Every once in a while – like a persistent guilty pleasure – I feel the need to be overwhelmed by masculinity and testosterone. In this blockbuster-filled summer, between sequels, small romances, and meaningful art pictures, I was hard put to find that man-sweat I’d been longing for. Lanky or beefy, it didn’t matter. All I wanted was to see some guy saving the world from mega-disaster and tossing off memorable macho movie lines. Maybe it has something to do with being peri-menopausal, but dang! I love seeing men do manly stuff. So, “jonesing for sweat,” I finally went to see Live Free of Die Hard.
I was pleasantly surprised. More magical than the present Harry Potter film and funnier than any comedy in the theaters, this was hands-down the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a while. Action films are pretty hard to do and they become downright unbelievable or cliched. That said, this film actually works. We see such wondrous feats of supernatural prowess that we cannot help but sit back in joyous befuddlement. Not only does John McClain (Bruce Willis) defy the laws of physics by outrunning and explosions, he is immune to pain, and can almost – just almost – fly! He is also darn funny. Justin Long, who plays his young slacker charge, is equally lucky and equally funny, and equally macho. Oh testosterone! I missed you.
Of course few films are perfect. And Live Free or Die Hard is no exception. In this case, the problem is the villain. I’ve always considered the Die Hard films to be studies in male solipsism and obsession. The typical villain in a Die Hard movie is not only detached, but at the same time passionately focused. They also tend to be funny in a dead-pan, sophisticated kind of way. Who could forget the coldly humorous first villain, played by Alan Rickman? Or the damaged, world-weary, and cynical Jeremy Irons baddie? These guys tend to have issues, and they know how to tell the difference between a dessert fork and a salad fork.
Here, the villain just doesn’t make the grade. First of all, he’s home-grown. American corn-fed. The bad guy here is a really an extreme good guy — someone out to make America safe from evil terrorists, to prove to his bosses they shouldn’t have fired him, and to get a huge hunk of cash in the bargain. All American preoccupations, of course. We don’t get this guy’s political affiliation but if we know how Hollywood stereotypes well, we can pretty much assume he’s a conservative Republican. (I’m surprised they didn’t go so far as to make him a conservative Christian.) Of course most folks who get fired from governmental jobs don’t have the software know-how to actually put such an ingenious plot into action. And an ingenious plan it is — create major chaos by playing around with the software that runs the institutions in our society.
Our home-grown baddie is just not evil or intelligent or nutty or brooding or sophisticated enough. Sure, he has a way of getting all glassy-eyed and steely-stared, but that kinda thing wears off pretty fast when there’s no plot or really engaging backstory to support it. Sure he lost his job, but honestly, people are always losing their jobs. Get over it and move on! I would’ve loved seeing some scene where our little baddie was a kid involved in a home invasion or some such thing. Then I would understand where the heck he’s coming from. Sure, we’re all aware that workplace humiliation and rejection causes all kinds of violent repercussions, but honestly this guy didn’t seem so off his rocker. Just vaguely miffed.
Live Free or Die Hard is a typical turn-of-the-century American film. It’s very multicultural. This is America, after all, and Hollywood wants to show that we’re a nation of immigrants. Interestingly, however, although minorities abound in every scene, there are no really important black characters. In a film that happens primarily in Washington DC, that seems kind of odd. But then again, I don’t walk the corridors of power in Washington. Maybe there aren’t a lot of blacks in the FBI, Homeland Security, et al. Also, it’s probably some subconscious addiction of mine to quotas. Having grown up with action films, I am somewhat accustomed to a black guy playing more than a walk-on quota part — evil bad guy’s buddy, or coldly sexual girlfriend, or computer expert henchman, or hero’s dependable friend, or just some black guy doing something vaguely important to the plot. In this film, the coveted “important minority role” goes to Asians or Hispanics. And I suppose it’s about time. Perhaps we blacks have been sidekicks long enough. Time to pass the quota torch.
I will say, though, that the villain’s girlfriend is one powerful , cold, and nasty b*tch. I like b*tches. The fiction writer in me has a bad tendency to want to rewrite movies I review. I guess that’s why I’m a critic. So, I’ll just say that if the cold kung fu fighter girlfriend had been the chief villain or if the baddy’s obsession with her was a little bit more over-the-top, I would’ve enjoyed this flick a little better. Even so, it’s absolute fun.
When McClain's daughter tells the sidekick to dig deep and get braver (she doesn't say it as politely as I just did) one gets the gist of the entire flick: a hero's gotta do what a hero's gotta do… and keep cool under all circumstances. Truly, yer father's daughter.
Those of us who want a heavy dose of All-American machismo coolness will find the right fit to your taste here. The villain’s strong, mysterious, iciness; the sidekick’s slacker coolness, and the never-lose-his-cool unflappable cool of the hero. I can’t help it. It’s never too late to understand what makes cool American guys tick.