Die Hard 2 (1990, Renny Harlin)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While waiting for his wife to land in Washington, policeman John McClane stumbles across a terrorist plan to seize control of the airport…

Source material: The plot of Die Hard 2 is taken from 58 Minutes, a novel written in 1987 by Walter Wager. A good, rattling thriller, it has no connection to either the first Die Hard film or the book it was based on. As well as rejigging 58 Minutes for John McClane and co, screenwriter Steven E de Souza took the opportunity to add a sly crossover with his earlier movie Commando (1985): both films feature the fictional Central American country of Val Verde. (By the way, Die Hard 2 is often referred to as Die Hard 2: Die Harder in promotional material – but that subtitle doesn’t actually appear on screen.)

John McClane: Our hero has become a minor celebrity in the two years since the first film. His heroics at the Nakatomi building led to interviews and TV appearances, though we’re told he struggled on current-affairs show Nightline. Bruce Willis is again superb in the role and the frequency of his wisecracks has only increased. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he asks himself knowingly as goes up against terrorists while wearing a dirty vest.

Regulars:
* John’s wife, Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), is on a cross-country flight that’s approaching Dulles when the bad guys take over the air-traffic-control systems and stop all landings. The plane is going to run out of fuel, of course, upping the personal ante for John down on the ground. While the crisis develops, Holly gets an enjoyable little subplot with…
* Slimy news reporter Dick Thornburg (William Atherton) is – how’s this for a coincidence? – on the same flight as Mrs McClane. This causes an issue because a judge has ordered that she stay 50 yards away from him after punching him on live TV. When he deduces that there’s a problem on the ground, Dick calls his station and broadcasts the information – so Holly zaps him with a taser.
* Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) appears briefly when John phones home to LA to ask for his colleague’s help. Al’s eating a Twinkie, which is a call-back to the first film.

Villain: The leader of the terrorists is Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), who’s introduced via a bizarre scene of him doing yoga in the nude. The character is a cold, calculating baddie who’s nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber – but then again, who is? Stuart has several lackeys, including guys played by Robert Patrick (soon to be the T-1000 in Terminator 2) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (who later directed an episode of Firefly). Their plan is to secure the release of General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a Central American fascist who’s being extradited to the US and is due to land at Dulles. Halfway through the film, a crack team of US Army commandos arrive on the scene, seemingly to defeat the bad guys – but then we later learn that they’re actually allies of Stuart. The squad’s leader is played by John Amos, later a semi-regular in The West Wing.

Music: Michael Kamen again provides the effective score. Vaughn Monroe’s Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! plays the film out, as it had done in the first Die Hard movie.

Review: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This sequel shamelessly reuses most of the successful ingredients from the first Die Hard – a wisecracking John McClane, his composed wife, the slimy journalist Dick Thornburg, a group of well-drilled terrorists, a confined location at Christmas, some local police who don’t know what they’re doing – and the result is very, very near to being equally entertaining. The film has real drive and momentum, and crosscuts between the subplots with a genuine slickness. The action scenes are inventive and exciting. The dialogue is packed full of action-movie attitude. And while the antagonists feel a bit off-the-shelf, there are some other enjoyable guest characters. Instead of an almost empty skyscraper, this time we’re in a wintery, blizzard-struck airport containing 15,000 people. The place is run by the unflappable Ed Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson, a fascinating man who was a lawyer during the Watergate hearings, later a US Senator, and ran for President in 2008), while the local police force is headed by Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), one of *the* great sweary/ranty/angry police captains in genre cinema. Meanwhile, a TV journalist called Sam Coleman (Sheila McCarthy) is on the scene to not only provide the audience with exposition but to also help John out a couple of times. So, while not reaching the Mount Olympus heights of the first movie, Die Hard 2 is a very fine action thriller in its own right. There’s a certain untidiness in some areas – a bit of unconvincing ADR here, some clunky dialogue there – and we miss a villain as good as Hans Gruber. But all in all, a very, very enjoyable film.

