Issue #33: These Violent Delights 🪓
Mandy + Die Hard With A Vengance
Evey now and then, something happens that makes you realize that the only way to make it through this one little life we’re all given is to just go for it—balls to the wall, bonanza nonsense is the cure for what ails us. And as is the tradition when art imitates life—every so often a film comes along that embodies this ethos, discarding any and all sense of normalcy or “realism” in favour of utter, delicious chaos.
This week we’re looking at two such films. First, Cate on the drug-addled euphoria of Mandy, then Zosha on the layered delights of Die Hard with a Vengeance. We’re a month into the new year. The Sundance Film Festival has begun. The vaccine is on its way, (if slowly) and there’s a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. Let’s go crazy, but keep going.
Cate on Mandy
If I told you that Mandy was a rock opera soaked in blood, what exactly would you envision? The “psychedelic action horror film” from Greek filmmaker Panos Cosmatos is less film and more experience, but it’s worth the journey if you’re open to stories that rely more heavily on mood and tone than they do on plot.
The plot of Mandy is straightforward enough—Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and Red (Nicholas Cage) live a quiet, reclusive life in the mountains in 1983. One day, Mandy crosses paths with a van carrying members of the Children of the New Dawn cult and their leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Sand becomes enamored with her and instructs his subordinate Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) to bring her to him. Swan enlists the help of The Black Skulls—a drug-running demonic biker gang who became murderous after consuming a bad batch of LSD. The Black Skullls kidnap Mandy and Red, but when Mandy responds to Sand’s sexual advances with ridicule, he burns her alive in front of Red. Red, badly injured and grieving then embarks on a bloody quest of vengeance to murder everyone involved in his wife’s death.
Mandy does commit the cardinal sin of fridging a female character to give a male character narrative purpose—and the titular role, no less. But once it’s past that point, it becomes something that is not quite more than the sum of its parts but is oddly captivating nonetheless.
To say the film is psychedelic is something of an understatement. Sand’s cult drugs Mandy when she arrives and so the scenes we spend with them are all framed through her drug-induced haze. Cosmatos uses a palette of yellow, purples and blues to blur the perception. Clever editing melds Sand’s face with Mandy’s literally tricking the viewer’s eye and subjecting them to some of the disorientation of an LSD trip. The delayed neon light effects lean into the sense of a loss of time, and lull you into an easy confusion. It is unnerving and exciting all at once.
But unfortunately, Riseborough gets little to do here besides look ethereal and laugh and Linus Roache’s penis. This is a Nicholas Cage film through and through, and he is in top form in all his rage-Cage glory. Once he enters the third act, Cage revels in the bloody kills and grotesque villains, wielding not just his personally forged battle-ax, but a crossbow with custom-built arrows and a chainsaw. By the film’s end, he is drenched in the blood of his enemies and hallucinating the return of his beloved wife. As he leaves the scenes, the landscape before his dances and shifts, bending to the will of the massive pile of cocaine he inhaled 20 minutes prior.
Mandy’s heavy metal influences come through loud and clear, not just in the booming soundtrack but in the film’s mechanics itself. Every scene is the climax of a music video in a slightly different context, but there are lots of bloody kills too if that’s what you’ve come for.
To put it bluntly, this is not the kind of film I would usually consume and I will likely never watch it again. It’s not a secret that I’m much more adept at writing about commercial films, and it’s a niche I enjoy. But I’m glad I made time for this because it forced me to consider how films can bend the form away from traditional narrative structures and evoke stories rather than simply tell them.
Zosha on Die Hard With A Vengeance
Here is my basic understanding as someone who was barely alive while some of these films were being released: Die Hard wows the world. Die Hard 2 does not. Speed is a knockoff of Die Hard, commonly referred to as “Die Hard on a bus.” Speed wows the world. Bruce Willis looks for a Die Hard 3 script that won’t retread the first (and basically second) again. Through a bit of studio wizardry, the script “Simon Says” becomes a Lethal Weapon sequel becomes Die Hard 3, Die Hard with a Vengence. The movie is a lot like Speed.
