Wednesday, October 17, 2007
My Favorite Movie of Summer 2007
To better understand why Live Free Or Die Hard was the summer's best, most gratifying movie it helps to understand the terms by which its predecessor, Die Hard With A Vengeance, the third in the series, was such a disappointment.
...With A Vengeance was fundamentally different than the two previous Die Hard films in several ways, though the obvious ones are not the most significant. Obviously: Die Hard 3 is set outside a confined space and a partner/buddy character is also given a more significant role. These elements certainly contribute to it not feeling like a Die Hard movie, but they are not the reason it sucks.
The latest film is set in an even more expansive milieu (stretching over several cities) but its individual action scenes all take place in very specific, and generally enclosed, settings. This is important because it contributes to the sense that what makes a Die Hard movie is not the sense of enclosure per se, but rather John McClane's sense of lone-ness. He acts not not because of any moral imperative, but because he's the only one who can. (There was really nothing at stake for him in With A Vengeance, and thus no real answer to the question why doesn't he just go home?)
The newest film also pairs him with a partner who drives plot as much as provides comic relief. Justin Long is actually quite good in this role (not that I doubted his latent ability, but I did doubt the conception of the character). John McClane has allies both of the first two films, too. In the third, though, he's frequently, comedically antagonistic towards those helpers. He and Samuel L. Jackson's character forge a friendship of sorts, but they still yell t each other a lot and argue about racial politics. Hearing John McClane express opinions (let alone quasi-conservative ones, or ones that make him sound like a complete asshole) is jarring in Vengeance because in the previous films he's been too preoccupied with having to survive in the here-and-now to complain about relatively abstract notions. A similar kind of thing happens in Live Free, when he argues with Justin Long over musical tastes. Fortunately, this is only a momentary lapse in judgment.
The other thing the new film improves on is McClane's relationship with authority figures, and here there's actually a minor improvement on the first Die Hard. In parts 1 and 3 authority figures are depicted as incompetent boobs (Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson in the first, and the two FBI agents in the third). McClane's relationship with an FBI director in the 4th film is much more plausible: the two actually want to help each other.
The biggest improvements over the third entry are in terms of tone and the action sequences themselves. Tonally part 3 was almost as much comedy and action film, and these elements do not support each other the way movie studios seem to think they do; laughter and fear-for-your-life tend to be mutually exclusive expressions. Live Free Or Die Hard does have it's lighter moments, but the overall tone is one of tension and fear. In one scene McClane implores his hacker sidekick to imagine the consequences of the terrorist plot in terms of people sitting alone in their homes. It recalls one of Die Hard 2's nicer, but also more sinister, touches: showing the interior of an airplane, with its passengers tired and happy to be on approach for landing, just before terrorists force it to crash. In Die Hard 3, the repercussions of terrorist acts are fodder for jokes amongst the police as well as citizen bystanders.
This more serious tone is also evident in McClane's relationship with his divorce and his kids. His estrangement from his family, when its mentioned, is played for laughs in the third film. This movie takes more seriously the idea that McClane is a middle-aged man whose marriage has not worked out; he doesn't find it funny that he's alone. This film's Nobody-wants-to-be-that-guy speech may not be as effective as the original's She's-already-heard-me-say-I-Love-you-a-thousand-times scene, but it suggests that the filmmakers understand what made the first film so effective.
I referenced them already, but the action sequences in this film are also pretty great. This movie felt to me like its makers wanted to thrill their audience the old-fashioned way: with gleefully kinetic action and diabolically clever stunt work. It's in this department that ...With A Vengeance (not to mention most other action movies these days) really looks uninspired and lazy by comparison.
There's also a powerful sentimental value for me, as several of you know and maybe also share, in seeing a Die Hard movie capitalize on the first's legacy, it's almost a redemption of sorts. The anticipation for this movie (chronicled at this link) isn't over, yet, either; the unrated DVD comes out next month.