Thursday, March 7, 2013

In which JCVD kickboxes a giant penguin to death...

This weekend, I was watching Sudden Death, a really cheesy mid-90s action movie, where Jean Claude Van Damme is a firefighter who must rescue the Vice President from a scenery-chewing Powers Boothe during the 7th Game of the Stanley Cup. It's a master-class in cheap dramatic irony (Sudden Death refers to both the end of the game AND the situation Van Damme is in!), mainly notable for a sequence where JCVD must fight a woman in a giant penguin costume to the death. It makes Hard Target look even more eligible for a Criterion Collection edition.

It's very clear that the pitch for this must have been "Jean Claude Van Damme does Die Hard at a hockey rink". And while Die Hard has reached a level of relative acclaim (despite being a blockbuster and the birth of a franchise), there's a tendency to rope it off from the films it inspired (including some of its franchise). Die Hard 2, Under Siege 1 and 2, Sudden Death, and Air Force One (maybe even Speed and Con Air, if you squint a little) are some of the more notable successors.

It's pretty easy to state the formula: working class tough guy squares off against a highly-skilled, intellectual bad guy during a hostage situation in a contained setting, with the working class guy kicking the ass of the flamboyant/foreign/intellectual/wealthy bad guy.

But what I forgot, until I watched such a generic version of the formula as the JCVD version, are the differences from the action films that came before them and after them.

First of all, the 1980s action template is usually something like Cobra or Commando, where an over-muscled tough-guy guns down a million faceless bad guys. There's still occasionally a flamboyant bad guy, but the focus is on body-count and sheer destruction. The good guy might have a braying lieutenant or commanding officer, but there's no sense that that commander has any authority. The good guy(s) might even go vigilante at the end, with the authorities showing up and telling them good job. Michael Bay's films revived this trend, upping the superhero element, where the hero is basically invulnerable. The last two Die Hard movies have trended even further in this direction as well.

Whereas, in Die Hard and its descendents, the lesser villains are usually individualized. Even though they are usually two dimensional, multi-ethnic terrorists or Eurotrash, that's still one more dimension than Cobra or Bad Boys provides us. I still root for Theo to get knocked out, or the crazy earring guy in Sudden Death to get shot through a helicopter, but they're not just cannon fodder that feeds our blood-lust. On top of that, there's an emphasis of one on one combat. The bad guys have guns, but the good guys rarely start out with them, so there's usually a lot of very brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Our heroes are usually bruised and bloody at the end of each fight, even though they've won. Once again, compare this to Commando, where Ahnuld takes out an entire army and just gets a gnarly gash on his stomach.

Most importantly, the Die Hard template has a working class, if skilled, hero who faces off both against a corrupt or hidebound authority and the actual bad guys. While it's not that unusual to have a cop/secret agent having to take a dressing down from the boss, it's in the Die Hard template movies that the authority is actively working against the hero's goals. Agents Johnson and Johnson, for example, in Die Hard, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Under Siege cause almost as much destruction and death as the bad guys, even though they have good intentions.

Furthermore, this working class attitude extends to a nuts-and-bolts attitude towards work that has become rarer and rarer as cinema has progressed into the 21st Century and the focus of international capitalism has been turning everyone into interchangeable office temps. Die Hard takes place in a classy executive office building, but the environment that Bruce Willis mostly occupies is the blue-collar work-site of a building still under construction. In Under Siege, the kitchen and other living/working areas of the battleship are intimately explored and become sites of battle and conflict, not just the command center. And Sudden Death gives us a detailed look at the day-to-day, banal and prosaic operations of a hockey rink before blowing them up.

Perhaps that is what I find most unusual in this day and age in these films is this interest in establishing the prosaic and banal of day-to-day working life, an interest that is harder and harder to detect in more recent cinema. The protagonists of most blockbusters are either tech-savvy kids, specially-trained and well-to-do secret agents, or independently wealthy superheroes. Even when the protagonists are down-to-earth people like in Date Night (in which the bourgeois banality of the protagonists, contrasted with generic thriller trappings they are roped into, are played for laughs), we don't really see them at work. Perhaps the only notable exception, off the top of my head, is Machete, which intentionally politicized work and labor as elements of an ongoing class and ethnic struggle.

Die Hard and its followers, despite their faults and flaws, honored the idea of working class labor. The modern blockbuster now only honors the wealthy superhero, a demographic that is excluded from labor (teens/kids), specialized agents, or a combination of the three.