End of Days and Die Hard with a Vengeance (review)

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Only in New York

Ah, action movies. When they’re good, they can be thrilling experiences that have no equal outside the multiplex. When they’re bad… Well, let’s just say that I wish Mystery Science Theater had an emergency hotline.

A sense of place is vital in almost any film, but I think it’s especially important in an action movie, which by definition is moving around that place so much. Now, End of Days isn’t bad merely because it can’t get New York City right, and Die Hard with a Vengeance isn’t good merely because it does. But how these two movies use — and misuse — New York is illustrative of the films’ relative failure or success on a larger scale.
Pleased to meet you,hope you guessed my name
Maybe only born-and-bred New Yorkers like myself will notice this, but in End of Days, which is set in New York City in the days leading up to the turn of the millennium*, the only actor with a speaking part who actually sets foot in the real New York onscreen is Gabriel Byrne. As Satan, he takes a brief stroll around jolly Big Apple Christmas scenes. (Oooo, Satan in Rockefeller Center? As if anyone who’s had to fight their way through mobs of tourists didn’t know Beelzebub had a hand in that somewhere.) There’s some pretty second-unit footage of the skyline at sunset and Times Square’s New Year’s party and so on, but the instant director Peter Hyams cuts to Arnold Schwarzenegger, we can see he’s hulking around on a Hollywood backlot or some grungy area of downtown Los Angeles.

Cheaper to produce? Sure. Easier? I bet. But it’s that good-enough attitude that brings the movie down. If Satan’s got a favorite place on Earth, I’d bet good money it’s somewhere in New York City. This is it, man: Babylon, right here. It’s not just a look but an attitude, and it cannot be duplicated. But instead of using the real thing, End of Days offers us an ersatz New York — dirty and crowded, yes, but in artificial ways. And I can’t help but figure that that contributed in some way to the watered-down Prince of Darkness who wanders through End of Days, enjoying himself but not really bothering to be all that frightening.

Oh, the ignominy. A nice, unassuming, unsuspecting Wall Street Banker (Gabriel Byrne: Stigmata, The End of Violence), out for dinner with some friends, is taken over by a shimmering glob of translucent goo — Lucifer in transit — while in the john. Ain’t that a kick in the pants… literally. Seems Satan’s in town looking for a good time: he needs to find the girl, Christine York (Robin Tunney), chosen at her birth twenty years earlier as his bride, and impregnate her just before midnight on December 31, 1999. And this will bring about the Apocalypse, allowing Satan to dislodge God as ruler of the Earth.

Only a man could set so much store by a simple sex act.

And who will stop Satan? Well, once again, the fate of the world is in the hands of an alcoholic, grief-stricken ex-cop who, by the third act, will be so beaten up he won’t be able to walk straight. Jericho Cane (Arnold Schwarzenegger: Batman and Robin) — Biblical literary allusions, folks! — sadly, suffers from Martin Riggs Syndrome, the most prominent symptoms of which are Pistol in Mouth and Disgusting Breakfast Habits, which are afflicting Cane when we first meet him. His beautiful wife and darling child are dead — and it’s his fault! *sob* — and now he’s got no reason to live, blah blah blah.

Schwarzenegger really just should avoid Acting in the future. He’s got a nice comic touch, and he can do stolid and stoic action heroes — but he must be forbidden from ever attempting Character Arc again. It’s tough deciding which is more painfully bad: his mangling of words like Masonic and heraldic, the “tender” moment in which he contemplates his dead daughter’s music box, or the scene in which he confronts Father Kovak (Rod Steiger: Shiloh, In the Heat of the Night), whom he thinks knows something about who’s behind all the mysterious explosions rocking the city.

Yes, explosions. This is Satan, the Prince of Darkness, Mephistopheles, the Big Bad Dude we’re talking about… and he just likes blowing stuff up. Like manhole covers (so that’s why that happens). And restaurants. For all his fantastic pedigree and overambitious résumé, Satan in End of Days is hardly more demonic than the typical action-movie baddie. Satan smokes! In the hospital! Evil! And he’s into kinky sex, but not really all that kinky. Two women at once? Please, show a little creativity. Gabriel Byrne is having fun here — and how could you not, with a role like this — and his seductive charm is just about the only thing worth actually enjoying at face value (I kept waiting for him to hum a few bars of “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”). But just before he’s about to, well, rape Christine in a finale that’s right out of Young Sherlock Holmes — or was it Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? — he says to her, “You know this is what you want.” That about sums up End of Days‘ take on the worst guy you could ever meet: He’s a pyromaniac frat boy.

And what does that have to do with End of Days not being filmed in New York City? Well, for one, Manhattan does not have alleys. Satan could not send his minions to beat up anyone in the seclusion of dark alleys in the real New York, as happens frequently in End of Days. The minions would have to do their beating and killing right there on the sidewalk in full nonview of all the averted eyes of passersby. You tell me, which is more evil: Ordering someone beat up, or standing around trying to avoid watching someone get beat up? Think how dark End of Days could have been.

