Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #15 - John McTiernan

-Die Hard
-The Hunt for Red October

-The 13th Warrior
-Die Hard: With A Vengeance

-The Last Action Hero

There are a lot of bad action movies out there.  It seems to be a genre rife with artless directors who think that explosions and fist-fights are enough to make a good movie.  For this reason I think it is easy to overlook how truly difficult it is to make a strong action movie.

John McTiernan has made 3 movies that are great.

The Hunt for Red October is undoubtedly the best of the Tom Clancy movies.  He escalates the tension continuously throughout the film.  Also keep in mind how difficult it is to film a submarine fight.  In the cold, dark water are two massive, unwieldy vehicles that swim through the thick blackness.  And yet McTiernan makes it work so well.

Predator is arguably Arnold Schwarzeneggar's best movie.  It carries with it the usual ultra-machismo action in the beginning.  But he does such a marvelous job of slowly shifting the genre from action to horror and then to action horror.  Watch how he films our crew coming off the helicopter from that low angle, making them look like giants.  And as they get deeper and deeper into the jungle, the higher angles (the Predator's point of view) makes them smaller and smaller.  Setting up the crew with such fighting prowess only serves to underline how terrible the foe is.  He also made the smart move of having giving each of Dutch's soldiers a vivid personality so that their loss was felt when they died, thus raising the stakes.  The final confrontation is not just an action battle: it is a horror confrontation with a monster.

But McTiernan's masterpiece is, of course, Die Hard.  I remember seeing this movie in the theater as a boy.  I had low expectations about an action movie named after a car battery starring the funny guy from Moonlighting.  But McTiernan made what many believe is the best action movie ever.  It comes down to the the absolute fear that John McClane feels throughout the film.  He is terrified and he suffers, and the audience suffers with him.  He was the opposite of the Schwarzeneggar/Stallone brand of action hero of the time.  McTiernan made John vulnerable and you felt it.  He makes mistakes.  He gets hurt.

How many of us groaned as we saw him drag his bloody foot into the bathroom?  And we laughed and held our breath as he jumped off the building.  That moment is iconic and beautifully shot.  But what makes it so great is that he doesn't want to do it.  "John, what the $#(@ are you doing?" he asks himself as he unrolls the hose as his safety line.  His fear is palpable but that only makes his courage all the more potent.  McTiernan also presented to the world the genius of Alan Rickman as one of the best screen villains: Hans Gruber.  He even had you rooting for Gruber against the FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation), thus actually enjoying his genius as well as fearing it.

McTiernan showed us how that action movies can be more than dumb explosions.  He showed us that can also be art.

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