Feb 13, 2013

Cinematters: Die HARD, or not at all.

I'm probably slightly atypical among lovers of the Die Hard series in that Die Hard With A Vengeance, the third film, is currently my least favourite of the series. It never quite felt like a Die Hard film to me, the antagonistic relationship between Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson is abrasive and little fun, and, despite a great villain, the film collapses in its last half hour, which feels anticlimactic after the lengthy build up. Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free or Die Hard if you prefer) is not much more a Die Hard film – like With a Vengeance it lacks the claustrophobia that defines the first two films, and, for me, marks the series out – but I enjoy it more as a pure action film, at least in the Extended DVD cut.

One thing that has been notable throughout the series, but became much more acute in the cinema version of the fourth film (a 15 here, but a PG-13 in the States, much to the consternation of some fans) is that each film has slightly blunted the violent and profane edges that the original film exhibited with such pride. Let's trace the development of the Die Hard series in this respect. The first film was an 18 certificate on its cinema release, and has retained that certificate in every iteration since, probably largely thanks to the bathroom scene, in which the camera's focus is lovingly turned on McClane's foot as he pulls a piece of glass out of it. The second film was a very odd case; a 15 at the cinema, it came out in two separate prints on video, both were uncut from the cinema version, but the Widescreen version got an 18 certificate, but it has now been downgraded to a 15, which seems appropriate given that the film is still very violent, but lacks that focused moment the first film has.

Die Hard With a Vengeance is where the tide begins to turn. Yes, it's as profanity strewn as ever, what with Samuel L. Motherfuckin' Jackson in the cast, but thanks to the film's plot contriving to keep McClane away from the bad guys as far as possible, the violence is more muted. This didn't stop Fox making cuts to retain the film's cinematic 15 certificate on video though. Die Hard 4.0 is an infamous case; released initially in a PG-13 version which made it seem as though someone had washed John McClane's mouth out with soap, and with much less violence (though there's no shortage of action the film dwells little on the effects of the violence, which was a great strength of the first two films, but which tends to bump up your certificate). Though the film did well at the box office, there was dissatisfaction with the PG-13, and that seems to have been something that Twentieth Century Fox have taken note of for A Good Day to Die Hard, in the US.

A Good Day to Die Hard is rated R in the United States, which would seem to signal an at least partial return to the harder hitting violence and saltier language that John McClane used against his adversaries in the first three films, however, Fox have chosen to cut this version of the film on pre-submission advice from BBFC, for the UK market in order to secure a 12A certificate.

It's not hard to see why Fox would want to do this, given both recent precedent at the box office and the difference between the US and UK rating systems. Though it is likely that this plan was in place beforehand, given the round thrashing the box office has recently given two 80's action heroes with new 15 rated films – Arnie's excellent The Last Stand and Sly's dreadful Bullet to the Head – the decision to use the 12A certificate to open up the new Die Hard to audiences of all ages makes sound commercial sense; thinking like a marketer, it allows Dad, who grew up on the series, to take his son and introduce him to the films in a way that is a bit 'safer'. It's easy to criticise, but you can't deny that a 15 effectively cuts out a large part of not just a younger but an older audience. There will be parents who won't go to a film because of either the expense or the hassle of getting someone to take care of the kids, and they might well go – and bring an extra person – if the certificate allows them to bring junior. The maths, frankly, is irresistible.

Unfortunately, given the UK's system, to get your film plugged into that seductive little equation you have to make it fit the 12A certificate. The same is not the case in the US. R rated films do usually make less money than their PG13 counterparts, hence the proliferation of PG13 horror, but because the R rating is, like the 12A, advisory rather than statutory, the equation still works whether or not the film is cut. The thing is, the fact that I understand doesn't mean that I approve.

Maybe it's just looking at it from two opposing perspectives at two different ages, but when I was a kid it seemed as though I was – legally speaking – excluded from most action films, because they were made for adults, and now it seems that I'm excluded from them because they're being made suitable for kids. When I was young, these films were a sort of forbidden fruit; they were too mature for me to see, and that's reflected not just in the violence and profanity of Die Hard, but in the fact that it takes a more complex and adult view of the world. In Die Hard the hero is a man with a strained marriage, a man who is not just flawed and fallible, but deeply ambivalent about the idea of being a hero. The key point is that in no sense is he indestructible; he has to be talked through several moments where he's close to mental breakdown and giving up, but he's also seriously physically vulnerable. By the end, John McClane could be accurately described as a broken man, and because you like him so much, that's tough to see.

This is the key thing that has gone away in the series, and the key thing that has served to infantalise it. As the series has gone on, and especially in the fourth film (whichever version you see), McClane has become ever more impervious to pain, the way that a cartoon character is. It's always puzzled me that the way to make violence 'suitable' for children is to pretend that it doesn't hurt, but that's another discussion. The problem is that by making McClane an impervious cartoon, the filmmakers reduce him, they make less interesting, less relatable, in the same way that Superman's invulnerability makes him boring (for me). It looks, from the very orange trailer, as though this is going to be even more accented in A Good Day to Die Hard than it was in 4.0.

I, and I'm sure most fans, don't want the Die Hard series to be suitable for 9 year olds. First of all, going to the cinema to see these kinds of films used to be a good excuse to get away from unruly kids in the audience (not that adults are any better these days, but I digress).  More importantly the certificate means that the film will seriously struggle to deliver the kind of action and the kind of dialogue that has come to define the series and is the reason that people have such affection for it and keep wanting to revisit the films. If you neuter that, if you take the Hard out of Die Hard, why make the film in the first place?

All this said, the 12A itself, the cynicism of it, the presumably neutered content, is not the reason that I'll be avoiding A Good Day to Die Hard at the cinema. The reason I will boycott the film is that Fox has singled us out for special treatment, whatever the financial reasons, and however much I can see the thinking behind them, Fox has decided that British fans don't merit the same consideration as American fans, that because of our slightly more restrictive ratings system we don't deserve to see the complete version of this film. Not only that, they've decided that at the cinema we don't even deserve the choice. There is precedent for this. When Sacha Baron Cohen's repellently unfunny Bruno hit cinemas there was such desire from a younger audience to see it that the distributors cut about 90 seconds from the film and released an alternate version as a 15. If younger audiences deserve a choice at the cinema, why don't older audiences? I'm sure that we'll get the uncut A Good Day to Die Hard on a much trumpeted Blu Ray release, emblazoned with banners saying 'UNCUT' and 'WHAT YOU DIDN'T SEE AT THE CINEMA', and I'm equally sure that that release will simply be the R rated cut that is being released all over the world, except here in the UK. So, while Fox treat us like children and the rest of the world like adults with this film, I won't be putting money in their pockets. I hope some of you will join me, and send them a message.

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