Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Guest Review: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

By ScottDS
I watch Live Free or Die Hard and I can't help but feel disappointed afterwards. It’s an action film that just happens to have Die Hard in the title. It’s better than it has a right to be but it doesn’t make for a satisfying experience. The goodwill garnered from the first three films can only help so much.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is ordered to escort young hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to Washington D.C. for questioning after the FBI’s system briefly shuts down. It turns out that the shut-down was the fault of Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), an ex-government security expert who was fired after warning his superiors about America’s cyber-security vulnerabilities. He’s after the country’s financial information, which is stored in a secure NSA location. McClane quickly becomes a thorn in Gabriel’s side but Gabriel eventually gets the upper hand, kidnapping McClane’s college-age daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a.k.a. the ex-Mrs. ScottDS). McClane makes it to the NSA facility where Gabriel attacks him from behind, which allows McClane to shoot himself in the shoulder which kills Gabriel.
[sigh] As I said, it’s better than it should be, but not good enough. Director Len Wiseman (best known for Underworld and the Total Recall remake) knows how to make a stylish movie… but it’s almost too stylish. There’s a gloss to this film. It doesn’t take place in our universe. It takes place in Michael Bay’s universe where everything is shiny and the action (as good as it is) is perfectly choreographed. The PG-13 rating doesn’t help. Not every film needs an R but robbing McClane of his ability to curse is a huge mistake. For better or worse, it’s part of his character. The DVD (but strangely, not the Blu-Ray) includes an “unrated” version with some CGI blood and a few alternate takes with more profanity. But even then, some of it sounds like it was looped in after the fact. The other films had a gritty, down-to-Earth quality that this film sorely lacks. Just like Indiana Jones in his fourth film, McClane takes a licking and keeps on ticking. In the other films, we saw him bruised and beaten – here he manages to last almost 72 hours yet we never see him take a break!

Willis does what he does best though he’s kind of on autopilot and if it weren’t for the name, I’m wondering if he’d be recognizable as McClane. I also have to point out an interesting comment I once read. An action film scholar and author named Eric Lichtenfeld (who contributed extras to the DVD of the first Die Hard) was once asked about this film. He said he knew it would be disappointing when he saw that McClane had a shaved head. His reasoning was that the bald look might work for Bruce Willis but it’s not something McClane would do. Interesting…
Justin Long actually isn’t bad as Farrell. He represents the audience, witnessing McClane’s exploits with utter disbelief. There’s a scene where he asks McClane why he’s doing what he’s doing and McClane replies: “Because there's nobody else to do it right now, that's why. Believe me, if there were somebody else to do it, I'd let them do it, but there's not. So we're doing it.” That’s what makes McClane “that guy.” It’s a nice sentiment and I wish the film explored it further. Winstead is a chip off the old block as Lucy McClane. Despite not getting along at the beginning, she respects her father and has learned a few tricks herself. Cliff Curtis plays FBI Deputy Director Bowman and I guess he’s okay but he doesn’t have much of a personality. Same goes for the other supporting actors, with one exception and that’s filmmaker Kevin Smith as a hacker known as the “Warlock.” Despite what you may think of his other work, Smith is a fun presence, though I imagine playing a rotund Star Wars geek isn’t much of a stretch for him!

As good as he is in other things, Timothy Olyphant doesn’t make for a good villain. He isn’t nearly as threatening as he should be, he spends most of the film scowling, and he dresses like a hip bartender. His henchwoman Mai Linh is played by Maggie Q and she actually gets some good fight scenes. It’s too bad the filmmakers killed her off when they did; she might’ve come in handy at the end. This film was released in 2007 and even by then, computer hacking had become a cliché. We had seen The Matrix films and The Net and at this point we saw this sort of thing every other week on the various CSI shows. There is nothing exciting about watching people type and it takes a skilled filmmaker to make it even remotely interesting. Not to mention all the usual problems with computers in films, from unrealistic interfaces to incorrect jargon.
Like most movies made today, the tech stuff is near perfect. Oddly, they still haven’t figured out effects for driving scenes. The aforementioned “That guy” scene takes place in a car that was obviously shot in front of a green screen – millions of dollars and they still couldn’t make it look realistic?! The cinematography and art direction are pretty damn good, but as I said, there’s a sheen to this film that doesn’t belong. Everything just looks too perfect. In the Die Hard 2 commentary, Renny Harlin talked about action movie clichés circa 1990 and this film still managed to include many of them 17 years later! Composer Marco Beltrami picks up where Michael Kamen left off (Kamen passed away in 2003) and his score is serviceable but forgettable though I noticed a couple of Kamen flourishes. No classical music this time. Instead, we get “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. But I guess that can work, too. [smile]

