Friday, June 29, 2007

Never Say Die: The Return of The Action Hero

And now, a discussion of the latest entry into our beloved Die Hard film series. The following is a detailed examination of Live Free or Die Hard (2007) including details of various scenes and the film's narrative construction. In short, big huge spoilers follow. Reader discretion is advised...

If it seems that Live Free Or Die Hard has some literary weakness (and it does), this perhaps can be blamed on source material. The first two Die Hard films we based on pre-existing novels (Nothing Lasts Forever and 58 Minutes -- both fairly enjoyable works). Die Hard easily had the best writing going for it, being adapted by Jeb Stuart (48 HRS., The Fugitive, the upcoming John Rambo) and Steven E. de Souza (48 HRS., Commando). Die Hard 2 was adapted by de Souza and Doug Richardson (Bad Boys, Money Train). Die Hard With a Vengeance was written directly for the screen (though was reportedly cobbled together from a screenplay intended for the Lethal Weapon series) by Jonathan Hensleigh (who went on to Armegeddon). Live Free Or Die Hard was based on a 1997 Wired magazine article called "A Farewell To Arms" by John Carlin and written by Mark Bomback (Godsend) and David Marconi (Enemy Of The State).

This isn't to say that films not-based on novels are weaker entities. It's notable, perhaps, when considering a film's origins and how they're built upon to envision the finished project. My thinking is that -- in the translation of page-to-screen of first novel, from Nothing Lasts Forever into Die Hard -- the adapting screenwriters had much to work with from the original novel and are allowed (or borrow) some additional background and character inspiration regarding the heroic lead figure. Joe Leland (the novel's hero) is an older, more Clint Eastwood type who's saving his daughter from the invading villains within a metropolitan skyscraper. The heroic lead of 58 Minutes is also trying to save his particular daughter, this time in a hijack/airport situation over Christmas holiday that found its way straight into Die Hard 2. The makers of the first two films simply changed "daughter" to "wife," cast the wonderful Bonnie Bedelia as the newly christened Holly Gennero McClane, and voila! A cinematic family is born.

What I wonder about is Die Hard 3 and 4 -- do they suffer from not having this literary basis, this pre-existing history and from-the-novel background? It could be said that DH3 suffers from not following its predecessors in the "preserve the family unit at all costs" subtext of DH1 & DH2. The relationship between John (Willis) and Holly (Bedelia) was the emotional anchor that gave the first two films their strength and character. McClane was never an unstoppable superhero like so many Stallones and Schwarzeneggers. He was a man with a family, fighting to keep his wife safe. DH3 misses out on this completely, but it is buoyed by the buddy chemistry of McClane and Zeus Carver (a terrific Samuel L. Jackson). DH4 tries to fill the emotional slots with a cantankerous relationship between McClane and his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who appeared in Grindhouse). The attempt gets minor points for trying but loses a few more later. More on this in a moment...

Certainly DH4's villains suffer in comparison. Our new head baddie, Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) may be the weakest antagonist of the series (he'd be nothing without his laptop) and has none of the menace nor the charisma of his predecessors. Regarding Gabriel's reason for doing what he does -- how silly is it that his criminal scheme is mainly born not out of simple greed or political anger or even revenge, but of a bruised ego? In the world of responsible, get-the-job-done front-liners like McClane, this villain is a strutting, delusional, Derek Zoolanderish, techno-punk whiner who's all up in a tizzy because he didn't get the credit he feels he deserves after designing a flawed National Security protection system and then pointing it's flaws out to his superiors. This is rather like getting a bad coffee at Starbucks, then having the Barista come out to your table to point out his shabby brewing work and then asking for a hefty tip. He's more up-to-date but not much of a character. Gabriel might be McClane's superior in the digital world of telecom technology, but -- as Gabriel soon discovers -- McClane is easily his superior in the analog world of "ripping people a new one" technology.

Gabriel's henchmen have little charisma compared earlier Die Hard "teams of evil." Maggie Q is certainly pleasing but is never given much of a character to play. She's capable of entertaining work as can be seen in the Hong Kong actioner Naked Weapon and the more recent Mission: Impossible III. And the "unstoppable" Cyril Raffaeli of District B-13 fame might be a good fighter and acrobat, but he has none of the danger, edge or mystery of Alexander Gudonov in Die Hard and pales by comparison. These aren't characters, they're character types -- empty cyphers that might as well be wearing t-shirts that read "Hot Evil Girlfriend" or "Bad Guy #2." It's not the actors' fault they don't make a dent -- it's the screenplay's for not giving them more rounded, defined people to play. Nearly twenty years later we still remember "Karl" and "Theo" from Die Hard. One day after seeing Live Free, I need to pay a visit to IMDB to even remember anyone's names.

For Live Free's climax, we are given a scene that is nearly a direct lift from the ending of the first, best Die Hard. Gabriel and a light load of Henchmen have Lucy McClane and Matt Farrell (Justin Long) under gunpoint -- just as Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his fellow baddies had Holly (Bedelia) under gunpoint in Die Hard. There, McClane had only two bullets left, came up with a genius plan, calmly walked (or "limped") into the room and expertly ended their lives with little more than a joke and some deadly marksmanship. Here, in the same situation presented in Live Free or Die Hard, do the writers pay tribute somehow with their final act cribbed so closely from the original? Do they actually sit and come up with something equally as clever or exciting or even original? No. They have McClane just march straight into the room like a mad bull, guns blazing, with no strategy or plan whatsoever. That's some lazy writing... as well as a major error that McClane would never likely make, despite being caught in the heat of anger or revenge. This goes against McClane's established character and the scene suffers greatly for it. Similarly, the ensuing standoff and punishment of Gabriel a moment later seems that much less potent and leaves us wanting something more grand, operatic... or maybe just a little cooler. Gabriel deserves a far more vicious beatdown (and a far longer, more satisfying comeuppance) for all the terror he's wrought across the country and across the lives of our heroes.

