the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Monday, June 25, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard begins with a bang. Several of them, actually. It launches straight into the action within seconds of the theater lights going down and doesn’t stop until the lights come back up. Deafeningly loud and breathtakingly kinetic, the action is nonstop, fiercely uninterested in giving the audience a chance to breath.

When Det. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is sent on a routine assignment to pick up a young computer hacker for questioning, he is the last person to imagine that young Matt Ferrell (Justin “Mac” Long) is the unwitting pawn in a conspiracy to bring down the United States government. But when the entire computer-based infrastructure of the country begins to collapse, it isn’t long before McClane and everyone else realizes the country is under assault.

In a crippling 4th of July attack, the terrorists strike at America’s transportation, finances and utilities. With the nation debilitated and plunging into anarchy, computer mastermind Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) takes advantage of post-9/11 infrastructure consolidation and in a move that is as much to make a point as it is to make money, prepares to walk off with billions of dollars.

But high-tech Thomas Gabriel never counted on low-tech John McClane.

As usual, the Feds are out of step, but with Ferrell’s technical know-how, McClane single-handedly takes on the terrorist network. The stakes have never been higher. As if saving an entire country wasn’t enough, Gabriel kidnaps McClane’s estranged, now college-aged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as insurance. Unfortunately for the bad guys, Lucy is, most definitely, a chip off the old block.

There is a line in Ocean’s Thirteen in which a character tells our heroes, “You’re analog players in a digital world.” There is a similar line in Live Free or Die Hard, but it seems to fit here far more organically than it did in Oceans. Live Free or Die Hard exults in its throwback hero from another era. For all their technical wizardry, the bad guys are no match for McClane’s old-school ingenuity and brawn.

In the same way, Live Free or Die Hard itself feels like a nostalgic throwback to an earlier time. As more and more movies rely on massive CGI enhancement and Hong Kong choreographed wire-rigged fights, Die Hard revels in good, old-fashioned fist fights and real, immaculately executed stunts. While the film does incorporate some digital action, it is largely limited to one particular scene (a completely unnecessary and implausible truck vs. jet battle) and never overwhelms.

The action in Live Free or Die Hard is as high octane as anything you’ve ever seen. Have no doubt about it, Bruce Willis most definitely still knows how to kick ass and leave carnage in his wake. The stunts are phenomenal, especially those by Frenchman Cyril Raffaelli. (Like Sebastien Foucan in Casino Royale, Raffaelli is one of the disciples of parkour, a style of free-running movement based entirely on momentum and ricochet. Reminiscent of early Jackie Chan movies, Raffaelli dazzles with the untapped potential of the human body.) The seductive Maggie Q plays Gabriel’s beautiful paramour, setting up an East vs. West showdown and one of the most satisfying, down-and-dirty moments of the film.

It’s great to see Bruce Willis back in the role that made him a star. His usual cranky, wisecracking, sardonic self, Willis’ McClane is certainly older than the barefooted hellion that scampered around Nakatomi Towers in 1988, but he is no less convincing. (I am reminded of recent pictures on the internet showing a much older Harrison Ford donning the immortalized hat and whip for the next Indiana Jones film). McClane is most certainly not a superhero. In a cinema awash with indestructible deities, McClane — always in the wrong place at the wrong time — is a beaten, bloodied mess by the end of the film. Par for the franchises’ course. And as far as being a hero is concerned, he tells a shell-shocked Ferrell that all heroics have gotten him is a divorce and estranged children. “Then why are you doing this,” Farrell asks. “Because there’s no one else,” McClane replies.

Director Len Wiseman (the delectably slick Underworld films) has made a movie with little to no character development. Does he consider the first three films as set-up enough or does he realize that we don’t go to action films for character-driven plots? Wiseman seems to borrow elements from and even pay direct homage to a number of action films that have gone before his, including Goldeneye, T2, True Lies and, of course, the other Die Hard films. There are the familiar troupes: witty, testosterone-fueled exchanges over walkie-talkies, fiery action in elevator shafts, etc.

If there is one major fault to Live Free or Die Hard, it is that at some point well into production, the decision was made that an R-rating would hurt its commercial viability and a slightly more family friendly PG-13 version was decided on. Unfortunately, large amounts of the R-rated dialogue had already been recorded, forcing the filmmakers to go back over their earlier work and complexly retool what existed. The result is a sort of Japanese dubbing effect in which the character’s mouths are out of sync with what they’re saying. It is, in a word, distracting. It is also fundamentally disappointing — even the now famous Die Hard mantra, “Yippe-Ki-Yay…” doesn’t escape unmolested.

