Thursday, February 25, 2016

Die Hard on a Blog: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

John McClane enters the 21st century – not to mention the post-9/11 age -- in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), the first PG-13 entry in the durable action franchise.

Although it’s difficult to be particularly judgmental of the generally entertaining Live Free or Die Hard (2007) -- especially given the quality of its follow-up, A Good Day to Die Hard (2011) -- this movie also provides ample evidence to suggest the franchise’s best days are behind it.

In particular, Live Free or Die Hard features a bland, forgettable villain, played by Timothy Olyphant, and regurgitates, almost precisely, the format of Die Hard with a Vengeance by eschewing a single location story and partnering up McClane with another bicker-some partner, in this case one played by Justin Long. Where Samuel Jackson’s Zeus Carter battled McClane over issues of race, Long’s character offers a generational challenge to the put-upon cop.

Live Free or Die Hard’s greatest drawback, however, is that this third sequel to McTiernan’s 1988 classic transforms McClane into a veritable superman, one able to fly cars into helicopters and surf a military jet in flight. The whole idea of the every-man with a “die hard” personality is lost, to a great extent. And since Willis plays McClane with greater restraint than ever before, we don’t even have his darting eyes and furtive movements to suggest is he in constant jeopardy, or afraid for his life.

Certainly, there’s a great scene in Live Free or Die Hard wherein McClane describes exactly what it costs him, personally and emotionally, to be a hero, but that scene -- firmly planted in reality -- is but a passing blip in a film that, intentionally or not, makes the case that McClane is as indestructible as Arnie’s Terminator.

Len Wiseman directed Live Free or Die Hard, and the movie was a huge success at the box office. The film is no embarrassment (again, in light of A Good Day to Die Hard…) so this second-guessing of ingredients is largely academic.  Still, this entry in the canon accelerates Die Hard’s descent towards generic, mindless action franchise. It may not be a bad movie overall, but it is another rung down the ladder towards mediocrity. 

The fact that the movie’s PG-13 rating doesn’t even permit McClane to utter his immortal catchphrase -- “yippee kay yay, motherfucker” -- is an omen, perhaps, that business and demographic concerns have finally eclipsed artistic ones in the Die Hard universe.

“You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.”

After arguing with his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), divorced cop John McClane (Willis) is tasked with bringing in a hacker, Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) who may have knowledge of an escalating cyber-attack on financial markets and the government of the United States. 

At the same time, however, assassins are sent to kill Matt, and John is once again in the wrong place, at the wrong time, facing a terrible threat.

As Matthew explains to John, a group of well-organized, well-funded hackers are attempting a “fire sale” attack on the U.S. 

When John gets Matthew to Washington D.C., he learns that the culprit is the once well-respected Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who pointed out to the government its lack of defenses in the case of a cyber-attack.

Now Gabriel is showcasing that lack of defense, but in reality, is planning a huge cyber-robbery.

When Lucy is kidnapped by Gabriel, John and Matthew must work together -- despite generational differences – to short-circuit Gabriel’s escalating attack and save the day. 

They will require the help of an expert hacker, a guy called Warlock (Kevin Smith).

Another day in paradise.”

I’ve written about this concept before, but in the first decade of the twenty-first century -- just around the time of Live Free or Die Hard’s production, actually -- TV and film switched places; suddenly switched paradigms. 

Suddenly, television was the venue for intelligent, niche programming that would never have survived on a “big” network in earlier eras.  Think Dexter (2006-2014), or Mad Men (2006-2015).  And movies, which had survived and thrived through an independent film movement of great quality in the 1990s, began to become horribly, catastrophically homogenized, so as to attract all possible demographics and win the all-important opening weekend sweepstakes. 

One can argue why this switcheroo occurred and remains in place today, but Live Free or Die Hard feels like it bears the weight of the switch. 

Remember how Die Hard had all those weird-moments with pin-up girls, and Christmas party revelers snorting coke and having sex?

There are no moments like that in Live Free or Die Hard.

Remember how Zeus Carver and John McClane shared some really tough, really frank conversations about race relations in Die Hard with a Vengeance?

There is nothing so edgy or frank, or for that matter, real, in Live Free or Die Hard.

Remember how John McClane’s catchphrase alone gets each Die Hard film a hard R rating?

The character’s very catchphrase is not uttered in the theatrical version of Live Free or Die Hard.

It all makes one wonder if Die Hard was sold in a “fire sale” to Walt Disney Studios.

The switch to a more generic, safer approach, ill-suits the Die Hard franchise, because the films concern a stubborn man who is not easy to live with. McClane is confrontational, and, well, edgy. John makes enemies wherever he goes because he is “die hard.” He doesn’t tolerate fools, and he knows how to get things done. If someone isn’t helping him with a problem, they’re part of the problem. The first film made his world view abundantly clear, especially in terms of the “Dwayne” character, a bureaucrat and fool.  So if you take away John’s ability to cuss, and you’re already downgrading the individuality of the man, and his distinctive viewpoint.

