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May 07, 2007

Die Hard Nerd Controversy: Ain't It Cool News Derides Sequel's PG-13 Rating, Bruce Willis Personally Calls To Insist The Action's Still There

I think the AICN guys are pretty juvenile when it comes to sex and graphic violence in movies. They often seem to judge fims solely on those criteria -- for example, one review of an early screening of Rollerball gushed with unrestrained enthusiasm for this, one of the worst films every made, largely due to its gore and Rebecca Romeijn's nudey scenes.

Sorry, no link. I apologize if my memory is faulty, but I remember this review pretty clearly, but it no longer seems to be on the site. The reviews on the site are strongly negative, as they should be -- but I do remember this particularly juvenile review -- it's got tits, it's got graphic violence, ergo, it's GREAT -- of this godawful film. Perhaps it's so embarassing it's been deleted.

If I'm wrong, I apologize for attributing the review to AICN.

With that background, I turn to AICN contributor "Vern's" screed against the "pansified" PG-13 cut of Live Free or Die Hard. It should be noted this very minor controversy was started by Bruce Willis' own criticism of the studio for cutting it into PG-13 shape:

"In June's VANITY FAIR, it states that Bruce Willis was initially disappointed that his fourth DIE HARD film will likely be cut to get a PG-13 rating rather than an R. 'I really wanted this one to live up to the promise of the first one, which I always thought was the only really good one.' And he's not happy about it. 'That's a studio decision that is becoming more and more common, because they're trying to reach a broader audience. It seems almost a courageous move to give a picture an R rating these days. But we still made a pretty hardcore, smashmouth film.'"

Dearest 19th Century Fox:

Howdy. Name's Vern, nice to meet you. I am writing to ask you one question. WHAT IN GOD'S NAME ARE YOU JOKERS TRYING TO PULL?

Before you blow me off to go bathe in that champagne/money/panda blood mixture you have in your hot tub, please be aware that I am not speaking as a member of the internet community, or associate of the nerd community. I think ALL communites agree with me on this, except maybe the Amish, who don't watch movies and are therefore neutral. I am speaking as an American, and as a citizen of the world. You can't fucking do that to DIE HARD.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the movie was called LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. But from what Vanity Fair is saying here, it sounds more like LIVE FREE OR DIE-- WELL, LET'S NOT DIE TOO HARD, THERE ARE CHILDREN PRESENT. Which, in my opinion, is not as good of a title.

He goes on to make the point -- not entirely wrong -- that blood and some small amount of gore are trademarks of the Die Hard series, known for their realistic depiction of violence... except for the rather unrealistic conceit that John McClain has the Constitution and hit points of Wile E. Coyote and can pretty much take any wound short of blowing out the back of his head and keep on fighting at nearly full efficacy.

Which is, you know, not really realistic at all. Not that I mind that -- the rules are different in action-adventure movies than they are in grittier, more realistic police procedurals -- but let's shy away from terming this sort of film "realistic" in its depiction of violence.

So Bruce Willis called Harry Knowles to defend the movie as it will be released:

And yes, the PG-13 Peter Biskind VANITY FAIR piece did come up. Bruce felt his comments had been taken out of place and that Biskind focused on that more than he felt was justified, especially since at the point in which he talked to Peter about DIE HARD 4, he hadn't actually seen it yet.

According to Bruce, he feels this Die Hard is right there with the original - and that if you didn't know it was PG-13, you couldn't tell, because it got him to the edge of his seat at least 6 times. Now, it might not have as many "fucks" as in the past, but the action and intensity - he swears is there.

For one thing, it's interesting that major celebrities are now calling up bloggers to help sell movies/spin stories.

This prompted me to think about the current ratings system. Does a movie really even need to be R-rated anymore to be fairly graphically violent?

For a long time, Hollywood didn't need to think too much about what violence would get an R-rating and what was acceptable as a PG-13 movie, because a lot of their action movies were R-rated for other reasons -- usually, because of frequent use of the f-word or nudity. One hardly needs to debate precisely how much blood and gore is permissible if a movie has already crossed the line into R-rated territory with 100+ uses of the f-word, or dozens of knockers rampaging all over the place like the running of the bulls at Pamploma.

Curiously, the f-word isn't completely forbidden in PG or even PG-13 movies, or at least it didn't used to be. I remember the "One Fuck Rule" of movies in the eighties. You could say it exactly once, sometimes even twice, as long as it was being used in its metaphorical and not literal/sexual sense.

So you had one, maybe two, uses of the word, even in a PG movie. Beyond that, automatic R.

As far as actual violence -- it's a weird thing. The MPAA seems to allow quite a bit of graphic violence so long as it's coming from a big name director in a big-budget movie -- Spielberg famously, somewhat notoriously, got the PG rating he was looking for in the fairly violent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, prompting the MPAA to invent the in-between PG-13 rating for movies which weren't quite gory and yet were nonetheless pretty darn violent.

And now the MPAA is generally willing to give a PG-13 rating to films that would once have earned an R rating. Casino Royale is fairly bloody, and yet it's PG-13.

To get an R-rating, you pretty much have to actively seek an R rating by featuring automatic-R violence:

Huge splatters of blood hitting the wall after a gunshot wound. Light splatters, however, are okay.


Head shots in which the bullet-holes are visible and bloody. Violence to the head seems to be a particular taboo; you can do whatever the hell you like to the chest or gut or limbs, pretty much, except for...

Dismemberments -- though the Star Wars movies have long gotten away with featuring even multiple dismemberments in the same movie.

"Macabre" depictions of death --like a man's head being twisted completely around after a fall.

