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Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 June 2007
One of the primary appeals of “Die Hard” (1988) was that NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis, in the role that made him a star) was just an ordinary guy. Sure, he's a cop, and he's tough, but he wasn't superman. He was just running as fast as he could (on bare feet) battling a team of bad guys who have taken over a tall office building in L.A.'s Century City. He defeated them partly by luck, and partly by knowing what to do-just seconds before the bad guys can figure out what he's up to. Tension was inherent in the material, and buoyed by Willis' ingratiating performance.

It was followed by two sequels, both good, but both not up to the original. And now here comes the fourth-“Live Free or Die Hard,” an essentially meaningless title lifted from the official motto of New Hampshire. This time, John McClane (still Willis, of course) is the next thing to an indestructible superhero. He's battered, shot, knocked off buildings, falls from a bridge to a hovering but damaged jet, falls from the jet onto a sloping, ruined freeway bridge, then skids down it just ahead of the jet's exploding fuel tanks. And walks away. Some wit suggested this is more like a sequel to “Unbreakable,” in which Willis was literally unbreakable, than to the “Die Hard” movies.

Be that as it may, working from Mark Bomback's screenplay, director Len Wiseman keeps things moving at such a breakneck speed that you barely have time to even register an objection, much less ponder it. The movie is full of unlikely coincidences, and supported by John McClane's indestructibility and wisecracks. (Yes, he does say “yippie ky yay….” But you have to wait for it.) There's so much funny material in the movie that it's almost, but not quite, a comedy. Certainly it's more consistently funny than the other “Die Hard” movies, but maybe that came along with McClane's newly-discovered invulnerability and unlikely skill set. In the other movies, he was terrified of flying; in this one, he leaps into a helicopter and expertly pilots it to its destination. He also commandeers a huge 18-wheeler truck and handles it like he was born in the driver's seat. He even knows where all the gears are.

This has the effect of sort of reducing the tension-of course McClane will get through it. After all, he's J*O*H*N M*c*C*L*A*N*E, SUPERCOP. After a while, the movie becomes rather like one of those feature-length condensations of old serials-one cliffhanger after another, followed by the appropriate resolution. There's scarcely a moment in the film in which McClane isn't in danger, or getting out of the last one. This does give it a solid base of thrills, and the movie is great fun to watch. Just don't think about it very much.

You might wonder how an ordinary cop keeps getting into one spectacular fix after another, facing a super-villain and the bad guy's army of accomplices. And you might still wonder after seeing “Live Free or Die Hard.” Someone refers to another character as always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nope-that's the life story of John McClane. He should have stood in bed.
This time, it opens with him keeping too close a watch on his college-age daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who resents it-and who uses the last name of her mother, now divorced from McClane. We also see a hacker do something to his computer-which explodes like a bomb. (We are never told just how these explosions-we see another later-actually work. I didn't think gelignite was a major component of computers.) Partly because of that, his boss orders (by radio) McClane to pick up hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long), not far away in New Jersey, and deliver him to Agent Bowman (Cliff Curtis) at FBI headquarters.

This set up last just a few minutes. No sooner has McClane arrived at Farrell's apartment than the well-armed bad guys start shooting the place up-for Farrell hasn't made the last computer click that will blow up his gadgetry. While McClane and Farrell are hiding under stuff as high-powered ammo turns the room into lath-and-plaster Swiss cheese, one of his beloved action figures (the Terminator, actually) falls onto the computer, and kablooey. But the action doesn't slow down: Rand (Cyril Raffaelli), one of the bad guys, does an astonishing array of gymnastic stunts to reach the street (he's really doing this, and turns up again for similar awesome stunts near the end), but Farrell and McClane are now in a car, which gets put through a lot of wild stuff. You see some of this, involving a chain link gate, in the trailers.

By the time they get to D.C., the sinister mastermind behind all this, whom we soon learn is Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), disgruntled hyper-hacker, has begun putting into operation his three-step plan. What does he want? We learn this later. But right now, he turns D.C. street traffic into a series of fender-bender collisions and other vehicle mayhem. He and his team, which includes cool Mai Lihn (Maggie Q) and boyish Trey (Jonathan Sadowski), are operating from a hidden base, sending out big tough guys equipped with great big guns and helicopters to try to track Farrell. Gabriel has already arranged for the murders of seven other hackers, all of which have a connection to Farrell.

Things, of course, go from bad to much, much worse, and at breakneck speed, too. Gabriel has apparently fouled up traffic in many cities, and now starts shattering the stock market by tampering with the returns-everyone goes into a frenzy. He creates anthrax suspicions in federal buildings. He's tapped into almost all law enforcement communication, and can access any surveillance video camera. Farrell tries to explain to McClane and Bowman, head of the FBI's cyber-investigation team, that what's happening is a “fire sale,” a three-pronged attack on everything in the country that's linked by computer. Now what?