But much worse than censoring John’s ability to swear, is the film’s insistence on censoring John’s ability to bleed, or break bones. 

In Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane is thrown off a jet in mid-air and keeps going. He doesn’t miss a beat.

John’s timing and reflexes -- while traveling 55 miles an hour -- are so great that he is able to “kill a helicopter” by launching a car at it. 

These are not the feats of a “die hard” police man; these are the feats of a superhero.

Another way to put it involves the concept of gravity. In the earlier Die Hard movies, John accepts the limits of gravity, and works within those limits to achieve his desired ends.  He sends C4 explosives strapped to a chair down an elevator shaft to blow up terrorists with an RPG. Gravity is his friend.  The chair drops eighty or so floors via the auspices of gravity. John delivers a bomb, in other words, with gravity’s help.

The set-pieces in Live Free or Die Hard, by contrast, are all about John defying gravity.  Jon surfs the back of a jet fighter -- standing on two feet -- as it accelerates and spins high in the air.  When at last he is thrown off the jet, he is flung a great distance, and his bones don’t shatter when he lands. 

See the difference?  Here, he is not a man working with gravity, he is a man somehow defying it…until he doesn’t. Look at how he drives a several-ton truck up a steep incline, and it doesn’t tumble down, towards the Earth. At least not immediately.

Here, it is clear, we have moved into the terrain of outright fantasy.  Die Hard becomes a stunt-filled comic book instead of a film series about a guy who is so stubborn, so thorny that he will just not give up.

It’s a huge shift in the paradigm, and one that doesn’t fit well with series history. 

Some of the outrageous stunts here would be more forgivable, perhaps, if we felt more in touch with the characters. 

Timothy Olyphant’s character, Thomas Gabriel, is the Marco Rubio of Die Hard villains. He’s young, he’s attractive, and he’s hip, but…on close analysis, he’s nothing more than acceptable. 

Like the villains in all the Die Hard movies, Gabriel is supposed to be a cunning and brilliant thief, who cloaks his venal love of money behind some act of apparent terrorism, in this case one that reveals to the U.S. government how vulnerable it is to cyber-attack.

But ask yourself a question: do you ever once believe that Olyphant’s Gabriel is a thief? Pulling a con?  Does he ever get a truly memorable scene, or even a memorable line of dialogue?

Mostly, he’s just a handsome bad guy who fits the template of action movie villain.  Now, this isn’t an attack on Olyphant, who is a great actor and has delivered remarkable performances in TV series such as Deadwood (2004-2006) and Justified (2010 – 2015). Even Olyphant has reported that the character of Gabriel is undeveloped.

Gabriel looks good, provides some generic menace, but never shows off any real humanity. The best two villains in the Die Hard series -- played by Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons, respectively -- ably convey humanity.  We get the sense that they are particularly clever robbers, ones engineering the greatest cons (and robberies) of all time.  There’s no sense of joy or accomplishment from Gabriel. He’s an off-the-shelf, generic villain to go with the off-the-shelf, generic action scenes.

I appreciate aspects of the film. I appreciate that John is now world weary; beaten down by life. He sees very clearly that fighting bad guys has not made him happy, or held his family together. He has many regrets.  This is all conveyed in a powerful scene, and the moment demonstrates why Willis is so great for this role.  He boasts great range as an actor.

But that’s the thing.  The screenplay must make use of that range. Not just here or there.  All the time.
We should be encountering a John McClane who is in danger, on the edge, half-crazy, running on adrenaline.  The movie rarely uses him in that way.  Like a real person.  Like a person we will wish we could be.

Except for a flash of humanity here or there, McClane might as well be played by Schwarzenegger this time out.

So no, this movie doesn’t “die hard.” But it doesn’t exactly “live free” either.

It lives, instead according to the sanctified rules of homogenized movie-making in the 21st century.  The key rule of that style of movie-making is: be as broad-based in your appeal as possible, no matter the subject matter of your film.

It’s all… “Yippy-kay-yay…you (gender neutral, PG rated put-down).”

And that’s a disappointment.

1 comment:

  1. I was skeptical when I went to see this, but I went mainly because parts of the film were shot in my hometown of Baltimore. I walked away enjoying the movie, but feeling like it was something other than a Die Hard movie. Mission: Impossible III had come out the year before, and it reminded me a lot of those Tom Cruise vehicles. You have an underdeveloped hero, and underdeveloped villain, a nerdy tech sidekick for comic relief, and lots of other-the-top action. Great fun, but not Die Hard.

    "Gravity defying" seems to be the defining nature of action in the 21st century. CGI allows filmmakers to create stunts that could never happen in the real world. That's okay in superhero movies, but for characters that are supposed to be rooted in the real world, it's jarring and unsatisfying. At least Tom Cruise actually does some of the crazy stunts for real, but most action films today look no better than Frankie Avalon standing in front of a rear projection rig pretending to surf.