R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Return of John McClane

If you’re like me, the summer movie season of 2007 has seemed like a wasteland of disappointments and underachievers. So far many films that should have been no-brainer successes have fallen flat, leaving me tired and frustrated instead of filling me with the elation that the popcorn epics of the past have. This is the time of year that gave us Jaws and Star Wars, so where are our action heroes now?

Spider-Man 3 was a schizophrenic nightmare, as the film’s Sandman storyline had me entranced early on in the picture, only to completely let me down as the Symbiote storyline hijacked the movie in order to shoehorn the Venom storyline into the film. Pirates 3 was a little more satisfying, but made me wonder where all the crazy, adrenaline pumping adventure from the first two films was. The movie had an awesome last hour, but needed more Chow Yun-Fat and less double crossing.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment came from 28 Weeks Later, a movie that got good reviews and followed up a film that I really admired. The film even starts off like a rocket, and then what do they do? They make the main characters of an R-rated Horror film two kids who apparently lose all sense of where they are or the danger they could possibly be in at every turn. Nothing makes me angrier in a Horror film than a plot that relies on its main characters being ridiculously stupid to keep it going.

I did love Knocked Up, but what does it say about a blockbuster season when your favorite film of the period is a Romantic Comedy? Especially when it’s me you’re talking about?! With 300, Grindhouse, and Hot Fuzz loading me down with awesome earlier in the year, I’ve been waiting for the bruising, smash-mouth, stunt filled extravaganza that will blow me to the back of the theater and finally give me the summer movie I’ve been waiting for. Thank God for John McClane.

With no end to the CGI-infested, bloated out bore-fests, I realized what I’ve really needed was an old school Action-fest with a “guns’a blazing” hero and one-liners galore. Finally, with Live Free or Die Hard, my Action film addiction was finally sated. With stunts and pyrotechnics taking the place of giant monsters and huge armies, the newest adventure with NYPD Detective John McClane is exactly what the doctor ordered to be able to cure those summertime blues.

Live Free or Die Hard Starring Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, and Cyril Raffaelli. Directed by Len Wiseman.

Now I will say that before I got to the theater to actually watch the film, I was filled with some trepidation for a few reasons. While I love Bruce Willis and adore the Die Hard series, I wondered if the movie would be a sequel in name only, as I’d heard none of the supporting players from the previous movies would be in this movie, plus I knew the movie wouldn’t have the same conventions as the first two, taking place over a wide area, much like With a Vengeance did.

On top of all that, there was the Len Wiseman factor. Recently I put together a list of movies I out and out hated. These weren’t just movies that I thought were bad, these were films that I thought society would benefit from having them wiped from the face of existence. These included 2006 crapfest Ultraviolet and Michael Bay’s insult to the fighting men of the armed services, Pearl Harbor. Wiseman’s Underworld also got a spot on the list, as I thought it was undoubtedly one of the worst films to come out this decade so far and exactly the type of movie I rail against. This is the man that Bruce Willis had hand picked to helm one of my favorite franchises.

There was also the PG-13 rating, as this would be the first of the Die Hard films to not be Rated R, and I was terrified that we’d get a John McClane outing with no teeth and no grit. Would the movie be able to live up to its late 80’s/early 90’s Action movie pedigree, especially when the original is the movie that changed Action films forever? I’m so happy to give an emphatic “yes”!

If I had to say, my number one reason for loving this movie more than any that has come out this summer would simply be Bruce Willis. Yes, he doesn’t curse as much as before and he’s not the total drunkard or smoker he is in Die Hard with a Vengeance, but this is definitely John McClane. He’s put on some years, but he’s still the wiseass, no nonsense cop we’ve loved for almost twenty years now. Once again, he goes through hell, but won’t stay down. He gets shot, beaten, thrown out a window, gets targeted by missiles, clings to elevator shafts, and nearly gets run over about 17 times. Yet to me, McClane doesn’t just seem like Superman without a cape. The man is an absolute bloody mess at the end of this picture, once again barely limping to the finish. He truly is the “every man” of action heroes.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the entire movie is the return of Bruce Willis’ classic indignant manner. Over the years Willis has seemed to grow more and more stoic in his roles, taking on more of a Clint Eastwood-style in his action roles. What has always set John McClane apart from his other characters is the fact that he basically won’t shut up. He’s always in the face of the villain, getting in their heads with his brutal, yet still witty banter. This movie is jam packed with these moments, making you almost feel sorry for the villains, especially one instance where he says he’ll go get a doctor after seemingly crippling a man for life.

