Saturday, February 16, 2013

Stubs – Live Free or Die Hard (Unrated)

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Jonathan Sadowski, Maggie Q.  Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Mark Bomback. Based on the Wired article A Farewell to Arms by John Carlin and certain characters by Roderick Thorp in the novel Nothing Lasts Forever. Produced by Michael Fottrell. Run Time: 129 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Action. Thriller.

The Die Hard franchise is unique in that every film, after Die Hard 2, pretty much starts anew. Since the salad days of the original Die Hard, we’ve lost everyone connected to the original, with the exception of Bruce Willis as John McClane and thinly veiled based on for the original novel author, Roderick Thorp. Usually, there is a least a person with a vision (George Lucas with Star Wars 1-6) or at least the same company involved (Eon Productions with Bond) to give a film series some sense of continuity, But that’s not the case with Die Hard and maybe that’s a good thing. While other franchises Bond, Star Wars, Superman, Batman, etc. have gone through periods where the series seems to be sleepwalking, Die Hard has stayed somewhat fresh as a new team seems to tackle the franchise and brings its own aesthetics to the enterprise, though the plots, and we’ll get to this later, are surprisingly similar (think terrorists and heists).

The only constant between Die Hards 1,2,3 and 4 is Bruce Willis. Alas, his hair opted out.
As you’re no doubt aware, whenever a movie from a long-running franchise is about to open, every other film in that franchise becomes available on cable and pay-per-view and home video. With  A Day to Die Hard coming out in theaters, the first four, including Live Free or Die Hard are being shown pretty much non-stop somewhere. As a DirecTV subscriber, I’m even aware that if you pay to watch one old film, Fox will pony up a ticket to the new one. And while reviewing the original theatrical version of the film, the PG-13 version, would be the easiest thing to do, Trophy Unlocked has one-upped that. We’re going to be reviewing the Unrated version.

Our last film, Die Hard With a Vengeance, was released 12 years prior to this one. I don’t think anyone was really anticipating this film (wasn’t Bruce Willis too old?), so it came as a bit of a surprise, especially considering how well it did at the box office. (Okay, I’m sure Fox anticipated the box office return or else they wouldn’t have made the film in the first place.) The PG-13 rating made this a film that you could take your teenager to, rather than a mom and pop only film date.

While the first three Die Hards were rated R in the days before an official rating reason, it’s easy to point to the violence and the langauge. McClaine’s catchphrase is after all “Yippee Ki-Yay, Motherfucker”, which was probably enough in those days to warrant the R. But when you’re a little worried about the appeal of your movie and you want to bring in as many people as you can, you do things like delete the objectional words from the catchphrase and cut back here and there on the violence. We will make an effort to point out the differences between the PG-13 and the Unrated versions.

Unrated in and of itself does not mean anything more than the version you’re watching was not rated by the Motion Pictures Association of America, MPAA. Any film released theatrically in the U.S., with a handful of exceptions, is rated by the MPAA. Once rated, any changes to the film would require the film to be re-rated. The MPAA rating only applies to the theatrical release, even though you’ll see it on home entertainment releases as well. There it’s used as a guide for parents renting, purchasing or downloading the film.  Add a new song to say Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and that new version is Unrated until that new version is rated by the MPAA.

In Live Free or Die Hard, McClane gets involved when the FBI responds to a computer outage at their Cyber-Security Division, Deputy Director Miguel Bowman (Cliff Curtis) orders that computer hackers be brought in. But agents find several of them have already been killed by bombs planted that have been planted are going off. The bureau reaches out to John McClane, who happens to be in Camden, New Jersey, spying on his daughter, Lucy Gennero (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to bring in one of the hackers, Matthew “Matt” Farrell (Justin Long) into protective custody. A bomb in his computer had not been triggered.

McClane arrives just in time to thwart five assassins working for Mai Linh (Maggie Q) from killing Farrell. Linh is working for her lover Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a software writer and master hacker. Gabriel uses a semi-trailer to house all of his computers and crew, thus giving him a mobile center of operations.

John takes Farrell down to D.C., but Gabriel orders his crew of hackers to take down the transportation grid and the stock market, while simultaneously broadcasting a threat against the U.S.

Farrell recognizes what’s going on as a fire sale, a cyber attack designed to target the nation’s reliance on computers so that everything must go. McClane and Farrell are taken to FBI headquarters by a police escort, but Linh, using transportation grids, reroutes the envoy into the path of an attack helicopter
But McClane proves to be more than a match for a helicopter, launching a police car into it. (This is one of the better action sequences in the film. But every fight scene in the film is pretty awesome.) Gabriel then broadcasts a simulated attack on the U.S. Capitol that sends everyone into a panic, until they can see the building is still standing.

