In Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece, the civil war comedy The General from 1927, there is a marvelous scene where Buster gets himself out of yet another jam.
Contrary to popular belief, Keaton’s screen persona was not a sad sack constantly beaten down by life (later comics bore that responsibility). Rather, Keaton was an athletic, versatile, creative character, constantly innovating and thinking. In the scene in question, Keaton is engineering a train in an effort to catch up with his girlfriend, who has been kidnapped by the Northern army forces. Knowing that Keaton is behind them, the Northerners lay impediments on the track before him. At one point they are laying timber on the tracks. Keaton puts the train in first gear, so to speak, runs out, and picks up the first piece of lumber. But the train is still moving behind him, and before he can cast it aside, the cattle scoop plucks him up and carries him along. And there is another derailing piece of lumber just a head. What to do? We don’t know what is going to happen. But Keaton figures something out. He uses the lumber in his hand to catapult the one on the tracks out of the way, dispensing with both impediments simultaneously.
The audience response to this moment is to laugh. It’s a joyous laughter, an appreciation of Keaton’s cleverness. In essence, that what we are always doing when we laugh at a great witticism or muscular comeback in a comedy, admiring the speaker’s (or writer’s) achievement. Keaton and the other silent comedians took it to the physical level, speaking through their bodies and actions, a form of comedy that couldn’t really have existed before.
That’s why the Die Hard series and its new entry Live Free or Die Hard need to be viewed as fundamentally comedies. They hark back to Keaton and the physical comedians as improvisers out of cunningly constructed binds, where mind is as important as the body, where indeed it fuels the body.
In Live Free or Die Hard Bruce Willis’s John McClane must: evade a helicopter chasing him through the canyons of DC, fight his way out of a SUV dangling down an elevator shaft, elude a jet fighter that is trying to blow him in in a semi, and get off the wings of said plane after it spins pilotlessly out of control. How he gets out of these and numerous other hair raising jams is the essence of the series, and of that type of comedy. Note at one point his use of a fire hydrant as chopper repellent. It’s a cartoon, the kind in a whole automobile can be used as a flying weapon.
Originally based on a Roderick Thorp novel, the series (which didn’t know yet that it was a series) established itself as a series in which a lone man in an enclosed setting uses only the improvised tools at hand to basically rescue his wife. The second film shifted the locale to an airport, maintaining the same decorum. But No. 3 went horizontal, spreading the area McClane has to manage to a whole city, New York. Now Live Free or Die Hard turns the whole eastern seaboard into Nakatomi Plaza, with McClane running from Rutgers to Camden to DC, to Virginia and Baltimore (what will the next film be? Live Fast, Die Hard, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse, with McClane globally fighting bad guys from outer space?). While the first film played with then current notions of terrorists (more German Eurotrash than true believers) and fears of Japanese encroachment upon the American economy, the second one was a take on Iran-Contra.
The third film was a bit at sea, but this new entry is on more solid ground, with an acknowledgment of a post 9/11 world, with the villain Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) presented as a variation on Robert Hanssen, with prime hacker Gabriel turning the system on itself to make about political point about the vulnerability of the system (or at least so it seems in the beginning). And here, McClane’s adult sized daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is the imperiled McClane who provides the plot’s engine in the final quarter.
Like the third film, though, McClane has an unwanted partner, in this case a hacker named Matt Farrell, played by Justin Long, the Mac guy in the television commercials. But here he is John Hodgeman to McClane’s cool customer. It is Farrell who relates the essential premise of the film, the “fire sale” computer fiasco probably described in the news story on which the film is credited as being based (John Carlin’s piece “A Farewell to Arms”). It’s called virtual terrorism.
McClane, it turns out, doesn’t want to be a hero, he doesn’t like it, but he’s the guy who’s there at the time. McClane says this is a car as they are driving from one predicament to another as yet unknown one. It’s one of the few moments of tranquility and reflection in the film, and one of the few moments that really evokes the original Die Hard. In that film, McClane was an ordinary guy, an average Joe who ends up having to save a building, his wife, et cetera. Subtly with 2 and even more obviously with 3, McClane became an action hero, with all that means about circumscribing McClane’s character and what he feels about things.
Other random observations: There is an Agent Johnson joke … Cliff Curtis (in the Reginald Veljohnson role) is, as usual, great, but not quite given enough to do … Why do choppers get to fly around with impunity in movies such as this one and Lethal Weapon? If there is gunfire, don’t people complain, and anyway, isn’t all air traffic monitored? (though the situation is slightly different in this film, however) … The secondary and tertiary villains aren’t as vivid as they were in Die Hard … However, Maggie Q is excellent (though I doubt that fetish boots are standard issue when she is impersonating an FBI agent) and her fight scene with McClane is great … Long’s characterization is perfect, ranging from his smart aleckyness, his living like a college student, his propensity to conspiracy theories, and his eating habits … Zeljko Ivanek should play Vincent Bugliosi in a movie … Is it unseemly to mention that Kevin Smith is great in a cameo? … Director Len Wiseman (the Underworld series) does a satisfactory job, but does anyone really direct movies like this or like, say, Bad Boys 2? Don’t you really just have a meeting with the second unit director, then go off to walk Justin Long and Bruce Willis through a scene before clocking out for the day? … The film has a hard, blue, grainy look throughout, like James Mangold’s Cop Land … among the movies “quoted” are Speed, Independence Day, Jurassic Park 2, and Casino Royale (if that is humanly possible) … The film has the best “knocked down stairs” moment since Joe Kidd … This is a “modes of transportation” movie, in which McClane gets to drive about five different types of automobiles, including a chopper … “Ode to Joy” does not appear in the film.
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