Tag Archives: Die Hard

That Voice

rickman

Not been a great week, folks.  I saw a tweet this morning that suggested we should call an early end to it and head over to the pub to drown our sorrows.  The news of actor Alan Rickman’s passing from cancer at the age of 69 has left me inclined to agree.  Between him and David Bowie earlier this week, we’re losing too many of our heroes.  People we were never going to meet and who never knew of our own existence but still occupy that special place in our hearts reserved for family.  Alan Rickman was a compelling actor for whom no one ever seemed to have a bad word, either in regard to his work or the man himself.  And yet it’s surprising to know that for someone who provided so many indelible, endlessly quotable screen moments, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, never broke out of the character actor mold for a really meaty lead part, never achieved the level of stardom someone of his talents really deserved – although by the reaction seen on social media this morning, it’s clear that he was considered something by millions that many more “famous” actors can only dream of being:  a treasure.

I did not know the man, I have no personal anecdotes about chance encounters with him to share.  I have only what most people have:  his legacy.  Few on this side of the pond had heard of Alan Rickman when he signed on to star opposite Bruce Willis in 1988’s Die Hard.  In retrospect it seems hard to imagine how risky a gamble that movie was considered at the time:  an expensive action picture with an untested TV actor in the lead and an even lesser known British stage veteran as the villain.  Yet it’s almost a perfect piece of cinematic entertainment, and so much of its success hinges on the strength of the two men pitted against one another.  Rickman, with his singular, resonant, sepulchral tones coiling themselves lovingly around clever, sophisticated, literate dialogue with the slickness of an eel drenched in light sweet crude, crafted the perfect foil for the wisecracking, blue-collar Willis, and established a standard for memorable villains that led every single movie casting agent to burn through their Rolodex hunting for the next Shakespearean Brit they could pluck from obscurity to face off against the mumbling American action star du jour.  You could argue that without Alan Rickman in Die Hard, there would have been no Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, no Jeremy Irons in The Lion King, no Gary Oldman in… pretty much everything.  And there certainly would have been no Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, emoting to the rafters about calling off Christmas and carving out innards with a spoon because “it’s dull, it’ll hurt more.”  Rickman became so identified as the prototypical villain that it’s interesting to note he never played another straight baddie after that.  (Your daily trivia:  the villain in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fourth-wall busting Last Action Hero was written for Rickman, literally – the script features the movie’s young hero calling him by name – but after Rickman begged off, Charles Dance took the part and wore a T-shirt to the set reading “I’m cheaper than Alan Rickman!”)

Wary, perhaps, of being relegated to what might have in fact been a profitable career of snarling and firing guns every few years, Rickman stepped back into smaller features, deploying his talents instead in period pieces and romantic films, and when it suited him, riffing on his own pop culture image.  He was brilliant in Galaxy Quest as a character inspired by Leonard Nimoy, a classically trained stage actor typecast as an alien in a cheesy sci-fi show and reduced to spouting his tired catchphrase at department store ribbon cuttings.  (His best moment in the movie:  challenging co-star Tim Allen to find the motivation of a marauding rock monster and accusing him of never being serious about “the craft.”)  And perhaps no one else could have so beautifully captured the hilarious over-the-top melancholy of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the underappreciated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy either – one cannot help but smile when Marvin first descends from the ceiling warning everyone in Rickman’s voice that he’s feeling very depressed.  Our instinct to immediately love an Alan Rickman character worked against us in Love Actually when we couldn’t believe what a heartless prat he was being to his adoring wife Emma Thompson, but our faith that there was more to him than the obvious notes was rewarded when we saw at the end that he was clearly trying to atone for his terrible mistake for the sake of their family – just as we hoped we would under the same circumstances.