And on that last one-- autopsy scenes are now R-rating bait. Deja Vu had its biggest problems ratings-wise cutting around a not-terribly-macabre autopsy of a dead woman. (Decent flick, by the way, though hardly great. Worth a rent, I think.)

The odd thing about the rule against realistic, macabre autopsies is that you can see far worse every other week on CSI. Every few weeks CSI goes into full gross-out mode and shows something so sick you wonder how the hell it can be on television. (Not that I mind that -- I think CSI gets away with it because it's such a well-made show, and what they show is kind of a realistic window into just how nasty the after-effects of violence or decomposition can be. And of course because it has huge ratings -- CSI gets a pass just like Spielberg does.)

But what flies easily every Thursday night at 9pm on a broadcast network show would get you an R-rating in a movie theater. Strange that, I think.

Another strange thing: "Horrific" depictions of violence will get you an R whereas somewhat-cartoonish action-adventure depictions of violence gets you a PG. It's always been this way, of course, but if you show violence as awful and repulsive as it really is, you get penalized with an R, but if you display it as something that's kinda fun and not all that worrisome, you're rewarded with a PG-13 or even PG.

Getting back to Live Free or Die Hard -- given what is now considered acceptable in a PG-13 movie, I'm not really sure a movie has to compromise its violence all that much to get that rating. Just avoid the big no-no's and you can show as many scarlet-misting gunshot wounds as you like.

And the fact that you can now make a PG-13 movie featuring almost all the violence of an R-rated movie -- and even one or two of the "fucks" of an R-rated movie -- presents squarely the question of basic business common sense: If you can show 90% of what you want to show in a PG-13 movie, and have almost no restrictions whatsoever on who can view the movie, why the hell not exhibit some small amount of restraint and get that rating?

Another weird thing I notice: While PG-13 is now 90% of an R rating, if you just go a little bit beyond a "hard R for violence" rating you'll get an X rating. (Well, NC-17.) The Kill Bill movies and Grindhouse had to be edited quite a bit to stay within the R rating.

So an R movie has to be within a very narrow range, now, as regards violence: A bit too violent for PG-13, not quite violent enough for NC-17. There's not terribly much room there to hit the R-for-violence sweet spot -- so that most R-for-violence movies can be trimmed, fairly easily, down to a PG-13.

Maybe I've just gotten older, or more of a conservative crank, but I just no longer see the need for blood-splattering violence and frequent uses of the f-word in most movies. There was a time when I associated these with good movies -- Die Hard, Robocop, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, etc. I used to think that a "gritty" police movie needed the f-word-- after all, cops say "fuck" a lot.

The trouble is, nearly everyone now says the f-word a lot, so it's no longer a sign of a "gritty, realistic police procedural," now is it? You can here just as many f-bombs on an episode of Sex & the City. The word has been demystified, it's talismanic power stripped away; it once was a signifier of "realism" or "grittiness," but became so common as to signify not much at all.

A different dynamic occurred with massive blood splatters from gunshot wounds. I used to dig these as a kid, but by now I've seen the trick so many times (and of course I know, basically, how the effect is achieved; just a balloon filled with red "blood" popped by a squib) it no longer impresses or surprises. The novelty of it is gone -- so why bother with it at all?

And not to sound like an old fart of a social-con crank -- but I could deal with having almost no nudity or simulated sex in movies, too. "Movie sex" tends to look absurdly posed and artificial, anyway; it's usually less erotic than comical. Realistic depictions of sex are fairly rare, perhaps because sex isn't considered pretty enough to show in a mainstream movie. And more realistic depictions of sex will tend to get you an NC-17 -- so the R-for-sexuality rating usually means you're showing fairly stupid-looking non-erotic non-sex.

Again, why bother then?

There are always going to be movies that need to be R-rated. But I guess I'm coming to the conclusion that such movies are fewer and further between than ever before. Zombie movies, sure. Truly realistic and graphically violent war movies, sure. Movies all about sex, sure. Comedies which really get a lot of use out of profanity for humorous effect -- definitely.

But if a movie doesn't really need to be R, why bother losing all that business over a few blood-splatters and cursewords that aren't exactly integral to the plot?

And moviemakers do lose money due to the R-rating. Underage kids see R-rated movies all the time, without ID, and without a guardian. They just buy tickets for a PG-rated movie and then walk into the R-rated movie -- but it's the PG-rated film that gets credited for the sale, not the movie actually seen.

So, basically, Live Free or Die Hard won't have the f-word in it very often, if at all; maybe one -- and only one -- use in the kinda-passe catchphrase "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker." And it will only be as graphically violent as Casino Royale (hero splattered with opponents' blood) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (exploding and melting heads, blood splatter from propeller decapitation) or The Phatom Menace (horizontally-bisecting dismemberment).

I dunno about you, but I think I can live with that. There still seems to be a lot of room there to explore the studio space, violence-wise.

And the F-word? I've heard it before. Even used myself it on occasion.

I was wondering... what the rating for the very violent (and very viscerally effective) Bourne Identity was. It sure felt like R-rated violence.

But it wasn't: PG-13.

The super-gory stuff might play to the cheap seats, but an action director can make his violence thrilling and visceral if he just has a bit of craft about it. If he doesn't, it doesn't matter how many exploding heads he features; the action is still going to be lame.

I have no idea if the new Die Hard director is on a plane with McTiernan. He probably isn't. And even a good director may just suck at directiong and editng action (see Nolan, Chris, and Batman Begins).

Still, it just isn't fake blood that makes violence exciting or frightening. It never has been. 90% of action movies don't even pack the bat-against-leather Crack! of a single Indiana Jones punch to the jaw.

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posted by Ace at 04:26 PM

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