As of this writing, a fifth film, titled A Good Day to Die Hard is slated for a February release. (Tomorrow, actually.) I’m sure it’ll be fun but ultimately forgettable. In this one, it’s McClane and his son… in Russia. It’s directed by John Moore whose credits include Behind Enemy Lines, the Max Payne adaptation, and the remakes of Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen.

As for this film, it looks pretty and I confess it’s fun to see Bruce Willis kill bad guys but it’s all rather generic. A Die Hard film shouldn’t be just another action film, just like a Star Trek film shouldn’t be just another sci-fi film. But if you want a good fourth film in a franchise with lots of action, check out Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol instead!

“You're a Timex watch in a digital age.”

38 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the review! For those who don't know, the new film opens tomorrow.

As for this one, I honestly thought this film was a real turd. It was dull, lifeless, sterile, unbelievable and just all around a drag.

ScottDS said...

I'm off to bed in a few minutes, but...

...Sterile and unbelievable? Sure. Lifeless and dull? I don't think so. :-)

I confess that, at a visceral "guy" level, yeah, it's fun to see cinematic heroes kill bad guys for two hours. If this film had been a standalone movie, would it have been forgotten? Or would we be remembering it as, "Oh yeah, that one was okay"?

But because it's part of a famous movie legacy, it's held to a higher standard. And in that respect, it fails. Oddly enough, cyber-security is a real threat and could've made for an awesome flick yet, when translated to the silver screen, it's still just people typing.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This basically was a standalone film. It has no real relationship to the rest of the series. And yeah, it's lifeless. This movie is one long mindless CGI action scene. It's Transformers 4 done with people rather than shiny things.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

That's why I said it's like Die Hard in name only. As for being one long mindless action scene, either movies have gotten so formulaic that we can now predict everything, including the act-breaks, or directors and writers have forgotten the fine art of pacing. I'm sure it's a little of both.

Tennessee Jed said...

this is where the "Die Hard" franchise went to die and became a parody of itself. David Gerrold once wrote about the difference between a stand alone story and an ongoing series. The events in the stand alone story are generally the most important thing to happen in that person's life, while in a series, that cannot possibly be the case by definition. The joy of Die Hard was an ordinary man (albeit with the skills of a cop) thrust into an incredible situation, and coming up big. By the time this one came around, all the freshness and joy of the original had been sucked out of the franchise.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I can't disagree (and Gerrold obviously knew this stuff). It's what happens when a movie is successful and becomes a "property" and the studio decides to milk it for all its worth.

There was nothing "fresh" about this movie. In fact, if the filmmakers wanted to make it fresh and new, they would've scaled it waaay down in a manner that resembled the first film. But the studios are convinced that 13-year old boys need constant flash and glitz and to go "backwards" or "retro" is death.

rlaWTX said...

Because of the new release (I guess) this film has been on TV repeatedly lately - so I have actually rewatched pieces. [But I guess it's telling that I haven't bothered to find it when it starts.] Overall, it was a good enough shoot 'em up movie - and I really like Bruce Willis, esp. when they let him be a smart alek.
I caught the part with Creedence as the music and conversation subject - it was funny and snarky.
(my mom LOVESLOVES Creedence, I like 'em ok, but on a road trip enough can be more than enough!)

And I intend to go to the theater and see Die Hard - Russia...

