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July 14, 2007

Live Free Or Die Hard Review

People keep asking for this, so okay, here it is. It's a troublesome review because while I like the movie on the whole, it's got a lot of problems. It's easy to write a slam or glowing review; it's harder to write a, um, nuanced one.

So here's what I remember of the movie.

Basically, three stars, which is my rating for "worth seeing in the theaters, and worth seeing again on DVD," but a disappointed three stars, because I was hoping for three and a half. (The four stars (plus) of the original Die Hard I considered impossible to match and so had no illusions on that score.) It's basically slightly less of a movie than Die Hard With A Vengeance, which is sad, because if it just didn't commit a few unforced errors it might have been as good as that film or even a little better.

Fuller review after the fold.


The film opens with several hackers cracking the security of government computers, directed by an Asian American woman (played by Maggie Q) who will later be known, to John McClain, as "that psychotic ninja bitch." Having gotten the algorithms and whatsits needed from the hackers, the psychotic ninja bitch orders hit-teams to kill the hackers. Justin Long, from the Mac commericials, is on the hit list but apparently the last scheduled for a catastrophic failure.

McClane, meanwhile, is spying on his estranged daughter Lucy at Rutgers in NJ, where a "jerkoff" (McClane's put-down of choice in this PG-13 movie) is groping her and parked-car makeout session. He grabs the jerkoff out of the car and threatens to beat him to death -- a threat he'll be making to several people in the film, but, sadly, in this PG-13 flick never acutally does -- and then demands to know why she never returns his calls. She's also now going by the name "Gennero," so pretty much it's the exact same family-estrangement emotional hook from the first Die Hard but with his daughter subbing for Holly.

Meanwhile, the Cyber-Security division of the FBI has detected a massive breach in the government's computers, and so has ordered a full-nation round-up of the usual suspects in the hacking community -- the thousand or so people on "the list" who can do such things. McClane is ordered, very much against his will, to drive down to Camden and pick up one of the hackers on the list -- Justin Long, of course. Why a Philadelphia-based, or even Camden-based, cop isn't called in for this isn't clear.

At this point McClane arrives to take Justin Long in for questioning, and the hit team, of course, shows up soon thereafter. After a pretty decent action sequence containing one of the funnier lines in the movie (and the whole series, so I won't spoil it), McClane gets his suspect out of trouble and begins driving down to DC to turn him over to DHS or the FBI. Forget which. I think he brings him to both, for some reason, but of course neither actually bother taking him out of McClane's custody, which was sort of the whole point of picking him up in the first place.

For those worried about comedic side-kicks, don't sweat it, Long is a good actor and his character is appealing and funny. There's a lot of old-school/new-school tension between McClane and Long, which has its moments. Long is a Chomskyite "the media is lying to you type," and not in the way conservatives mean it. It's not explicitly stated he's a Truther, but based on what we know, he's got 911truth.com bookmarked on his computer. Despite that, he's a pretty likable guy, whining just enough to demonstrate that, unlike McClane, he's really not cut-out for this hero stuff, but not whining so much he becomes disagreeable or annoying. Pretty much if most of us were dropped into this situation, we'd behave like Long does. He thus satisfies what many Youthful Sidekicks of superheroes are supposed to accomplish, but rarely do: Giving us a sympathetic character we can imagine ourselves to be if dropped into a conflict between an Extraordinary Villain and Even More Extraordinary Hero. But he doesn't make you grind your teeth like, say, Robin.

Long also has the only thing resembling a character arc in the movie -- going from decidedly unheroic (by his own confession) to rising to the occasion with a little McClane-inspired heroism -- and also one of the only characters in the movie to show any emotion whatsoever about anything. (More on that later.)

Once in DC, the Villain -- Thomas Olyphant, playing a cyber-"terrorist" (and I think you're all hip to what those quotes mean) named Gabriel -- unleashes his cybernetic attack on the nation. It's "fire-sale," the movie says, so named because under such an attack "everything must go" -- power, financial records, communications, traffic control, basic order. It's an attempt to reduce the nation to roiling chaos by tanking the stock market, inspiring panic, wiping out the economy, etc.