But instead we have an unscary flick made in the California sunshine. You want unsuspenseful? When Cane is shot in chest about two seconds into the movie, gee, d’ya think he might be wearing a vest? You want predictable? We all know what happens when the hero leaves the goofy made-for-TV sidekick (Kevin Pollak) alone in the car — at night. You want plot contrivance? Hey, Father Kovak, don’tcha think you shoulda made sure the action hero had left the building before wandering off to the basement where all sorts of arcane rituals are going on? Didn’t ya think he might follow? Or were you looking to kickstart the story?

And for the last time, CGI is just not scary.

I love New York
New Yorkers can take just about anything. A century-old water main breaks, flooding Sixth Avenue? No problem. Transit workers go out on strike? We don our sneakers. But the minute those movie-equipment trucks and Winnebagos move in, and those No Parking signs from the Mayor’s Department of Film and Television go up, we go ballistic. “Can you believe it? They’re shooting something on my street again. Some damn film-school PA wouldn’t let me cross the street to get my bagel and Times this morning. Unbelievable.”

Die Hard with a Vengeance is the kind of movie that drives New Yorkers insane while it’s being filmed. But the result is worth it.

Planes, trains, and automobiles. (Okay, they only just mention the plane.) Dump trunks, 18-wheelers, boats, bikes, and helicopters. If action movies are Erector sets, made by a bunch of grown-up boys playing with the biggest and coolest toys imaginable, then this is one of biggest and best toy boxes ever. Director John McTiernan (The 13th Warrior, The Hunt for Red October) — a master of action movies — dumps his toys onto the streets of New York and moves them around with the finesse of someone who knows and loves this city. Some critics complained that Die Hard with a Vengeance doesn’t have the wonderful claustrophobia of, particularly, the first Die Hard, which trapped its characters in a single office building. Those critics have never sat in crosstown traffic. Those critics have never taken 45 minutes to circle a single block. Bumper-to-bumper traffic is claustrophobic, and McTiernan knows it.

The rogue cop who started the current, decade-long craze for tongue-in-cheek action flicks — or at least tied for that honor with Lethal Weapon‘s Martin Riggs — John McClane (Bruce Willis: The Sixth Sense, The Fifth Element) has a “perfectly good hangover” ruined by the deliciously evil Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons: The Man in the Iron Mask, Lolita). A freelance terrorist who’s “not a monster, though I sometimes work for monsters,” Gruber starts off one hot, sticky summer day by blowing up a Midtown department store. And then he starts playing Simon Says with the cops, sending McClane — for whom he holds a particular grudge — on outrageous errands and making nonsensical, nursery-rhyme-sounding demands. Any lack of compliance, and Gruber will blow up some more stuff.

There’s plenty that makes Vengeance one of the cleverest movies ever made in the genre. McClane’s sparring with his unwitting civilian partner Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson: The Phantom Menace, Jackie Brown) is the stuff killer reluctant-buddy flicks are made of. Gruber’s right-hand woman, Katya, is made all the more cold and menacing by dint of the fact that she never speaks a word, merely narrows her eyes appropriately (and all because the actress, country singer Sam Phillips, couldn’t fake the German accent the character would have had). There are the great real-New Yorker characters like the cop Connie Kowalski (Colleen Camp), the bomb geek who thinks Gruber’s explosives are “very cool stuff,” and the truck driver with a head for trivia who provides McClane with a vital clue. McClane himself is constantly being sent up by other characters — his own boss tells Gruber that “McClane is a toilet bug” — and by Willis: I love the scene in which McClane, his clothes bloody, dirty, and torn, buttons his shirt respectfully as he enters the businesslike serenity of a bastion of high finance, the Federal Reserve Bank that Gruber is secretly targeting for a heist.

But what really makes Die Hard with a Vengeance work is that McTiernan practically makes love to the turmoil that is New York City. McClane and Carver are forced, by one of Gruber’s bizarre demands, to drive “90 blocks in 30 minutes in New York traffic?” Carver adds the incredulous question mark: this is not a feat within the realm of mortals. But the race is brilliantly choreographed — as are other chase sequences through heavy traffic — and was obviously shot during midday (these things are usually done at dawn on a Sunday), leaving me, at least, wondering: How’d they do that? McTiernan shoots much of these set pieces documentary style, handheld cameras seemingly seeking out his characters — like news footage shot on the fly — in the midst of the typical Manhattan chaos. It makes for dynamic action that feels unstaged. And the fact that it obviously must have been staged makes it an even greater accomplishment.

Two really improbable coincidences one right after the other add a couple of sour notes to the mix, but for the most part, Die Hard with a Vengeance is what action movies should be: smart, funny, and still thrilling even when you know how it all ends. Vengeance succeeds not only because of its diabolical plot but because the city in which is it set is at least as engaging a character as the humans who populate the story.

[reader comments on this review]

*Please do not e-mail me to say that the millennium actually begins on January 1, 2001. To quote Fox Mulder, no one likes a math geek. And besides, all anyone cares about is watching all those 9s roll over into 0s. Like the way we all watch our car odometers do that, even if it means taking our eyes off the road when we’re barrelling down the interstate at 75mph.

End of Days
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for intense violence and gore, a strong sex scene and language
official site | IMDB

Die Hard with a Vengeance
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R for strong violence and pervasive strong language

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