Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rooting against action: How Die Hard 5 is like Lilo and Stitch.

There are any number of problems with A Good Day to Die Hard.  But the biggest sin is that it constructs its "story" in such a way that we end up rooting against John McClane.  No, I don't mean the film makes him a villain or anything that creative, I mean that we spend much of the film not wanting McClane to do what he does best: interfere with the carefully-laid plans of others with impromptu and kamikaze acts of violence.  The other prior Die Hard movies basically operated on a simple premise: John McClane is minding his own business when he gets reluctantly pulled into a horrible situation, a situation for which he is the only real hope to save the proverbial day.  He doesn't want to be the hero, but he damn-well is going to stick it out until the day is saved.  This time it's different.  This time John willingly inserts himself into a situation that he does not completely understand.  This time John is *correctly* viewed as an unwanted nuisance and a distraction by the other good guys who are trying to do their jobs.  For most of the film, John McClane is the problem rather than the solution.  In short, John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard has become Stitch.

Those paying to see a Die Hard movie arguably want to be put in a position to want to see John McClane kill bad guys.  Yet the film tells its story in such a way that, if we are invested in the narrative, we honestly want John to just go home and let his son handle it.  McClane's befuddled presence does little more than screw up whatever black-ops operation was taking place in the first third of the film and his continued presence causes the deaths of those killed in the ensuing car chase as well as those murdered in the CIA safe house.  For much of the film, to paraphrase one of my daughter's favorite storybooks about a cat named Mittens, we spend our time basically thinking "John, you're *not* helping!".  This isn't a problem exclusive to Die Hard 5, and it is a phenomena I like to call 'rooting against action'.  The prototypical example of this has always been Disney's Lilo and Stitch. The 2002 Disney toon, the last financial triumph of whatever you want to call the post-Katzenberg pre-CGI era of Disney animation, suffers from this Achilles heel in such a way that it single-handedly destroys what otherwise would be a pretty great movie.

The film concerns the adventures of a hyperactive little alien that disguises itself as an adorable pet and finds itself adopted by a young girl who is being raised by her older sister following the death of their parents.  The film was sold on the entertainment value of watching Stitch cause trouble and make mischief.  But the film doesn't present this mischief as fun but rather real trouble with real consequences.  Lilo and her sister Nani are two young women whom you desperately want to see "make it" and not get separated by Child Protective Services (personified by the concerned-but goodhearted agent voiced by Ving Rhames).  Every time Stitch causes trouble, Lilo and Nani get into serious trouble and/or have to deal with the very real consequences.  The pattern of Stitch doing something 'comical' and Lilo and/or Nani getting blamed and facing potentially dire straits continues right up until past the film's climax, even after Stitch indirectly blows up Lilo's home.  So for literally the entire film, if we honestly care about Lilo and Nani, we want Stitch to just leave them the hell alone. Lilo and her sister have already suffered the horror of losing their parents, what joy is there in watching this outer-space monster make their lives even more hellish?  Hence what should be the core entertainment value, 'See wacky alien Stitch cause chaos!', becomes something we dread, something we root against, something that causes us empathetic emotional pain rather than comic relief.

If you saw Small Soldiers in order to delight in the action sequences between two rival sets of action figures, you probably found yourself feeling differently when every such sequence merely caused our lead character to get into trouble.  Transformers (which is basically a bad hybrid of Small Soldiers and Independence Day) makes this same mistake, but at least has the good sense to reveal the 'truth' (that Sam isn't the one causing trouble) well before the end of the picture.The Wedding Crashers presents a situation where one alleged friend chooses to put himself and his friend in mortal peril purely to score with a girl he thinks he loves because of a brief conversation.    The second Harold and Kumar adventure, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, suffers from this ailment as well.  We don't laugh but rather sympathetically cringe whenever another one of Kumar's "wacky" antics gets his friend Harold further and further into permanent legal jeopardy.  Even a film I like, Shanghai Noon, temporarily falls into this trap in the finale, where we are supposed to be wowed by Jackie Chan's climactic fight scenes but instead want him to stop fighting his fellow palace guards (they think he's a traitor) and stop the bad guy.  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest flirts with this problem in its first half by presenting a situation where Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann could just just get married already if they could just catch the constantly back-stabbing Jack Sparrow and bring him back to London.

The one genre that damn-well should operate on this principle is the horror film.  A good and/or truly scary horror film should have us rooting against what we technically came to see.  Yes we watch horror films for violence and bloodshed, but a good horror movie should have us rooting against such an outcome because we like the characters and don't want them to die. It's one of the reasons I like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning so much and why Saw III and Saw VI work as a true horror films.  You're rooting against, not for, the over-the-top bloodshed promised in the marketing.  But but pretty much any other kind of film, it's a fatal flaw. We flocked to see A Good Day to Die Hard in order to once again root for the action stylings of one John McClane only to be presented with a narrative that made us root against McClane's continual involvement.  McClane is a fly-in-the-ointment not to the bad guys but to good guys pretty much right up until the end of the picture.  He is a nuisance, a bother, and unwanted third wheel whose interference causes additional complications for the very good guys he theoretically should be helping.

A Good Day To Die Hard does almost everything wrong in one of the very worst theatrical movies I have ever seen.  But its biggest character flaw is one it ironically shares with a host of other movies that are far more ambitious.  In short, we want to root for John McClane, not throw tomatoes at him. 

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Phillylo said...

hilarious review... you definitely convinced me not to watch this one.

to this point, i only take issue with one of your reviews. i watched "sucker punch" after your surprisingly positive review of that disaster of a movie. at some point, i'd like to hear your thoughts after a 2nd or 3rd viewing of that one (while sober of course).


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