First, a programming note. For you L.A.-area types, I’m having a book signing and reception for Action Speaks Louder tonight. Come down to the Borders at 1360 Westwood Boulevard at 7pm. As one of John McClane’s former foes might put it, “Failure to comply will result in a penalty.”
And now a reaction to McClane’s latest…
When Air Force One opened in 1997, Hollywood’s long cycle of Die Hard clones effectively ended. A decade later—almost to the day—the Die Hard franchise returns with a fourth installment: Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a Die Hard 4.0 a.k.a. Die Hard 4, a.k.a. Die Hard 4: You Mean They Actually Made a Die Hard 4?
In the movie, Bruce Willis returns as Detective and technophobe John McClane, now teamed up with whiz-kid Matt Farrell (Justin Long). They join forces to battle cyber-terrorists trying to do something very bad with computers (actually, McClane is the force; Matt is more of a stiff breeze).
Willis played a lone-wolf in the first two Die Hards, but buddied up with Samuel L. Jackson in the third. The only thing noteworthy about the partnership in Live Free or Die Hard is the age difference—mainly because it is part of both a small, recent trend and a long tradition. Justin Long is to Willis what lanky teen James Francis Kelly was to Stallone in Rocky Balboa, what the young mercenaries are likely to be to his John Rambo, and what Shia Le Beouf’s character will probably be to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones.
Cynics may say that these young sidekicks are being injected into these weathered franchises to make them relevant to young revenuestrea—that is, audiences, who have no longstanding investment in these properties. I see it another way. These young tagalongs serve as an excellent source of hero-worship. Their eyes become our eyes. In fact, in at least one scene from Live Free or Die Hard, Long does not play Matt Farrell so much as he plays the justification forMcClane’s speech about what it means to be “that guy.”
Vain? Sure. At the same time, however, this hero worship, this business of the younger revering the older, is one long cherished by American movies. Westerns such as Shane and The Tin Star come to mind, as do their darker cousins, Pale Rider and Unforgiven. And as action movies such as Die Hard are direct descendants of the Western, it seems that Live Free or Die Hard goes an awful long way to come back home.
Still, a nod to the cynics. Much of the cast is a little too fresh-faced. This is particularly true of the villains. Their leader, the young, remarkably well-shaved Timothy Olyphant (who sounds like Bill Paxton, but somehow looks like nobody) lacks seriousness much as Brandon Routh did in Superman Returns. Likewise, his accomplice, played by Maggie Q, is as much a non-presence as was Lois Lane when played by Kate Bosworth.
This also applies to many of the more minor villains and some of the FBI agents. These generically attractive aand unmarked faces make one long for the original Die Hard, Superman, and others—fantasies, yes, but ones that felt more populated by adults, and therefore more real. In Long’s case at least, the Die Hard franchise is well served by the shot of youthfulness he brings to it. After all, the movie has to do something to balance the fact that its main appeal is a nostalgic one (as is that of a new Rocky, Rambo, Superman, or Indiana Jones).
But Live Free or Die Hard offers up its nostalgia in an unexpected way. While the return of JohnMcClane surely resonates with lovers of great 1980s fare, Live Free or Die Hard is much more rooted in the 1990s.
The villains are that familiar type: the government employee—nay, former hero!—gone wrong. The film reinforces this visually, as the terrorists kill while wearing FBI uniforms. Pushing this convention of the American turncoat terrorist to its most subversive extreme, the villains use edited footage of U.S. presidents to issue their demands. (Imagine a video ransom note.) Also consistent with 1990s villainy, the bad guys have turned tocyber -terrorism not out of politics or ideology will, but because, apparently, there is money in it. They are mostly white. They are mostly American.
There are a few exceptions: an Eastern European or two (judging from their age, perhaps they were supposed to be part of that Nakatomi thing, but didn’t get on the truck in time), and Maggie Q’s martial artist Mai Lihn. Though only vaguely Asian, the character stands out against the whiteness (not to mention blandness) of her comrades. In so doing, she is a throwback to the exotic villainess of film noir, another genre that sired the action film.
But then there’s the FBI: a cornucopia of races and hard-to-pin-down ethnicities. It is so ‘extremely ‘90s PC it is actually funny. Or it would be. After all, when a movie is this macho, and its explosions, shootings, and beatings (of which more than one is administered to a woman), are rendered with such abandon, it is sad to then see such obvious caution.
Much has been made of the film's—or more accurately, Twentieth Century’s Fox’s—caution. During post- production, Live Free or Die Hard was edited to trade an R-rating for a PG-13. This did not thrill the Die Hard fan base, but even this tamer version is plenty brutal. What is more noticeable is the relative lack of profanity. Indeed, f-bombs are about the only things in the film that don’t eventually explode.
But this is not what weakens Live Free or Die Hard the most. Vying for that distinction are the meager villains (typing, no matter how hard, just isn't very cinematic) and the film's style. The sets seem to be a succession of riffs on the headquarters of 24. The photography is heavy on contrast and light on the suppleness of the first film, or the shrewdly crafted urgency of the third. None of this is helped by the somber color palette, at times spanning the whole spectrum between blue-grey and charcoal. Even while not taking itself too seriously, it is still sometimes too somber.
But some of the action is inventive. And though McClane's one-liners don't crackle this time around, McClane sometimes reacts as if he were a moviegoer himself. (Simple lines such as "Oh-ho-no" went over surprisingly well with the audience.)
In the end, this Die Hard may not earn much cheering. But a "welcome back" won't be out of order.