Thursday, June 28, 2007

Definitely Not Ordering A Pizza

I’m trying to be fair about this. I even put off writing this up when I got home last night because I felt I should sleep on it, let my feelings simmer for a little bit. And that’s what I did.

An old roommate of mine, an effects buff, once came to the conclusion that the last great all-optical effects job (meaning no digital nonsense) was the original DIE HARD. Try as I could, I never came up with a better alternative. Which was perfectly appropriate. It was DIE HARD, one of the best action films of all time, bigger than big and it deserved that special piece of cinema history. Even the sequels, which vary in quality, at times manage to continue that feeling of bigger than big, that feeling of DIE HARD and they manage to be entertaining. They’re just not DIE HARD.

So faced with the prospect of another DIE HARD it was impossible to ignore what elements that made the original so great, with the obvious exception of Bruce Willis, weren’t involved. No John McTiernan, No Joel Silver, No Steven E. de Souza, No Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Kamen’s dead, Super 35 instead of anamorphic Panavision, PG-13 instead of R…

Look, if you’re going to make another DIE HARD movie in 2007 there are two ways you can go in choosing a director. You can get someone who is not just an ace at directing action, but someone who understands the tone of the earlier films and wants to make an attempt at being faithful to what they were aesthetically. Not necessarily go some route of disallowing digital effects but insisting that everything done looks true to that real-life route that has been taken. Separate the men from the boys. Believable, not cartoony. Or, you could get some hack who’s going to deliver a crappy action film.

I know, I know. Why be such a stick-in-the-mud skeptic? They made a decent TERMINATOR sequel without James Cameron, didn’t they? They can make a decent DIE HARD sequel. After all, they have to know what worked in the others, right? After all, hope springs eternal.

Hopes dashed.

Let me be blunt. I fucking hate LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. I fucking hate it. As a matter of fact, I can think of very little that I don’t hate about it. Yes, there’s that slight thrill in hearing Bruce Willis being called John McClane once again. Maggie Q is gorgeous. Timothy Olyphant has one (count it) line that I thought was funny. And…that’s about it.

There are talented people and there are untalented people and even among the untalented people you’d think that you could find some who are fans of DIE HARD, who might want to at least attempt to emulate the other films to even a tiny extent. I can think of a few offhand. Twentieth Century Fox has chosen to have this film made by people who very clearly don’t like the films, have no interest in them, have no interest in even attempting to make a film that is deserving of the DIE HARD moniker.

They also don’t have much interest in making a movie that is interesting, exciting, well paced or well staged. Director Len Wiseman directs action like a two year-old handles algebra. Ability to follow the action during fight scenes is consistently non-existent. Whether this is due to poor staging, editing it down for the PG-13 or some combination of both doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, none of it’s any good.

The craft of the pacing, staging and sense of place that was present earlier, especially in the first film, is totally absent here. The cinematography consists of the same blue-hue that is way overused these days and contains none of the power of the wide-screen vistas used by Jan De Bont, Oliver Wood or Peter Menzies Jr. in the other entries. The score by Marco Beltrami is pretty generic, even with some familiar echoes of the themes by the late Michael Kamen popping up. What Kamen did in the other films was one of the strongest elements that linked them together. He gave a perfect musical voice to that sort of “Ya gotta be kidding me…” that John McClane is always thinking, combined with the use of classical music which always added a certain epic, yet still tongue-in-cheek feel. The use of “Ode to Joy” as the vault is finally opened in the first film is one of the best examples of this. And there’s never even an attempt at that feeling here, which makes me wonder, how exactly is this a DIE HARD movie?

The basics of the plot, John McClane getting unexpectedly caught up in a computer hacker’s plot against the nation over the July 4th weekend, has potential, none of which is realized. The DIE HARD tradition of getting interesting and funny actors for supporting and bit roles to lend it a certain flavor is totally abandoned. Justin Long is a computer hacker who gets caught up in the plot and has to go along for the ride with McClane. Timothy Olyphant is the bad guy who not only has to compete with the spectre of Alan Rickman but never gets a chance to compete due to a dully written role. Maggie Q is the bad guy’s girlfriend who, again, is gorgeous but is presented as being such a Terminatrix—hit by a truck and getting right up again?—that she never becomes interesting. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE offered singer Sam Phillips as the mute girlfriend as the bad guy and did it much better. Kevin Smith plays a hacker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Lucy McClane and a bunch of other people have dialogue on occasion but the movie doesn’t have any interest in them, so why should you or I? There are supporting roles in this movie played by people that, a day later, I can’t remember the faces of. This is a comedown from the other films, which included the guy on the plane who offered the “fists with your toes” advice, the girl who helped McClane with the fax machine, or the truck driver-history buff who offers up information on Chester A. Arthur at a moment’s notice. It’s not so much that it becomes a one-man show for Bruce Willis—even John McClane feels kind of neutered here. It’s that the simple idea of ordinary people swept up in extraordinary events has been totally scrapped so watching the ciphers who say and do things throughout these 130 minutes is never believable, suspenseful or remotely exciting. Watching this film was a depressing experience to an extent that I’m still thinking about.

No one expected anything from the original film in 1988. Months before the film’s release, all people could talk about was how much Bruce Willis, a TV star fer cryin’ out loud, was getting paid, with an article in the New York Times that had the headline, “If Bruce Willis gets $5 million, how much for Redford?” When seeing THE PRESIDIO in a theater a month before it came out a friend responded to a DIE HARD stand-up with disdain, saying “I don’t wanna see a movie with that guy.” He didn’t know. I didn’t know, either. But Fox knew what they had and nurtured it, with sneak previews, with an initial limited release in 70 MM that offered up a TOWERING INFERNO-style artwork in the ads that sold the building, not Bruce Willis. But the film succeeded and raised the bar on the action genre, a bar that few of those who attempted ever come close to meeting. Even today it plays as an almost perfect storm of directing, producing, cinematography, editing, music and many other elements including a cast of characters and lead performance that made the actor playing John McClane an absolute star. That film sings. This new film isn’t worth the amount of time I’ve spent writing about it.

And, as Hans Gruber once carefully stated it, it’s Yippee-Ki-Yay...motherfucker. Substitutions will not be accepted. Happy trails.


Anonymous said...

Whilst I like the original I don't think it's quite the masterpiece you make it out to be. Die Hard is way too long, some of the supporting characters are too broadly drawn & jar distractingly with the films generally serious tone. Also, Bonnie Bedalia's feminist businesswoman/ex-wife is a charmless pain in the ass. DH epitomizes - & not always in a good way I think - the 'new' type of studio movie where they seem to be crudely trying to appeal to every marketing demographic imaginable, an appeal which results in a self-conscious political correctness that has you thinking 'Oh, f*** off!'. Although to be fair to DH the summer blockbusters that have come in its wake have only gotten even worse in this respect. The new film does sound pretty awful though.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

All fair points. I never said the "m" word, though--my enthusiasm for it is just that much greater when compared to that new movie.

Thanks for commenting, but leave a name next time!

Anonymous said...

Man, you're killing my buzz for this one. I had read mostly favorable, well, mostly wishy washy reviews of this one. You sound like you know from whence you speak.

I thought the choice of Len Wiseman reminded me alot of the choice of Renny Harlin for the second one (both known for their action scenes and starlet wives) and since I liked Die Harder quite a bit, I was hoping lightning would strike again. Still have to check it out though, love this series.

My biggest complaint against Die Hard (& Die Harder) was Reginald VelJohnson. It raised the corniness quotient a little high for me, and not a big fan of the acting of the part.

Thanks for the review, it will help keep my hopes at a reasonble level going in.