I’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more. Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best. However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal. While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.
NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party. However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed. As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal. What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.
There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters. Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins. This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane. Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation. These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them. Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault. These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane. This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict. This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.
Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero. Then, comes along John McClane. This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on. All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive. Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers. All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane. I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match. While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others. Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity. He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.
Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s. Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber. What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all. Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic. Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain. You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane. As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.
A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI. Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control. Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played. Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie. This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.
Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell. Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support. An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place. VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction. Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all. The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.
But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution. This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril. The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying. I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome. After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward. Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn. Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds. It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.
I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up. Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly. There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing. Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score. His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions. Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action. And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building. Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters. As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action. As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment. This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.
This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel. McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel. Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role. Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love. Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.
Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom. Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best. Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience. For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films. As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.
Most of the films in Ridley Scott’s filmography are fairly well known, but there are a few that are glossed over for whatever reason. For this film, the fact that it didn’t even make its money back at the box office is the likely reason, but it still garnered very positive reviews from critics. This is indeed a film of special, exceptional quality. Someone to Watch Over Me is not your typical Ridley Scott film, in most part. It’s story is definitely a cop thriller with a great urban atmosphere, but primarily, this is a romantic film done with great, beautiful artistic flare.
A stunning New York socialite and a down-to-earth city cop are caught in a deadly web of illicit passion and heart-stopping suspense. Newly-appointed detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) finds his life turned upside down when he’s assigned to protect Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the beautiful eyewitness to a brutal murder. Lured into danger and the dizzying heights of Gregory’s glamorous lifestyle, Keegan struggles to walk the line between protection and obsession – while trying to stay one step ahead of the psychotic killer Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas), and not allow his happy marriage to fall apart over his affair with Claire.
I really like the vibe of this movie. It does have a very romanticized artistry to it, but with the moody subtlety that Scott is a master at. Oddly, while watching this, I got a very similar feeling as I got watching the John Badham romanticized version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella. It’s that foggy, subtle romantic visual quality with its greens and ambers which really struck me that same way. Someone to Watch Over Me is a finely crafted and gradually paced work of art that smartly blends the seductive beauty with the dangerous crime elements. By the trailer, you’d likely expect something a little more thrilling and exciting, but even then, this film easily roped me in. This is surely due to the great casting and excellent acting.
Michael Keegan is not the usual kind of movie cop. He’s surely streetwise, but he feels a little green and out of his element. Having just been promoted to Detective, he doesn’t have the consummate manner of those around him, and coming from Queens, he’s not accustomed to the high life sophistication of Claire’s world. So, he’s a bit of a blue collar style easy going guy, and Tom Berenger does a stellar job in this role. He’s extremely likable and fun loving early on, and progresses into a more serious, emotionally complex character as events unfold. You can see that Mike is very happy with his family, but as he gets deeper involved with Claire, everything begins to be torn apart within him. Berenger has great and distinctly different chemistries with Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Michael’s wife Ellie Keegan. Both relationships have their own touching qualities, and work equally as beautifully. Ellie perfectly reflects the man he is, but Claire gives him something fresh and seductive. It’s an odd dynamic that you can feel so much for Mike and Claire, knowing they have something unique together, but also, view Mike as the bad guy opposite Ellie. That’s really a testament to Berenger’s talent. He makes Mike a very down to Earth guy with flaws, but never comes off as a reprehensible adulterer, just a man of sympathetic conflicts of the heart.
I was very pleased with what Mimi Rogers accomplishes in this role. The few moments where Claire is confronted by Venza are intensely fearful, and Rogers is greatly convincing. However, the majority of the film is focused on Mike and Claire becoming closer and more intimate. She proves to be a gorgeously romantic woman who is not a seductress. There’s nothing lurid about these two becoming involved. There is a genuine endearing attraction there that is quite touching, and the building of a chemistry and attraction with Claire is done quite subtly. She is charming, elegant, and vulnerable, but still exerts confidence. There’s a fine line between where she feels safe and self-assured and feeling very frightened that Rogers handles with delicate balance.
