Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

In the first Die Hard film, detective John McClane proved considerably brave, resourceful and tenacious, but he was also something approaching a normal human being. It's not really a slur to say that most cops are not this clever or good with a handgun, but McClane was still essentially a regular guy caught in an elaborate, over-the-top situation.

Live Free or Die Hard completes McClane's transformation into a comic book superhero. He's still played affably by Bruce Willis in, let's face it, the most iconic, memorable and appropriate role of his long and storied career. McClane perfectly fits Willis' persona - the odd mixture of jocularity and steeliness that makes Willis Willis - and he knows it, and he's clearly come to relish the opportunity to play an Ubermensch version of himself. But McClane no longer obeys the laws that govern the rest of us. He can survive pretty much anything, he's capable of walking off any injury, he never lacks for confidence or resolve and he's never too out of breath to issue forth some kind of witty rejoinder. He's Captain America without a shield.

Mark Bomback's script follows the Die Hard formula with exactness and precision. Elaborate terrorist plot disguised as anarchistic do-goodery turns out to really be an elaborate robbery. A member of McClane's family is kidnapped by efficient cabal of calculating villains. McClane has to rely on amateurs and outsiders for integral information and assistance. Wave after wave of bad guys (McClane openly refers to them as "henchmen" in this outing) are cut down in uncomfortable ways. Wisecracks are...cracked.

Surprisingly for such straight-forward connect-the-dots affairs, these films are dense enough to actually contain a variety of running gags. The way McClane's face becomes increasingly bruised and his clothing bloodied as the film goes on, the way all FBI Agents are named "Johnson," the incredibly serious, brooding right-hand man whom McClane always must face down at the zero hour, these references have piled up over the course of four films now.

Live Free or Die Hard doesn't reinvent or even change any of this material. It diligently includes it, and then heightens everything, taking a franchise that was already pretty goofy and tossing in a hefty doze of pretzel logic along with repeated and blatant violations of the physical properties of our universe. This actually works really well, though I had my doubts initially. I think it's probably the second best film in the series, after the first one.

The film doesn't really open all that well. We find McClane essentially stalking his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), now a Rutgers student who hates her absent father. They have what's probably the longest conversation we've ever seen between McClane and a member of his family (they usually spend more time with their kidnappers than him in the films), and we immediately realize why there aren't more scenes like this in the other Die Hards. Cause McClane's family are not terrorists and are therefore boring.

McClane's about to go home, we can only assume to drink himself into a stupor, when he's called in at the last minute to pick up some hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) who's wanted by the Feds. This simple errand naturally plunges John into the midst of a Fire Sale, the mythical hacker plot to interrupt America's entire technological infrastructure.

What begins with computer systems being invaded eventually turns into a full-scale blackout. No cell phones, no computers, no lights, nothing. The shadowy Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), rumored to have once been an agent of the federal government, controls it all from his secret hideaway.

So it's up to McClane and Farrell to find Gabriel and blow him up, soundly and repeatedly. And that's pretty much what happens for 2 hours. Every action sequence in the film is well-shot, fun, satisfying and also incredibly stupid and impossible. Just incredibly so. It would be insulting, in fact, if it weren't so entertaining. Today, someone explained to me that, theoretically, a busted fire hydrant could knock a helicopter out of the sky, but all I know is, even in the heightened physical reality of this film, it looked insanely fake.

I'm not even sure this counts as a knock on the movie, per se. In fact, if I had to take issue with anything, it wouldn't be the utter and complete disregard for the properties of our universe. It would probably be the "performance" from director Kevin Smith as a hacker-genius known as The Warlock. Smith's doing some kind of accent (his character's supposed to be from Baltimore, but I know some people from Baltimore, and they don't sound anything at all like this), but really he's just talking in a weird voice that's annoying and doesn't suit him, and it's completely distracting.

Justin Long fares a good deal better. He's actually a decent foil for McClane, nerdy and out of his element but not shrill or annoying. (I was never actually that huge of a fan of Samuel L. Jackson in the third movie, whose character was just so big and angry and in your face, so I appreciated how Long was willing to take a back seat to Willis when appropriate rather than trying to take over every scene.)

Likewise, Maggie Q gets in a few scenes as Gabriel's kung fu fighting main squeeze Mai Lihn, who has a really intense, brutal fistfight against McClane inside an elevator shaft. It's one of the film's best sequences, and I'm really surprised this scene in particular got through with just a PG-13. Seriously, this movie is violent for a PG-13. I guess if you don't show a lot of blood or guts or boobies on screen, you can get away with all manner of senseless death. Good to know.

Len Wiseman (aka Mr. Kate Beckinsale) did a surprisingly good job with Underworld: Evolution, turning what could have been a super-lame werewolf vs. zombie effects orgy into an entirely watchable Hammer throwback that actually used effects well to realize an alternate horror-movie reality. Now, he's surprised me once again by pumping yet more life out of what I had always kind of thought of as a stillborn franchise - one great movie followed by a few inferior sequels. This entry's clearly still not up to McTiernan's stellar, classic original, but it's even closer to that goal than McT's second try - the jokey and overlong Die Hard With a Vengeance - managed to get. And let's not even discuss Renny Harlin's woeful Die Hard 2. It never happened...Just repeat that to yourself...It never happened...

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