Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Recent Watches: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

The “Die Hard” franchise took twelve years off. During that time, Bruce Willis lost all his hair. Furthermore, the action movie environment totally changed. The genre of hyper-violent shoot ‘em ups that the original trilogy belonged to had fallen out of fashion. Action movies were more popular than ever but bloodless, CGI-assisted films were the audience preference. Willis and company had been trying to get a fourth John McClane adventure made for a while. One previous attempt evolved into the forgettable “Tears of the Sun,” for one example. When a fourth film emerged, it was named after New Hampshire's state motto for some reason. Fans had reasons to be concerned about “Live Free or Die Hard” though. Director Len Wiseman had previously made the super lame “Underworld” films. As many feared and predicted, the film was slapped with a PG-13 rating. Even after the unrated DVD cut restored the squibs and John McClane’s catchphrase, the fourth film remains divisive among fans.

A clan of expert computer hackers, led by a disgruntled former government security agent, enacts a cyber-terrorism attack on the United States government. They crippled the infrastructure by fucking with traffic lights. They clean out the financial centers. They shut down emergency services. Senior Detective John McClane doesn’t know any of this is coming. He’s more preoccupied with his daughter’s dating life. As a favor, he picks up a suspect for the feds, an unaffiliated computer hacker. This makes John and his pal targets for the villains. Once again, McClane is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once again, he has to kick some ass.

Len Wiseman’s “Underworld” films were sickeningly slick. The action was ridiculous, without a hint of self awareness, in service of the films’ self-inflated sense of phony “cool.” Before “Live Free or Die Hard” hit theaters, the director promised CGI would be used gingerly. That might be true but the sequel’s theatrics still strain believability. A heavily advertised moment has John McClane and his sidekick nearly be crushed by a car flipping through the air in an impossible fashion. Directly afterwards, the cop launches a car into the air on his own, crushing a helicopter with the tossed vehicle. In a desperate bid for relevance, one of the bad guy’s main henchman performs parkour. The explosions are bigger and more frequent. The vehicle chases are more often. The action is so slick that “Live Free or Die Hard” frequently doesn’t even feel like a “Die Hard” movie.

What made “Die Hard” so special back in 1988 was how human John McClane was. He bled, was bruised, and generally got the shit kicked out of him. Each sequel made McClane more impervious. The fourth film moves McClane into strictly super-human territory. McClane gets pelted with glass and shrapnel and doesn’t flinch. He leaps from a moving vehicle and barely groans. He tumbles off a high scaffolding, emerging unscathed. He’s tossed through a vehicle by an explosion and remains unjellied. By the time he’s diving off a fighter jet and sliding between a collapsed concrete bridge, the classic McClane is unrecognizable. He even overcomes his fear of flying. Despite turning John into the Terminator, Bruce Willis remains charming and funny in the part. His constant shit-talking with the bad guys is a great source of amusement. A brief monologue about what being a hero has gotten John is a good moment. His head is smoother and his skin is thicker but Willis still has the swagger.

Like every previous sequel, “Live Free or Die Hard” began life as an unrelated project, a screenplay called “” As that groan-worthy title indicates, the fourth film updates the terrorists threat to computer hackers. Like many of Hollywood’s attempts at the subject, the world of internet sabotage is not believably handled. I’m pretty sure a computer virus can’t blow a building up. Computer hackers are lame movie bad guys. This holds true with “Die Hard 4’s” main adversary. Timothy Olyphant plays Thomas Gabriel. He’s a wienie. Olyphant whines like a petulant child. He threatens innocents with guns to the head. He mostly swears and gripes at computer monitors. Olyphant is not intimidating or amusing. He’s not up to snuff with the Gruber siblings. He’s not even as interesting as William Sadler. He also dies like a wimp, taken down by a single bullet to the chest. “Live Free or Die Hard” commits a few sins but its seriously underwhelming bad guy might be the biggest problem.

I know I’m mostly being negative but I do like “Live Free or Die Hard.” When the action is brought down to Earth, and isn’t preoccupied with topping itself, the film can be satisfying. John has a brutal fight with Maggie Q. Q is Olyphant’s main hit-girl and easily a more effective villain than him. The two tear through a room, both getting smashed through shelves and walls. The fight ends in a close-quarters scuffle in an elevator shaft, John taking a direct route to stopping her. How the parkour dude goes down is awfully satisfying too. Throughout the film, John gets into a few close-up battles, shooting bad guys and tossing them over his shoulders. These action scenes count for a lot and prove the most satisfying in the film.

Justin Long is no Samuel L. Jackson, that’s for sure. However, Long has his own charms. As the techno-nerd accompanying McClane throughout the film, Long gets a few funny moments to himself. A scene where he calls up an emergency service in a car is amusing, even if it creates a plot hole or two. The jittery hacker makes a decent companion to hyper-tough Bruce Willis. An even better addition to the cast is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy McClane. Winstead spends most of the movie captured by the bad guys, acting as a damsel. Despite that, Winstead still brings plenty of toughness to the part. She gets to punch out the villain, swearing and snarking just like a McClane. Long isn’t bad but I kind of wish Winstead had been John’s sidekick during this one.

“Live Free or Die Hard” departs from formula in other ways. There’s a last minute attempt to make the terrorists petty thieves but, for most of the movie, they are sincere in their cause. The script does not confine itself to a single location, playing out all over the country. The action is probably too big, the bad guys are lame, and John McClane is no longer human. Despite all these problems, “Live Free or Die Hard” is still an entertaining pop corn muncher. It has nothing on one or three. It’s not even as genuine as part two. Yet Bruce Willis being a bad ass is still worth something. [7/10]

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