Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Live Free or Die Hard (Wiseman, 2007)

Like so many films that revived old franchises this decade, this one poses as a sort of restart, asserting above all that the history of its previous incarnations has to be overcome to make the film make sense to current tastes. I can't remember if it's actually in the film or was in a review, but the basic premise is something like "John McClane: Analog. World: Digital. Sparks Fly." (Okay, the actual line is "You're a Timex watch in a digital age." Mine's better.) McClane's skill set, his persona—all are threatened by the new world order—but not necessarily the one you're thinking of. Even for an action film, Live Free or Die Hard's political imagination is stunted, like a libertarian's (the film's title is an extremely apposite one). The first Die Hard didn't require much in the way of geopolitical awareness either (just a lucre-driven Hans Gruber), but in Live Free or Die Hard, it's just taken for granted not only that America is the world, but that even its government exists largely to get confused and toyed with by unstoppable criminal masterminds.

The film's engagement with politics may be blunt and uninspired, but it is almost metafictional in its overt engagements with the action film genre (and I mean that as a compliment). There is a competitiveness in the film, a desire to top not so much the first three Die Hard films as to best other action-film spectaculars of the past three or four years (particularly Transformers). The picture above depicts the film's most naked (and successful) effort to produce a special effect that exists as nothing but oneupmanship. In the film, the maneuver John McClane makes to produce this car-helicopter collision is not entirely gratuitous (the helicopter is a threat), but it is also enormously clear that McClane thinks of propelling a car into it before anything else, like running away. It's exactly what will make him—and us—go "wow!" and so he does it. This is why one goes to see films like this.

But what fascinates me about Live Free or Die Hard is that the comparisons it begs are not to the Jason Bourne films or the Daniel Craig Bond films—which might be the natural comparisons (ostensibly "real" action heroes with no superpowers, no supervillains, not terribly reliant on gadgets, heavy emphasis on toughness)—but rather to what became the decade's go-to trope of the superhero genre—the fear of obsolescence, of a public genuinely uninterested in heroics. Hancock, The Incredibles, Watchmen (obviously, in comic form, the origin of this trope), The Dark Knight. McClane isn't really in danger of being pushed into involuntary retirement or protested against by the benighted citizenry, but there is more than token resistance on the part of everyone involved to the idea that heroics are still viable, and McClane himself has a sort of heavy-handed line about heroes no longer being appreciated.

This conflict goes deeper, however, than superficial thematics—the film itself plays out a constant tension between wanting to make the computer hacking stuff actually seem threatening, the wave of the future, etc., and not completely making McClane seem obsolete through making the computer stuff compelling. The film's effects are a question aimed at the audience—aren't you sick of CGI? or is that what you really want, more hypertrophied toys and dancing pixels? But then again, the film admits, computers are pretty cool. Did you see that helicopter blow up? We can't do that without computers.

It is a productive tension—in this film at least, and it pays off, surprisingly, in political terms, turning what could have been an extremely reactionary film into a sort of qualified rejection of nostalgia. Yes, Live Free or Die Hard is a libertarian fantasy and an analog finger in the digital eye, but the film's basic conservatism isn't ultimately resentful, much less revanchist, as so much of the conservative movement is today. McClane is not aggrieved by the prospect of his obsolescence, he doesn't play the "I'm just taking my country back" tea-bagger tune. He's just happy that heroics are still called for once in awhile; he's just delighted he's got another shot at blowing up helicopters with cars.


Kevin said...

Hey Andrew - this is Kevin Johnson from Dartmouth! I dug your observation Live Free and Die Hard, an underrated action flick in the DH franchise.

The car-helicopter stunt, ironically, was an actual, physical stunt they did. Of course they CGI'd some explosion touchups and the person who jumps from the copter, but everything else was real, so to speak.

One theme I dug about the film is its drive away from chosen one heroes, of characters "born to save the day". Here, heroics is a choice, a largely brutal, unglamorous one, which is a harder point to sell but more rewarding.

Andrew Seal said...

Hey Kevin! Great to hear from you!
What I meant by the helicopter-car thing was pretty much what you said--that, while there were physical cars and helicopters involved, the CGI was necessary to pull the effect off--they had to add rotor blades digitally and combine two different shots on the computer to make it work.
Glad you liked the film, too!

Adam Roberts said...

An excellent reading of the film; and the heroic-obsolescence stuff seems to me spot-on. What struck me most forceably about this Die Hard was the way it ratcheted up the masochism angle; from McCain getting bits of broken glass in his feet in the first one to McCain literally shooting himself in the body so that the bullet will pass through him and kill the bad-guy. I think that struck me because it chimed (unless I'm imagining this) with a particular neocon ideological rationale of the past 10 years. I'm talking about that sort of conservative who sees nothing wrong in eg waterboarding because they measure the process against some masochistically determined sense of what they themselves could 'take', an index of toughness that, whilst never tested in reality, tacitly permits all sorts of horrors to be performed upon the body of the Other. Something similar happens in 24 with Jack Bauer; the more punishment he takes, the more the audience feels justified in torturing the enemy.

I'd also link this with a tendency for the American Right to see themselves as victimised, even as martyred, even whilst (or I suppose I mean: especially when) they are the ones in power.

Adam Roberts said...

You should post this at The Valve, by-the-way.