Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

2018 #63
John McTiernan | 128 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & German | 15 / R

Die Hard with a Vengeance

Making a sequel to what’s regarded as one of, if not the, greatest action (and Christmas) movies of all time is basically a hiding to nothing — however good your work, if it’s not a stone-cold classic too then it’s a relative failure. Nonetheless, there are those who’d argue this second sequel to Die Hard is practically as good as the first one, and they’d practically be right.

After having to defend a skyscraper in the first film and an airport in the second, this time it’s an entire city that’s relying on John McClane (Bruce Willis): a terrorist known only as ‘Simon’ (Jeremy Irons) insists McClane engage in a series of outlandish games in a twisted version of Simon Says, with each successfully completed task preventing the detonation of bombs around New York City. But ‘Simon’ actually has a whole other plan, and there’s a reason he sought out the involvement of McClane…

I’m being coy about Simon’s true identity because the film plays it as a big reveal. I don’t know if it was a surprise twist back in ’95 — it’s not given away in the trailers, but I don’t know about other pre-release material. If it ever was a secret, well, I don’t think it is anymore. I’ve certainly known it almost as long as I can remember. It’s a shame, really, because while it doesn’t exactly ruin the film, it does somewhat undermine the first 45-or-so minutes where it’s played as a mystery.

Dirty cop

That’s doubly disappointing because the the first half-or-so of the film is absolutely excellent: fast-paced (it hits the ground running and doesn’t let up), exciting, engaging. Willis is teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson, which makes for a fun double act. Jeremy Irons is reliably excellent as the villain. Okay, it’s not as classic a role as Alan Rickman in the first one, but then what is? But once Simon’s identity and plan are revealed, the pace and ingenuity begin to flag a little. It doesn’t get bad by any means, but it fails to maintain that early momentum throughout. It’s at least one action sequence too long — literally, because the finale is, pace-wise, an unnecessary addendum. Maybe something could’ve gone earlier to keep it tight, too.

Really, these are niggles; stuff that holds it back from absolute perfection. The inadequacy is only apparent becomes it comes after the first half, which is fantastic. Nonetheless, they niggled me enough to hold me back from giving With a Vengeance a full 5 stars, sadly. (However, I hasten to add that, although this is the same mark I gave Die Hard 2, With a Vengeance is a lot better — in retrospect, I’d probably give the first sequel a 3.)

But my biggest regret is that my insistence on watching film series in order, and my general tardiness about actually doing that watching (it feels like With a Vengeance has been on BBC One all the damn time throughout my life — I coulda watched it decades ago — but it took me a good few years to see Die Hard, and I didn’t watch Die Harder ’til after I started this blog), means I haven’t got round to seeing this until now. I mean, I should be on my third or fourth viewing already! Damn.

4 out of 5

High-Rise (2015)

2016 #123
Ben Wheatley | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

High-RiseI was looking forward to this sci-fi-ish ’70s social satire, but, having let it percolate for a few months, I still have no real grasp of what it was about. I mean, it’s obviously about society, but what its point about society is… I have no idea.

I will add it reminded me of Shivers. I didn’t like Shivers.

Technical merits are first rate — it’s magnificently designed, shot, and edited; a visual delight throughout. Plus it finds two fantastic uses for Abba’s S.O.S. But at a full two hours, pleasant aesthetics are slight sustenance.

Not so much disappointing as indecipherable.

3 out of 5

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

2015 #9
Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

4 out of 5

A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…


* For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

2009 #30
Randall Wallace | 132 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Man in the Iron MaskFrom the off it’s clear that The Man in the Iron Mask is not going to go well. It’s an adaptation of a tale of the Three Musketeers, so naturally is set in historical Paris… where everyone has a different accent and very few of them are French. It is, to be blunt, a horrid mishmash — much like the whole film.

Wordy political intrigue tries to coexist with broad comedy which is squashed against swashbuckling adventure. The latter two could co-exist, but the film feels like it wants to be the former and so suffers for it. The comedy jars too much to be effective, while instances of unintentional comedy unfortunately provoke more frequent laughs. It should at least be able to swash buckles effectively — these are the Three Musketeers after all — but entirely fails to achieve this until the climax. The plot, semi-faithfully adapted from one of Alexandre Dumas’ original novels, offers a level of complexity to which the film clearly aspires, but the adaptation and acting struggle to match it.

The majority of performances are marred by overacting — John Malkovich, especially, is woefully miscast, while Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t appear to give a particularly good performance as either Louis or Philippe. In DiCaprio’s defence I suspect this is actually the script’s fault, because he manages to clearly differentiate the two when they are silent or pretending to be the other — it’s when they open their mouths that it all goes wrong. Gérard Depardieu is fine as the comic relief, though that relief is tonally misplaced, while Gabriel Byrne makes an interesting d’Artagnan — there’s nothing at all wrong with him, and yet he doesn’t feel quite right. Which leaves just Jeremy Irons among the main cast. He fares the best of the lot, even getting the occasional scene or speech that is genuinely quite good, though it’s clear he is far better than the material. To be fair, the same is also true of everyone else.

For all this, The Man in the Iron Mask is more disappointing then bad. The Bastille-set climax is occasionally brilliant and never less than entertaining, delivering on the film’s swashbuckling promise in a copious fashion. Throughout, there’s the occasional good scene — or even just a decent line of dialogue — and you can briefly understand what inspired such quality actors to sign on.

Something went wrong somewhere though, and the obvious culprit must be writer/director Randall Wallace. The story’s good, but that’s Dumas’, while the adaptation’s weak — and that’s Wallace’s. The actor’s are good, but battle the poor script — and that, obviously, is Wallace’s. They don’t seem to have been given any significant direction, they’re not helped by an uneven tone, and even the cinematography falls short, failing to make the spectacular locations and costumes look suitably beautiful on screen — and we know who’s ultimately in charge of all that too.

The Man in the Iron Mask desperately wants to be better than it is — it’s a great tale, packed with politics and swashbuckling, and this particular version has the high calibre cast to pull it off. But both are left floundering by a writer/director who isn’t up to either task — poor dialogue, a gyratingly uneven tone and lacklustre direction abound. A missed opportunity, and all the more disappointing for it.

2 out of 5