While he's being delivered by McClane to another safe area, Farrell realizes with terror that the voice on the police radio is that of Mai Lihn-she's tracking him; Gabriel wants him dead. This leads to an awesome helicopter-vs-car chase in the stalled streets of Washington D.C.; McClane tries to escape through a tunnel-but Gabriel controls auto access from both directions. This satisfactorily concludes with the car/helicopter collision seen in the trailers. There are more car chases, plus a jet fighter-vs-big truck chase near the end. And there are fights between McClane and most of the bad guys, including that gymnast and Mai Lihn; the end of this fight takes place inside an SUV dangling down an elevator shaft. (You have to see this to understand it.) There are lots of explosions. Eventually Gabriel kidnaps Lucy, McClane's daughter, and then it gets really personal (like it wasn't already).

Between the gunfights, fist fights, explosions and chases, the writer squeezes in a lot of pretty good dialogue. Except for people around the edges, everyone is clearly characterized in just a few lines, just a few behavioral moments. This is only the third movie directed by Len Wiseman (he wrote and directed the two “Underworld” movies, and is at work on a third), but his work here is assured and solid. The characters are rather broad, but then so are the situations-it's not every day when you see someone dodge a car thrown at him, then throw a car at a helicopter. The pace is swift, the dialogue exchanges terse but to the point.

But it's also all pretty silly stuff, a popcorn movie you watch relaxed, instead of clutching the handles of your theater seat as you probably did while watching “Die Hard.” Even though the stakes are much higher (there's a line about the fire sale knocking the country back to the Stone Age), especially when Lucy is roped in, it never seems even as serious as the other two Die Hard sequels. But it's more fun than either of those, too. Yes, McClane isn't scared and desperate, his two main emotions in “Die Hard;” here he's bald, tough and laconic, not frantic. He tells Farrell at one point that he's scared; Farrell's astonished-“this is you SCARED?” I'm with him. Maybe Willis' ego has reached the point where he's scared to look scared; if so, too bad for him and, to a degree, too bad for the movie. It would have worked better if McClane didn't seize control of each situation, firmly if sequentially.

We've seen Farrell sending messages to “War1ock,” apparently the hyper-est of all hyper-hackers, who probably knows what Gabriel is doing, and why. So McClane insists on tracking him down. He's revealed as Freddy Klaudis (Kevin Smith), who lives in his mommy's basement surrounded by Star Wars stuff and computer paraphernalia. At this point, the headlong rush of the movie stops dead-because Smith gives a lousy, self-conscious performance. He has virtually no expressions, and only one hand gesture (pointing with right hand), which he overdoes. He had a nice guest star turn in “Daredevil;” here, he's amateurish and intrusive. Maybe director Wiseman-who did a remake of “Die Hard” in his back yard when he was 15-is too much of a fan to have asked for more from Smith.

There are some unanswered questions: why is the woman in charge of responding to customers in stalled cars so calm and relaxed, or even answering the phone at all? By this time, the stock market is collapsing and nobody in a city can drive anywhere. Its panicsville, man. But she calmly and cheerfully goes through her motions. Also, the climax centers on Gabriel trying to seize control of the hub for electrical power for the east coast; he's already done so for the Midwest and west-but how? With what men? And what happens to those hubs? The question isn't even considered.

Although there's a TV-movie quality to the casting-not a single other major actor than Willis, not true for any of the other “Die Hard”s-with Timothy Olyphant from “Deadwood” as the cracked cybergenius behind all the awful stuff. His performance is very cool and controlled, like the character he's playing; he's smugly sure he's always well ahead of McClane, and begins to unravel only toward the end.

Justin Long had relatively small roles in other movies (“Herbie Fully Loaded,” “The Break-Up”) but comes into his own here. He's convincing and likeable throughout, as a hacker who's never paid much attention to reality. He thought it would be cool to run the “fire wall,” but now knows, as McClane angrily tells him, that that stuff isn't being done to an institution, it's being done to ordinary people, those who are probably crouching in their homes, terrified that they're beyond rescue. We momentarily saw McClane's daughter in the first “Die Hard,” when she was a small child; now, she's full-grown Lucy, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is well-cast in the role. She's been around a while (“Final Destination 3,” for instance), but never before had a chance to actually do much acting. She's strong here, but she lacks the kind of specificity that creates stars. However, her acting career will be as long as she wants it to be. Maggie Q (born in Hawaii) has been alternating between Hong Kong action movies and American films for several years now (she's in “Mission Impossible: III”), and shows her stuff here, both as an actress-she's believably hard and icy, doesn't even melt when she kisses Gabriel-and as a kung fu star: she kicks the crap out of McClane, until he gets the best of her.

Mostly, though, watching “Live Free or Die Hard” is not unlike watching a grand fireworks display-and fittingly takes place over the 4th of July holiday. You don't ask how the star shells explode, you don't care if the gaudy pyrotechnics are in a reasonable sequence; you just lie back, more or less turn your mind off, and have fun. You're likely to do just that with “Live Free or Die Hard.” It doesn't reward focused attention; it rewards a relaxed but excited approach to being watched. Yeah, John McClane has been transformed into an unbreakable serial hero, but Willis' own charm and ease in these situations propels the fast-paced movie. It's nothing anyone will love, but it is a lot of fun.

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