John McTiernan has made only one comedy, a mockery of action movies, withering criticism of the kind of poetry that made his name. Apparently, heroes were always on his mind, who saw them even as the comic poet does. As far as he went high, so far does he go low.
Our protagonist is a fatherless boy in pre-Giuliani NYC. Tough, but not corrupt. Not to be crass, but he seems weak: America has failed him. The poet means to redeem him. Shown Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in school, the boy is exasperated with the cowardly prince. – He imagines Arnold Schwarzenegger doing what Shakespeare suggests young Fortinbras (or Horatio) would have done. The poet’s insight into manliness apparently ranges from tragic hero to democrat boy. The boy is educated by action movies, played for him by an old projectionist. – Seeing the villain’s deeds, the boy says to himself: you’re gonna pay! Cruelty, retribution, & justice are impossible to separate. The poet teaches justice to young men, even the worse among them, suggesting justice is fundamentally poetic justice.
Immortality seems to be what this boy wants. He is clever enough: he finds actions films predictable. Faced with a terrible explosion, he knows the cops are dead, but the hero will emerge unscathed. He likes this excessively. Obviously, there is no virtue in an easy triumph. There is no fight when you already know the result… This kid needs to learn how false his wisdom is. He must therefore face misery and see it ignores his own good. Only then can he come to learn the truth about the beautiful heroes he admires. As teacher, the poet must reveal something of himself: that he is not as predictable as he seems. Poetic conceits are ironic in this sense: they are new, fresh, clever – but really they are distractions. It is the conventional part of the story that really astounds & is most seriously meant.
The poet has his hero confess to the boy his misery: he senses death nearing; & his failure as a human being. He is afraid that his daughter is too manly; he is aware his wife might be happier with a man; at any rate, she divorced him. The poet insists that if we hold heroes on pedestals, they cannot share in our happiness either. It seems the crisis will only be fully obvious when the boy has to confront the choice between the life of the hero & the kinds of lives of which he has experience.
This unusual boy apparently thought the hero was himself by himself; a whole apart from the whole of which we are aware; certainly not a part of the human whole.
Find it. See it. It’s grand