evening last Tuesday. And, since I have almost no knowledge of the original film, for the purposes of this post I am treating the remake as simply a new movie, completely autonomous of its 1974 counterpart.

So, I loved The Taking of Pelham 123 for what it was - easy action-packed junk entertainment, and yet I hated Die Hard, which is essentially the same thing. No, not only that, Die Hard is the mother of all action thrillers, a paragon of the genre. So what's my problem?

The two movies are actually remarkably similar: both involve dangerous men who take a group of people hostage for a ransom, and despite the efforts of police and officials, our heroes are the only people who can hope to stop them. Still, there are a few notable differences between Die Hard and Pelham 123 which, while they don't necessarily determine the quality of either of the two movies, did influence my relative enjoymement of both.

To begin with, take our two Noble Heroes: In Pelham, we have Walter Garber, the fated MTA dispatcher who goes toe-to-toe with the Bad Guy, and in Die Hard there is the iconic John McClane in all his "Yippee-ki-yay motherf&#$%er" glory.

Garber is a somewhat reluctant hero; while he willingly takes on the responsibility of the crisis once it is thrust upon him, it is clear he is not by nature an thrill-seeking defender of justice. As he describes to Ryder, the abductor of the train in question, how he slowly moved from maintenance work for the MTA up to assistant chief transportation officer, it is clear that here is a man who has worked quietly and steadily without much fanfare or fuss. What's more, Garber has a somewhat checkered past: he has been demoted from assistant chief transportation officer to dispatcher, pending investigation into an a bribe he allegedly took. He later admits that the allegation is true, having used the money to pay for his children's college tuition.

He is an unlikely hero, in stark contrast to the righteous, gunslinging persona of John McClane. It's not that McClane's past is utterly untarnished; he has his share of character flaws, and his marriage is in shambles because of it, but he is clearly and ostensibly the Good Guy. He runs bravely and recklessly toward danger and every turn, constantly putting the safety of others before his own, and taking down the Evil Terrorist above all of it. All this is not to say that McClane is one-dimensional, or even more one-dimensional than Garber. That's beside the point. It's only that his role within the larger narrative is more archetypal, more clear-cut.

This difference on it's own would be just a difference, a casual and unimportant observation. It's made interesting, to me at least, by the way these personalities interact with their respective Bad Guys. Both Baddies are initially suspected to be terrorists with radical political motives, but in each case, it is quickly revealed that the men are working for their own, selfish purposes. In Die Hard, the story of Hans Gruber (the delicious Alan Rickman. Never has international terrorism looked so attractive) more or less ends there. But for Pelham 123, the Ryder's story goes deeper, and the audience knows it. References to a former life, the way he intently watches the Dow Jones during his attack, his inexplicable volatility and rage toward the Mayor and the establishment, and strange way he's identified with Garber, all point to something else, something more going on here. Who is this man, and what does he really want?

Then, at the last minute, ah! It's all made clear. He's not after the ransom money at all, he's manipulating the stock market! He's a former Wall Street man! Fresh out of ten years in prison for massive finance-related crimes that I don't understand!

Now our hero's struggle becomes a bit more clear. His life runs a strange parallel with the villian's. Both have committed crimes, have taken money that was not theirs in an attempt to get a little further than honest work - exemplified by Garber's life - will allow. And both suffer greatly (and, depending who you ask, unfairly) the consequences of their actions. In this light, Garber's selfless choice to put himself at risk for the greater good becomes redemptive, adding color to his final showdown with Ryder.

It's this "ah-ha!" moment that was missing for me in Die Hard, which, by contrast is relatively straightfoward: Gruber is a rogue terrorist agent after a great deal of money, we learn that almost immediately. He's unscrupulous, cold-blooded, and willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. McClane attempts to stop him as the stakes grow higher, until finally, Gruber falls from the top of an exploding skyscraper to his fiery death.

"I kept expecting a big reveal," I tried to explain to my dad, in response to his shock and dismay that I hadn't liked the movie. "I kept waiting to find out what Gruber was really about." He looked at me with total derision and incomprehension. "He's an evil terrorist, and the good guy beats him. That's what he's about."

It's true, and there's nothing wrong with that. This kind of spectacular unambiguous showdown between good and evil is impressive in its own right. But I wanted more. And it's not that Pelham is better, or more layered - they're both meant to be enjoyed on a visceral, uncomplicated level. It's that I enjoyed The Taking of Pelham 123 more because this plot structure is what I'm used to. This kind of use of character revelation to propel the climactic action sequence is more and more prevalent, and the evidence is how much I wanted it, expected it in Die Hard.

Is it possible that Die Hard, which I was too young for when it came out in 1988 and didn't see until well out of college, was less than gripping to me because, 22 years later, we have moved on from this particular storytelling structure? I wonder if this marks a cultural shift in our understanding of the genre.

It reminds me of when I watched Rear Window and Disturbia back-to-back to compare the way to very different movies made in very different eras dealt with essentially the same subject matter: a housebound young man, bored and restless, has taken to spying on his neighbors when he begins to suspect he may have witnessed a terrible crime.

I hated Disturbia. It was a hyper-sensational bloodbath with no plot, no point, and even less redeeming social or artistic value. Even so, it didn't stop me from remarking on how our interpretation of suspense has evolved over the years. Although many would mourn the move away from the slower, more carefully nuanced build that Hitchcock employed in Rear Window, I don't. There are exciting ways for manipulating how a contemporary audience understands suspense too (although Disturbia does little to explore them); it opens up new creative possibilites, and that excites me.

And so I wonder if we are witnessing a similar pardigm-shift in the action-thriller genre. To witness such a shift as it occurs is wildly intriguing; I wonder what changes in our culture of storytelling will follow.


  1. But Die Hard has Allan Rickman! The original "Taking of the Pelham 1,2,3" with Robert Shaw is a classic. In the mold of films like "The Seven Ups" and, of course "The French Connection" which are visual time capsules and gritty love stories about New York in the 1970's. "Pelham" reveals a city of the not so distant past which seems like a very dangerous and foreign place. These films practically invented the action drama in America which did not include horses, Marines, or Tommy guns.

  2. I am regular follower of your blog and I like your reviews also but this time I have different opinion as I just love Die Hard. It has everything which you want in a movie story, direction, screenplay and performances. May be the only reason you don't like it is because you watched Taking of Pelham 123.