Can you say "Awesome"?
Farrell tells McClane that the next step in a fire sale would be to take over the power grid, so the two head off to West Virginia to the Eastern Power Hub. Unfortunately, Linh and her crew have arrived ahead of them and have taken over the station’s controls. Farrell sets out to reverse what she’s done, but Linh comes back and stops him. 

McClane gets into a somewhat impossible car wreck, running over Linh with an SUV in the control room. The two fight hand to hand while suspended over a shaft. McClane manages to dislodge the SUV, sending Mai to a fiery death. When Gabriel finds out, he tries to kill McClane and Farrell by redirecting all the natural gas in the pipeline to the station.

McClane and Farrell escape the explosion by hiding in a van (don’t try this at home) and while the Eastern seaboard loses electricity, they manage to take the helicopter Linh had and fly away, bruised but very much alive. Farrell directs McClane to a fellow hacker, Frederick “Warlock” Kaludis (Kevin Smith) in Baltimore. 

Warlock has stayed up and online by running the computer systems in his lair using generators. Warlock recognizes the code that Farrell had written for Gabriel as a means of accessing the Social Security Administration building in Woodlawn, Maryland. The building has been set up as a front for the U.S. National Security Agency, designed by Gabriel to be the repository for all personal and financial information in the event of a cyber-security emergency such as the one Gabriel has generated.

Warlock is able to reveal Gabriel’s motivation. The talented hacker was once a top expert for the U.S. Defense Department but was fired and his reputation tarnished, when he tried in vain to sound the alarm about the U.S.’s vulnerability to cyber-terrorism. The all-seeing all-knowing Gabriel is able to detect Warlock’s hack and opens up a dialogue with him, Farrell and McClane., While McClane is forced to watch, Gabriel kidnaps McClane's daughter Lucy from an elevator she’s trapped in. (His minions are apparently everywhere and unencumbered by the transportation grid being knocked out.)

McClane and Farrell race to the Woodlawn facility where Lucy is taken and held hostage. McClane is the muscle and deals with Gabriel’s men, naturally knocking them off one at a time (just like he does in every Die Hard movie). Farrell is the brains and discovers that Gabriel is downloading all the information into a portable storage unit (can you say a bazillion megabytes?) and he is able to encrypt the data after it is downloaded. But 

Farrell is found out and Gabriel, in order to get access to the data, has to take Farrell along when they escape the facility. Gabriel and his main hacker Trey (Jonathan Sadowski), along with Farrell and Lucy, lead the way in a Hazmat van. The mobile computer center follows behind in the semi.

McClane intercepts and hijacks the semi, killing the driver. McClane contacts Warlock to patch him through to Bowman. Even though Warlock is reluctant to do so, he relents when he’s told the terrorists have Lucy. Bowman and his agents are on their way to Woodlawn. McClane tells him the Gabriel has already left Woodlawn in a Hazmat vehicle. He tells them to use LoJack tracking to find the van and gives them the license plate number. 

Gabriel hacks into the military’s computers and scrambles an F-35B and directs the pilot to stop the terrorist in the semi, McClane. Again, a fighter jet is no match for McClane. Even though the F-35B destroys the trailer and even the bridge it’s on, McClane manages to jump onto the fuselage of the plane just before debris from the bridge falls into the jet’s intake, causing it to spin out of control and crash. (Don’t worry, we see the pilot is able to parachute to safety).

McClane in Semi v. Pilot in Fighter Jet. You have to like McClaine's odds.
(I think that's the  Port of Los Angeles' Thomas Vincent Bridge in the background)
McClane has seen Gabriel’s van heading off into the warehouses by the port of Baltimore (with a little Los Angeles harbor thrown in). McClane again dispatches most of Gabriel’s men, including Trey, but the last henchman, Emerson (Edoardo Costa), gets the jump and wounds McClane in the shoulder. Gabriel, who has been holding Lucy as a shield, hands her to Emerson. Lucy struggles, managing to shoot Emerson in his foot using his own holstered gun. She tries to help McClane, but the machine gun she slides across the floor to him gets intercepted by Gabriel. Gabriel tries to draw out the torture, promising to kill McClaine’s daughter and Farrell as soon as Farrell is done decrypting the data. Gabriel is going to make McClane watch. With Gabriel holding the suddenly acting incapacitated McClaine upright, McClane makes Gabriel shoot his gun through McClaine’s already wounded shoulder. The bullet hits and kills Gabriel. (I’m not sure, but I think this is the real magic bullet.)
Doesn't look good, but we're only minutes away from our hero's catchphrase.
Emerson turns his gun on McClane, but Farrell, who has suddenly grown a pair, picks up McClaine’s pistol that’s fallen to the floor earlier in the confrontation and kills Emerson. Just then Bowman and his agents arrive, but all the heavy lifting has already been done. While being patched up, McClane notices Farrell and his daughter, who now calls herself Lucy McClaine-Gennero, are making googly eyes at each other.

