The Reeler


June 27, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

In striving for post-9/11 resonance, McClane's return becomes post-itself

It’s only fair to judge action movies by their abilities to entertain, but ideally, entertaining action movies also seek to provoke somehow (not everything must have the complex, socially encoded language of a Children of Men, but well-meaning intellectual subtexts can’t hurt). And despite the entertainment value of Live Free or Die Hard, the long-delayed fourth offering in a franchise that last blazed across screens 12 years ago never manages the provocative.

Live Free of Die Hard hails from a fantastical genre that depends not only on the suspension of disbelief but from the belief in a set of rules particular to its constructed world. The iconic “bullet time” maneuvers made hip by The Matrix, wherein time slows to a crawl as a means of showcasing astounding dodge work, pull off a sense of great excitement by adhering to that film’s systemic inner logic. Because these flighty characters exist within a virtual realm, they can bend the rules of the natural world. That’s the only prerogative for escapism: Coloring inside the lines of the spectacle at hand.

Curiously enough, Live Free or Die Hard lays out its inner logic sans seismic bullets or fiery destruction. The crucial scene arrives early, when stalwart Die Hard hero Bruce Willis makes his triumphant onscreen return as the cantankerous badass cop John McClane. In the canon of movie heroes, I’ve always viewed McClane as the cartoon extension of Clint Eastwood’s nameless gunslinger in Sergio Leone’s Dollar trilogy, replete with snarls and unstoppable survival tactics, yet incessantly playful and eager to amuse. Willis was in his 30s in the first Die Hard, and at 52, he’s no less daunting or smug than the finicky private eye he played opposite Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting. His persona has only improved with age.

Unfortunately, the Die Hard dialogue hasn’t. Our first glimpse of McClane comes when he attempts to save his teenage daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who lives with McClane’s ex-wife. She has fallen victim -- not to a nasty kidnapper (yet), but to the pushiness of her overly frisky boyfriend. Daddy McClane complains that she hasn’t returned his calls. “That’s because I’m not talking to you,” she shoots back.

Therein lies the most character nuance on display in Live Free. We haven’t seen McClane or his family in years (the third movie came out in 1995), leaving virtually no context for his off-screen divorce, or Lucy’s hostility, other than her meager one-liner. He wants to know why she’s ignoring him, and the answer is…she’s ignoring him.

So begins a cavalcade of events -- some catastrophic -- that happen... because they happen. McClane is assigned the seemingly boring task of escorting a wisecracking young computer hack named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to government headquarters in the wake of a security breach. Naturally, things don’t go as planned: Somebody wants Gabriel dead, and they’re willing to drag McClane down with him. The first major action scene takes place as McClane rescues Gabriel from his assailed apartment; guns blaze as the supercop executes a few tricky moves and sends faceless villains careening out windows and under the grill of his car. What begins as a few exhilarating moments grows tired fast -- it’s the equivalent of watching somebody play "Grand Theft Auto," and feeling the burn as your eyes slowly glaze over. This irksome sensory experience plagues the rest of the movie.

I’m not making a plea for Shakespearean dilemmas to enrich every frame, but compared to this film's thoughtless indulgence in weary action clichés, the first three entries in the franchise take on a sort of literary cohesiveness. Perhaps that’s because Die Hard and threequel Die Hard with a Vengeance were crafted under the tutelage of director John McTiernan, the steady hand behind Predator and The Hunt for Red October, while Die Hard 2 took its cues from Renny Harlin, whose skill for blocking tense action is also proven in Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. But Live Free director Len Wiseman brought to life Underworld and Underworld: Evolution (with a third in the works). The man has shown considerable talent as a music video director, but he lacks the ability to imbue action scenes with purpose. Whereas Die Hard took place within an office building and Vengeance involved an elusive bomber, Live Free has McClane and Gabriel constantly on the run from raining bullets and little else. Even a silly cameo from Kevin Smith, as Gabriel’s geeky hack pal with a flaring temper, can’t enliven the sullen pace.

Yet within the plot of Live Free lies the movie’s most intriguing conceit. As its story gradually unravels, there are occasional references to confusing “post-9/11” paradigms. “Post-9/11” has become the lame catch-all for any number of mentalities that have grown out of the new millennium’s inaugural decade. In the action genre, it functions as a keyword for new-age terror. When information technology turns on us, the country’s collective fantasy centers on an action hero who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. With that in mind, Live Free proclaims itself a “post-9/11” movie several times while outlining its premise, which involves a disgruntled government employee (Timothy Olyphant) who turns on his elitist Washington superiors by abusing the very security measures that he was hired to put in place. But in the process of becoming post-9/11, the movie becomes post-itself. McClane battled international terrorists back in Die Hard, before it was cool. Already ahead of the game, the franchise falls behind on its own standards.

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Comments (1)

This review truly captures the essence of the experience by a viewr of this movie

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