The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Live Free or Die Hard

Originally published 7/5/07
Full review behind the jump

Live Free or Die Hard

: Len Wiseman
: Screen story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi, Screenplay by Mark Bomback, based on certain original characters by Roderick Thorp and suggested by the article A Farewell to Arms by John Carlin
: Michael Fottrell
: Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Cliff Curtis, Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kevin Smith

Try as they might, the movies still can’t make typing sexy. They’ve tried the usual tricks: installing movie stars (look, it’s
Sandra Bullock typing!), and they’ve upped the ante on what terrifying things can be accomplished by typing, like here in Live Free or Die Hard, where a few keyboard commandos manage to bring the functionality of the entire United States to a standstill. That’s one hell of an Alt- macro.

But even though it is a computerized world with computerized stories unfolding in it, it’s still so dull, and so unconvincing, to watch fit and be-stubbled actors battering away at keyboards, as if the speed and force of their fingers has some impact on the program being run. I guess the only thing less dynamic would be to up the realism and have them accomplish it by mouse clicks.

This is not to say I’m not glad to have John McClane back. The half-dressed hero cop character who made Bruce Willis a star in 1988’s
Die Hard is still a fine figure to deposit in the middle of any one-against-an-army action scenario. From the start that smirk and chip on the shoulder has fit Willis perfectly, as is the air he projects that he’d really rather be somewhere else, because where he is right now is likely to get him killed.

Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, Schwarzenegger was the invulnerable tank, and Stallone the greased-up fetish sculpture. Willis was the guy we could relate to. And this fourth entry in the franchise, 12 long years after
Die Hard: With a Vengeance, is quite a good time in spite of all the typing going on. It helps to have John McClane there to be bewildered and irritated by all this technology on our behalf. And it helps more still that in a digital world, director Len Wiseman still believes in the power of physical effects.

As the story begins, McClane is doing his usual job of stubbornly mangling his personal life. He’s apparently divorced now (I wonder what Holly cited, irreconcilable propensity to be around explosions?), and his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is doing the trick where she calls him by his first name rather than “Dad”. As the closest badge in the area, he’s sent on a thankless errand to collect computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long, yes, the guy from the Mac commercials), whom the FBI wants to interview after someone breaches their security.

It just so happens that McClane arrives only minutes ahead of a well-armed assassination squadron led by the resiliently bouncy Rand (District B13 star Cyril Raffaelli). McClane’s unerring radar tells him something big is afoot, and as usual, no one believes him.

What’s going on is known as a “fire sale”, a three-stage coordinated hack on our infrastructure that starts with traffic signals and gets more destructively ambitious from there. It’s all the work of super-duper hacker Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who even with his typing skills doesn’t measure up well in the pantheon of Die Hard villainy. Compared to Alan Rickman’s smoothly-corporate sociopathy and Jeremy Irons’ bemused sadism, the most Olyphant the actor has in him is hissy-fits. I see him waving a gun at people, and I just don’t believe it.

But it matters less than usual because it’s not really Gabriel himself that McClane is pitted against most of the time, but his henchmen and the power he has from his position within our networks. And those trigger all manner of fun conflagrations. Wiseman got his start working in art departments, and I think that’s more instructive to consider than his previous work as a director, the vampire/werewolf smackdown Underworld movies. It shows that he starts in the physical world first, and then enhances where necessary. Impressive as computer effects are these days, we know a real car being flung through the air when we see one, and respect those willing to bring in the machinery to fling it.

Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback don’t half-think any of the action sequences, when someone takes the time to conjure up a duel between a tractor-trailer and a Harrier jet on a collapsing circular on-ramp, they deserve credit. Scattered throughout the movie you can see large and small examples of the filmmakers trying to create fresh configurations of guns and found objects and flying stunt bodies, like someone coming up with new games from the contents of a very old toy box.

McClane’s body is visibly older and slower, and Willis shows a confident lack of vanity by playing within it. On the flip side, what he goes through reflects severe brinksmanship in the arena of plausible limits to bodily punishment. I blame the near-Wolverine-like healing powers of 24’s Jack Bauer for forcing the issue – while the first Die Hard saw McClane progressively more wrecked and hobbled in each reel, and took a rooting interest in how he’d survive his diminishing capabilities; this fourth outing, if it obeyed real world, not Road Runner, physics, would probably see him dead within the first twenty minutes. Seriously, how does he bail out of that car without flaying all the skin off his arm?

But a realism gripe doesn’t have much home anymore in the world of Die Hard. Despite the passage of time, I still know John McClane when I see him and am glad. He’s a very American kind of hero, doing the job that needs doing not because he likes it, but because no one else will. And his adventures have an innately-American truism at their base – no matter what people say, when it comes down to it, they’re really after your money.


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