Monday, July 2, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

When the makers of Live Free or Die Hard describe this latest movie in the Die Hard franchise as harkening back to the first movie, they aren’t far wrong. Some of the same archetypes are shared between the two movies—the geeky henchman who acts as a mirror to the terrible calm and intelligence of the antagonist, the touchstone non-Caucasian good guy that John McClane keeps in touch with to learn the details he is not present to witness, the nerdy but ultimately brave sidekick who throws some of the most important punches, the female family member who begins the movie hating McClane but relies on him to the point of retaking his name by its end. While the series of films doesn’t work on breaking new ground so much as building on the brilliance of the first movie and making winking allusions to it, Live Free or Die Hard does do some things new in the series that still make it an entertaining diversion.

For instance, Maggie Q plays Mai, the beautiful girlfriend and co-conspirator for Timothy Olyphant’s antagonist, Thomas Gabriel. There hasn’t been a strong female role (has there really been much of any female role?) in the series of movies beyond Bonnie Bedelia’s cut as McClane’s put-upon wife. Mai is a beautiful hacker and martial arts expert that McClane must get through before reaching the boss. She is a menacing presence in the opening half of the movie, and when she finally takes action, she is a force to be reckoned with. McClane’s interaction with her highlights his role as the everyman hero—she can out-think him and she can out-fight him—and McClane only survives because of his sheer American stubbornness.

Because that’s what it’s all about, right? John McClane is the American hero everyone dreams themselves to be or wishes would do something about all the grief in the world. No one is too smart not to be singed by his witty comebacks. And worse, when the comebacks stop, it means he’s going after the villain with a fine right hook and blazing six-gun. The original movie’s allusions to the Western heroes was not just a gimmick, it was the archetype that characters like McClane and Eastwood’s Harry Callahan are founded on and expand in our contemporary world. Is there any wonder that McClane’s first nemesis was a German terrorist and his latest is an American government official who decides to use terror to make his point?

I’m torn about describing Justin Long’s sidekick character, Matthew Farrell, as a new archetype for the series or not. Die Hard with a Vengeance had Samuel L. Jackson in the angry partner role, but Long’s Farrell is angry and scared, something we never saw out of Jackson. Jackson was an equal partner to McClane and more adequately filled the role of the partner from a buddy film than the sidekick who learns what it means to be a hero. Long plays vulnerable and smart very well, as should be clear from all of his roles to date, and I’m sure the young girls would just love to eat him up.

However, despite “deconstructing” the movie (as one of my friends would call it), what’s really important about a Die Hard movie are how cool McClane is and how big the special effects are. Bruce Willis puts on his John McClane character like a favorite suit; he remains world-weary but determined to do the right thing, pretty much no matter the cost. He’s a decent man caught in extreme circumstances, making him instantly accessible and likable. He is who he is, and his stoic will-do demeanor rallies all the good guys to his cause at the end.

And the special effects? Well, things blowed up good. Of course, this is the third sequel and things begin to get a little cartoony. But there are still terrific logic-bending physics-breaking sequences galore, and since the movie is rated PG-13, we get the special comic benefit of everyone walking away from the flying cars, falling helicopters, stunt big rigs, and exploding F-35s.

Of special note is Kevin Smith’s cameo appearance as the uberhacker Freddie. As you might expect, Smith chews the scenery in his lair (disguised as his mother’s basement) and adds a comic touch to the proceedings. He plays his part well and gets out of the way, which is what bit characters are supposed to do.

All in all, Live Free or Die Hard is a fun movie, worth seeing if only at the matinee.

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