It's the lack of reliable communications during the attack, by the way, that gives this Die Hard the pretext for John McClane having to take on the villains alone (almost). Because the whole grid is down, McClane usually can't contact the FBI to tell them what's he's learned... although the movie gets kind of annoying about suspending this rule when the plot requires it, with Justin Long suddenly realizing he can reconfigure the flux capacitors, or whatever, to get in touch with the FBI at this moment (but not the next). For part of the movie the excuse for lack of contact with the FBI is... dead batteries in their only cellphone, which is, uhh, let us say, highly convenient in its selective inconvenience.

Some of these initial scenes of the chaos Gabriel has inflicted on the nation are fairly effective, evoking, to some small degree, the powerlessness and anxiety we all felt on 9/11. No one ever believes the nation is really going to be destroyed in a movie -- it's just a plot device, and we all know the actual plot will never come to fruition -- but here they do a respectable job of actually making you feel some degree of worry and discomfort about exactly what Gabriel has planned for America.

That's the set-up. From there Gabriel attempts to kill McClane because he wants Justin Long dead. Supposedly he wants Long dead because he knows too much, but really, that's a bit dopey. Long doesn't know much at all and besides it doesn't take very long for the Feds to figure out Gabriel's identity. It's an excuse for the frequent confrontations between McClaine and Gabriel's minions (and the cybernetic obstacles he throws at McClane), but it really doesn't make a great deal of sense even as you're watching it. After a bit of Gabriel trying to kill McClane, McClane and Long switch to the offensive, trying to prevent the additional horrors Gabriel is set to unleash.

Incidentally, Long is presented as a very unwitting facilitator of Gabriel's plan. It's not explicitly stated, but it seems implied that Long was the victim of false-flag recruitment (like in Sneakers, one of several movies Live Free or Die Hard borrows from) -- Gabriel's minions posing as lawfully-acting government agents -- and he was hired as a "tiger team" guy tasked with testing government security, just to see if it could be breached at all, as part of a test of national cyber-security. Whether that's the real explanation or not I don't know, but everyone seems to accept that Long is basically an innocent (or near-innocent) in all of this. Certainly he feels pretty guilty about his complicity.

This being a Die Hard film, I don't think I'm giving much away by telling you that Gabriel's plot isn't primarily about bringing down America, but about a massively ginormous mega-theft. Although in this installment, the villain is actually motivated partly by seeking vengeance on America -- in a plot point I didn't much buy or appreciate, it turns out that Gabriel was a government security expert who presented evidence that the entire national computer network was easily hijacked, but was "crucified" for political reasons, and now seeks payback. Why (or how) the government would "crucify" him for his presumably-secret report isn't clear, and why he would be so angry by what must have been basically a firing is mystifying. Pissed off by an unfair firing, sure. Pissed off enough to destroy the country? Doubtful. It's not like a guy with Gabriel's impressive talents couldn't get a private-sector job paying five times as much as the government in five minutes.

The film's most unforgivable plot-hole is related to this. The higher-ranking DHS guys know that Gabriel himself designed the country's financial-records back-up fail-safe system -- which is obviously therefore his target. And yet they don't see fit to share this rather crucial bit of information with the FBI pointman running the counter-attack against Gabriel until very late in the movie, well past the point he can do much about it. And not only don't they tell him, they don't apparently tell anyone -- Gabriel's goons are able to waltz in to one of the most crucial government installations in America without encountering any additional security to thwart his obvious intentions. And not only is there no additional security at the site, the normal, standing security for this very vital computer hub is scarcely more extensive than what you'd find at a branch bank. Maybe that's a nod to the Die Hard series' conceit that almost everyone who works in federal law enforcement is an idiot, but I'm not sure it's part of the Die Hard tradition that they actually suffer from diagnosable mental retardation.

