Monday, July 16, 2007

Die Hard 4, Live Free, Keep On Ticking

So, the movie my son and I went to see on Saturday was Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment of the franchise that stars Bruce Willis as John McClane. It's not a movie I would normally go to see, but my son has decided that action adventure is his favorite genre, so we went and I will say right off the bat that it was a very entertaining film.

My son actually bought the three previous movies on DVD recently, Die Hard (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), and we watched them together as preparation for seeing this third sequel. I had previously seen some of the first movie, something like the second half or two thirds a few times, but this was the first time I had seen it completely, and it is a wonderful example of American popular culture (which is on my mind because I'm teaching a course on the subject this summer, a course I've taught many times before). The second movie follows a similar formula, while the third diverges somewhat. My son, a rabid reader of Wikipedia entries, tells me that the third one was not originally supposed to be a Die Hard movie, but was reworked to fit into the franchise.

So, now, the fourth Die Hard is true to the formula, but the action is over the top this time. It's one thing to suspend disbelief and imagine the hero somehow holding on to cables in an elevator shaft. It's a whole other ball game to have him jump off of a fighter jet onto a collapsing highway and survive. The action almost turns into a parody of itself in this film (he actually takes out a helicopter by speeding a car towards a toll booth, diving out of it at the last minute, as the car somehow launches upward over the toll booth into the air, crashing into the chopper). But, hey, it's all in good fun, so what if it goes to extremes this time? It's still the same character, character-acted in the smart aleck persona of Bruce Willis, tossing off his clever one liners one after another. For example:

Matt Farrell: You just killed a helicopter with a car!
John McClane: I was out of bullets.
or, here's a good one:
Matt Farrell: Oh, my God... it's her.
John McClane: "Her" who?
Agent Johnson: What're you talking about?
Matt Farrell: It's them.
John McClane: Are you saying it's "them" them?
Matt Farrell: I *swear* to you, I know her! I would know her voice anywhere!
[McClane picks up CB microphone]
Matt Farrell: Don't say anything! Don't...
John McClane: Just keep your mouth shut for a minute.
[to terrorists over radio]
John McClane: Hey, Metro, how's your day goin' over there? Yeah, you gotta be pretty, uh, crazy over there, what with all those 5-87's, huh?
Mai Lihn: Yes, sir, we've had to dispatch all units.
John McClane: [busting her out] Yeah, you had to dispatch all units for all the naked people walkin' around?
and then there's:
Lucy McClane: Daddy, you're out of your mind.
John McClane: What're you talkin' about?
Lucy McClane: You shot yourself!
John McClane: [groaning] It seemed like a good idea at the time.
One thing that disturbed me about this film in particular is that McClane seemed to enjoy killing the bad guys, seemed to be laughing about it, and generally seemed too certain of his ability to save the day. Again, this is the point where the movie threatens to become a self-parody, because it's only when you know you're in a movie that you can be so very confident of the outcome.

I'll also add that this is a great movie for car crashes, not my cup of tea but quite popular given America's automotive culture, and overall the action sequences are ably handled by the young director Len Wiseman. Whatever its excesses, this is an entertaining film, as I said. What makes this film, and the Die Hard formula, work so well, however, is the interweaving of a multitude of popular culture themes and myths.

To begin, this is a police melodrama, of the sort reminiscent of Dirty Harry. John McClane is a loner, his type is familiar from many television programs, the messianic cop who sacrifices family and his own happiness (the emphasis is always on the hero's sacrifice, not his family's) on account of his dedication to his job. The cop-hero is determined, driven, he's, well, a die hard, which suggests that he is both stubborn and a survivor. The messianic quality is merely hinted at in the first movie, where he's still living in NYC even though his wife has taken a big-time executive position in LA. It's absent in the second movie, but present in the third, which opens with him suspended and drunk, and quickly presents him as a sacrificial lamb in what seems to be an attempt at revenge (for the events from the first movie). In the fourth installment, he's divorced, and his daughter isn't talking to him, and is using her mother's maiden name as her last name (which her mother did in the first movie, reflecting tensions over feminism as well as women in the workplace), so this time he fully embodies the messianic cop character type.

Also drawing on this genre, he is a modern-day cowboy, the sheriff or marshal or gunslinger on the new, urban frontier, the city now being the site of lawlessness and savagery. The cowboy motif is a bit of a joke in the first movie, but becomes his signature line in all four as he vanquishes the bad guy: "Yippi-kay-ay, motherfucker" (we don't hold back here on Blog Time Passing). Each movie has a bit of High Noon to it, albeit substituting Bruce Willis's one liners for Gary Cooper's stoicism. In the first film, the frontier is in Los Angeles (where the old west is not all that old, after all), in the second it's Washington, DC, but mostly at the airport (certainly a no man's land). The third plants us firmly in New York City's urban landscape. And this fourth is the most wide ranging, beginning in New Jersey, then moving to the DC-Baltimore area.

Anyway, the urban version of the frontier myth coalesced at a time when crime was skyrocketing, and nowhere seemed worse than New York City, circa the seventies. This was the era of Fort Apache, The Bronx, and the first Die Hard movie comes in at the end of this period, the year before Seinfeld premiered and forever changed the image of the Big Apple (as it coincided with declines in crime, and later, former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani's zero tolerance mayoralty). Even during this later period, the NYPD retained its image as the toughest and best police force in the country (and forget about it since 9/11 when they were positively canonized).