Nine sitting ducks out of 10

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Star Trek: The Next Generation: season four (1990/91)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season four…

Best episode:
* First Contact. Riker is injured while undercover on an alien world… A great concept, done entirely from the alien characters’ point of view – it’s their story, really, and our characters are the guests. The whole episode is really well directed, has a funny cameo from Cheers star Bebe Neuwirth, and there’s good character stuff all round (no one’s an idiot and the alien culture feels textured and believable). Maybe my favourite episode of the whole series, in fact.

Honourable mentions:
* The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The conclusion of last season’s cliffhanger… Not in the same league as the first part – you get the sense they’d written themselves into a corner – but still entertaining.
* Family. Suffering from the after-effects of his Borg conversion, Picard goes home to France… A lovely change of pace: a quiet character episode with no sci-fi gubbins. Sadly, the episode keeps cutting back to subplots on the Enterprise featuring Worf and Wesley – it’s a shame, as these strands are nothing special.
* Brothers. Data hijacks the Enterprise! As this series goes along, the frequency with which Data goes loopy does get tiresome (how is he still third in command of the fleet flagship?!), but Brent Spiner plays three characters here and does it very well.
* Remember Me. Crusher starts to notice that crewmembers are vanishing, but no one else remembers them… A fun and intriguing sci-fi concept. It also pulls off a neat twist when we later switch to another POV.
* Legacy. During a civil war on an alien world, the crew meet the sister of their fallen colleague Tasha… This has a meaner, tougher tone than most episodes.
* Future Imperfect. Riker is knocked out cold and when he wakes up 16 years have passed… Another terrific gimmick episode, but pulled off with style. There’s a good double bluff going on too.
* Data’s Day. Various goings-on are seen through Data’s eyes… A pleasing exercise in style, and another fine Data episode.
* Qpid. When Q tries to play matchmaker for Picard, the regulars end up in a Robin Hood fantasy… Basically an excuse to get the characters in silly costumes and playing out clichés, but hugely entertaining.
* Half a Life. Lwaxana Troi falls in love with a man whose culture says he must commit suicide at a certain age… David Ogden Stiers guests stars in a lovely and measured story about euthanasia. Majel Barrett gets a chance to round out the comic-relief Lwaxana too.
* The Mind’s Eye. Geordie is kidnapped and brainwashed… A pastiche of Manchurian Candidate.
* In Theory. When a crewmember falls for him, Data takes his first steps into the world of romance… The first episode directed by Patrick Stewart is enjoyable enough.

Worst episode:
* There are quite a few that are more boring – The Loss, Night Terrors, The Drumhead, the finale – but Devil’s Due fails by being a rehash of concepts we’ve already had. It features a Q-type character, a courtroom drama, one of crew having to argue against another… All things the show has done before and better.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: season three (1989/90)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season three…

Best episode:
* The Best of Both Worlds. The Borg invade Federation space and then capture and convert Captain Picard… There’s a wonderful sense of epic scale and dread to this one. It’s Star Trek as an action-horror movie. The end-of-season cliffhanger feels enormous.