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott -getting back to the Gerrold point, I think there is a difference in the kind of stories one tells in an ongoing series. Unfortunately, with feature films and sequels, the onus is to take it ever higher and out do the predecessor films or risk being "disappointing." Thus, the film makers are kind of trapped. That can be mitigated alittle bit if the script is unusually strong, but instinct tells me it is hard to get a really "fresh" angle without a total reboot that could scale it down and take us back to what made the original so good. As much as I like Philly metro guy Bruce Willis, maybe the franchise needs to be truly re-invented.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. I think a lot of modern movies have no sense of pacing, they either follow a formula or they just hand the screen over to the effect people and let the fights/explosions play out until the effects people run out of ideas. This film fell into that for me. It was the kind of film where I got bored in the middle of each action sequence.

T-Rav said...

Okay, I probably like this one more than most people here do, because it was the first Die Hard movie I saw. Shut up.

Anyway, I'm with you, Scott--it does feel kind of derivative and all; yet most of the actors do well enough that you don't notice it...that much. My main issue was with the law enforcement guys, who were obviously just there to provide intervals between the McClane scenes. Also, the ending has always kinda bothered me. They got the bad guys, yes, and McClane and company have made it through safe; but half the country is still in blackout and the infrastructure will take weeks, if not months, to repair. It shouldn't end on such an "everything's just hunky-dory now" note.

T-Rav said...

Incidentally, I think you meant to refer to Winstead as "the future Mrs. ScottDS," not "ex-Mrs. ScottDS." Unless there's something you're not telling us....

Koshcat said...

I was disappointed with this movie as well. I don't feel molested like watching a Star Wars repackage or The Crystal Skull. I almost wonder if it would have been better as a stand alone movie than a Die Hard. God Forbid you might have to spend 5 minutes working up a different back story like perhaps he was a retired FBI agent, etc.

The first Die Hard seem realistic, to a point. He was beaten up, bloodied, but determined to save his wife.

As for Hacker movies, the best scene was probably from Swordfish where Jackman is proving his ability to Travolta while being "serviced."

Koshcat said...

or Winstead could be "the furture ex-Mrs. ScottDS."

ScottDS said...

rla -

Yeah, this one's been on TV lately. I actually had it on last night (on FX) while I was on the treadmill.

The new school/old school stuff is probably what works best in this film - I only wish they had done more with it.

Good luck with the new film. I've read a few reviews - they've been... less than kind. (And these are film geeks like me, not stuffy critics.)

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I'd rather them retire it completely than attempt to "reinvent" it. I think part of it is Willis himself. I like the guy but he does have an ego and a sense of ownership but what he thinks is right for the character and franchise may not be in sync with what others think.

But if they can bust John McTiernan out of the slammer to do one more, stripped down to the basics, I'll definitely see it!

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I couldn't say I was bored but after you watch so many movies, you begin to see the wheels spinning, especially if the writing is subpar. It's like, "And the Act 1 break is coming up… now! We should have a new action scene in about five minutes."

You shouldn't be able to set your watch to an action movie!

ScottDS said...

T-Rav -

The first one? Really? I wish I could've been there to show you the previous three - I just showed them to a friend who'd never seen them. She enjoyed them very much. :-)

I agree in part about the ending, but I think that's simply a convention of the genre. The hero kills the bad guy, end of story. And we just assume everything will be peachy - the infrastructure isn't the story, though it's one I would've liked to see.

ScottDS said...

T-Rav and Koshcat -

I don't know if it was a vaudeville joke or a song lyric but referring to a woman you like as the "future ex-Mrs. So and So" is an old reference… and one I've used on this site multiple times. Ms. Winstead is probably #3 or #4. :-)

ScottDS said...

Koshcat -

Ugh, you had to remind of Swordfish… sorry but I thought that entire film was just dumb.

Of course, it's no Johnny Mnemonic, which I would put in the "So bad, it's good" category. :-D

You're right - this wasn't Crystal Skull bad but it could've been better, starting with an R rating, some F-words, and actual blood packs. With one or two exceptions, CGI blood NEVER looks good and it takes me right out of the film.

PikeBishop said...

Two words SSSSSSSSUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKK------------EEEEEEEEEEEDDDDDDDDDDDDDD!