So, as a member of New York's finest, John McClane is tough, resourceful, street smart, and above all has guts. And while they make no significant reference to his ethnicity, his name obviously draws on the stereotype of the Irish cop, and Irish toughness (and there's the hard drinking in the third film). But the movies do an interesting balancing act between McClane's exceptional qualities as a supercop, and his common man, working class status. Remove the action component from the films, place more emphasis on the mystery that also is part of the formula, and we have a variation on the police detective hero Columbo played by Peter Falk.

Like Columbo, the Die Hard films pit the working class, regular guy hero against elitist villains who consistently underestimate him. The first film was the classic in this regard, the villain being a refined West German, speaking with a combination of German and English accents that signifies education and cultivation. This also gives us a bit of a re-enactment of the American Revolutionary War, as McClane fights Old World Europeans, which also is the case in the third movie. This fourth film plays on the patriotic theme, with the Live Free theme, coming out for the 4th of July, and while the main bad guy is American, he leads a multinational gang in an attempt to undermine the United States government, economy, and society as a whole, through a "fire sale," which means "everything must go" (a phrase that comes up in the miniseries Wild Palms, the subject of a previous post), transportation, the financial sector, telecommunications, etc.

In the first film, the theme of anti-elitism also surfaces in regard to McClane's wife, who has moved to LA to take a high level executive position for a corporation owned by a Japanese business. This reflects concerns from back in the eighties, when Japan was an economic powerhouse buying up American properties and businesses. While the Japanese threat is much more subtle than the German one in this film (pre-unification, Germany also boasted a highly successful economy, also buying up bits and pieces of the US), there is that sense of the turning of tables regarding our former Axis enemies, now (questionable) allies. McClane is a fish out of water in LA, and in the corporate environment, where in his absence his wife is being hit upon by her immediate superior (an American), so there's also the theme of masculinity here, and no question that McClane is a man's man, and all four movies invoke this myth.

Anti-elitism in a milder form also surfaces in the theme of the messianic hero-cop who bucks authority, has disdain for bureaucracy, and resorts to violence outside of the law, or at least into gray areas, in the pursuit of justice. The American republic was established on the rejection of British government, and our own system of government places individual rights above all else, and has institutionalized suspicion of the government. And so it is that law enforcement bureaucracy is at best impotent and petty, at worst callous in it's disregard for the lives of civilians, and its tendency to overlook or ignore the obvious and the common sensical. Individuals within the system may be educable, as McClane finds allies in the various movies, but the basic sensibility is that only his extreme individualism can save the day.

McClane is a man of action, pragmatic, determined, and on our side, the side of the people. Despite the patriotic theme, he's no flag-waving patriot. In Live Free or Die Hard, he dismisses the left-wing paranoid conspiracy theories voiced by the youthful Matt Farrell, and the young man's fantasies about actually seeing a "fire sale," not by arguing ideology, but by pointing out how it's real people who are getting hurt. Interestingly, much is made in one scene of McClane's preference for sixties music, as he turns up "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the car stereo. This song almost serves as a theme song for the film, although we don't hear much of the lyrics, which invoke patriotism, but in a critical vein. For the record, here's how it goes:

Some folks are born made to wave the flag,
Ooh, they're red, white and blue.
And when the band plays "Hail to the chief",
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord,

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no senator's son, son.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, no,

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,
Lord, don't they help themselves, oh.
But when the taxman comes to the door,
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes,

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no millionaire's son, no.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, no.

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, "How much should we give?"
Ooh, they only answer More! more! more! yoh,

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no military son, son.
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, one.

It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, no no no,
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate son, no no no,
The lyrics do reinforce the image of McClane as the common man, and he's a cop, not a soldier. There's some dialog on the subject of heroism, along the lines that there are no rewards, just sacrifice, and it doesn't take any special quality, just the willingness to do what needs to be done, because there's no one else to do it.

In this fourth Die Hard film, the elitists are hackers and expert programmers, nerds and geeks some of whom may break the law but are essentially innocent, like Matt and his friend Wizard. They find McClane's unfamiliarity with computers and the online world laughable, until the bad guys start blowing the hackers up to get them out of the way, and McClane is the only guy with the real world skills to do something about it. The bad guy, Thomas Gabriel, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a complete elitist, he's got class, he's handsome, well dressed, speaks well, has a hot girl friend, is a leader and master strategist, a genius and a master computer programmer to boot. And greedy, as McClane puts it, "It's always about the money," at least in Die Hard movies, where terrorists use ideology solely for the purpose of self-enrichment.

The conflict here also takes the form of the young vs. the old, McClane being the old one, in mild conflict with his daughter, with Matt, and with Matt's fellow hacker the Wizard, and in major conflict with the young Thomas Gabriel. It's not just that McClane is aging (and Willis does look pretty old this time around), it's that he's old fashioned, a die hard, whom Gabriel calls at one point "a Timex watch in a digital age!" Of course, if Gabriel had been old enough to have seen the old Timex commercials, he'd know their slogan was, takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'!

An underlying secondary theme is one of initiation, as the young hacker Matt learns how to be a hero like McClane, and therefore how to be a real man (and implicitly, worthy of McClane's daughter). This involves a shift in perspective from the virtual world of the elitist hackers to the real world of the common folk like you and me, at least, you and me if I wasn't writing this, and you weren't reading it. Let's put it this way, you won't find McClane writing or reading any blogs anytime soon.

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