Honourable mentions:
* The Survivors. The crew find two people living on an otherwise-barren planet… A nice, kooky character story with a good twist.
* Who Watches the Watchers? The Enterprise officers are secretly observing a race of aliens, but then the aliens become aware of their presence… A precursor of Star Trek: Insurrection, but this does the same concept with more flair and interest.
* The Enemy. Geordie gets trapped with a Romulan on a dangerous planet… A Defiant Ones-style story. There’s also a moral-dilemma B-plot for Worf, who refuses to help a dying Romulan.
* The Defector. A Romulan asks for sanctuary and says he has vital information… An episode with some politics behind it.
* The High Ground. Crusher in taken hostage by terrorists… A very un-Star Trek episode, which makes it all the more enjoyable. It’s a story about big, complex issues that weaves moral issues in with character stuff. There are no easy answers.
* Deja Q. Q is stripped of his powers… A nice bit of comedy.
* A Matter of Perspective. Riker is accused of murder, and during his trial we see different versions of what happened… It’s forced in places, perhaps, but is still an interesting way of telling a story.
* Yesterday’s Enterprise. In an alternative reality the crew encounter an Enterprise from the past, then realise they have a chance to improve the future… Famously enjoyable, and very timey-wimey. Tasha Yar’s back after leaving the show two years earlier and gets a proper send-off this time.
* The Offspring. Data builds himself an android daughter… A delightful episode with real heart to it.
* Allegiance. Picard is replaced by a duplicate by some aliens who are studying humans… Patrick Stewart is *amazing* at putting in just the right amount of off-kilter stuff into his performance as the other Picard. Without going OTT, he seems oddly different.
* Captain’s Holiday. Picard is on vacation, but soon gets involved with an archaeologist… Another good change of pace, and another episode that benefits from not feeling very Star Trek-like. We see Picard off on his own, off-duty and getting caught up in a heist movie. There’s some romance too.
* Tin Man. A scientist comes aboard to study a strange organism found near a planet… It features a good guest turn from Harry Groener, later of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
* Hollow Pursuits. A crewman called Reg Barclay struggles with life aboard the Enterprise… The first appearance of Barclay, a character with *issues* – which is oddly rare in Star Trek!
* The Most Toys. Data is captured and placed in a museum of rare artefacts… Worth watching for a cracking guest performance by Saul Rubinek (later of Warehouse 13, in which Brent Spiner guested for a season, thereby reuniting this episode’s chief cast).
* Ménage à Troi. The Ferengi kidnap Troi, her mother and Riker… Funny as anything. A hoot.

Worst episode:
* The Price. Some negotiations take place on the Enterprise… Sooooo boring.

Predator 2 (1990, Stephen Hopkins)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Los Angeles, 1997. A predator is loose in the city and is picking off rival gang leaders…

The cast: The lead is Danny Glover, who’d recently played another cop in two Lethal Weapon films. In fact, Lieutenant Mike Harrigan is basically Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Murtaugh combined into one person. It’s an unconvincing performance. Kevin Peter Hall climbs into the predator suit again, though this is a different individual from the 1987 film. Gary Busey is another Lethal Weapon alumnus, here miscast as a shifty agent called Peter Keyes. Maria Conchita Alonso is Harrigan’s spunky sidekick, Detective Leona Cantrell, and is just as rubbish as she had been in The Running Man. Bill Paxton adds a bit of fun as light-hearted detective Jerry Lambert. Robert Davi (Die Hard, Licence to Kill) has a tiny role as the police chief. Adam Baldwin (later a regular in Firefly) is Keyes’s second-in-command. During an info-dump about the events of Predator, we see a character from that film on a monitor: presumably because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s image rights were too expensive, it’s Anna Gonsalves rather than Dutch Schaefer.

The best bit: The predator attacks a subway train. A great set, which convincingly shuffles from side to side, and epileptic lighting. Scary stuff.

Crossover: The creatures from the Alien and Predator films first appeared together in February 1990 in a comic book called Dark Horse Presents #36. As a nod to the comic, the Predator 2 design team placed a xenomorph skull in amongst the predator’s trophies of its kills. Additionally, this film features a casting crossover with the Alien series. For a giggle, let’s assume that Bill Paxton’s Detective Lambert is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Private Hudson from Aliens.

Review: The first image of the film is terrific. A helicopter shot swoops over thick woodland, making us think we’re back in the world of the first movie – but when it breaks the treeline we see Los Angeles in the distance. The urban jungle of LA is, for some reason, set a few years into the future. So it’s therefore grimy, rundown, trashy, and there’s a war going on between ethnic-minority gangs over money, cocaine and power. Right from the first scene this is over-the-top, schlocky stuff that’s difficult to take seriously. The script is clichéd and crass, while the cast is largely terrible. Yet everything has an undoubted vibrancy about it. The substance might be nonsense but the cinematic style – brisk editing, good camera movement, a solid Alan Silvestri score – pulls you through. For instance, there are a number of well-constructed shots. The first scene in the police station features a 64-second long take. The camera passes the busy front desk, the detectives’ bullpen and every 1980s-Hollywood-cop-shop stereotype going (yes, there are prostitutes!) before finding Harrigan, who we then follow into his boss’s office. It’s just one of a few instances where a camera move is artful and revealing. They deserve better material. The first half of the movie also really pushes a film-noir feeling – most evident in a penthouse crime scene and Harrigan’s office with light coming in through blinds – and there are flashes of Robocop-style satire when we see clips from a lurid TV news show. However, halfway in, once the plotting stops and the film becomes an extended chase scene, it gets really boring. It doesn’t help that Glover has to keep talking to himself because the sidekicks have all been dispatched. That device worked in Die Hard, but Harrigan is no John McClane. There’s only one reason why it’s worth watching until the end. The predator’s spaceship, where the climax takes place, is *great*. Vaguely Mayan or Aztec-looking, it’s both beautiful and strange at the same time. (By the way, the production designer was Lawrence G Paull, whose work keeps getting praised on this blog. He was also responsible for the physical style of Back to the Future and Blade Runner. In short, he’s a genius.) Predator 2 ain’t subtle, but it is quite fun. A guilty pleasure.

