A Good Day to Die Hard

I like things that go boom.

A Good Day to Die Hard puts NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Russia to visit his son Jack (Jai Courtney). Shortly after arriving, John encounters Jack, says a quick hello and gets involved in a spectacular car chase. The chase produces enough vehicle carnage to populate St. Louis’ biggest junkyard.

In short order, John learns that Jack is a CIA agent who is trying to get a political prisoner out of Russia. The prisoner wants to bring along his daughter, but the rendezvous with his offspring results in the prisoner’s being taken away by bad guys.

Willis maintains his trademark smirk throughout the film, dropping quips almost as frequently as he drops bad guys. There’s a bit of father/son bonding as dad helps his kid through some tight spots. Seems Jack has some resentment. He felt his father’s work as a cop kept him away from the family too much. At one point during their day of violent mayhem, they mention that they’ve sort of enjoyed the togetherness, such as it is.

Along with car crashes, A Good Day to Die Hard delivers voluminous amounts of gunplay, featuring automatic weapons that never seem to run out of ammo. The film is bookended by huge explosions: a Moscow courthouse bombing shortly after the opening and a copter crash at the finale. (Hope that’s not too much of a spoiler.)

A Good Day to Die Hard does not have a lot of in-your-face anger. Because of its quick pace, there’s not a lot of time to build tension. Many longtime fans of the Die Hard movies are not exactly saying Yippee-Ki-Yay in their online comments. But AGDTDH is kinetic, with action aplenty. And many things that go boom.

 

 

 

 

Zero Dark Thirty

The mission to find and kill Osama Bin Laden was long and arduous. This fictionalized telling of a mostly true story reminds us how hard America worked to get its revenge for the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01.

The depiction of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, looks like video of the real thing. But it is not. It’s a movie—a remarkably well-done movie. This final half hour of Zero Dark Thirty is the money shot, the reason to see the film.

Zero Dark Thirty’s central character is Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. She’s a CIA operative who is the driving force behind the search for Bin Laden. She is not a real person, but a combination of several people who have shared their information with the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal.

Zero Dark Thirty shows the CIA torturing those they believe have information. One operative tells a detainee, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” Depictions of waterboarding in the film are followed later by footage of President Obama stating, “America doesn’t torture.” One agent, as he is about to leave a CIA Black Ops site at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, says he’s going stateside because he has “just seen too many guys naked.”

Solid information is hard to come by. A planned meeting with a supposed informant at another base in Afghanistan results in an explosion that takes several lives. An angry meeting at CIA HQ reveals the frustration of the search with the shouted words, “Bring me people to kill!”

Then, when indications are strong that Osama is in the Abbottabad compound, the CIA waits for authorization from the White House to strike. Maya begins a daily update on the glass window of her office of the number of days from the time he has been located. When the number of days top 100, frustration mounts.

Finally, the raid is authorized and on 5/1/11, the deed is done.

Zero Dark Thirty may not be the best movie of 2012, but its slow buildup to a big payoff demonstrates excellent filmmaking skill. Credit director Kathryn Bigelow, as Oscar winner two years ago for The Hurt Locker, for another memorable film. Chastain is the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar and deservedly so.

Zero Dark Thirty is powerful stuff. Don’t miss it.

 

 

Argo

“Argo” is a home run. Ben Affleck confirms his talent as a storyteller with a film that has new relevance following recent anti-American turmoil in the Mideast.

Most Americans don’t know about the CIA operative who guided six U.S. Embassy employees out of Iran in early 1980. The mission was declassified in the 90’s and now the tale can be told, with dramatic embellishments. The embassy staffers had taken refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence during the siege that began the hostage crisis in 1979.

Ben Affleck is director and star of “Argo.” Look for a best director nomination for his excellent work with a compelling story and a strong cast.

“Argo” grabs attention from its opening frames. Following a brief prelude that gives an overview of Persian history, “Argo” presents a graphic recreation of the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

What distinguishes “Argo” from other rescue mission movies is the scheme employed to convince Iranian officials that the six Americans (and the CIA guy played by Affleck) are members of a Canadian film crew. A Hollywood makeup man (played by John Goodman) and a veteran producer (played by Alan Arkin) provide a legitimate cover story for the “crew.” Goodman and Arkin’s characters also provide vital comic relief.

Affleck, Goodman and Arkin sift through a pile of rejected movie scripts. From the many, one is chosen. Titled “Argo,” it gets the full Hollywood treatment: storyboards, posters, a media event, coverage in movie trade papers, etc. The Iranians buy it. The CIA guy gets into Iran. Getting the six others and himself out is the hard part.

The pacing of “Argo” is near perfect. Its narrative unfolds neatly, switching among settings in Iran, CIA HQ, the White House and Hollywood.

Our trip back to the beginning of the 80’s accurately shows long hair and sideburns on men, omnipresent smoking, 70’s cars and archival clips of TV news coverage of the hostage crisis. An answering machine similar to one I owned back in the day is an appropriate period prop.

Bryan Cranston is Affleck’s CIA boss. Kyle Chandler is almost a dead-ringer for former Carter administration Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.

Some who post on message boards are distressed that the role Affleck plays was not given to a Hispanic actor, as the real life CIA operative was a Latino. Friends of the real life Canadian ambassador claim he was given less credit for his role in the mission by the filmmakers than he deserves. Others posters claim that the movie is little more than US propaganda to get the country ready for our upcoming war with Iran. Folks, it’s a movie. It’s based on a true story, but it’s a movie.

Hollywood likes movies about movie making, which means “Argo” could be a contender for best picture.

“Argo” is a “must see.” Those who can recall the awful feelings we felt in America during the hostage crisis will appreciate the fact that during that horrible period, our country managed to do at least one thing right.

This Means War—(Reese Piece)

Ever had a food item that was good but made better by some special sauce or seasoning? In “This Means War,” Chelsea Handler provides the spice that makes this good movie better.

“This Means War” is a romantic action comedy. All three of those genres get their due. Reese Witherspoon meets two guys—one through an online dating service; the other via video store flirting. She ends up going out with both. Here’s the kicker: The two guys work together as CIA operatives! Plus they are best friends!

Personal anecdote that relates: When I moved to the Twin Cities a few decades ago, the first two women I dated—one via an arranged blind date; the other from a chance meeting at the state fair—both worked at the Three Sisters retail clothing store at Rosedale Mall! (I am now happily married to one of them.)

Back to TMW: Reese’s two guys are Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, two good-looking, likeable guys who realize early on that they’re dating the same woman. But Reese doesn’t know they know each other. Classic sitcom plotting, but handled well here.

Reese gets romantic advice from her married friend, played by Chelsea Handler. Handler is hilarious in this movie. Reportedly, “This Means War” was originally rated R, but some of Handler’s saucier language was clipped to get the rating knocked down to PG-13. I generally ignore “unrated” version DVD ‘s, but might look for this one when it comes out this spring or summer.

In addition to the romance and comedy, there’s action. The film kicks off with a battle in Hong Kong between our two CIA guys and some really mean bad guys. The fight involves gun play, hand-to-hand combat, helicopters and a fall from a tall building. The movie’s climax comes with a well-executed chase scene. The CIA aspect comes into play as each guy monitors the other guy’s wooing of Reese.

If I had to rank the movie’s three elements, I’d put comedy first, followed by action, then romance. My wife—you may remember her from Three Sisters in Rosedale Mall—ranks them exactly the same.

“This Means War” is not a movie to love, but is one to like. Have some fun with it.