Through all this, you honestly feel for Ellie a great deal because she’s done nothing wrong to deserve this betrayal of her love. Lorraine Bracco is wonderful showing the agonizing pain of Ellie. She loves Mike so dearly, and that pours out so richly once she is scorned. This is really an exceptional performance as we see a full spectrum of emotion from Bracco from the loving and down to Earth woman to the deeply hurt wife and even beyond that in the film’s climax to utterly frightened to death. While the film is heavy on the Mike-Claire relationship, Bracco does such a strong job to keep Ellie’s end of the film relevant and emotionally impactful. By the end, that is the crux of the film’s resolution.
And I really adore Andreas Katsulas. He was taken from us far too soon. Many would know him as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, but my heart with him lies with the science fiction series Babylon 5. Here, his role is full-on in intimidating heavy mode. His screentime is fairly restrained, but his presence is almost always felt. That presence is very effective right from his first few minutes of screentime all the way through to the taut, thrilling climax. Katsulas takes that great talent of his and compounds it into a lethally threatening performance. Like with everything else here, the key word is definitely “subtlety.” Ridley Scott has such a great handle on tone with his visuals and actors that it is no surprise that everything is just pitch perfect throughout this cast. Of course, I couldn’t forget to mention the late and charming Jerry Orbach as the solid Lieutenant Garber. Orbach is always a bright pleasure to see in anything he ever appeared in.
It also put a smile on my face when Michael Kamen’s credit came on screen as the composer. I really, dearly love his work. There was always a real elegance and sophistication he brought to his scores, and Someone to Watch Over Me definitely gave him the opportunity to flesh out some lush, romantic cues. There’s the obligatory saxophone parts, but it’s done so very beautifully. It really is a lovely tapestry of romanticism that he weaves throughout this film while never remotely approaching over the top melodrama. He’s aided a little by a smooth jazz style arrangement of the title song by Sting, and some fine music tracks from Steve Winwood and Fine Young Cannibals early on. The work Kamen does with the tenser, more thrilling scenes is very effective and taut. This is the perfect score for this movie accentuating every subtlety with careful craftsmanship.
Also, it seems that no matter what cinematographer Ridley Scott works with, his visual style always comes through brilliantly. You could turn this movie on, not knowing anything about it, and know it is a Ridley Scott movie just by the rich atmospheric noir look of it. Someone to Watch Over Me is absolutely gorgeous re-crafting the looks of Alien or Blade Runner into a romantically effective package. The scenes early on in the night club and art gallery are brilliant, perfect examples of Scott’s signature style. Later on, inside Claire’s upscale apartment, the overall look is very seductive with soft, dim amber lighting. As usual, Scott uses very deep blacks and smoky, shadowy visuals to create a mysterious atmosphere, and even on the streets of New York, that works so stunningly well. If for nothing else, Scott is one of my favorite directors based on his gorgeous visual neo noir style.
Beyond all of the stunning aesthetics, the story played out in both the seductive romanticism and the dangerous crime thriller are perfectly interwoven. I found the balance just right for the film’s intended emotional direction. I would definitely imagine a film like this today being forced to be packed with a lot more action and excitement instead of developing the romance and subtle suspense. Thankfully, this was made in a time when someone like Ridley Scott, whose last couple of films had not done well at the box office, was able to make the movie he wanted to make. He does a fantastic job with Howard Franklin’s screenplay just enveloping it entirely in his articulate, detail oriented sensibilities and wonderfully inspired visual style. Yet, the visual awe is not used to mask any lack of substance, but to enhance the strengths of it all.
I really did enjoy Someone to Watch Over Me. If you enjoy a classic thriller with a twist of romance, which the film’s tagline boasts, you will certainly find some satisfaction here. Ridley Scott directs this film with class and a focus on the smooth moody atmosphere and gradual development of its characters. The cast is absolutely top notch featuring substantive and respectable work from everyone involved. This film is actually a very clear precursor to Scott’s next film, Black Rain, which was an excellent full-on thriller, but still with a lot of that romanticized atmosphere of danger. If you’re looking for the exciting flipside to this seductive film, Black Rain is absolutely that film. Just forego watching the trailer. It’s a little on the spoilery side. Anyway, Someone to Watch Over Me is a very beautifully crafted and executed film that I really do highly endorse.
