Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

Still Some Spark in the Old Die Hard

The "Die Hard" series has had a checkered history. The first one was a surprisingly entertaining, nasty little movie (a robbery at the Nakatomi Building) that brought movie stardom to Bruce Willis, and secured his status (however improbable at the time) of becoming a staple of "action" pictures. The second one (white supremacist military organization threatens to blow up passenger jets) was dumber'n a stump (I couldn't get past the fact that if pilots wanted to avoid the situation, since they were on the East Coast, they could have happily diverted to another airport no more than 10 MINUTES AWAY!! Hel-lo!!!). Original director John McTiernan returned to the fold for the third one (Mayhem in New York by the brother of #1's villain), but it was crazy-complicated and a drag despite the presences of Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons. Die Hard 3 seemed to be the last nail in the coffin for the "Die Hard" series. The formula got tired really fast.

But Hollywood seems to have a "Three Strikes" law, so as long as the roman numerals are within a couple of strokes of each other, despite the intervening years, there might be a chance that folks would flock to see a fourth "Die Hard" movie. After all, it worked with "The Godfather" series (Well, actually didn't, that's right) and Rocky and Rambo aren't far behind, so why not John McLane?

What's surprising is that the fourth "Die Hard" is the best since the first. I won't go into detail about the plot, but the screen story was suggested by this "Wired" article, and concerns the concept of a comprehensive hacker attck on American systems in a maneuver called a "Fire Sale." McLane, once again, is the guy "in the wrong place at the wrong time" (but at least he's had twelve years of relative peace in the NYPD, so he can do things like, oh, snoop on his college-age daughter on a date). A routine pick-up for questionning lands him in the middle of a nicely shot and edited firefight in a one bedroom apartment (Len Wiseman, the director, rarely keeps the camera still, and has a tendency to rely on the slow-motion "commercial" shot ala Tony Scott and Michael Bay, but unlike those two gentlemen, he has an unerring eye on where to place the camera for maximum effect, while giving the audience an overall sense of where things are--he's more in the Paul Greengrass school of film-making). Everything escalates from there, McLane adds to an already impressive roster of scars and the set-ups for stunt set-pieces start to achieve Goldbergian complication, but only an extended set-piece with a highway viaduct, an eighteen-wheeler and a fully loaded fighter jet strains the credulity and patience.

Everything just a lot of fun. Willis, who's been practicing doing less with every movie is as loose as he's been in years, hooting and cackling when any of his plans to get rid of people comes to fruition and showing thet flair for comic timing that's been gone for many years. Along for the ride is Justin Long--he of "Raising Genius" and "The Mac" in those "Apple" ads-and his comic timing is impeccable--he and Willis are perfect foils. "Deadwood's" Timothy Olyphant makes a nicely self-contained villain, and Kevin Smith cameos as a "Star Wars" obsessed guy who lives in his basement, so, basically he's playing himself. The movie clips along at a fast pace and only flags in one spot. It's a neat efficient actioner, and far surpasses the last two films in the series.

Speaking of flags, what is fascinating is the marketing campaign--together with the title, and the images of unfurling flags in the commercials, one gets the impression its a "Rah-Rah" American feel-good movie. It ain't. That would be giving it too much aspiration*, but it is being released the weekend before the Fourth of July. So that it gives it a a furry leg up on "Ratatouille."

"Live Free of Die Hard" is a rental, but some of those stunts will look more impressive on a big screen.

* One could make a case for the showing of the breakdown of privacy and personal freedoms (not to mention *CRASH* personal property) that comes with the overzealous pursuit of security, as well as....OH MAN! Look at that big FIREball! Wooo-hooo!

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