Thursday, December 8, 2016

Merry Christmas from the McClanes: DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER (1990)

When it was released in 1990, DIE HARD 2 was greeted as a rehash of the original 1988 film. Fair enough. The story finds John McClane (Bruce Willis) stuck at Dulles International Airport at Christmas, once again bringing in the Yuletide by saving his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedila) from terrorists. In retrospect, though, DIE HARD 2 is clearly the best of the DIE HARD sequels, the only film in the series to really extend the charm and excitement of the first film.

Before I explain what makes it the only worthy successor to the original, I suppose we should dispense with the rest of the sequels:

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995) was seen by many as a return to form for the series, with DIE HARD's director John McTiernan taking back the helm from DIE HARD 2's Renny Harlin. But seen today, VENGEANCE is more dated, a relic of the 90s. It has a gimmicky plot (McClane and a post-PULP FICTION Samuel L. Jackson are forced to solve puzzles by a criminal mastermind like they're facing off against the Riddler), a dull villain (making Jeremy Irons the brother of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber just draws attention to how much better Rickman was in the first film), some clumsy racial politics (McClane, a NYC cop, teaches Jackson, a middle-aged black man, how not to be such a racist),  and a sloppy third act (reshot almost entirely, it feels rushed and lifeless at the same time). There are some good scenes here and there (the shoot out in the elevator, chief among them), but the film is overlong, tired, and talky. Worse still, it marks the turning point in the series when McClane goes from being a likable everyman to being a grumpy lunkhead.

Things just get worse in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007), a sequel caked with 12 years of dust. This time McClane teams up with a hacker played by Justin Long to rescue McClane's daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from bad guy Timothy Olyphant. In some ways, LIVE FREE is the worst of the series. For one thing, McClane's not really the main character. He's just here to be the grumpy old sage to Long's morally conflicted hacker, the only character in the movie with an actual story arc. For another thing, this is the point in the series where McClane stops being a recognizable human with the capacity to be hurt. He stands on a spinning jet plane, jumps out of a speeding car onto pavement at 80 miles an hour, shoots himself in the chest at point blank range, ect, all without doing more than grimacing. Add in Olyphant's bland villain and a PG-13 rating, and you get a series in freefall.

Last and least is 2013's A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, which finds McClane traveling to Russia to help his son (Jai Courtney) fight some terrorists. Wheezing and out of ideas, the film dusts off the McClane-reunites-with-his-estranged-family plot for the fourth time to zero emotional effect. We've seen this blood-soaked McClane family reunion before, but the father-son dynamic only encourages the filmmakers to up the macho bullshit, and so we have John and John Jr. dropping off buildings through fifty layers of glass and fire, only to emerge strutting and laughing at the end. A cold and stupid movie, GOOD DAY is a long, long, long way from the first film, the most riveting scene of which involved McClane pulling a single shard of glass from his foot and tearfully confessing his love for his wife. The 2013 McClane, by contrast, is a video game character, endlessly rebooting to the same to the same level of physical invulnerability and emotional obstinacy.

Which brings us back to DIE HARD 2. It's the only sequel that doesn't rehash the family dysfunction plot. Instead, it accepts the happy ending of DIE HARD and builds on it. John and Holly, despite only sharing a single scene at the end, are a likable couple, flirting on the phone at the start, and rising to the challenge in parallel storylines when everything goes wrong.

Speaking of the "going wrong" part: while William Sadler is no Hans Gruber (hey, nobody is), his cold right-wing terrorist Col. Stuart is the only post-Hans villain who seems to pose an actual threat to McClane. The scene where he downs a commercial  jetliner, killing hundreds of people on board, is one of the most effecting scenes of villainy in the series.