Bond gets revenge. Licence to Kill is likely the darkest, most gritty Bond film to date. This stems from the fact that this is a revenge film, and that requires some nasty stuff to happen to James’ friends and his sworn enemies. This is the film that earned Timothy Dalton his maligned criticism. Many felt it deviated too far from the familiar Bond style and formula, but the truth is, this was likely the most true to Ian Fleming’s character, as he was originally written. However, I have always liked this film.
CIA turned DEA Agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is aided by friend and British spy James Bond (Timothy Dalton) in apprehending sadistic drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) on Felix’s wedding day. However, when Sanchez is broken out of custody, he murders Felix’s new bride, and leaves him for dead after being mauled by a shark. This drives Commander Bond to seek revenge, but M (Robert Brown), his superior in the British Secret Service, denies him this and revokes his licence to kill. This forces Bond to go rogue to exact his revenge on this merciless criminal. He is aided by one of Leiter’s contacts in the capable Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) as they attempt to crush Sanchez’s entire drug empire.
This film is definitely more violent than The Living Daylights, border lining on graphic. Bond holds nothing back, subjecting his enemies to gruesome fates. One man gets exactly what Leiter got as Bond maliciously throws him into the shark tank, but doesn’t survive. Others get quite severe deaths demonstrating that you don’t want to be on the bad side of Timothy Dalton’s 007. Bond goes after everyone hard and fast, but never sacrifices intelligence or savvy. He remains cunning but also deadly. Timothy Dalton slips into this harder edged 007 very comfortably and easily. He takes what he did in The Living Daylights, and just darkens it a few shades. He’s a little more intimidating and dramatically intense showing Bond’s passionate motivations in this personal story. Dalton might not have the opportunity to be very witty or suave, but he delivers on the dramatic weight and conviction that the story demanded. He also has small moments of pain and grief that do penetrate through the screen as he reflects on his maimed friend. The physical demands on Dalton are greater this time out, and he was more than up for the task. You can clearly see his face as he is lowered in a harness from a helicopter early on, or doing any number of daring stunts or fights. I can certainly understand why many never took well to this portrayal of the character. Definitely in this film, he is a fierce animal on a dead-set mission who doesn’t delve into light-hearted indulgences. He stays sharply focused on the matter at hand, and doesn’t allow anything to diverge him from that mission. In both of Dalton’s films, I find what he did with the character of James Bond to be very compelling and exceptionally intelligent.
Now, I am dead serious when I say that Franz Sanchez is one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen. Robert Davi is cutthroat and ruthless in this role, taking it also into a very dark and violent place. He’s a very realistic and threatening villain who is a fresh departure for the franchise being that he is a South American drug lord. That is a very identifiable villain for the 1980s in the era of Miami Vice. Davi makes a powerful impression right from his first scene proving Sanchez to be a very formidable villain. That solidifies him as a seriously dangerous adversary for James Bond. The fact that he’s not hesitant over getting his hands dirty makes him even more of an unnerving threat. Of course, having a young and sleazy Benicio del Toro as his main henchman Dario, and nicely villainous Anthony Zerbe as cohort Milton Keyes doesn’t hurt matters, either. Of course, I don’t know what the idea was behind his pet iguana, but chalk it up to Bond villain eccentricities.
The Bond girls of this film are fairly decent. Most would know Carey Lowell as Assistant D.A. Jamie Ross from Law & Order in the 90s. Here, she’s a nicely assertive and sexy female lead pulling enough of her own weight, but her performance doesn’t have that harder edge or strong spirit to measure up to Dalton’s Bond. It’s a good performance, but not a standout one. Talisa Soto is about the same, but with considerably less to do as Sanchez’s reluctant and intimidated woman Lupé Lamora.