So, once again, the Die Hard film is about John McClane stopping a heist. In the original it was stopping Hans Gruber from stealing $640 billion in U.S. Bonds, in Vengeance it was stopping Simon Gruber from stealing $14 billion in gold and in Live Free, the stakes have been raised to something like the accumulated wealth of the U.S. With each of these films, not only have the stakes been raised, but so have the villains and their sophistication. Hans was the most straightforward of the bunch. He merely took over a building. In Die Hard 2, the only one not about a heist, Colonel Stuart commandeers an airport. Simon Gruber takes over an entire city and in Live Free, Gabriel takes over the entire country.

While Holly Gennero is nowhere to be found, we are treated to a grown-up Lucy. While Winstead is a good actress, there really isn’t a lot for her to do besides try to alternatively act vulnerable and tough. We get a more complete picture of what Winstead has to offer when she starred as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010). For the most part, she is tied up by Gabriel. The idea of making it personal for McClane is a good one, though the first two also explored this with Holly being the one in danger. Only in Die Hard with a Vengeance was there no other member of the McClane household in mortal danger.

  Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy Gennero-McClaine.
Justin Long, best known as Drew Barrymore’s onetime boyfriend and for being the personification of Apple Mac cool in some commercials, is actually pretty good in this film. He plays smart nerdy Farrell, who I don’t believe uses a Mac to do his hacking. But his presence signals that Live Free or Die Hard was trying to get younger and draw a younger (PG-13) audience. I had seen Long previously on the Ed TV series (2000-2004) and think he has a likable persona, but apparently, it takes a stronger presence (Willis) to get the most out of him on film. His character will occasionally explain to the audience what's going on.

Justin Long's Matthew Farrell makes this Die Hard another buddy film, plus he provides exposition for the audience.
Maggie Q deserves mention as Mai, the computer/assassin co-conspirator and love interest of antagonist, Gabriel. The Hawaiian-born Polish-Irish-Vietnamese makes for a powerful adversary for McClane and while she had to be killed eventually, it’s too bad it was so soon in the movie. She was definitely good in her part.

Maggie Q (r) as Mai Linh intimidates Justin Long as Matthew Farrell (l).
Kevin Smith had a decidedly smaller role but was still good as Frederick Kaludis aka Warlock, sort of a king of computer hackers complete with his own basement command center. Smith who has acted in his own comedies, does bring humor, which this franchise is known for having, to what otherwise might be a very tense moment.

Kevin Smith as Warlock in his basement Command Center.

And finally, Timothy Olyphant is a really good villain, managing to go insult to insult with McClane and still remain pretty cool under the pressure. But his cocksureness wears a little thin and by the end of the film, you’re happy to see him get his just desserts. Olyphant is a fine actor. Again, a fresh face brings new life to the franchise.

In the end, the only one Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) really shoots is himself.
Like all the Die Hard films there are plot holes, some big enough to drive a semi with a computer lab through. Perhaps the biggest is that since the government knows that Gabriel had set it up that under certain circumstances all the financial information would dump to one location; and that circumstance happened, why didn’t they figure out what Gabriel was up to before McClane did? But hey, writing a perfect film is not the point here. The action sequences are and all of them are really over the top exciting.

Now to the differences between the PG-13 and Unrated versions. To be honest, they are not that severe. There is more cursing, a little more bloodshed and some changes in scenes and dialogue. McClane comes across as more foul-mouthed, but still heroic. While the changes don’t amount to much, there are a couple of things to note. Some of the different dialogue doesn’t quite synch with the actor’s mouths and that can be a little jarring. 
But hearing the unaltered catchphrase far outweighs any of the other flaws the unrated version might have.

Of the four Die Hard films we’ve reviewed on the blog, I would have to put this one on top. This is a fast paced wild ride. Like Die Hard With a Vengeance, this is a bit of a buddy film, but Live Free has a generation gap twist. The film is also helped by 9/11, and exploits our worst fears, but shows that one determined first responder can save us all. If you have to see only one of the four films, I would recommend this one as it is perhaps the most accessible.

So now that John McClane has saved the U.S. from financial annihilation where can he go?  How about Russia? On to A Good Day to Die Hard, currently in theaters.

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