ScottDS said...

Pike -

Don't mince words - what do you really think? :-)

AndrewPrice said...

I'm with PikeBishop.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I see. :-)

By the way, though you probably figured it out already, I've read some reviews for the new film. In a word, yikes!

This line from Blu-Ray.com's review pretty much negates everything I've been praising about the first three films:

It’s a leaden piece of work from a tuneless director, with most of the action sequences fighting a crippling sense of disorientation, as basic spatial relationships are tossed to the four winds in the name of excess. Clarity isn’t helped with the zoom-happy, earthquake cinematography, which attempts to sell artificial intensity, as opposed to the real stuff that served the first three movies so well. A Good Day to Die Hard looks uncomfortable and, at times, ugly, with [the director] attempting to burn his brand into the franchise by making it look like every other banal actioner on the market. Die Hard used to set trends, now it’s chasing after them, often in ridiculous slo-mo.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, To put it bluntly, I'm not surprised. That's the new way they shoot these things -- chaos plus vomit cam to create the illusion of something of interesting happening. . . incoherence as art.

Notice, that his comment singles out the first three, not the first four.

Koshcat said...

DUMB? Hally's boobs are not dumb. Showing them like they did was but he had to find some way to express her inner demons or something...

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I noticed that. I did see some other reviews that mentioned the fourth film in a positive context but different strokes for different folks.

And naturally, I read an interview with the director which suggests that the Blu-Ray will have a longer version. Man, the studios love to milk that stuff! The new film is only like 97 minutes long - the rest are over 2 hours.

And I think the new film was shot in 1.85:1 making this the Dead Pool of the Die Hard franchise! (The last Dirty Harry movie was shot in 1.85:1 which we both agreed make the film seem smaller.)

ScottDS said...

Kosh -

Yes, dumb. Topless shots can only help so much. :-)

Dave Olson said...

In Die Hard, John McClane had to make a very human choice: either Karl would shoot him (or blow him up with one of those explosive hockey pucks), or he could run across broken glass in his bare feet to escape. I still remember the gut-wrenching brilliance of that scene, showing the desperate bind he was in with just a few quick cuts and fast pans: show the exit door, show the pile of glass, show his bare feet, show McClane's expression of despair. Utter genius.

In LFoDH, he somehow manages to launch a Crown Victoria 50 feet in the air to take out a helicopter because, as McClane quips, he was out of bullets.

Sorry, that's just stupid. And it sums up the whole movie. I think I've seen it all the way through; it's hard to tell because the scenes just blur with every other mindless action scene that's been done.

ScottDS said...

Dave -

That was a very human moment, and an inspired bit of genius from McTiernan and Co.

This movie is just a case of outdoing the competition, but you'd think we'd hit the action movie wall by now...?

T-Rav said...

Hey, Swordfish wasn't that bad. I mean, it's nothing special, but it's not awful.

ScottDS said...

T-Rav (and Kosh) -

To be fair, maybe I should give it a second look. I haven't seen it since I rented it, which must've been more than a decade ago. :-)

Other than the aforementioned nudity, the only scenes I remember come across as the filmmakers trying too hard. Isn't there like a 360-degree shot of an explosion? Like something out of The Matrix? :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Swordfish was worth it because you could get it for $4.99 AND, there was a memorble scene with Halle Berry. But, my reason for this post is Amazon is selling a 1 day deal. The Die Hard Gold Box in Blu-Ray for $25. It is today only.

Backthrow said...

I'm with Andrew; I thought LFoDH was typical underwhelming modern action movie incoherence, with too much CGI, jittery camerawork, chaotic editing, bad pacing and forgettable characters (especially the villain), all toned down for a PG-13 rating. Not the worst offender, but nothing much stuck with me after seeing it when it first hit DVD, and I have no desire to revisit it.

And really, though I like Bruce Willis and the John McClane character, there's not much reason for McClane to have a big ongoing action series built around him, other than to milk the first film's boxoffice success. He's an average cop caught up in extraordinary events (the brilliant first movie). Like the David Gerrold reference made earlier, the Nakatomi Plaza incident would be the one big, incredible experience in a cop's life.