Renny Harlin directs the action scenes here with speed and precision, while keeping McClane within the general vicinity of recognizable humanity. Where the first film found him shoeless and shirtless (which rendered him more exposed than the typical action hero), this one finds him gasping for breath and shouldering against the cold as he runs all over the snowbound airport fighting bad guys. The shootout on the conveyor belt is particularly effective because Willis plays it scared. Pinned down under some collapsed scaffolding, he desperately crawls for a gun as a goon charges at him. That moment of fear -- the "if I don't get this gun that guy is going to kick my ass and kill me" -- doesn't really have an analog in the later films in the series. The McClane of  DIE HARD 3, 4, and 5 can be wounded, but he can't be scared because he's lost the ability to die.

DIE HARDER features Willis's lightest turn as McClane. He's flirtatious (with both his wife and a pretty girl at the airport), he's still funny (muttering to himself, "Oh, we are just up to our ass in terrorists again, aren't we, John?"), and he's resilient in the action scenes without being superhuman (I've always loved that in the final fight on the wing of the plane with Sadler, he more or less gets his ass kicked). He's still, well, John McClane, a character you enjoy spending time with, a guy you can root for because you like him.

The original DIE HARD is a masterpiece of its kind, one of the best action movies ever made, going on a shortlist with films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, and, more recently, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. IF DIE HARDER doesn't quite belong in that elevated company, it still deserves to be seen as a worthy successor to the original. It's a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, a holiday action blockbuster sequel that understands what it is trying to do (i.e. rip off the original) and manages to do so without turning dour or cynical in the process. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Death of a Moderate: My Radicalization

I was not born to be a radical. I hate confrontation in all its forms, and I am by nature and inclination a peacemaker. Temperamentally, I'm a mild mannered man who descends from a line of mild mannered men. I like quiet, even solitary, pursuits: writing and reading books, watching movies, listening to music, looking at and thinking about art. I am not a religious man, except in the sense that I think that faith, hope, and charity are the greatest of all virtues, and that how you treat the poor, imprisoned, hungry and sick is a pretty good indication of how close you are to the kingdom of heaven. I tend toward moderation, and I don't like to see people get upset. So, no, I am not a natural born radical.

But we find ourselves in radical times. The election of 2016 isn't just another election. I take the President-elect at his word. I think he means to do the things he has said he will do. Will he succeed at shattering families by building a wall, or deporting millions of people, or instituting a religious test? Will he further normalize torture and surveillance, atrocities for which he's stated admiration? Will his administration pursue the anti-LGBT policies outlined in the new Republican platform? With his picks for the Supreme Court and the Cabinet, will he strengthen the police state and the prison/industrial complex while weakening our civil liberties and environmental protections? I don't know. He's a man who has bankrupted several businesses, including a casino, so his management abilities are suspect. But I take him at his word that he will attempt to do these things, and I believe that his team of political castoffs and alt-right xenophobes, as well as his most fervent supporters in the swamp of white nationalism, all mean business. I take them at their word.

So I am being radicalized. I've been a vaguely left-of-center guy for about half my life now, after having been a vaguely right-of-center guy for the first half. Now, at last, I am a leftist. I have to be. I have no choice. Implicitly or explicitly, the Trump campaign has trafficked in various bigotries since it kicked off last year: race-baiting, immigrant bashing, misogyny. Now this grotesque parade has marched into Washington and will soon take the reigns of power. There can be no moderation in the face of this kind of evil. There is only acquiescence or resistance. I choose resistance.

Ironically, I've also been radicalized because in one profound way the President-elect's supporters are actually correct, whether they realize it or not, and this has clarified for me what is wrong with the American Left. The election of Donald Trump proves once and for all, if we're smart enough to see it, that neoliberalism is a failure. The slide from New Deal liberalism (which, we should never forget, sprang up as a corrective to the hyper-capitalism of the 1920s) to our current state of privatized cronyism has been long and ugly, but the worst of it has transpired in my lifetime. 