Plus, any doubts I had about Len Wiseman went right out the door in the movie’s first big action sequence; a balls to the wall shootout in an apartment building, that is one of the best of the entire series. There’s just a simple pleasure that comes from watching henchmen getting smoked or blown out of a high story window onto a car. There’s an explosion that caps off the sequence that is also really impressive, and lets you know what you’ll be in for during the rest of the movie.

Then, Wiseman simply manages to keep surprising you with innovative action. From the insanely entertaining crash derby of an underground tunnel sequence to McClane beating the holy hell out of one henchman after another, to the McClane vs. a Jet sequence, the movie hardly lets you catch your breath. While too bloodless (except for McClane himself), the movie does have loads of violence and should satisfy the needs of most action junkies. Those that have craved a buttload of explosions will finally get their wish.

I especially like how Wiseman sets up his fist fights in the picture. While we’ve seen “the tough guy Vs. the martial artist” fights before in pictures, they’re staged especially well here. McClane’s fights against Maggie Q’s Mai Lihn and Cyril Raffaelli’s Rand are not only excitingly choreographed, but really build you up with anticipation. Each fight riles you into a frenzy, giving you that old school thrill that many of today’s over-examined and tired looking fights just can’t match.

The same goes for the movie’s stunt work, which is the most top notch I’ve seen in a long, long time. Apparently Bruce Willis’s stunt double, Larry Rippenkroeger, fell 25 feet all the way to the ground on one botched stunt in the movie. He suffered broken bones in his face and fractures in both wrists, but eventually recovered. This just goes to show how rough the shoot was on this picture.

Where the movie falters is in its reliance on watching computer screens and loads and loads of techno-jargon. You set watching computer screens to whatever score music you like, but usually it doesn’t make them any more exciting. The movie also has moments where it seems they’ve obviously trimmed dialogue, more than likely in order to get a PG-13. I’m hoping this lack of F-bombs (which are so rampant in the other films) is rectified when the movie hits DVD, and from these scenes in the movie, that seems to be the case. I could have also used a classic pounding Die Hard title sequence, but really that’s just nitpicking.

The more I think about the movie’s plot, the more I seem to like it. While at first I thought it would stray too far from the Die Hard mold, truthfully, villains hijacking the internet and all of our transportation, finances, and utilities is really just expanding on the scenario from Die Hard 2, where Dulles International’s computer systems and resources were compromised. In the end too, the villain’s evil scheme is very much in keeping with the series and gives you a sense of nostalgia.

I will admit the movie’s villains are probably the worst of the series. While I love Timothy Olyphant on HBO’s Deadwood, his Thomas Gabriel here is less than memorable. He’s just a dapper looking bad guy with a good sense of timing, but doesn’t come anywhere close to the series’ other bad guys, especially Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. It’s not that he’s terrible or a blight on this movie or anything, just not up the Die Hard snuff.

Better are the movie’s henchmen, especially Maggie Q and the awesome Cyril Raffaelli, who gets to really show off his Parkour prowess. Fans of Luc Besson productions such as Kiss of the Dragon and District B-13 will recognize him and his incredible moves. Both of these heavies make for terrific polar opposites for McClane’s Neanderthal fighting style and some of the best fight scenes I’ve experienced in some time.

If there is any area where the film will have its detractors, its in the choice of sidekicks for our hero. Honestly, neither of them bothered me all that much, as Justin Long’s Matt Farrell has a surprising chemistry with McClane, which makes for some fun comedic banter throughout the movie. Also, as terrible as Kevin Smith looked in the trailer, he didn’t seem to really bother me, and definitely not enough to ruin the entire movie, which is what I was afraid he would do.

As I’ve said before, Live Free or Die Hard is the most satisfying experience I’ve had in a theater all summer. With Spider-Man and Jack Sparrow dropping the ball, it took a classic American hero to finally deliver the goods. Live Free or Die Hard may not be the best film of the year, but its definitely one of the most fun and will go down as a worthy successor to its Action movie brethren.

So that’s it for my Die Hard love for a while. I’m going to try and find something else to obsess about and hopefully something truly bad ass will assert itself. Until then, Yippee Ki Yay!

Picture Credits: razyboard.com, impawards.com, zoom-cinema.fr