Thursday, July 5, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

Director: Len Wiseman
Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cliff Curtis, Kevin Smith

Running Time: 130 min.

Rating: PG-13

***1/2 (out of ****)

Boy, what a great time I had watching this movie. Any director looking to make a successful action movie should watch Len Wiseman's Live Free or Die Hard and take notes. For every second and every frame of this picture's 130 minute running time it makes all the right decisions and doesn't step wrong once. This isn't just a great Die Hard movie or a great movie for the third sequel in the Die Hard franchise. This is a great movie. Period. Someone who's never seen any of the Die Hards would still love this, probably even more than someone who's seen them all. Those who have seen all the previous films are already debating this one's place in the pecking order. I may not be able to make a strong enough case it's the best in the series, but I can make one that it's the installment I had the most fun watching. By the end of the film I was asking myself the question: Why can't all action movies be like this?

The experience of watching this can best be attributed to eating at McDonald's. The meal has absolutely no nutritional value, but when you're hungry and need a fix, nothing hits the spot better. It's the ultimate summer popcorn movie that features a great cast, a frightening terror plot that unravels believably a layer at a time, not one, but two great villains, incredible action scenes and characters you actually care about. I would have given this movie four stars if it were just a little tighter and trimmed about 15 minutes. That's how good it is. Going in I wasn't expecting much and actually had some big-time concerns, but when it was over I could honestly say I saw the best action movie since John Woo's Face/Off was released ten years ago.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is back and this time he's been thrust into a post-9/11 information age where all the rules have changed. He's a "Timex watch in a digital age," McClane's smooth adversary observes at one point during the film. And he's right. McClane has never seemed as out of his league as he does here. When he's called to Washington D.C. to pick up suspected computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long, conveniently the star of those Apple Mac commercials) he's not sure why nor does he seem like he knows what a hacker even is. It turns out Farrell has unknowingly aided in a "fire sale" terrorist plot where everything must go. Everything being the nation's transportation, financial, power and utility systems. The man behind it is Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who's joined by his girlfriend, a sexy henchwoman named Mai Lihn (Maggie Q). They want Farrell dead, but they'll have to get past McClane to do it.

The two make an unlikely duo as it's up to Farrell's brain and McClane's brawn to save the country from the ultimate threat. One of the many terrific aspects of Mark Bomback's screenplay is how the villain actually has an interesting motivation for what he's doing and the terror plot has something important to say about national security and how safe we think we really are. This isn't one of those movies where nameless, faceless Arabs attack the country just because they hate us for some fanatical reason never explained. Bomback also takes the idea of computer hacking (which has been done to death in movies like this) and somehow finds a way to make it fresh and exciting. I can't completely claim that the events in this film are realistic but the movie presents things in such a way that something like it definitely feels plausible. There's one scene where Gabriel cuts into the national tv broadcasts and delivers his message in the scariest way I've ever seen a threat on this country depicted in a film. Ever. I was actually worried watching this movie that Bomback may have actually done too good a job writing a feasible terrorist plot, if you catch my drift.

There have been some complaints about the casting of Olyphant as the lead heavy in the film. These complaints mainly center on the fact that he isn't Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons. It's true he isn't, but I'd argue we're in a different era now and it calls for a different type of villain. Rickman and Irons were great for then but this is now. I'd imagine the person who would stage an attack like this on our country today would be exactly like Gabriel: calm, cool and collected. He knows exactly what he wants and exactly how he's going to go about it. In a way, that's far scarier. His low-key manner fits what the movie is trying to say and the casting of Olyphant works perfectly. I thought he did an excellent job and deserves better than being compared to other Die Hard villains in films that required a different type of actor playing them. This is a different movie.

As good a job Olyphant does, however, he can't hold a candle to Maggie Q as Mai. She made a strong impression with a small role last summer's Mission Impossible III, but she makes a HUGE impression here. She's one of those rare movie villains that are so entertaining and so good at being bad you actually feel like rooting for them, if not for the fact they're trying to bring down the entire country. I'd honestly have to go back to the 1980's to remember a villain in an action movie that was this fun to watch. That she isn't bad to look at definitely doesn't hurt either. You know you're watching a real first-class villain when about half way through the film you find yourself scared she'll be killed off. When the possibility of that scenario presented itself I felt like screaming at the screen because I knew the movie just couldn't be the same without her.