And then, of course, there is the cherished Severus Snape in Harry Potter.  However well-intentioned or made, the movies simply can’t capture the intricate details and backstories provided in the books, and so we rely on the performances to fill in the blanks.  In the early films Snape always seems to be a character very much on the periphery, vacillating between heroics and villainy, and, atypically for Rickman, rather understated.  In a few of the early movies you almost forget Snape is there, so minimal are his contributions to the plot.  In the first film Rickman’s presence serves as an efficient red herring, so focused are you on the notion of this blatant bad guy that he distracts you completely from the true puppet master.  From then onward, he lurks about in the background, and yet, because it’s Alan Rickman, you know there will end up being a deeper story to this man than the one you’re seeing on the surface.  You can’t ignore what’s going on behind those dark eyes, and in that basso as it intones “Mis… tah Pottah.”  The stage is carefully set over the course of eight films for the revelation of Snape’s complicated yet ultimately noble soul, and one doubts whether or not an actor other than Alan Rickman could have pulled it off, with the patience and the skill to weave together a character one tiny, almost unnoticeable thread at a time.  Millions of children (and children at heart) will forevermore read those books and picture Rickman speaking the lines, a special kind of immortality after which many can long and few will ever achieve.

Like David Bowie, it is strange to contemplate the notion that there will never be another Alan Rickman movie.  That no lucky screenwriter will ever again have the privilege of hearing that utterly unique voice giving life to their lines.  But he leaves behind a rich body of work of which he could be proud and of which many of his generation of actors and those after him will be envious.  Though he often played intense characters, he was not off-puttingly intense himself.  He did not mouth off to the press or pretend that his chosen calling was somehow divine.  He was never one to embrace the culture of celebrity or push himself into the tabloids with scandalous affairs or nasty comments about his peers.  He was a good man, who did good work, always brought his best game, and possessed that endearing, ever-so-British trait of being able to take the piss out of himself every once in a while (watch his final appearance on the Tonight Show as he and Jimmy Fallon inhale helium balloons.)  And millions of people loved him for it.  Little gold statuettes are no substitute for the echo of applause that lingers long after the final curtain has come down and the stage lights have gone out.

Our ovation for Alan Rickman will go on for quite a while yet.

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Skyfall Countdown Day 7: Licence to Kill

Carey Lowell about to exact vengeance on Wayne Newton for his Vegas act.

Throughout the James Bond series, Bond’s biggest challenge has not been any of the seemingly endless ranks of supervillains he’s come up against, or even the bevy of beautiful women who’ve sought to tame him.  Rather, it has been that most complicated of adversaries, the United States of America.  Bond’s relationship with America has been one of push and pull, give and take, with America always wanting more, it seems, than Bond’s willing to give.  Many of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels take place in America, or feature American characters.  American audiences have embraced this English hero and propelled him to unimagined heights.  It was an American President, John F. Kennedy, who first brought Fleming’s novels into the national spotlight.  Yet America’s more crass, tentacled, Borg-ifying side that seeks to remake the entirety of global culture in her commercialized image has always been a wolf nipping at James Bond’s door.  American studio executives push hard for more American content in 007; American actors have tested for the role of Bond, and American performers have been forced into Bond casts to ensure American audiences won’t be put off by too many foreign accents.  Ironically, Bond’s quintessential Britishness has been protected from these attempts by the American producers who continue to shepherd his legacy.  But if there is a single Bond movie that feels the most American, it would have to be Licence to Kill.  (The ironies continue to abound given that the movie’s working title, License Revoked, was abandoned when test marketing suggested American audiences would think the movie was about a teenager losing his driver’s license.)  That the movie is an effectively told tale but at some gut level just feels wrong speaks to this concept that a little America in Bond goes a very long way.

When Bond’s longtime friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising the role from Live and Let Die) is maimed and his wife murdered by seemingly untouchable South American drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), Bond defies an unsympathetic M, resigns his commission and goes rogue to pursue vengeance.  Succeeding first in stealing $5 million from Sanchez’s cohort Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Bond travels to Sanchez’s home country, and, with the assistance of CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), Sanchez’s mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and a helpful Q (Desmond Llewelyn), infiltrates Sanchez’s world.  The stakes are raised when it turns out Sanchez is purchasing shoulder-mounted missiles he intends to use against American passenger airliners if the American Drug Enforcement Agency doesn’t leave him alone.  By sowing seeds of mistrust, Bond leads Sanchez to dismantle his own kingdom, the villain himself killing off his associates in ever more brutal fashion – before Bond’s true nature is revealed and he squares off against the object of his quest in a final, gasoline-soaked showdown.  Vengeance is never a picturesque road, and Licence to Kill was the most violent Bond film to date, with character after character meeting grisly end, either in shark tanks, decompression chambers, pillars of flame, or simply in a hail of machine gun bullets.  Bond himself is embittered, cynical and remorseless as he winds his way through his elaborate plan of retribution.  The trouble was, particularly in the summer of 1989, there were already plenty of antiheroes crowding the box office, and a gentleman English spy couldn’t compete on that level – not only that, audiences didn’t really want him to.  Bond had, in effect, become too American for the Americans who loved him.

