Perhaps you, like myself, made the assumption that a 12-years-later sequel to an action series noted for its significant fluctuations in quality and the PG-13 sequel to an action series noted for its violence and rough language, would be a feeble excuse for anything other than assuaging its over-the-hill star's ego, and ultimately a fair waste of summertime moviegoing energy. Perhaps you made that assumption. If you did, you would be just a flat-out wrong as I have turned out to be, because Live Free or Die Hard, for all its flaws (and they are not insignificant) turns out to be pretty much awesome. Like, "best American action movie in years" sort of awesome.
Here's a weird little observation: if you'd asked me ten years ago what I thought the biggest problem was with American action movies, I would have replied that it was the genre's inability to break out of the formal shackles of the 1980s: a wisecracking cop, ex-cop, ex-Army, or some other damn gun-trained fellow who just wants to get out of the game, probably with a minor substance problem, squares off against some sort of embittered genius, probably foreign-born, with an improbable small army. There are quips, there is gun play, lots of things shatter, and some comfortably R-rated blood splatters all about. And by the late 1990s, it was pretty old. I'm not sure what the final straw was - Lethal Weapon 4, maybe - but there comes a point when a change, any damn change, seemed extremely important.
Now I'm ten years older and wiser and much more cynical, and in those ten years we've had The Matrix and its normalisation of wire-fu; the Besson School, which ranges from very good to unwatchable, usually within the space of a single film; Vince McMahon and his troupe of WWE cardboard standees have managed to turn countless mediocre scripts into tedious video game pastiches; and along with every other movie genre under the sun, the action film has been sanitized and scrubbed and turned into a Disneyland experience when it isn't far worse. In that environment, the return of those very same tropes that once made me so extraordinarily bored feel like the freshest winds that e'er have blown through the immortal halls of the cinema.
Live Free or Die Hard is a throwback, in other words, but it's an extremely proud throwback that has the basic decency to steal from the very best. To begin with the story, New York detective John McClane (the inimitable Bruce Willis, who has changed from 1988, 1990 and 1995 only in his baldness) is tasked to find a hacker (Justin Long) and bring him safely to the FBI; easily ignorable contrivances and McClane is chasing the notorious computer genius Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphaunt), who has orchestrated a massive countrywide crisis to hide the theft of an almost unthinkable sum of money. It's basically the same notes as Die Hard with a Vengeance, then, and many other movies besides, with Long stepping in for Samuel L. Jackson, Olyphaunt nicely taking over for Jeremy Irons and the destruction of the East Coast power grid replacing the demolition of Wall Street.
Not that With a Vengeance was a model of originality in 1995, any more than people didn't instantly recognize that Die Hard 2 was a fairly alarming retread of Die Hard. That's not why we go to movies like these. If anything, the complete lack of narrative surprise is a major part of the appeal: if you're not busy trying to figure out what is going on, you're better able to enjoy the particular explosions and postmodern quips that make this film different than the other films just like it (I hope to be forgiven for saying that in this respect, action movies are like slasher films, where the tiny details make all the difference; although there's a whole lot more brain-rot attached to one genre than the other).
With that in mind, how are the specific explosions and quips in Live Free or Die Hard? Pretty damn good. There's a lot more fantasy to the action setpieces than in the previous installments, maybe (a standout: McClane rides a fighter jet from the outside), but that does not inherently mean they are less exciting, especially given that the CGI is mostly not obvious. And there are plenty of scenes, especially in the first half, especially an elevator shaft fight, that are just plain good old-fashioned gun 'n' fist choreography.
Director Len Wiseman (of Underworld, but more importantly, the other Underworld) is no John McTiernan, and the action sequences are not remotely so tight as in Die Hard (though they are about as good as the third film), but neither is he Renny Harlin, and the film is unquestionably more exciting than Die Hard 2. It's too long, by a solid fifteen minutes of explanatory scenes in the final third, but if one is sufficiently starved for good 'splosions (as your humble blogger), one will tend to forgive those fifteen minutes because of the film that contains them.
Not that anybody goes to see a film with Die Hard in the title because of their hope for rare and subtle craftsmanship, but it won't hurt anyone if I briefly mention: the mostly serviceable visual direction and cinematography by Simon Duggan never looks particularly bad, but there's one shot in particular that uses the 'scope image in a way that I had long since given up hoping for in American summer films, putting two patches of light on the extreme sides of the frame, a building in between them, and forcing us to constantly divide our attention between them. It's an amazingly tense moment. On the downside, the film is plagued by really sloppy overdubbing, made worse by some very peculiar editing.
But editing and cinematography are beside the point. Any true believer can tell you that the reason to see this film is to see Bruce Willis kick ass, which he does very well for his age (and his age is referenced in the film, without ever being smart-alecky, for which I am grateful), and he kicks much ass. Indeed, he kicks enough ass that one only intermittently notices the absence of the R rating, and while I'm of the opinion that bloodless PG-13 violence is actually more problematic because it is so desensitized, this is a film that still manages to get some pretty visceral shocks in here and there. It's altogether less cool that McClane has been denuded of his traditional potty mouth, but those are the breaks, and it would take a real crank to let the absence of the word "fuck" spoil an entire movie for you. This is a damn fine mindless summer action film; it is indeed a potent reminder of the days when mindless action films were brilliantly fun instead of tedious drudge work.
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