Speaking of which (as mentioned earlier), the "Lucy McClane in peril" portions of the storyline are so perfunctory in their construction that they make an already ridiculous narrative that much more silly. The first scene with Lucy & John arguing outside her that parked car was genuinely human and amusing. It was soon less so when it became obvious that it was mere set-up for the third act's kidnapping plotline. Lucy exists only to get abducted and to toss around a few humorous lines. She's not as organic to the plotline of DH4 as Holly is in DH1 (or even DH2 to a lesser extent). Holly is the reason McClane visits Los Angeles in Die Hard in the first place. For all her integral-to-plotness, Lucy might as well be some random that McClane buys the Daily News from every morning.

Sadly, director Len Wiseman drops the ball in several ways. By current filmmaking standards, Live Free is a decent ride. But compared to Die Hard and the first half of Die Hard With A Vengeance, both directed by the great but suddenly unfavored John McTiernan, a great deal of Live Free feels as unreal as a cartoon. Nothing in Wiseman's previous work in the Underworld films would seem to suggest a mind capable of helming something as important as a Die Hard film. (Yes, I said important.) Something about the way McTiernan shoots a film -- the you-are-there aesthetic, the sweat, the impending danger, the realism -- makes the drama and fear of his earlier Die Hard films that much more satisfying. (Not so much Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2.) Wiseman is a fairly decent chaos-director... I quite enjoyed the car chases and a little of the "jetfighter versus truck" stuff. But his action rarely feels emotionally involving. Sure, action films have regrettably "evolved" to a point of intensity that's way over the top and far too computer generated, these days. But they can also be streamlined and reality-based, as can be seen every week on television's 24, a series that owes much to McClane and his methods. In fact, in many ways Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) pretty much is McClane without a sense of humor. I like to think they'd get along fairly well if they ever bumped into each other at their local pub.

There's a bit more in Live Free that one could pick apart. The Gas Explosion sequence could've been removed entirely. The sequence in which McClane dispatches an opponent by driving through a dozen concrete walls with an SUV and pinning said opponent under said exploding SUV (at the bottom an elevator shaft, mind you) is so stupidly conceived it's embarrassing. (Just how did he get from the parking garage inside the building, anyway? That's one tough SUV.) There's far too much shabby dialogue looping and ADR work, likely done in haste in order to cover the edited-down-to-PG-13 aspect of the film you're all aware of. No doubt an extended-cut of the film will be released to DVD in the near future, crassly capitalizing on our desire to hear our beloved "yippee-ki-yay" line in all it's well-deserved glory

And yet... Despite all it's weak points... And it's weak points are many...

Live Free Or Die Hard still works as simple summer entertainment. It's a testament to Bruce Willis and his work as John McClane that even with the film's many shortcomings, we still have a great time watching it unfold. There are other pleasures... Justin Long's techno-geek character wasn't nearly as rote nor as annoying as he could've been. In fact, I wanted to know more about his background, who his parents are and how he's so technologically gifted. He and McClane strike an initially uneasy partnership and eventually seem very father/son, on occassion. The helicopter chase material is a lot of fun and the film's musical score by Marco Beltrami even has a few Michael Kamen tributes in there with several loving callbacks to the late composer's earlier Die Hard scores. Like The Last Boy Scout and Hudson Hawk before it, Live Free Or Die Hard is miraculously more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps the character of John McClane, the cop with the attitude who never gives up and never backs down, is script-and-situation proof. Perhaps we will always love the guy no matter what. More so than Indiana Jones, more than James Bond, more than Neo, more than near anyone else in current cinema, John McClane is the funny, blue-collar, get-it-done man that we all not only want to be but could be if given the same circumstances. He can't stick to walls, shoot webs, turn back time or stop bullets. He's just one of the guys. One of our friends. One of us...

And may he Live Free forever.

*** stars (out of four).


Tim said...

Great post, brother.

--mcc said...

Thanks, other brother!

What did you think of the film, then? Be as detailed as you like.

Oh, howabout a list of your various blogs? I used to read that one where people would comment on your comics but can't find it now.

And thanks for the Sandwichbot5000/Sexy Robot series.
Very cool work, indeed!

(And I still want some SB5000 merchandise!) :)

DanielLee said...

The whole PG-13 thing really bothers me.

Phil M. Noir said...

Great post, but: Point Of Order --

Rather than being a "Clint Eastwood Role", "Die Hard" (or rather, "Nothing Lasts Forever") was actually written as a comeback vehicle for...Frank Sinatra. It being a sequel to his 1960s movie "The Detective".

Boggles the mind to imagine Sinatra trying to even pull it off...but the book it pretty much 3/4 of the movie.

Anonymous said...

Pity it couldn't have been a whole Rat Pack reunion...

Dean Martin as Hans Gruber
Angie Dickinson as Holly
Sammy Davis Jr. as Al Powell
Joey Bishop as Thornberg
Peter Lawford as Dwayne Robinson

Would've been sweet. :)

DanielLee said...

Start posting more!