[3 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You’d figure that, at this point in his career, Bruce Willis wouldn’t have to revisit his past. In many ways, he’s the blockbuster version of Johnny Depp, an iconic screen presence trading on his highly recognizable image to work in films both commercial (The Sixth Sense, Armageddon) and quietly idiosyncratic (Pulp Fiction, Sin City). While he can be typecast as the burly man of action, he has also excelled in small dramas, sly comedies, and even an animated feature or two.
Yet here he is, in 2007, trading on his most famous genre role (that of police officer John McClane) in another Die Hard film. The fourth in the long considered dead franchise (number three was made back in 1995!), this latest update finds our hero taking on hackers bent on undermining our computer crazed civilization. Oddly enough, instead of a crass cash grab, we wind up with an excellent installment in a seemingly still viable series.
When someone crashes the FBI’s computer banks, the bureau decides to round up a few of the usual suspects. Shorthanded, thanks to the Fourth of July holiday, the agency calls on local law enforcement to help. When John McClane gets the call to round up Matt Farrell (Justin Long), he’s insulted. He can’t believe a cop of his caliber is being called on to act as a delivery service for the Feds.
All of that changes when, while in Washington, hackers take down the communication network. Their next target: the entire energy grid. The plan will throw the economy into chaos, bring down major corporations, and stifle the government’s ability to respond. Naturally, McClane decides to take on the villains, and he brings his bitrate expert along for the ride. When the criminals get personal, it’s up to our time-tested champion to kick some terrorist behind.
Unlike any other franchise in the action film milieu, the Die Hard movies are a director’s medium. With John McTiernan handling parts one and three, and newcomers Renny Harlin and Len Wiseman helming two and four, respectively, there are geeks on both sides of the aisle looking to limit the success of the series based on who is in charge behind the camera. Some argue that McTiernan should have stayed throughout, his journeyman style and authentic gravitas giving the frequently outrageous narratives a nice amount of heft.
Still others point to the pure stunt extravagance of Harlin’s vision, and in some ways, Wiseman shares the same ideal. He’s in it for the big picture, not really concerned with moments of personal parlay or complicated conversation. This is the most streamlined Die Hard in quite a while, a pseudo-Western where Willis is the inadvertent sheriff up against an ex-Defense Department employee standing on the street, waiting for high noon.
It’s also one of the most enjoyable. While much has been made of the mainstreaming of this material (this is the first installment to carry a youth oriented PG-13 over the standard action R), Live Free or Die Hard (new to DVD from Fox) still contains the proper level of filmic fireworks to make the thriller demo happy. Wiseman handles the numerous car chases with ease, and one particular vehicle to helicopter sequence defies both physics and expectations.
But he’s also good close in. Star Willis has some hand-to-hand combat with Eurasian honey Maggie Q that rivals anything done in the Bourne or Bond films. This doesn’t mean the movie succeeds 100 percent of the time. It’s still too cutesy when it comes to computers. On the tech side of things, we constantly feel like we’re trapped in a bad ‘80s comedy where motherboards manage every aspect of human life. While it may be true, the situation created here doesn’t appear realistic.
Of course, this could be because our main villain is so incredibly generic. Timothy Olyphant, of many films and HBO’s Deadwood fame, is not the greatest center of evil. He’s less than focused and occasionally comes off as angry just for the Hell of it. His phone call confrontations with McClane (a series constant) lack the necessary drive to deliver on the premise, and when he finally snaps and starts showing his psychotic side, it’s a watered down version of wickedness.
His casting is as questionable as the sudden appearance of Kevin Smith as uber nerd hacker extraordinaire Warlock. While he gets some of the film’s best lines, he’s also a gimmick, a trick to bring audiences into the theater that may not otherwise appreciate the finer elements of a bullet and blood ballet.
In fact, if you look at Live Free or Die Hard too long, you’ll begin to see the structure by committee conceits inherent in the production. Willis is not the sole draw, supposedly. Long (as target needing protecting Matt Farrell) offers his quasi-adolescent cred, while the nubile Mary Elizabeth Winstead (of several noted big screen efforts) is eye candy for the early developer. And since the language has been tailored to allow the occasional teenybopper to enjoy the ride, everything seems dialed down a notch or two.
Before, McClane would dissect an entire brigade of mercenaries, and once the blood dried and the screaming stopped, he’d light up a cigarette and let loose with a corny comeback. Apparently, there’s no place for arterial spray or foul language in a post-millennial Die Hard world.
All of which makes the loudly labeled “Unrated” DVD of the film seem slightly counterproductive. Is Fox telling families that the PG-13 tag no longer applies once the film hits home? Or is this just another example of the rampant reselling device that’s souring many on the digital format?
Whatever the case, there is more gore here, more projectile producing sluice, and a healthy dose of sailor-mouthed curses. Luckily, the studio offers both version of the DVD for confusion free preferences. Those seeking context will also find that the presentation provides ample examples of same. Across the two discs, we hear from Willis, Wiseman, and editor Nicholas De Toth, see our lead sit down and chat with Smith, and witness a 100-minute documentary on the making of the film. All spill the ballyhooed beans over how a 20-year-old franchise found new footing.
It won’t stop the cinematically confused from wondering, though. Willis remains an enigmatic actor, destined to seem marginalized by his own baffling career choices (Perfect Stranger? Alpha Dog?). Yet when he’s on, as he is here, or in his more obtuse acting efforts, there’s a greatness and a drive that cannot be diminished.
So what if he’s like an aging Harrison Ford going back to the well that made him a highly paid professional yet again. If the results are as winning as Live Free or Die Hard, no one will cares if the AARP and a Medivac Team are waiting near the trailers. While no one is suggesting that Willis revisit this franchise again, it’s clear this time that he didn’t do it to resuscitate some failing fortunes. There is actually some merit to this late in life jumpstart.