Seven ugly motherfuckers out of 10

Next time: Even more Aliens…

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis)

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Plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? ‘Perfect – 10 Shonash Ravines out of 10’.) Instead, here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future Part III especially excels. I’ll avoid covering things discussed in the previous two blogs.

1. “10.04pm next Saturday night!”
The scene of the lightning bolt striking the Hill Valley clock tower in 1955 and sending Marty back to his own time is seen again – therefore, uniquely, it appears in all three movies.

2. “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
The 1950s sequence at the start of the film is wonderful. Set at Doc’s house, an abandoned mine, a graveyard, a library and a gaudy drive-in cinema, it has dark, solemn feel about it. It’s raining as the action begins, because it’s still the same night as the thunderstorm from film one. In the scene in Doc’s house, Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox are on fire – their rat-a-tat-tat delivery of the lines is a joy. It’s also so refreshing to see a movie scene between two actors played out in long takes – one shot is 49 seconds, another is 54, another 46. The camera moves discreetly so the point of the drama is always in focus; the editing speeds up if needed, but mostly lets Lloyd and Fox do their thing. There are lots of fun details in the scene too. The fact Marty still has the hoverboard is smuggled in via a bit of slapstick, and the events of the last film are neatly recapped in dialogue. Because it’s the same week of the events of the first movie, Doc’s scale model of Hill Valley is still in place, and Marty fiddles with the Doc’s mind-reading helmet. After the action moves to the mines, Jules Verne is casually mentioned (seeding information for later in the story) while the Doc idly wonders if his life in 1885 will be in the town archives (minutes later, he has to go and have a look).

3. “Clint Eastwood never wore anything like this.”
When he prepares to time-travel to the nineteenth century, Marty dresses in a ridiculous, garish cowboy costume. When he gets to 1885, he needs a pseudonym so picks Western icon Clint Eastwood (who he’d seen briefly on a TV in Part II). This is all part of the movie’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach to the Wild West. It wants to use the real history as a setting, but is more interested in clichés and conventions. The list of stereotypes being plundered for drama and comedy is seemingly endless: Indians and the US Cavalry; cowboys and campfires; duels and dung; horses and hangings; saloons, stagecoaches, shindigs, sheriffs, six-shooters, sipping whiskeys, standoffs and steam trains.

4. “How could you forget a thing like your hat?!”
Soon after arriving in 1885, Marty meets his immigrant ancestors – great-great-grandfather Seamus, great-great-grandmother Maggie and baby William. There are plenty of *very* impressive split-screens to allow Michael J Fox to play both Marty and Seamus in the same shot. Meanwhile, having Lea Thompson play Maggie is a strange decision – partly because of the incestuous implications now inherent in Marty’s family tree, but also because her Irish accent is not the greatest. But it’s a welcome move, because otherwise she wouldn’t be in the film very much.