As Live Free or Die Hard appeared on everyone’s radar screens, magazines and websites fell all over themselves trying to compile lists of the best action films ever made. Almost without fail, the original Die Hard finds itself in the top spot. While certain action classics haven’t aged well, Die Hard, with its story of a man trapped in a skyscraper overrun with terrorists is still an undisputed thrill ride from start to finish. Live Free or Die Hard isn’t nearly as smart a film, but it certainly is a fun, entertaining one. Don’t think too hard — just lean back, enjoy the ride, and remember a simpler time when Hollywood built sets rather than virtual environments, created jaw-dropping stunts instead of digital animation, and threw real punches instead of graceful, cartoon ballets.


Anonymous nate said...

with each sequel, the die hard franchise has moved further away from what made the original such speculative fun: how would you use the claustrophobic and yet expansive environment of a skyscraper to outwit and outlast your foes? It was a great setup, playing off a sort of boyhood fantasy of giant treehouse/jungle gym/three dimensional maze battles and the ultimate game of hide and seek, all while antagonizing the villain over a walkie talkie. Then they put the second one in a humongous airport. And the third in an entire city. The only common denominator being the terrorists. Nothing beat the original and smallest setting, the Nakatomi tower.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...


I actually had an entire paragraph on that very thing and deleted it because I was already way over my word limit (though there would have been no reason I couldn't have included it here, on the blog).

Yes, the first film was brilliant exactly because of its claustrophobia--as I said, nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. That was the secret of its intensity. The second film lost some of that, but not entirely as it still restricted itself largely to the airport and its grounds. My single largest complaint--among several--with the third film was that there is no sense of claustrophobia in a city of 8 million people. McT screwed the pooch there.

"Live Free" doesn't even try to stay localized--it crosses several state borders, in fact--and yet, for all that geographical shifting about, it still manages to feel much more confined than III ever achieved.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Grinth said...

I'll be the ugly duckling of the group I guess. I've seen all three Die Hard films and I agree that the first is the best. However, claustrophobia aside I felt the third film was a marked improvement over the second due to the great chemistry between Willis and Jackson, along with a marked improvement in the script/dialogue.

So, even though I havent yet seen this fourth iteration, my heart sank upon hearing such solidly clunkers of dialogue in the trailor like, "Did you see that?" "See it? I just did it!"

I'm just not sure if the claustrophobia aspect holds up in the first two films. One is a skyscraper the other an airport. What is the actual difference in space other than matters of horizontal and vertical?

Again I haven't seen the film but I cant help but ask myself "Haven't you already seen this?...and why does it need to be done again?"

11:33 PM  
Blogger Grinth said...

I just took a look at the trailers again and to be accurate the exchange is "Did you see that?" "Yeah I saw it. I did it."

In the other trailer the only dialogue is "Why are you so calm? Have you done this before?"

My point still remains, and my answer to the second bit of dialogue would be "He has. So why am I watching this?"

11:45 PM  
Anonymous nate said...

Yeah, vertical vs. horizontal is a big part of it. Skyscrapers are a swiss cheese block of ultra-urban environment, riddled with the nooks and crannies and elevator shafts to climb and conference tables to hide under and windows to throw bodies out of. It's like the action version of the horror movie trope with the terrified babysitter: somebody's in the building with you but you have no idea where.
Airports might as well be cities, and particularly sprawling cities at that, with vast open tarmac and runways separating spacious neverending terminals. Not the same thing.
Nope, the only true sequel to Die Hard was Under Siege, which was set on a battleship, which is possibly the only kind of environment which is even more nookier and crannier. Except it starred Steven Segal. Who sucks beyond description.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous nate said...

the only thing missing from the Big Rig vs. Jet battle is that they both should have turned into giant robots. Somebody needs to make *that* movie.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Grinth said...

Nate: Point well taken. Although I would argue that 'The Hunt for Red October' proved that a submarine is more claustrophobic (nookier and crannier) than a battleship.

However I'm not sure I would concur with you assertions about the tarmac etc. You could make the arguement that its just a building seperated by miles of streets between other buildings. It's all about where the villians are holed up and not the surrounding areas.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Grinth said...

And yes my typing sucks...where is the edit button...

5:15 PM  

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