It’s interesting to note that the character of Felix Leiter appeared in The Living Daylights portrayed by 36 year old actor John Terry. In this film, he is portrayed by 61 year old David Hedison. He had previously played the role in Live and Let Die, and considering the need for an audience to care strongly about Leiter, the filmmakers decided to bring back a better established, more memorable actor in the role. It goes to show the loose continuity the franchise once had where the same character can be played by two different actors with a quarter century difference in age in back-to-back films. I always found that rather amusing, if not confusing. Regardless of that, Hedison does a fine, admirable job in this outing definitely making Leiter an enjoyable and sympathetic character.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to say about the opening credits sequence of Licence to Kill. It’s even more generic than that of The Living Daylights with various female figures dancing around, and the image of a roulette wheel spinning behind them. The title song by Gladys Knight is fairly good. It has a bit of a sweeping romantic quality with a lot of soul in her vocals. It’s a nice change of pace from the previous two films, but probably not quite as memorable.
On the far better side of things, I really have to hand it to the action scenes of this film. The filmmakers really pushed them to a whole new level with amazing mid-air stunts, exhilarating water skiing getaways, and the spectacular finale with the Kensington trucks. The pre-credits sequence is excellent with Bond being lowered down from a Coast Guard helicopter to tether in Sanchez’s plane, and then, James and Felix parachute down to the front of the chapel for the wedding. Bond is put into plenty of lethal peril in some nicely imaginative ways. He even gets to tangle with some ninjas. The climax is full of fire and explosions during a tanker truck chase down a desert highway. It’s an awesome sequence giving us plenty of original and memorable moments. Bond and Sanchez fight on the moving tanker truck until there is one final dramatic moment which has a beautiful and brilliant personal touch of revenge.
There is a James Bond style maintained in this action-revenge storyline. He uses his skills of espionage to infiltrate Sanchez’s organization, getting in close to him to both discover in the inner workings of it, and to destroy it from the inside out. He turns Sanchez against his own men by laying the seeds of distrust and betrayal in him. It’s quite a skillful revenge with Bond using his intellect instead of pure brutality, but always knowing he’s at the edge of danger at every turn. James is well aware of this being a personal vendetta, and he consciously tries to keep his friends and allies out of the crossfire. Regardless, they choose to help him anyway because the danger is so high that he needs all the help he can get, and it’s great seeing that loyalty, especially from Q. Miss Moneypenny is even so worried about James that she cannot even do her job properly. All of these character elements and emotional attachments are nicely woven into the story, and gives the audience a chance to see James’ concern for them and vice versa. Despite his unwavering determination for revenge, Bond keeps enough of his senses about him to not seek it at the expense of others. This is his own mission, and no else need risk their lives for his own gratification. So, despite how dark this Bond appears to be, he hasn’t lost sight of his humanity.
Scoring duties for Licence to Kill were taken over by Michael Kamen, who was a brilliant composer through to his passing in 2003. I immensely enjoyed what he did on this film. His score has its own distinct style and sound while still adhering to the classic Bond themes and feel. He brought something more rousing and dangerous, matching the film’s tone exquisitely. I love his arrangement of the James Bond theme as it is used quite a bit in various action scenes. Again, it has a unique flavor without making a drastic change. The sprinkles of Latin musical flair for some of Sanchez’s best moments was a fine touch. Overall, it’s an excellent score.
Topped off with some excellent and solid cinematography by Alec Mills, who also shot The Living Daylights, this really is a solid, hard edged Bond action picture. Surely, it might not be palatable to all fans of 007, but I think it definitely has its audience. In light of the success of Daniel Craig’s run with the character, going back to a more grounded and realistic style and tone, I think many should give Licence to Kill a fair watch. Timothy Dalton really delivers a very dangerous and action-packed performance that impresses me. It’s only unfortunate that the franchise got stalled out after this due to legal and financial issues, and by the time they were resolved, Dalton chose to bow out of reprising the role. While both of his outings are particularly good, I don’t think he got the chance to do his quintessential Bond film. Licence to Kill was not well received, and in the hotly competitive summer of 1989 with Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Back to the Future, Part II, and Ghostbusters II, it was difficult to be financially successful as well. Still, I continue to give Timothy Dalton credit for taking the franchise in a more serious and respectable direction which did set a good stage for Pierce Brosnan’s run. Thus, James Bond will return in GoldenEye.
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.