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.

Blowing Things Up

Let’s face it:  many of us like seeing things get blown up.  The entire Die Hard movie franchise is, effectively, based on that one crucial assumption about movie audiences.

When it comes to buildings being demolished, we might rationalize that we like to see the engineering wizardry, precision of the placement of the charges and the careful timing that allows the toppling building to fall just so — but really we just like to see things get blown up and collapsing in a huge, billowing cloud of gritty dust.

So it is with the implosion of the abandoned Park Avenue Hotel in Detroit, which was demolished a few days ago to make way for the new Red Wings arena.  As the hosts of SCTV’s Farm Film Report would have said, “it blowed up real good!”

Review: Iron Man 2

I didn’t realize how devoted Iron Man’s fan base is. When I saw the first showing at midnight on Thursday, the theater was packed with boisterous fans who chanted “OH – IO” and “Iron Man rules!”, and who booed the trailer for the upcoming Twilight sequel.

Their excitement was rewarded. Iron Man 2 isn’t as high-quality as the original, but its pretty damn good for a sequel. Not The Dark Knight good, but good.

The formula is pretty much the same as the first film: some good action scenes with top-notch special effects that show off Iron Man’s suit, with lots of funny one-liners in-between. Tony Stark has a few arrogant freak-outs, and he flirts with Gwyneth Paltrow. He builds a few incredible machines in spurts of brilliance.

Technically, the movie breaks my rule against seeing formulaic sequels, but it’s made so skillfully that it gets a pass.

Well, the movie isn’t exactly the same as the first, because there are additions to the cast, but none of them struck me as memorable or original. Scarlett Johansson plays some sort of martial arts expert who works for some sort of organization that’s helping Iron Man out for some reason, but she’s basically just there to add star power and to look good in a leather body suit. Sam Rockwell plays the weaselly C.E.O. of a competitor of Stark Industries. Samuel L. Jackson is a guy in the same whatever organization as Scarlett Johansson. They give him a few good Samuel L. Jackson one-liners of the Snakes on a Plane variety, but he doesn’t do much else. Garry Shandling makes a humorous appearance as the “asshole dissenting Republican senator” stereotype, parodied so aptly by South Park.

I went to this movie to see Mickey Rourke, who plays a Russian fellow who feels cheated by Tony Stark for some reason (the movie doesn’t dwell much on its plot). I really liked Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler, as well as a lot of the work he did in the eighties, before his boxing career morphed his face and changed his brand as an actor. Unfortunately, his character doesn’t do much apart from being angry all the time and having a thick Russian accent. The final fight scene between him and Iron Man was a definite let-down. In fact, [spoiler ahead], he ends up getting killed in the same “cross the streams!” situation used in Ghostbusters. I guess the movie’s screenwriters were too exhausted to come up with anything good after thinking up all of Stark’s witticisms.

That’s understandable. Tony Stark seems to have become even wittier since the actions of the first film; you might call this an action-comedy along the lines of Ghostbusters. In real life, someone whose main form of communication is wisecracks would be unbearable, but Tony Stark comes off as funny and sympathetic and exciting thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s confident, understated performance – like Bill Murray’s in Ghostbusters.

The Iron Man suit is as cool as ever, and we get to see a silver one operated by Don Cheadle, who plays some general or whatever who talks to Iron Man a lot. Mickey Rourke’s character builds a cool suit of his own, which has whips of electricity coming from his arms that can cut through a car. Sam Rockwell’s company builds these flying robots that are kinda cool, but basically the equivalent of those disposable putties on Power Rangers. There are some great action scenes, such as when Rourke confronts Iron Man at a race track.

Iron Man 2‘s strengths make it so entertaining that you hardly notice the flaws. It’s a worthy successor to the original film. Hell, even Die Hard had its cheesy moments (John McClane: “This is a nice computer.” Security Guard: “Yeah. If you take a leak, it’ll even help you find your zipper.”). When I left the theater I wasn’t thinking about the cliched showdown; I was thinking about Tony Stark’s quips and the image of Iron Man flying solo in the night sky above L.A.