The entire fight sequence between her and McClane (the conclusion of which involves a dangling car in an elevator shaft) is probably the most exciting 10 to 15 minutes I've had watching an action movie I can remember. Supposedly a lot of CGI was used for all the action scenes, but I couldn't tell. Everything looked realistic to me. One of the big complaints the movie seems to be getting is that McClane looks more like a superhero than an NYPD cop with all the stunts he pulls off, which border on and often exceed the ludicrous and unbelievable. I agree and there were points during the film I was actually laughing aloud at how over-the-top it was (especially toward the end) but you know what? Who cares?! This is an action movie not a documentary.

The things he did may be unbelievable, but the effects are so good that they never look unbelievable, which is all that counts. Plus, as far as I'm concerned the terror plot itself provided enough frightening realism to make up for any shortcomings in that department. Any concerns about the films PG-13 rating are unfounded. While I can't say I'm happy certain things had to be edited out to market the movie to a broader audience it isn't conciously noticeable watching the picture. In fact, I'm actually surprised the MPAA gave the film a PG-13 considering how much violence is in it. It should be interesting to see if an unedited director's cut is released on DVD and how much that differs from the product released in theaters.

So how about all those worries that Justin Long was going to become the Jar Jar Binks of the Die Hard franchise? Not only does that not happen the interaction he has with Willis makes the movie. The decision to pair the two of them together takes the movie to another level because they unexpectedly play off each other so well. They're complete opposites thrown into this situation together and the back and forth between them is hilarious (without ever becoming annoying) throughout the entire film. I also liked how they used Farrell to bring across the point of how out of touch McClane is with the current digital age, which is really the main theme running throughout the picture.

Long actually has what amounts to a co-starring role as he's onscreen as much as Willis and he not only doesn't drop the ball, he delivers in a huge way. His presence in this movie is every bit as important as Willis' and I'd even go so far to say that if there's another Die Hard (and I wouldn't complain if there is) I'd have no interest in seeing it unless Long's character is involved somehow. The addition of Long could and should have been a disaster but credit Bomback's script and his performance for turning the character into more than just a goofy sidekick. He actually adds another dimension to and enriches the McClane character.

At 52 years old, could Bruce Willis still deliver the goods as a viable action hero? He not only delivers the goods but you believe that this guy could kick anyone's ass. Willis often gets credit for being a great action star, but it's time to be completely honest: He's a good actor. In fact if someone asked me to point to a movie where Willis is at the absolute top of his game and at his very best I'd point to this one. John McClane is described sometimes as the "blue-collar James Bond." I love that description because it's so accurate. He may not be slick or suave or the smartest guy around, but he has street smarts, can blow things up and kick your ass right, left and sideways. That's John McClane and this movie captures it perfectly.

An interesting decision is made in adding another McClane family member we end up caring about. It's his college-age daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead who, no complaints from me, seems to have appeared in every other movie I've seen in the past year). Her kidnapping at the hands of Gabriel comes so late in the film that me telling you about it could almost be considered a spoiler (if the commercials hadn't spoiled it already). Of course McClane has to have a strained relationship with his daughter, but I liked the way it was handled early on in the film. Bomback's screenplay doesn't push the buttons too hard and it feels just right. It's funny, yet relatable. Later on when she's in danger it becomes clear, much to our delight, she is very much John McClane's daughter. The casting of Winstead is perfect and when this was over I wished she had even more screen time because she was so believable and brought just the right amount of spunk to the role. There's also a hilarious cameo appearance from Kevin Smith (one of the few directors who can actually act) as a thirty-something computer hacker living in his mother's basement, which he's turned into a Star Wars shrine. Why do I suspect Smith probably has a room just like that in his home?

As the conclusion of the movie approached I realized something: I didn't want my time with these characters to end. That may not seem rare, but it is for an action movie. I could actually imagine a successful television series focusing on McClane and his daughter fighting terrorism with Long and Smith's characters along for the ride. We can call it The McClanes. For now though I'll take a sequel with those three returning. Bruce Willis gets a free pass from me to make as many Die Hards as we wishes, although part of me thinks it would be nice to end on the highest note imaginable, which this clearly is. One can hope when Harrison Ford dons the fedora and cracks the whip again next summer for the fourth installment of Indiana Jones, he has as much success as Willis does here. Honestly though, this will be tough to top. When the summer of 2007 comes to a close, Live Free or Die Hard deserves to go down as its biggest success story.

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