At least in the previous Die Hard films, no one actually knew or had reason to know what the villain's true intentions were, thus explaining, plausibly, the villains' relative ease in (almost) pulling their plan off. Here the villain's intentions are known (or should be known) by the top ranks of government... but no one does a damn thing to prevent it. Maybe this is supposed to be some stealth commentary on the avoidability of 9/11 or something, in which case I object to it not only on grounds of plausibility and logic but on political grounds as well.

So that's the plot. Here's what worked, and mostly what did not work.

Previous Die Hards featured villains who were very cool customers -- rarely showing emotion or annoyance with the incredibly annoying (from their perspective) John McClane. But they would, occasionally, lose their cool and demonstrate that the persistent, lunkheaded but well-nigh unkillable McClane was, in fact, getting under their skins in a big way. (Jeremy Irons didn't really seem to lose his cool at all in Die Hard With A Vengeance, but being not just cool but ultracool was part of his charm. And what separated him from his brother Hans.)

Not so in this installment. Gabriel is robotic, emotionless, entirely unflappable. I don't think he really ever loses his shit when dealing with the shit-loss-inducing John McClane. Even when McClane does something that should provoke a strong emotional response from Gabriel, he doesn't let his anger show. I blame this on the director -- I think director Len Weismann gave Olyphant some vague difficult direction like "You're seething with anger on the inside, but you're in such command of your outward comportment you don't show it all!" -- but Olyphant just does the latter. He doesn't show it all. Nothing. I'm not really sure you can even pull off such a thing; even if your performance is mostly "internal," you still have to actually show some external signs of your internal state if the audience is going to see the emotion at all. This is a pity, because as Olyphant demonstrated week after week on Deadwood>, he's very good at seething internally while showing it just a little on the surface. But here he one-ups Bullock and shows it not at all. This is supposed to make him "cooler;" in fact it makes him boring and not memorable at all.

That's bad enough, but McClane does the same damn thing. In previous Die Hards, McClane frequently lost his shit. He'd begin screaming obscenities at the villain, he'd half-beg/half-demand the villain just stop his plan and/or give him more information, he'd plead on behalf of innocents (like the cops attempting the breach of Nakatomi Tower in Die Hard) that the villain show mercy. Here, Willis is portraying McClane as older, sadder, wiser -- all of that just fine -- but also much more emotionally detached than in any previous Die Hard movie. If it's bad that McClane never seems to get under the villain's skin, it's much worse that the villain never seems to get under McClane's. How are we supposed to feel what McClane is feeling -- anger at the villain -- if McClane never really seems to feel that himself?

I trust it's not a spoiler to any of you that at some point, late in the film, Gabriel abducts McClane's daughter for leverage over the pesky detective. Even in this situation -- with his daughter's life being threatened -- McClane remains emotionally unattached. He simply says "You won't kill her, because you're afraid of me, and you think you need her alive as a bargaining chip" (approximately) and continues pacing towards Gabriel's hideout with Terminator-like resolve, and Terminator-like robotic affect. If McClane's favorite cowboy in the first Die Hard was Roy Rogers, in this episode his favorite gunslinger is clearly Yul Brenner from WestWorld.

McClane's thinking on this point, by the way, doesn't even make sense. For one thing, even if he's right, Gabriel could do a lot to Lucy short of killing her -- torture her, maim her, even rape her, possibilities McClane never considers. (And, fortunately, Gabriel never considers either.) Furthermore, McClane seems convinced that he has by this point struck deeply at Gabriel in a very emotion-churning way (I won't say how), so why wouldn't he consider the possibility that Gabriel might just kill Lucy out of a simple emotional desire for vengeance, whether or not it was actually logical or helpful to do so?

So basically both the villain and hero are more or less immune to the other's provocations. If either feels much on the line here, they sure don't show it too much. Their affects tell us this is all rather minor stakes for each of them, and this effects the audience's appraisal of the situation -- if both of these cats are pretty emotionally detached from this feud, why should we care about it ourselves?

