The Perfect Hans

Alan Rickman died today, after a battle with cancer.  Only 69 — which is all too young in these days of countless medical advances and miracle drugs — he was an exceptionally talented and enormously accomplished actor who lit up stage and screen in a variety of roles, from serious to comedic, that attested to the amazingly wide range of his abilities.

For me, though, he will always be Hans Gruber, the brilliant, urbane villain in Die Hard who was one of the greatest movie villains ever.

hans-gruber-die-hardI know, I know:  it’s not fair to reduce an actor of Rickman’s achievements to one role — but I can’t help it.  Rickman was so perfect for the role, and his creation of Hans was so perfect for the film, that he almost single-handedly vaulted Die Hard from an impressive action movie into a classic of the genre.  Sure, Bruce Willis was great, but it was Hans that distinguished Die Hard from the run of the mill action thriller, because Hans was different from every other action movie villain.  Unlike the normal bad guys, he wasn’t slugging it out with the hero in an impossibly violent ending scene, nor was he some mindless psychopath.  No, Hans had depth, he had smarts, and he had a great plan and team — and it would have worked if only John McClane hadn’t stumbled onto the scene at the Nakatomi Plaza.

I may be alone in this, but I actually identified more with Hans than with McClane.  Hans wore a sophisticated, well-tailored suit, his dry wit was hilarious, his decision to pose as a terrorist to distract the cops and FBI cowboys from his plan to steal millions in bearer bonds was a stroke of genius, and he was ruthless and single-minded in his pursuit of his pay day.  When Hans objected to being described as a common thief — saying, indignantly, that “I am an exceptional thief” — I wholeheartedly agreed with him.  And, according to the news articles, many of the touches that made Hans unique and so intensely memorable were suggested by Rickman in the first place.

Rickman was great as Severus Snape, too, and I also thought he was hysterical as Alexander Dane, the would-be Shakespearean actor who bridled at playing an alien with a hackneyed catch phrase in a sci-fi TV show in Galaxy Quest, but those are only a few of the roles that made up a fine career.  It’s terrible when gifted actors like Rickman can die so young, but at least he left behind a record of his talents that his fans can enjoy again and again.  He will be missed.

Potter’s End

This week Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, will be released to a breathless public.  It will be the last installment of the Harry Potter series of movies — movies that, since the first film was released 10 years ago, have generated huge sums for Warner Brothers and theatre owners everywhere.

The Harry Potter movies probably have been the most financially successful series of films ever made.  There have been seven installments, and all have ended up in the top 70 box office hits of all time.  The lowest-grossing film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, grossed just below $250 million and comes in at number 64 on the list; the highest-grossing film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, generated $317 million and is number 26.  The producers have managed to keep the cast of actors playing the principal characters together for the entire ten-year run — excluding Richard Harris, who died after playing Professor Dumbledore for the first two films and was replaced by Michael Gambon — and the youthful actors playing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) can still plausibly play teenagers.

Critics argue that the Harry Potter movies are not excellent films.  They obviously don’t stack up with Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or other classic cinematic landmarks, but that really is not their goal.  Instead, the movies seek to faithfully bring to life a beloved set of books so that the stories can be enjoyed, again, by Harry’s millions of fans.  By this measure, I think the movies have been a huge success.  Parts of the written story have been cut, which is not surprising given the length of some of the books, but the core elements and places are there.  And the actors who have created the principal adult roles — like Alan Rickman with his terrific Severus Snape, Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange — have put memorable flesh and blood on characters that could have been mere caricatures.

I’ll go to see the last installment in the series and will watch it with pleasure.  I’m particularly interested in seeing how Rickman fills in the final elements of the Severus Snape story, how the filmmakers deal with the curious meeting between Harry and Dumbledore just before the climactic battle at Hogwarts — and whether the somewhat controversial coda to the final book is included.