OK, stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, it’s a classic 80’s movie. The setting is Christmas Eve, and terrorists arrive to take over a city-centre tower-block that is just kicking-off a big festive party. The terrorists plant large quantities of gelignite between the floors, enough to blow up the whole building, and they even rig the elevators to have complete control over who gets in and out. Their saturnine leader, immaculate in his suit and waistcoat, seems to have all the cards as he takes hostages and issues demands to the cops, SWAT teams and media who are waiting in the snowy streets. But as helicopter blades whirl in the cold air outside, inside the tower’s 40th floor is one determined man named John (played by a wise-cracking tv star making his way into movies) who is set to defy the odds and fight back; the only problem is that his wife is amongst the hostages…
Surely you must recognise that movie by now? Yes, of course, it’s that perennial Christmas favourite, Kings and Desperate Men, shot in 1977 but not released until 1981. The tv star is Patrick McGoohan, who plays opposite his co-star from hit show The Prisoner, Alexis Kanner, who also directs. Not surprisingly, Kanner sued the makers of Die Hard when it came out in 1988, but more surprisingly, he lost. Roderick Thorp’s book Nothing Last Forever, which formed the basis for Die Hard, didn’t come out until two years after this film started shooting, but the similarities are undeniable.
And in fact, Kings and Desperate Men, which lifts its title from a John Donne poem, adds several layers of intrigue to the action. The villain, Lucas Miller (Kanner) has a specific set of demands as part of his plan to take revenge on a judge Stephen McManus (Budd Knapp); he wants to organise a cross-examination of the judge, focusing on a previous unfair decision, and broadcast the results live on radio to the Christmas shoppers of Montreal, Canada, who seem to love to gather around communal loudspeakers in malls and parks to hear the monologues. The programme will be hosted by radio DJ John Kinsgley, described here as both ‘an Englishman’s Englishman’ and ‘the Englishman you love to hate’. Much of Kanner’s film is about the ongoing hostilities between the two men; Kingsley is a foppish character, with a theatrical scarf and soft clothes, while Miller is often uncertain. In a nice bit of satire, Kingsley has to upbraid Miller for his poor microphone technique while broadcasting his ultimatum to the authorities.
Kanner clearly had some problems here; eight editors are credited, and dramatic scenes such as Kingsley facing down a shotgun held by one of Miller’s goons are weakened by inexplicable cuts to a passive snowman in the street outside. But the atmosphere is chilly, which a great opening shot featuring Bruegel-esque figures in the snow, and smart use of Christmas songs as juxtaposition with the impending violence as the siege intensifies. Yes, Kings and Desperate Men has some flaws, but it’s a refreshingly talky, intense, quirky alternative to traditional Christmas viewing ie Die Hard. And if the above wasn’t enough to draw you in, the hero’s wife is played by Margaret Trudeau; perhaps one of our more clued-in Canadian readers might know what happened to her career after this….