Also the usual fun of Die Hard movies -- with McClane and the villain taunting each other over radios, even sometimes engaging in funny, pleasant banter (well, it would be pleasant, but for the subtext that both want to murder the other) -- is missed here. 90% of McClane's statements to Gabriel are "I'm going to kill you" or "I'm coming to kill you" or "I'm coming to beat you to death, jerkoff." Once or twice is fine, but this seems to be the only thing McClane can think to say to Gabriel. And Gabriel doesn't have anything more interesting to say back ("I'm going to kill you when you get here," "I'm going to kill your daughter and make you watch.") All said matter-of-factly, as if they were discussing a a bond trade.

Not all of the life has been drained from McClane, thankfully. He still gloats when he's winning (or thinks he's winning), chuckling in that Gene Hackman-ish way over the mayhem he causes to the bad guys. Unlike, say, James Bond, John McClane stops to appreciate his bloody work and give himself a conceited pat on the back for killing three or six dudes. James Bond usually acts like the outcome was never in doubt and so is never overly impressed with himself; McClane, the blue-collar James Bond, is a bit more less sure of himself, and so enjoys a hearty giggle at some of the destruction he leaves in his wake.

McClane still can be an irreverently funny prick, too. His taunting of Maggie Q and other villains when he's got the upper hand on them is worth some giggles. That's part of the McClane character that survives -- he's kind of an asshole. But the kind of asshole you like, especially when he's all that stands between you and international terrorists/thieves.

Still -- while Willis and/or Weismann thought it would be a good idea to show McClane as having matured emotionally by essentially deleting the bulk of emotions, I think it really cuts at important character element of McClane, and I was sorry to see it go. He's more like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name in this movie, and that's a great character and all, but I came to see John Fuckin' McClane, not Blondie.

That's part of the reason Justin Long's character is so welcome here -- while Gabriel and McClane are out-cooling each other to the point of sapping the emotional/confrontational oomph from the movie, Justin Long is the one saying the sorts of things you'd expect to be said, like "Aaaaaggh!! My God! Everything's blowing up! What the hell is wrong with the rest of you people, don't you see the crazy-dangerous shit that's happening everywhere!?!? Am I the only one taking any notice of any of this!!?"

I should say at this point I'm overstating a bit-- McClane does lose it and begin yelling on occasion (for example, when his truck is being ballistically disassembled by an F-35's vulcan cannons) -- but that kind of anger and frustration is mostly lacking in his exchanges with Gabriel, which is where they're most important. A movie really has to sell the fact that the hero and villain hate each other -- after all, we don't really care about the McGuffin of the plot, we just want to see the final confrontation between the hero and villain -- and here I just didn't think Gabriel or McClane were terribly emotionally invested in the other's demise.

The F-35 attack on the truck, by the way, isn't terribly good. Not as bad as I feared, but a waste of time overall. For one thing, the pilot of the F-35 is a good guy, a bona fide Marine aviator, who has been tricked into attacking McClane by Gabriel. So right there, you can't sit there saying "Yeah, kill him, McClane!" You want McClane to survive, obviously, but you're also kinda worried about his opponent. Mixed emotions -- yeah, McClane needs to beat him, but beat him gently.

For another thing, it gets into True Lies comic-book territory when McClane, inevitably, jumps on top of the VTOL hovering jet and rides it like a big aerial bucking bronco. It's not a bad sequence -- those vulcan cannons are scary -- but it's all a bit contrived, a sop to the CGI-loving (supposedly) younger crowd, and really doesn't have much oomph.

This leads more or less to the climax. In the first Die Hard, McClane confronted Hans face-to-face at the climax, and furthermore, killed him in such a way that Hans had a chance to realize he'd been defeated. Dropped out of the top of a 100 story building, Hans had about 1.8 seconds to contemplate the poor decisions and bad career choices he'd made. After 2 hours of the villain tormenting the hero, you sort of want that recognition by the villain, if only briefly, that he understands he's been beaten -- and killed -- by McClane.

