Hornswaggler | The culture, the humor, a bit of the sports, not so much the politics, and the workplace distraction

Hornswaggle is an alternate spelling of hornswoggle, an archaic word that means to bamboozle or hoodwink. I take my pronunciation from the late Harvey Korman in "Blazing Saddles" --

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists!"

Culture, Humor, Sports
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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Still alive

"Welcome to the party, pal!"

It's been 19 years since John McClane shouted that greeting to Los Angeles police Sgt. Al Powell, introducing him to the mayhem unfolding at Nakatomi Plaza, a rapidly disintegrating modern office tower.

"Die Hard," which chronicled McClane's bid to outlast a team of trigger-happy European criminals who have taken over the building, was one of the best and most successful action movies of the 1980s, the spawning ground of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster. It established Bruce Willis as a movie star, giving him what remains his most recognizable character in McClane, a resourceful New York City cop with a devilish wit and a high tolerance for pain.

Two sequels followed. "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" (1990), set at Dulles Airport, approached the quality of the original at times. But "Die Hard with a Vengeance" (1995) was braindead, saddling Willis with a campy villain (Jeremy Irons) and an addled plot that called for McClane and a sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson) to rush around Manhattan decoding a series of riddles.

By the time the credits rolled on the third installment, the franchise that had distinguished itself with its sharp dialogue and limited field of play had become as lifeless and generic as its various imitators.

Willis, who says he was disappointed by the first two sequels, committed to a third because he wanted to make one that stood up to the first movie. So then it follows that the makers of "Live Free or Die Hard" made a token effort to adhere to the original formula and tether this project to reality, right?

As Arnold Schwarzenegger told a villain in "Commando" before firing a slug into his forehead: "Wrong."

Director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback start the proceedings compactly enough, with a close-quarters gun battle in a New Jersey apartment. By the end, however, Willis is dancing the rhumba atop an F-35 fighter, whose pilot has unwisely decided to show off the jet's vertical take-off capability.

The plot? Let's just say it's ambitious: A team of computer savants strapped with automatic weapons brings the U.S. government to its knees, all in order to access a top-secret facility that stores the nation's financial data and download it onto a hard drive, one that is presumably the size of a blue whale.

The terrorists are also working out a personal grudge. Thomas Gabriel, played with brio by Timothy Olyphant, was a computer expert for the FBI. But he left the agency after the Pentagon ignored his warnings that the U.S. government was vulnerable to a cyber attack.

Gabriel's response to this setback is unusually harsh. Using a small team of experts and exploiting a group of unsuspecting computer hackers, he shuts down transportation systems across the Eastern seaboard, sets off terrorist alerts in the capitol and takes over the nation's airwaves.

Gabriel's assassin's eliminate all the hackers except for a certain Matt Ferrall, whom McClane, now a lieutenant detective with the NYPD, is tasked with escorting to the feds in Washington D.C. They arrive in a capitol paralyzed by Gabriel's nerd patrol, whose members have disrupted the city's traffic signals to create satisfyingly crunchy T-bone collisions.

McClane may have lost the fight against male pattern baldness, but he's still prepared to kick some ass when his bureaucratic superiors aren't up to the job. Since the FBI can't figure out how to track Gabriel down, McClane does it himself, hauling his clean-shaven cranium and new sidekick on a concussive tour of the mid-Atlantic region.

The first stop is a remote area of West Virginia, where Gabriel's karate-choppin' girlfriend, Mia Lihn, is leading a mission to shut down all power east of the Appalachias. Lihn is played by Maggie Q ("Mission: Impossible III"), who is so good-looking that she no longer requires a last name. She does take a fairly serious beating, however, when she squares off against McClane in the bowels of a massive power station.

McClane endures his standard thumping as well, taking his punishment stoicly and celebrating his kills with yelps and jaunty one-liners. Though McClane's bones are made of titanium, judging from the high-velocity impacts he withstands, he is still more or less human, which he demonstrates by limping, grunting, groaning and seeping blood from various wounds.

But despite all the action, "Live Free or Die Hard" eventually starts to feel dull. Where did it go wrong?

The problem isn't the acting, which, like McClane's constitution, is able to withstand all the attacks that a ridiculous plot can contrive. Justin Long, making the leap from Apple ads to Hollywood blockbuster, is effective in his hipster-slacker portrayal of Ferrall, whose technological savvy provides an obvious yet effective foil to the creaky McClane.

Kevin Smith makes a pleasing cameo as a slovenly uber-hacker, playing a specific sort of part, increasingly prevalent in Hollywood, that seems like it was written for Jack Black, only the producers discovered he wasn't available (see pre-Oscar Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Along Came Polly"). Even Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in a hackneyed role that could have failed badly, does alright as McClane's college-age daughter, whom Gabriel drags into the action only to find out, much to his annoyance, that she has inherited her father's talent for sass talk.

The writing isn't the problem either. Despite a few clunkers, the action-movie banter is high-quality.

The real difficulty with "Live Free or Die Hard" is its complete lack of tension. The action, though cartoonish, is compelling enough, but the movie does not contain a single moment of fright or suspense.

The original "Die Hard" thrived on its boundaries, just as the beauty of tennis derives from the limits of the court. The tight scope of action provided for the narrow escapes and neatly choreographed pursuits that are the cinematic equivalent of drop shots and sharp-angled volleys.

The tone of this film, sprawling and slack, has more in common with Pierce Brosnan-era "James Bond" than, say, "The Bourne Identity" franchise, which now embodies the realistic, minimalist approach -- by Hollywood's standards, anyway -- that defined the first "Die Hard."

So as pleasurable as it is to see McClane and his weary smirk once more, the spirit that animated the "Die Hard" franchise appears to have perished. Unless someone has a can't-miss idea for sequel number four - "Die Hardest: Not quite dead"? - it's time to let this enterprise expire.

.: posted by hornswaggler 9:48 PM

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