Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Heavy Guns of Live Free or Die Hard

Summer blockbusters are like military conquests. When last week’s superhero film grows thin, it’s time to bring in the heavy guns, and firepower chiefly distinguishes Live Free or Die Hard. I just recently watched the original 1988 Die Hard again, and it holds up well. New York cop John McClane is the “fly in the ointment” as a large band of Germans take over a LA skyscraper on a Christmas eve. The film has Alan Rickman as the excellent villain with an oily German accent, stupid FBI officials, and McClane running up and down the building barefoot on glass and evading various fireballs and explosions, yelling “Yippee Ki Yay” as he saves his wife from the kidnappers. Willis earned a record 5 million dollars for that defining role. That film and the next two Die Hard films earned nearly a billion dollars, and Willis says he can’t drive by the LA building today without thinking of all the money it has given him.

So, in 2007, Willis was 52 years old. How to reinvent the brand after a 12 year hiatus? Bruce initially hesitated to take on another bruising installment, and one gets the impression that he wants to maintain a quality product, so he worked out in his portable gym and corrected the script when it didn’t seem to reflect the singularly appealing New Jersey wisecracking anti-authoritarian voice of his character. Twentieth Century Fox wisely chose the young Len Wiseman, creator of the Underworld series, to direct, and they concocted a clever story idea in which a gang of cyber terrorists take over many of the nation’s computers to shut down the government, and thereby take over the US media. It makes sense that with computers behind many aspects of our lives, someone could take over all of them, cause an intentional breach in the FBI security division, and then conquer the airwaves. By manipulating the traffic controls, for instance, the terrorists can turn every light green and cause massive car pile-ups in major cities.

When we first see McClane, he looks his age with a bald head and beard stubble. He pleads with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to talk to him, but she walks away. Now a detective for the NYPD, he then gets what looks like a routine assignment to pick up a hacker for FBI questioning, but the cyber terrorists have targeted Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to die with a bunch of other techno-wizards who may know too much about their operation. McClane no sooner shows up at Farrell’s apartment than a band of thugs attempts to mow both of them down with machine gun fire. McClane shows his resourceful side by throwing a fire extinguisher down a hallway and then shooting at it so it explodes, thereby knocking a gangster out the window. They manage to escape, but then the traffic jams begin once McClane and Farrell arrive in Washington DC. Never a film to do anything in half-measures, Live Free arranges to have someone in a helicopter shoot at McClane and Farrell from the air in the midst of the crowded city.

Part of the fun of the film lies in its extravagance. Why a helicopter? Why not just a sniper? Later, in the Eastern power hub headquarters, McClane takes on the Asian kung fu master of the cyber terrorists (Maggie Q) by running an SUV through a wall, lifting her up on the hood, and then crashing into an elevator shaft.

Still, in the midst of its excesses, the film sticks very closely to the playbook of the first Die Hard. As in the original, the plotline devolves to a maiden in distress story, this time with McClane’s daughter standing in for his wife. Both films rely heavily on gee whiz computer gadgetry balanced with McClane’s wisecracks to punctuate fast-paced action scenes with self-deprecating jokes. The film’s many scenes involving guys speed-typing on laptops reminded me of the second Mission Impossible, in which pretty much anything could be accomplished with an Apple notebook. Also, Live Free is good at getting the viewer to root for McClane as the everyman hero who merely saves the country because he can. Written down, this all sounds corny, but the action moves so fast, the viewer has little time to dwell much on the unlikelihood of a given scene or the Wild West hokum of its lone beat-up hero.

By the latter third of the film, the initial cyber terrorist plot boils down to lots of grey industrial top secret interiors and McClane trying to evade getting blown up by a Harrier jet hovering over a spaghetti freeway as he drives a gigantic semi. The ending does not quite live up to the promise of the beginning of the film, but by then I didn’t care much. In its wisecracking, car-wrecking fashion, Live Free or Die Hard has already brought in the heavy artillery of one of the best action films of 2007.


JUS said...

Of course, New Hampshire-ites may claim provenance over the name of this movie. 80% of that title is on each of their license plates already.

This sounds a little like Sneakers meets Die Hard meets 24.

FDr said...

You take an aging action star and provide him with a more youthful sidekick, someone for the younger demographic to identify with. Shia LaBeouf performs the same role in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" as Justin Long does here with Bruce.