The second two Die Hard movies had unsatisfying endings because they didn't have that. In Die Hard 2, most of the villains die when McClane blows up their plane from a distance; they never really see it coming. In fact, they're all drinking celebratory champagne as they die -- their last moments are filled not with dread but with the thrill of victory.

In Die Hard 3, Simon gets killed long-range by falling high-tension electric lines in another unsatisfyingly sudden death.

In this one, Weismann, I think, realized how much more dramatically effective it is to have McClane face down the villain not from long range but up close and personal... but forgets about the part where the villain gets to see his demise coming, realizing this cocky, not-even-close-to-a-genius flatfoot has beaten him through nothing but sheer perserverence and an 18/00 Constitution score. While the confrontation is at close range, once again, the villains never see it coming, and die before they even realize they've lost. John McClane uses a bit of trickiness to reverse the situation and gain the upper hand... but instead of just having that reversal take out the villain outright and suddenly -- how about making good on that longstanding promise to "beat you to death, jerkoff"?

Is it just me? Am I a sadist? Maybe. But after two hours of arrogance, criminality, and tormenting of McClane and his family, I want to see it on their faces that they know all their intricate plans have been undone. Maybe this is just me, because this is three Die Hards in a row now where the directors apparently don't share my desire for the villain's epiphany of total, catastrophic defeat.

One final complaint: John McTiernan established the Die Hard brand in the first film and continued it in the third. One of the things I find important to the brand-identity of Die Hard is the music -- Beethoven's 9th in Die Hard, Johnny Comes Marching Home in DHWAV, both evocative pieces which also unify the film and tend to suggest a forward momentum through music. The also added a touch of the operatic, and classy-clever, to a genre dominated by dumb, crappy uninspired music. For this DC based installment, why not a score dominated by, say, The Battle Hymn of the Republic? ("He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword -- John McClain will kick your ass! Glory, glory Alleljuah...")

And McTiernan also designed a series of musical cues -- shivering strings for danger, clanging bells and chimes for the "realization ephiphanies" when McClane figures out something important -- which I like a lot. I realize directors don't like to swipe from other directors, but I think these contributions of McTiernan's are part of what makes Die Hard moves Die Hard movies, and don't really get the reluctance of other directors to use them. It's like a new director saying he doesn't want to use the James Bond theme in a James Bond movie because it's been done before. The music and musical cues in this movie are bland and instantly forgettable, as they were in Die Hard 2. Music is a powerful subliminal agent in creating a sense of urgency, emotion, danger, and everything else, and if there's a Die Hard 5 -- and I hope there is -- I hope the director isn't too proud to borrow from McTiernan's musical deisgn.

That seems like a lot of complaining, and it is. But I'm not telling you the good stuff -- the fact that the action sequences are generally well done and a lot of fun. And fairly brutal, despite the PG-13 rating. And that there are chuckles large and small throughout the movie. And that Willis and Long have good chemistry together, even if Willis and Olyphant don't. Or that Kevin Smtih shows up as a l33t hacker and isn't annoying in the least; actually, he manages to contribute to the movie.

Or that, most importantly, John McClane gets the living shit beaten out of him early and often, and is walking around covered in blood and grime for most of the movie.

Or that it's just plain fun to see John McClane back in action after all these years, even if it's a little more somber and reserved than we're used to seeing him.

So, anyway, that's why it took me a long time to write this. It's actually a pretty good movie, lots of fun, well worth your $10 and 2 hours. It's just that in a lot of places it deviated from the Die Hard tradition and the character of John McClane, always to its detriment. But it's still Die Hard enough, and John McClane enough, to be worth a recommendation.

75% of John McClane is still more kickass that 100% of most movie heroes, after all.

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posted by Ace at 05:57 PM

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