I say this with admiration, honestly; it is not often that a third film in the franchise is as weirdly wild and taut as Die Hard with a Vengence, and it is to its credit that the movie does all that while also standing on so many films shoulders before it. Die Hard with a Vengence’s freshness stems perhaps from the fact that its connection to the rest of John McClane’s story is so simple and tenuous that you don’t have to concern yourself with it: Hans Gruber’s brother Simon sets a bomb off in New York City. He tells the police that if they don’t want more bombs to go off, John McClane must do a series of tasks that Simon Gruber will ladle out through the course of the day.
The whole first segment is wholly objectionable, utter trash: dropped in Harlem in his underwear wearing a sandwich board with a slur on it, you can feel the producers’ jittery excitement at the idea of touching a third rail with their little action franchise. The entire sequence is there to get Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), a Harlem-based electrician, roped into McClane’s day of action. It’s hamfisted and dumb as hell!
Once the pair get roped in, the action stays pretty locked for most of the film. Of course Simon Gruber is up to more nefarious things than just fucking with the cop that killed his brother, but then again, doesn’t it work pretty well as a cover that he would just be jerking him around? Again, the strength lies in the sort of facile stupidity of a tacked-on connection: whatever seems muddled in Simon’s plan is a shell game, and McClane and the audience have to figure out what’s what.
Even McClane’s wisening up the situation feels smart because it’s so stupid. Too often in these cat-and-mouse thrillers a cop will randomly pull up and see the bigger picture — sometimes we’re privy to why, but almost always it feels borne out of plot necessity rather than actual intelligence. In Die Hard with a Vengence the moment comes because McClane is so overwhelmed by the slapstick silliness of the situation: Simon tasked him and Zeus with stopping a bomb in the park by solving a riddle, involving a 3-gallon jug and a 5-gallon jug, and a scale expecting 4-gallons of water. Two of the people I was watching with solved it before McClane and Zeus, and when the film does explain their thinking it’s half-hearted, a hasty “ah I’ve got it” for what we all know will be a side quest. So of course McClane is able to question whether all this is really worth it and realize, of course it isn’t.
Time and again, Die Hard with a Vengeance builds something out of nothing — a clever action sequence trapped in an elevator, a villain whose motivation loops through vague back into the unmistakable — and it does it with little thought to building a cohesive franchise. No doubt this will cut the other way for people as well, interested in more consequence to McClane’s narrative overall, or the idea that there should be cohesion to his story. But perhaps what those fans forget is that Die Hard 1 also sort of stalls out a bit in the final act, going big as opposed to just going home. (I mean this genuinely: what was the Gruber family’s home life like, such that both men are taken to such extreme, public terrorism to achieve a basic heist? Was this life before Ocean’s 11?) John McTiernan’s direction is as game as ever, and Jackson is lionhearted as any other role of his. It’s Jackson who’s the only one who’s really as much fun to watch as Jeremy Irons as Simon, who almost walks away with the film with the sort of cool calculation that might entrance any of us into some sort of warrior cult.
Die Hard with a Vengence is so much like any other action cop-robber thriller movie you’ve seen. But wisely it takes all that to become the best kind of extension of that: something new. Like the first film, Die Hard 3 has a mayhem to it, played out and heightened by the New York sprawl just as much as Die Hard was by the LA containment (how ironic). It was probably the best version of what you could hope to pull from a pile of Die Hard sequel contenders. The worst would be Troubleshooter, which had McClane doing Die Hard but on a Caribbean cruise line. That one became Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Cate: Here’s the rundown—a reminder of the women who got us here, why Bridgerton’s sex scenes didn’t quite do it for us, the lie of celebrity relatability, and two perspectives on the excellent new novel Detransition, Baby.
Zosha: A very, very long read on the unlikely friendship between Tom Hanks’ assistant and Ann Patchett, feat. psilocybin and the pandemic. Interrogating (more) the queasy ending of Promising Young Woman, a film I love. A deep dive on Wandavision’s history within the comics, and what the treatment of the relationship means in the show! If you hang with the first bit of this thing on Dickinson’s hair truth it weaves its way into something neat.
Zosha + Cate <3