Boys (and Girls) of Summer
Continuing the tradition it established with Independence Day, Twentieth Century Fox celebrated this year's extended July 4 holiday by blowing up a major piece of Washington, DC. It was a nostalgia trip: The demolition of the US Capitol, along with portions of New Jersey, West Virginia and a stretch of Maryland interstate, was Fox's way of welcoming back Bruce Willis in his role as old-time working-stiff action hero John McClane, in Live Free or Die Hard. (Despite the title, no part of New Hampshire was harmed in making this motion picture.)
A dozen years have passed since Willis last raced around as McClane in Die Hard With a Vengeance--years in which the world saw what real devastation could be visited on an American city, and by men armed only with box cutters. The attack on the World Trade Center ought to have made a relic of McClane, the New York cop who goes mano a mano against terrorists, motherfucker; and if the gravity of events didn't force this character into retirement, the weight of time on Willis's body might have finished him off.
But Willis runs his own production company and Fox needed a summer franchise movie, and so McClane, ever resilient, has been pressed back into service. Once more, he commandeers people's cars, tumbles from high places, fires bullets from an inexhaustible clip and absorbs an infinity of kicks and punches, if mostly from the neck up now, in star-saving close-up; while the still-popular spectacle of destruction has once again been offered to the American people for the pure joy of ka-blooey. Did you need more proof that September 11 did not, in fact, change everything? Then watch our hero of July 4, 2007, take out an Air Force fighter jet--yes, one of ours--using nothing more than his bare hands, an eighteen-wheel semi-trailer rig and a chunk of highway overpass. He's the box-cutter type himself.
His antagonists, though, continue to have the pretensions of sophisticates. Live Free or Die Hard is the tale of a strike against all the computer systems of the United States, as directed by a manicured white boy who could model for Zegna (Timothy Olyphant) and his equally unemotive girlfriend (Maggie Q), who is Eurasian by background and therefore comes accessorized with a cleavage-baring black jumpsuit and repertory of kung-fu kicks. "I'm in," these lovers keep murmuring to each other, though without anatomical reference, since the penetration occurs exclusively online. Exemplary creatures of today's high-priced thrillers, these villains know of no greater excitement than the sight of fingers typing, eyes staring at monitors and progress bars slowly filling. Download 15 percent complete. Download 18 percent complete. Download 17 percent complete. Please wait.
McClane, of course, begs to differ. He has no patience for digital flow, being a guy for whom "technology" is a handy fire extinguisher used for the impromptu incineration of opponents. Somebody halfway sympathetic to the audience needs to help this man. Enter the hacker, Matt Farrell: a surrogate character for all those 18- to 25-year-olds who watch movies for the sake of seeing computer effects. Played by Justin Long, an amiable performer best known for impersonating a Mac computer in TV commercials, Matt is both a plot convenience and a much-needed bridge between younger ticket buyers and Willis's 40-plus demographic.
As a member of the latter group (and then some), I enjoyed seeing an old guy battle the labor-saving software that now wastes so much of my time. I will also admit that the director (Len Wiseman) did a good job of stimulating my reptilian brain, a part of the body that creationists hold to be merely theoretical. The faithful want me to believe that God must love summer movies, since He designed my nervous system so the frontal lobes could be left idle while the core delights in bursts of pulsing orange fireballs set against an otherwise gun-metal palette. But we must evolve! Thoughts, prompted fitfully and feebly by Wiseman and the screenwriters of record, kept intruding on the sound-and-light show, mostly to comment on the ambiguity of McClane and his nerdy sidekick.
With McClane, the doubleness is familiar. He always mutters about being a tired, put-upon guy whom no one appreciates; but he's also the first to howl with delight, even before the audience can, when he drops someone down an elevator shaft. If McClane were as plain-spoken as we're supposed to think, his motto would be, "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to love doing it." As for reedy, scraggly and bedraggled Matt, I suppose he should have a slogan, too: "When computers are outlawed, only outlaws will have computers." He enters the story as a cybercriminal, taken into custody by the cop who's almost a vigilante. By the end, Matt is almost a cop himself.
Live Free or Die Hard is the boot camp that whips this slacker into shape, for the nation's good and his own. The movie's terrorists, you see, are homegrown, and they operate by exploiting useful idiots ("as Lenin said") such as Matt. Witness the danger within: a lax and disaffected young American, self-righteously critical of public servants such as Fox News. ("Don't you know, it's all lies, put out there by corporate interests!") If Matt weren't carrying important information in his head, McClane might simply beat him to death, as he jocularly suggests doing at one point. Instead, he converts Matt, turning him into someone who respects authority and will take up arms against America's enemies. Or, to use the precise McClanean terms: Matt grows a bigger set of balls.
Which brings us to the not-so-secret theme.