From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the government has propped up Wall Street's financial services industry, fueling reckless casino capitalism. This system very nearly imploded in 2008, the natural collapse of greed and stupidity, but it was saved at the last minute by Bush and Obama. This age of rewarded incompetence will not come to an end under Trump, a man whose entire life is a testament to rewarded incompetence. Likely it will get worse, as will, I suspect, most things. Neofascism is the worst possible antidote to neolibralism, yet it is rushing to fill the void that decades of failed economic and social policy--not to mention a now permanent state of war--has blown open in our national culture. It makes perfect sense that a carnival barker con-man like Donald Trump would be the one to step in to take charge of this pyramid scheme.    

Earlier this year, I read William Shirer's THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, long before it occurred to me that Trumpism was any kind of real threat. (I don't think Trump's another Hitler, by the way, despite his Nazi admirers. Hitler was a fanatic, and Trump is too venal to ever be a fanatic. A lazy bigot and a desperate narcissist, he is more Mussolini than Hitler.) One of the things that Shirer's book makes clear, however, is that the path to fascism is paved by the weakness and corruption of the preceding governmental system.

We can see how this weakness played out in America. As conservatives drifted further and further to the right over the last twenty years they pulled the center with them, and neoliberalism (the dominate political force on the left since the 1990s) helped to create the very economic and social problems that Trump's racist xenophobia promised to fix. Trump's immigrant-blaming and wall-building are shell games, dumbed down answers to legitimate fears about our increasingly complicated world. But Neoliberalism didn't offer answers at all. It only offered to stay the course, a steady hand on the tiller of a sinking ship.

So I am radicalized, against the neofascists moving to Washington, but also against the neoliberals who will either be powerless to stop the tide of shit coming our way or who will, in all likelihood, cravenly attempt to ride it.

Where will my radicalization lead me? I don't know yet. I've been a radical for about a day and a half. Give me a minute. I'm just now starting on this journey. Hell, I'm still packing my bags. The one thing I know is that I can't stay where I am. That's not an option anymore. I must move.   

Sunday, October 16, 2016

RIP Ed Gorman

Sad to hear that Ed Gorman has passed away. I was lucky to get to know him a few years ago. No one knew more about crime writing, and crime writers, than Ed. The last time we talked he told me a funny story about interviewing Margaret Millar, and then he trashed Donald Trump for a while, calling him a cut rate con man. Classic Gorman. Ed was a legend in his own right, as both an author and an editor, but the thing I'll remember most about him was how incredibly generous he was. You'll hear this, I am sure, in the tributes that will come out of the next few days. Ed was so supportive to up and coming writers, and he was living proof that talent and kindness can go hand in hand. He will be missed.

Friday, October 7, 2016


Go tell it on the mountain, HELL ON CHURCH STREET is back!

After switching publishers in the spring, the book will make its debut over at its new home of 280 Steps, on October 18th. In the years since this book was first released, I've been on one long wild ride, and I'm absolutely thrilled about this new phase in the criminal career of Geoffrey Webb.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Back In The USA

Well, I'm back from France. It was a lovely trip. We did several cities, including Paris, Boulogne-Billancourt, Lyon, Dax, Pau, Vieux Boucau, Mont de Marsan, Bayonne, and Bordeaux. It was exhausting and exhilarating, a real labor and the most fun. I loved every minute.

I should thank everyone involved--all the booksellers, readers, and organizers. You all have my sincerest gratitude. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Book Tour In France!

France, I am coming for you.

Jake Hinkson est l'invité de la Médiathèque départementale des Landes et participera à une série de rencontres en France. Vous pourrez le rencontrer :
- le 15 septembre à la librairie Les Mots et les choses de Boulogne-Billancourt
- le 16 septembre à la Librairie du Tramway à Lyon
- les 17 et 18 septembre au Festival Le Polar se met au vert organisé par la Médiathèque départementale des Landes
- le 20 septembre à la librairie Hirigoyen de Bayonne
- le 21 septembre à la librairie Tonnet de Pau
- le 22 septembre à la librairie Campus de Dax
- le 23 septembre à la librairie Caractères de Mont-de-Marsan
- les 24 et 25 septembre au Festival Polar en cabanes à Bordeaux

For more information, check out my author page at the Gallmeister website.