5. “As mayor of Hill Valley, it gives me great pleasure to dedicate this clock to the people of Hill County!”
The Hill Valley set is another sublime bit of production design, though ‘bit’ is a laughably inadequate word for such an endeavour. Unlike in films one or two where the basic set could be refitted for four different time zones, the Wild West needed a whole new town built. It has the recognisable skeleton of the square we know so well, and the saloon is deliberately in the same location as the 1955 and 2015 cafés. A sign hanging over the street announces that the townsfolk are raising money for their new clocktower – which we then see under construction. Doc and Marty actually attend the clock’s unveiling ceremony. As the Doc says, it’s apt: they were there at the end of its working life too.

6. “It’s a science experiment!”
Doc Brown’s existence in 1885 – he’s been there several months by the time Marty shows up – has a delightful steampunk vibe about it. His workshop has a steam-powered contraption to create ice cubes; he’s built a long-range rifle; and the connection he makes with schoolteacher Clara (Mary Steenburgen) is based on their mutual love of science. I think it’s residual goodwill from this film that makes me so predisposed to enjoy sci-fi Westerns or ones with some kind of modern twist – both the good ones (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2010’s True Grit, 2013’s The Lone Ranger) and the clearly awful ones (Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex).

7. “Hey, Frisbee! Far out!”
As ever with a Back to the Future film, each viewing brings new details to light. This time, one example was in the scene where Doc and Marty question the train driver about how fast his engine can go. In the background, you can see the town clock being unloaded from a carriage – another instance of the series’s thematic connection to that timepiece. In terms of a whopping great big plot hole, something I didn’t spot for years and years is that Doc and Marty need to steal a train in order to get the DeLorean up to 88mph because they don’t have any petrol… and yet, they never once consider using the fuel from the DeLorean the Doc has recently stashed in a nearby mine.

8. “I adore Jules Verne!”
The third film gives us a simple yet highly effective love story, and also allows the Doc time to shine. The sweet subplot is very well played by Lloyd and Steenburgen, and it gives the middle of the film a reasonably leisurely feel (certainly in comparison to the sugar-rush storytelling of Part II). It’s a nice change of pace. And Clara isn’t a bolted-on complication; she plays a vital role in the plot. In the second half, thinking the Doc has lied to her, she gets on a train to leave Hill Valley. However, she then changes her mind and stops the train – which is handy as it’s the very train that Marty, who’s running late, needs to get back home.

9. “It erased…”
The stuff back in 1985 is fantastic – especially the Doc’s surprise appearance in a flying steam-train time-machine. (Everyone’s spotted how his son Verne points at his cock in the background of a shot, right?)

10. “Everything concerns the law!”
I first saw this film illegally before its UK release. A family I was friends with had somehow got hold of a pirated VHS. To protect their anonymity, I won’t say who they were – let’s just call them the Cowing family of 169 Burscough Street, Ormskirk. So I saw Back to the Future Part III on video before it was available in the cinemas. It was a black-and-white copy, sadly, though that was kind of appropriate for a Western. (It was a special year for seeing films early. That summer, I was on holiday in Spain and one afternoon a local bar showed an illegal copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which hadn’t been released in the UK yet, for all the holidaying British kids.)

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

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Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Mob consigliere Tom Reagan is caught in the middle of a turf war between two gangster bosses during the Prohibition era…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: John Turturro as slimy bookmaker Bernie Bernbaum.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as Turturro (1), there’s Frances McDormand (3), who has a cameo as the mayor’s secretary; Steve Buscemi (1), who plays a nightclub dude; and Jon Polito (1) as gangster Johnny Casper.

Best bit: The tense scene when Tom is forced to march Bernie into the woods to kill him.

Review: This does for gangsters what Blood Simple did for film noir. It’s pure pastiche. The opening scene is a (presumably deliberate) echo of The Godfather’s, and after that we get a full-blooded exercise in mafia style – Prohibition, Tommy guns, wisecracking hoodlums in hats, jazz music, sassy dames, street slang, eccentric nicknames and every other cliché you can think of. And it’s all played so straight: whimsy and silliness are virtually absent. The whole film is beautifully shot – but like a lot of exercises in style, the fact the characters are so stock means it fails to totally satisfy. (True to the genre, there’s only one female role of any note and sadly she’s rather dull.) At various points, we’re told that Tom has no heart. Neither does the movie.

Seven machine guns out of 10.