Numerous subtle factors contribute to the over-American sense of this movie.  Filming in England proved too expensive this time around, and so the entirety of the production relocated to Mexico, with the opening scenes shot in and around Key West, Florida.  American accents abound – casting took place out mainly of the States and the supporting players are a roster of familiar if lesser known TV actors, people like Hedison, Zerbe, Frank McRae, Priscilla Barnes, Grand L. Bush, Everett McGill, Don Stroud and Anthony Starke.  In fact, leading lady Lowell’s most prominent role since this movie has been on Law & Order.  Given that a portion of the design budget had to go towards refurbishing the Mexican studio first, the resulting sets lack the polish and finish of the Ken Adam creations of old, looking very much like locations thrown together on a much leaner American TV budget.  Michael Kamen’s score evokes his previous work on Die Hard and the Lethal Weapon series.  And then of course there’s the presence of Mr. Vegas himself, Wayne Newton.  There is something to be said for the exercise of taking a character out of his comfort zone and plopping him down in an unfamiliar environment – the old “fish out of water” trope – but watching James Bond order a Budweiser in a redneck bar just before it explodes into a full-on brawl as cheesy 80’s rock wails on the jukebox just makes him seem… ordinary.  The appeal of Bond is watching him move through exotic worlds unattainable by us mere mortals, not seeing him slumming at the karaoke dive just down the street.  Anyone can do that; why do we need to go to the movies to see it?

Despite the Americanized aesthetic, there are a few standouts of note.  As Sanchez, Robert Davi delivers the most complex, multi-layered portrayal of an antagonist yet seen in a Bond movie.  Sanchez is a sadistic man, yet he has his own strong moral code which values loyalty above anything else, and betrayals merit the cruellest punishments.  Without delving even slightly into the origins of this man – no elegantly related backstory to be found here, he just explodes onto the screen as a force of nature – Davi rounds him out and gives him a degree of the elegance common to the finest Bond bad guys, and a correspondingly wicked sense of humour to boot.  And a 22-year-old Benicio Del Toro, in only his second movie, shows hints of greatness to come as Sanchez’s eccentric, hot-tempered young cohort Dario.  But in some ways, the biggest joy in the movie comes from the ever-endearing Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who is freed from his laboratory and his usual briefing scene to become a significant partner in Bond’s mission.  With more screen time here than in his last half-dozen Bond movies combined, Llewelyn gets to do some genuine character work and become a father figure to Bond in a way that the cold, bureaucratic M (Robert Brown) never did.

But it’s still Timothy Dalton’s movie, and in what would turn out to be his final performance as James Bond, he dares to give us a 007 consumed with passions and doubts that his usual veneer of sophistication cannot control.  Fuelled by animalistic anger and the desire for retribution, Bond begins to lose his way, and himself.  But he comes to realize that in order to complete his mission and bring Felix Leiter some justice, he cannot be that simple “blunt instrument” – he has to become James Bond again.  Particularly telling is the moment where Bond sits, bloodied and bruised, watching Sanchez and all that remains of his drug empire dissipating into smoke, and there is no sense of triumph to be had, only the quiet solitude of the end of the long night – an oddly European ending for such an American-feeling movie, but one that suited Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of the classic role.

In times past, if you were disappointed by a Bond movie, you could comfort yourself with the reassurance that there would be another, hopefully better one coming in only a couple of years.  One wonders how many fans walked out of Licence to Kill thinking the same thing, only to find that studio politics, lawsuits, shady financial dealings and plain old greed had vastly different plans.

Tomorrow:  Pierce Brosnan finally gets his second chance.