Just Die Already
By Noel Vera

Live Free Or Die Hard
Dir: Len Wiseman (2007)

Never been a big fan of the "Die Hard" movies--well, Alan Rickman in the first made for a memorably witty villain, the outrageous escapes and climactic explosions in the second outstripped the first (at the expense of the first's token attempts at realism, of course), New York City was put to good use in the third (which also had this wonderful idea--fairly well realized--about bombs with riddle-activated detonators)--but no, not a big fan.

They're loud, they're obvious, and once in a while they allow the action to grind to a halt while the main character--one John McClane, ostensibly of the NYPD but with training that seems more Delta Force than police academy--grouses about how lousy life and the police department has treated him.

This fourth installment is pretty much more of the same. Willis seems to want to prove that at fifty-two he can still cut it as an action hero when this could have been a wonderful opportunity to show a fifty-two-year-old man cutting it as an action hero--that's what made Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky Balboa" partway affecting, as half of an effective drama on advancing age (the second half being an old (and not in a good way) retread of the Rocky clichés).

So: no blood pressure pill jokes, no constipation jokes, no Viagra jokes; maybe one or two lukewarm jabs at McClane's taste in music, but not even a hint or suggestion that maybe the knees aren't bending as readily as before, the ticker beating as steadily as before, or that nervy trigger finger squeezing perhaps a touch slower than before--no siree. The filmmakers have always been proud to present a human-sized protagonist, able to feel pain and not a little suffering, but this guy shrugs off shrapnel and gunshot wounds like water off a duck's back (as Clark Kent might put it when shot with a .38 revolver: "Huh?").

This time McClane is faced-to-face not with mortality but with obsolescence; he is, as the villain Thomas Gabriel (a miscast Timothy Olyphant) puts it "a Timex watch in a digital age." The terror this time isn't exploding buildings or crashing planes or bombs set to go off if a riddle is improperly answered, but computer-hacked control systems, able to wreak havoc with rogue traffic lights and massive blackouts up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States.

It's a fairly chilling scenario mainly based on a ten-year-old Wired article "A Farewell to Arms," by John Carlin, about the possibility of an Information War, or an assault on the communication networks of the United States: massive gridlocked traffic, grounded airlines, panic in Wall Street, uncoordinated emergency service and military units, chaos and confusion everywhere. The future belongs to the digitally aware, and when someone starts messing with that awareness, civilization itself is threatened.

Enter John McClane, who has trouble maintaining his 401k retirement fund, much less keeping up with all this computer crap; he's asked to deliver a young computer hacker named Matt Farell (Justin Long, who acts in Apple Computer ads) from Farell's apartment in New Jersey to Washington DC, where he's wanted for questioning on a computer breach. The simple transport assignment quickly escalates when silent killers are sent to eliminate Farell; McClane, whose middle name seems to be 'morose' when he's in-between adventures, lumbers yet again into action.

Even this lesser idea of analog vs. digital might have made for a fairly interesting action flick, but the script cheats by almost immediately providing McClane with an expert advisor on hand to tell him all about those nasty computerized hazards; in effect McClane is left doing what he was originally assigned to do: transport said whiz kid from one place to another so he can tap away at yet another keyboard and set things right (I'd love to see at least an actual monkey wrench dropped into actual set of gears at one point in the movie, but the filmmakers wouldn't even oblige that much).

The Final Confrontation is mostly your standard-issue face-off at gunpoint; it lacks the gee-whiz punchline quality of the second movie (possibly my favorite, if you pressed a gun to my head and demanded I choose), where a cigarette lighter and a crisp "Yipee kay-yay, mother--"whatever turned the terrorists' soon-to-be realized dreams into ashes. The Unlikely Escape is if anything TOO elaborate, involving a spiraling freeway, a ten-wheeler, a hovering F-35 Lightning, and so many unlikely breaks you wonder if McClane (or at least the director and scriptwriters) had to go through several boxfuls of rewrites before they came up with a solution even halfway plausible--as is, it seems several screenplay drafts short (again, the second movie's explosive ejection-seat getaway is--for me, anyway--the best (or at least the most amusing) in the series).

Director John McTiernan, a serviceable Hollywood craftsman, chose not to do this fourth installment; Renny Harlin, who did the fairly kinetic first sequel wasn't tapped either (Harlin's done so many bad films since ("Cuthroat Island" and that "Exorcist" prequel, anyone?) that "Die Hard 2" is starting to look like his masterpiece). Directing chores instead fell upon Len Wiseman, whose previous credits include the much-maligned (and not without cause) "Underworld" movies.

Like Harlin, this may be Wiseman's finest moment--the action is reasonably coherent, the butt-kicking fairly witty (one man is knocked off his helicopter perch by an uncorked fire hydrant, another has his hands frozen is dropped into a pair of whirling fan blades). Ironically, this "analog hero for a digital age" boasts of plenty of digital effects, most of them meant to make what looks like a series of fairly elaborate stunts look more dangerous than they really are.

It's plenty of huffing and puffing, all to little avail. I'm not sure why Willis is even doing this; he's proven time and time again that unlike Stallone or Schwarzenegger he's often been a lively and interesting character actor; he doesn't need to climb out of his wheelchair to do yet another action flick (and as I've said before, it would've been a more interesting film if he'd stayed in his chair). He's got nothing to prove, so why do this at all--to make even more money on top of the millions he's already earned? "Live Free and Die Hard" is the fourth in what for me has always been a pointless action series; high time to drive a stake through its heart, cut off its head, give it a proper burial.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 07/06/07.
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July 20, 2007