June 27, 2007

Live Free Or Die Hard (06/27/07)

Lettergrade: B

Having been burned by shitty "part 4s" in the past, I feared the worst for Live Free Or Die Hard. The TV ads, which have been shoved into every known crevice in the television broadcast universe, depict a level of surreality that seemed foreign to Die Hard. In them, John McClaine (played once again by the venerable Bruce Willis) is a one-man wrecking machine, spouting off ridiculous one-liners and taking part in insanely elaborate, unrealistic action. Consider, for example, the trailer-friendly segment where an astonished Justin Long stares agape at Willis' recent stunt: Running a car up a ramp so that it smashes into a helicopter that's been shooting at them. "You just killed a helicopter with a car!," exclaims the 'Macintosh' half of the popular Mac / PC commercials. "I was out of bullets," replies McClaine cooly. This seemed to be a far cry from the earlier movies, where McClaine was more of a reluctant every-man caught in a crazy-but-vaguely-plausible situation.

After seeing the picture itself, however, I'm pleased to say that despite all the insane action, silliness and general implausibility, Live Free Or Die Hard is actually pretty good. Well... by "good," I mean "entertaining." It's more like an old school Bruce Willis action movie from the 80s than the trailers would have you beleive, and it surprisingly feels pretty much in keeping with the spirit of the other movies.

Each successive movie has upped the scale a bit, while adopting increasingly stupider titles. Die Hard had McClaine in an LA office building taken over by German terrorists. In Die Hard 2: Die Harder McClaine battles mercenaries who hijack the communications systems of Dulles International Airport and threaten to crash planes unless a South American drug lord is released. In the third movie, Die Hard With A Vengeance, a mad bomber threatens to blow-up various parts of New York City unless McClaine and Samuel L. Jackson run around town and play his deadly game of "Simon Says." The dude doing all the bombing (Jeremy Irons) is the brother of Alan Rickman's character from the first movie. This might explain the With A Vengeance part, but the title still sucks.

Which brings us to Live Free Or Die Hard. Derived from a famous state motto symbolizing aggressive American independence, the title suggests that we'll finally be getting what fanboys have dreamed of since the series began; Die Hard: New Hampshire. Alas the film never visits the Granite State, but McClaine is sent off on a wild race through much of the east coast when a band of cyber terrorists hack into pretty much every computer in the US simultaneously, holding the entire nation hostage unless paid a shitload of money. I am barely tech-savvy enough to post this movie review, and as such I have no clue if the film's scenario is even remotely possible, but I'm guessing it's mostly fantasy. I'm willing to go with it, however, as long as the action scenes and the vague semblance of story remain engaging (which they do).

The key problem with the shitty-but-enjoyable Die Hard With A Vengeance is that it didn't really have the heart of the first two pictures. In 1 and 2, Willis was working to rescue his wife, played by Bonnie Bedelia, who was in various ways in peril as a result of what the bad guys were doing. I know it would have been silly for McClaine to be saving his wife in every single movie, but the alternative they came up with in part 3 was to turn McClaine into an alcoholic burn-out, estranged from his Bedelia altogether. Part 4 introduces McClaine's daughter, seen briefly as a child earlier, I believe, and uses her pretty much in same way that Bedelia was used.

A major weak link in the movie is that the main antagonist isn't especially interesting or threatening. Alan Rickman as Hans GrĂ¼ber in the first Die Hard expanded on the James Bond tradition and forever changed what scenery-chewing villains were all about. The lead bad guy here is played by the exceedingly metro-sexual Timothy Olyphant, who looks like he's running his entire cyber-terror operation out of a Banana Republic outlet center. I've liked him as an actor in the past, but I think he was the wrong guy for the roll.

Another problem I have with the movie is that the bad guys have apparently hacked the nation's cyber security to the point where they can press a button and make anything happen anywhere pretty much instantly. While I can understand the screenwriter(s) impulse to do this, I sort of feel that they diminished the tension by giving the bad guy too much power. It's sort of like what they did with the female Terminator in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines... she could control "anything with a microchip" ala Maximum Overdrive, making her powerful, yes, but oddly not as menacing as Robert Patrick as the T-1000 in T2, who had limits.

A word about the editing... The general thinking is that it's often tough to evaluate how the editor did unless something really isn't working. For the most part, the cutting here is smooth, albeit a little hyperactive in places. There is the occasional scene, however, where I seriously did not know what the fuck was happening. Not only is it unclear where people are in the scene (and who is looking at what), but there is, without question, the most inept ADR that I've ever seen in a movie. I assume that some of these scenes were edited like this to compensate for plot changes that happened during post production. Why not, however, simply hold on McClaine's face for a little longer while Justin Long says whatever he's saying off camera?

And now for a bit of unsolicited personal history. I wasn't always as jaded and cranky about movies as I am now. There was a time when I was much more excited about summer blockbusters and action movies than the black-hearted pessimist who's been keeping this blog the last several months. I know when the change happened, too; It was July of 1998, when I excitedly plunked down my money to see Lethal Weapon 4. I had really liked the previous three movies, which I considered to be fine character-based storytelling combined with the added bonus of shit blowing up semi-frequently. Part 4, however, as anyone who was unfortunate enough to have seen it knows, ranks among the most perfunctory piles of shit ever shoveled into theaters. I read that the movie had been rushed into production only seven months before it was released because of a hole in Warner Bros.'s summer release schedule after Tim Burton's proposed Superman reboot dissolved. And it showed: Mel Gibson was playing a character who in no way resembled the guy he was playing in the first picture, and I later found out that producer Joel Silver basically cut-and-pasted the script together from four completely different attempts at writing a sequel previously!

From that point on, I've had a certain hostility toward schlocky, corporate studio decision-making, and manipulative misleading marketing bullshit. I will say, however, that if I - nearly 10 years later - can go to see a picture like Live Free Or Die Hard and walk out pretty much satisfied, perhaps there's hope yet.

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