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Published: Wednesday, 6/27/2007

Movie review: Live Free or Die Hard ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

And I quote, from the cheerfully glass-half-full press notes for Live Free or Die Hard, which opens today in Toledo, on the fifth page of the first section, this remarkable act of grasping at straws from the marketing folks at Fox: "Rand (played by famed French action star Cyril Raffaelli) jumps across a building, lands on an air conditioning unit, jumps over to a fire escape, rappels down another fire escape, and swings down onto a third fire escape - all in one take, which has never before been done on film." But are you sure?

Because if so ... then, hey ...

Yippee ki-yay, monsieur.

Oh, and another thing:

Straight-up stupid.

The phrase kept leaping into my head as I watched Live Free or Die Hard. But hold on: If I had held up a mirror, I would have seen, plastered across my face, my own straight-up goofy grin. Because the other thing that kept popping into my head was: how comforting. There's no other way to come at Live Free or Die Hard - Die Hard 4, if you're keeping score - other than say I'm as shocked as you are. Yeah, it's dumb, and a lot of fun - a little too long, but well-paced, unpretentious, and surprisingly charming. Until someone opens his or her mouth. Though even then, the eye-rollingly unimaginative dialogue reminds us that these filmmakers mean it - they are not above it all or reinventing what's gone stale or serving up a parody of 1980s action cinema.

They're not that clever.

Frankly, it's a relief.

Live Free or Die Hard is refreshingly elemental and sincere, in a way rarely attempted in these seen-it-all times. A cliche that goes by unnoticed now is a cliche I relish. The tough, gruff John McClane is still Bruce Willis, still bald, still creaky at the joints, and not re-imagined with gravitas in mind (Casino Royale) or stripped to his core (Batman Begins). Instead, what we have is a chummy tribute to 1988, a rewind to old school outrun-the-exploding-elevators extravaganzas of summers past - the kind in which it would be perfectly natural for a terrorist to shut down the nation's infrastructure before a Fourth of July weekend, a weekend in which (if you live on planet Earth, you know) our infrastructure is already operating at roughly 15 percent. (Though it's not articulated, perhaps the terrorist plan was that they shut us down in July and we realize it in August.)

Anyway, coming a dozen years after the last Die Hard installment, Live Free or Die Hard has positioned itself as the action movie for audiences who don't use words like "infrastructure," have been worn thin on digital effects, and don't want to sit through hours of exposition and multiple films, waiting years for a resolution. It's proudly stuck in the analog past, pre-tech, when summer movies had no illusions - yet somehow, in movies like this, it seemed guys in eyeglasses were always hacking federal networks and shouting over their shoulders "I'm in!" The bad guys in Die Hard movies are geeks, stuffed shirts, and not memorable - besides Alan Rickman's scene chewing in the first one.

And the mold hasn't changed: Die Hard villains are pale, thin, and, unlike Willis, their hands stay clean. They can't throw a punch. But, boy, nobody throws a punch the way Willis does. I can't think of another series in which violence itself has style and weight, and director Len Wiseman understands that well: McClane, despite having saved hundreds of people across 20 years, remains an under-appreciated New York cop. He's asked to pick up a hacker (Justin Long, of those Apple-PC ads) and drive him to the FBI in D.C. for questing. But then Euro-thugs step in.

So bam, blam - punches are thrown, but messy and sideways. Kicks take effort. When bullets are used (and they are, a lot), Willis always seems to be contorting himself into uncomfortable shapes to pull off a shot. His default face is a grimace. Wiseman, the not-quite-genius behind the Underworld movies, has good instincts: He doesn't chop the action up in a blizzard of frenzied cuts. He frames it with (relatively) long takes that let the big sequences play out - characters run from point A to point B, without interruption.

But if Live Free or Die Hard works better than could be hoped, credit needs to go to, of all things, the plot, which is just eerie enough to plug the gaps of credulity. Timothy Olyphant (of Deadwood) plays a computer mastermind who, leading a band of geeks and thugs, shuts down the nation with an elaborate act of cyber terrorism. I read a piece in the New York Times last weekend about cyber terrorism and was surprised how closely the film captures our government's fears: Olyphant starts small. He flips every traffic signal to green, causing a coast-to-coast fender-bender and, moreover, massive gridlock. Then Wall Street is hit.

Followed by blackouts.

But the best moment is a chilling act of political commentary: the terrorists hack the TV networks and broadcast a kind of digital ransom note, a mash-up of presidential speeches, edited together until the meanings are tweaked into a warning of more to come. It's an ideal Die Hard situation: Willis is at his best when, no matter how hairy the situation looks, he doesn't have time for these idiots and their pretense. It's why we love McClane: When a character notes "it took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome," Willis boils all the anger and outrage down to the face of a dad who has to pick up the toys in the yard - again.

Which, in this case, means running up and down the East Coast, leaping from one improbable escape to the next. The nice thing is that the highways are remarkably free of cars, and despite a nationwide panic, the streets are like downtown Toledo on a Tuesday. Live Free or Die Hard, you might say, lacks scope. The free world is collapsing and it doesn't resonate beyond the D.C. Beltway. But, if you would, I shall now contort myself into a well-reasoned rationalization: Live Free or Die Hard, like previous Die Hards, is what we watch now instead of westerns. And shoot-outs always need room.

Besides, what is Willis' exhausted swagger but a John Wayne imitation? A couple of weeks ago I drew up a list of my top 100 movies for this newspaper, putting the first Die Hard at No. 98. After I picked through the e-mail from readers who couldn't believe I hadn't asked them before I left off Doctor Zhivago, it was Die Hard that received the most comment. It wasn't the inclusion that threw anyone. It was that I had placed it at only No. 98. To those readers, I feel you. The Die Hard movies are tangible, lovable, the what-I-shoulda-done arguments you have in the car on the way home. Live Free or Die Hard is the first sequel worthy of that first popcorn western, primarily because it has such disdain for the technology that took to make it. And who doesn't love a crank?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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