DIE HARD 2, although it had some good action in it (along with some really stupid things), I disliked because it was the lazy sort of sequel plot... supremely crazy coincidence that puts McClane (and some of the other characters from the first film, apart from Holly) in a similar dire situation.

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEACE pulled a neat hat trick; it made sense for McClane to be caught up in the plot, because Hans Gruber's brother sought *him* out and put him in the situation... and inverts the first film a bit, in that the villain initially knows and messes with McClane, while McClane is totally in the dark about who this jerk is. I also like how it completely side-stepped the events of DIE HARD 2, like that all never happened, as though DHWaV was the *true* follow-up to the first film. While not as perfect as the original, I love the third film.

But, unless the writers make McClane take a new turn, an ex-cop who, because of his skills, is trained like a SEAL to be a Special Op or advisor or something (I forget if they do this in LFoDH... I'm inclined to doubt it, or if they do it in the new film), there's no good narrative reason for McClane to get in further scrapes of this nature. He's not a James Bond, John Rambo, Indiana Jones or even Dirty Harry; a go-to guy when larger-than-life crooks cause havoc. Makes no sense to me.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I'm holding off on the Die Hard Blu-Rays for now. I read Fox just did a new 4K scan of the first film... which they chose not to utilize for this set, and Live Free or Die Hard doesn't include the unrated version, which is only on DVD.

Die Hard is still the last major franchise I haven't upgraded to Blu yet - I still have the double-wide DVD set I bought in 2001!

ScottDS said...

Backthrow -

From what I've read about the new film, it makes this film look like the first one by comparison! And after watching the Total Recall remake, I'll say this for Len Wiseman - he knows how to craft a great action set piece, and his camerawork isn't as shaky as others.

Yeah, the second film is more or less a copy of the first one (and not as stylish) but it's more fun than most movies made today... and it gets so crazy after a while that I can forgive - SOME - of its excess. It's "likeable" in its excess whereas a lot of films today are almost cynical in that regard.

I love the third film as well and as I mentioned in that review, it's actually kinda underrated.

Regarding the fifth film... it seems your last paragraph applies. From what I've read, he goes to Russia to get his son out of trouble, even though he has no plan, and there doesn't seem to be any Russian police presence, and it's all a huge mess!

El Gordo said...

ScottDS - "But if they can bust John McTiernan out of the slammer to do one more, stripped down to the basics, I'll definitely see it!"

Now that would be a great idea for a movie. Falsely accused action movie director escapes from jail to prove his innocence ... gets to live in his own action movie, except things don´t work like they do in the movies and all the cliches are turned on their head, except of course we are still watching a movie. Very "meta". In the final scene he watches the movie based on his own adventure, but all the cliches are back. Kinda like the ending of Pee Wee´s Big Adventure.

It´s gonna be great!

El Gordo said...

Another flaw of this movie: the chaos created by the villain must have caused dozens, more likely hundreds of deaths. You never see it and no character talks about it either. He is a monster for creating a massive traffic jam?


And say what you will about Michael Bay, but he would not have killed off Maggie Q in the middle of the movie. No sir. He would have given us a cat fight between her and McClane´s daughter. Backlit. In the rain. Yippie-ki-yay!

As true cineastes you will have noticed that when Bay´s camera ogles his female stars, it does not shake!

On the other hand, Bay would not have cast the lovely, luminous Mary Elizabeth Winstead. He prefers a more of a teenage whore look.

ScottDS said...

El Gordo -

Good idea! Though to be fair, John McTiernan wasn't falsely accused. On the plus side, he didn't kill anyone either... he just got himself involved in a wire-tapping scandal.

And he already made a "meta" movie: 1993's Last Action Hero, which is a movie I will defend to the death if necessary. (It was just ahead of its time!)

There no doubt was plenty of off-screen mayhem but I didn't think about it. Contrast that with the big chase in Spielberg's Tintin which takes place in a town that's flooding - I turned to my friend and asked, "Aren't there people dying off-screen?"

I honestly couldn't say why I reacted one way to one film and another way to the other one.

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