LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD
starring Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Cliff Curtis
screenplay by Mark Bomback
directed by Len Wiseman
starring Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Jon Voight
screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
directed by Michael Bay
by Walter Chaw I remember the way I felt as a lad of fifteen when I saw John McTiernan's Die Hard, that tingly excitement of not being able to figure out how we were going to get out of this fine mess. The bad guys were smarter than the good guys, their plan was perfect, the henchmen were ruthless eurotrash, and the hero didn't have shoes. Understand it wasn't fear that the baddies would win, but trust that the filmmakers knew what they were doing even though their methods were mysterious: I could let myself relax because the heavy-lifting was already done for me. I felt the same way as Live Free or Die Hard (hereafter Die Hard 4) unspooled its tale of computer hackers running the world from the basements of their mothers' homes: if the bad guys could hijack anything controlled by a computer (that is, pretty much everything), then what hope would a bald, 52-year-old, Luddite cop with an estranged family and a worn-out smirk have? The film plays on that despair and, unlike in the second (awful) and third (excellent) instalments of this series, John McClane (Bruce Willis) seems fresh again, a walking revelation that even action heroes get old and obsolete to the point where they're cautionary tales for young studs and metaphors for their own careers. Remember Harrison Ford in Firewall? Instead of acknowledging that the world eventually passes you by, leaving you embittered and bellicose (as Die Hard 4 shows), Ford's character in Firewall is not only good with a knuckle sandwich, but also a "with it" computer stud. As miscalculations go, that's more pathetic than most.
Die Hard 4 addresses the present with sidekick hacker character Matt (Justin Long), who, just like in 16 Blocks, is an innocent dragged along by an aging but resourceful New York Cop™ played by Willis while armed villains try to take the pair down. Matt has unwittingly been drawn into a plot to shut down the United States by evil genius Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), and as Gabriel tries to rub out his ancillary accomplices, Matt falls under the protection of our man McClane as the world falls apart. It's a nifty conceit for an action film, a way to be topical without being overly heavy-handed (we have Michael Bay for that, bless his pea brain and tiny dick); a way to be apocalyptic but not overreaching; and a good way to jab at our government's insistence that Homeland Security is fine as long as we squander our resources in a fool's errand in the wrong country in the Middle East. Gabriel, apparently, was once hired by our government to audit the security of our data systems; when he told the truth, the people asking crucified him. Consequently, it doesn't play like science-fiction, it plays like C-SPAN. McClane, never once betraying a complete understanding of the plot's machinations, is the Terminator (a key moment early in the picture goes so far as to have a Terminator action figure topple from a keyboard) to Matt's John Connor: it's not his function to understand, it's his function to protect and serve good old American values that happen to jibe pretty well with good Old Testament values. Die Hard 4 is a lot like Terminator 2, in fact, in that we're engaged in a young-teen-techie-meets-inexorable-robot kind of way. (Recall that young John Connor hacks an ATM in our introduction to him.) And like the first Die Hard, this one has puzzles that are impossible to figure out before great gouts of testosterone and fits of pyrotechnics bulldoze over the closed-room conundrums. If it's all only become more complicated since the days of tying a fire hose around your middle and leaping from a building, well, that's progress for you.
The best of the film's half-dozen or so superbly-conceived action sequences is either the one in the tunnels in which the villains open the traffic both ways with our heroes stuck in the middle or the one in the elevator shaft with the SUV. Or maybe it's the bit on the terraced highway where McClane-in-semi battles a supercool F-35B fighter jet with vertical-lift capability. It's all cool, actually, because Willis is comfortable enough in his definitive role to pause between explosions to convey something like an apologetic weariness with the conventions of the action movie genre, which are, by this time, almost Palaeolithic. Whenever his McClane shakes his head and giggles--better still, whenever he looks tired and hurt--he's commenting on his own indestructibility, for sure, but he's commenting, too, on the burden of the convention that he be indestructible. I was gratified in a weird way that a scene late in the picture (in a cooling tower) was so obviously re-dubbed and spliced in during post-production, because for as often as the editing and continuity are Wizard of Oz incompetent, it at least presents evidence that some care was taken to ensure that the narrative, such as it is, maintained its internal coherence. Die Hard 4 is topical, paranoid, exciting. As far as misogyny goes in the slapping around of a certain henchwoman (Maggie Q), it arguably addresses women with a certain respect and on a level playing field. The picture is the very model, really, of a throwback that works as homage yet works that much better as a great example of the form. It's crackerjack, patriotic, macho escapism armed with a good heist, good villains, good heroes, and enough intelligence to stay out of its own hell-bent-for-leather way.
Then there's Michael Bay's Transformers, based, as the end titles helpfully tell us, on the Hasbro action figures, as if we hadn't suspected that this happy horseshit of a script was "based" on an assemblage of die-cast doodads. (Can't wait for Nora Ephron's "My Little Pony: The Movie". It's all reading like Vogon poetry now.) The absolute perfect vehicle for Bay in that it is joyfully, exuberantly retarded in every possible sense of the term, Transformers is Bay-variety misogynistic (the girls are hot and half-naked), Bay-variety homophobic (fag!), and so far to the right that it's half out of frame. A recruitment video for deployment in Iraq, it opens with a group of Special Forces soldiers milling around in slow-motion at sunset when they're attacked by a helicopter that turns into a robot that destroys their camp. A little Arab kid, shades of Kim or Gunga Din (the film is racist, too--boy is it: I'd be interested to see how it plays in Compton when the "black" Transformer Jazz flashes gang signs before being the (SPOILER) only one who bites it; best to not even mention the Anthony Anderson comic relief), rescues a small band of intrepid soldiers who are promptly flown back to the United States by Secretary of Defense Keller (Jon Voight!) to debrief their experiences to a trio of teen hackers led by stupid-hot Maggie (Rachael Taylor). She's the Tippi Hedren to stupid-hot brunette Megan Fox's Suzanne Pleshette character, Mikaela, the predestined girlfriend in cut-offs and midriff-baring tank top--God bless America--of teen hero Sam (Shia LaBeouf). Besides the explosions and the computers and the conclusion involving a semi and a fighter plane, what Transformers has in common with Die Hard 4 is that both are about young men aided by stoic robots from the 1980s. The main difference, of course, is that Transformers truly, sincerely sucks.
There are a handful of funny scenes and line deliveries courtesy LaBeouf, and the audience I saw it with, amid fits of rapturous applause and sobbing, appeared to like the Herbie the Love Bug shenanigans when Sam is teamed with robot Bumblebee (voiced by Mark Ryan) before he knows it's a robot. Talking-car gags never get old. Especially when the audience consists of dudes arrested at various stages of development and deeply nostalgic for those halcyon days of playing with cars that turned into robots and robots that turned into F-16 fighter jets...or bugs, heralding the first concerted wave of Yankee response to the insane Japanese sensibilities beamed into the vulnerable brainpans of a nation's youth. How else does one explain the tingle of excitement I still get when I hear the frickin' "Voltron" theme? There's a great deal that's inexplicable (and summarily ignored) about the Transformers movie, too, like the entire subplot involving the hot teen hacker chick; the entire main plot involving the fight for a pair of glasses owned by Sam's grandfather (they solve the puzzle, but the solution has no bearing whatsoever on the resolution of the picture); the entire MacGuffin of the "Allspice" or something changing pop machines into evil robots; and the entire thing about how if these robots can change into anything they want, why do the good robots change into Camaros and shit instead of changing into something useful, like anti-aircraft batteries or, hell, F35B fighter jets?
Doesn't matter, in the end, because the script was evidently written by a roomful of chimps not trying very hard (greater moment for concern? One extra exclaiming "this is way cooler than Armageddon," or Sam telling Mikaela: "You're more than meets the eye!" without adding, "a robot in disguise"?) and the action scenes are impossible to follow--something Bay and company seem to recognize, what with the participants occasionally bellowing out their own names before engaging in a flurry of indecipherable hostilities. I know that someone's fighting with someone, or a couple of someones are fighting with someone, but I don't know who's who and who's winning or why John Turturro is in it (at this point, it's almost more palatable to sell out in a snuff film than for Michael Bay) or why the crowd of people in downtown Wherever only scatter when they're about to be crushed by the building-sized robots and never before. Once the inevitable resolution happens in the most arbitrary way possible, it's like suddenly squeezing off a hose with nary a trickle left in its flaccid lead anyway. Like so many of Bay's films, Transformers suffers from a form of cinematic prostatitis. All side battles are suddenly resolved off screen; Optimus Prime's (Peter Cullen) declaration that they're leaving is followed by his rhapsody that they're staying; and the ugly kid with the cool robot friends gets to fuck the impossible-looking girl. This is somebody's fantasy, for sure--stand outside the theatre, opening night, to gauge just whose. Be sure to bring some pepper spray and a mint-in-mint-package Starscream to distract them in the event that they catch your off-hive, non-virginal, non-closeted scent. Originally published: July 4, 2007.