BY DAN BUSKIRK, FILM CRITIC
Making the phrase “Yippie-Ki-Yay, Motherfucker” safe for the PG-13 world, aging smart-aleck Bruce Willis returns after a 12 year hiatus from the franchise that made him a movie star with Live Free Or Die Hard (or Die Hard 4, but who’s counting?). Unlike Stallone with last year’s Rocky Balboa, Willis doesn’t seem quite as desperate to claw his way back to megaplex screens yet before he disappears into a career as a funny middle-aged character actor Willis correctly guessed it was time for his cowboy cop John McClane to haul out his one-man terrorist busting act for another go around while he still has knees springy enough to leap away from raging fireballs. “You’re a Timex in a digital world McClane,” the villain sneers at our bleeding hero, alluding to the fact that this lone man against a super gang formula has lost the blockbuster battle to assorted C.G.I. netherworlds but Die Hard‘s male-fueled fantasy of gun-toting, mayhem-unleashing adventure seems every bit as sturdy as the unkillable Bond franchise.
And what is McClane except an American Bond, using toughness, quick-thinking and sarcastic rejoinders to foil the ridiculously complicated plots of mad super-geniuses intent on ruling and/or destroying the world. And like Bond the Die Hard franchise is not about following a progressing saga film to film, it’s about throwing McClane into a the same improbable situation and watching him punch and shoot his way out. So while nothing that happens is a surprise (and I’ll spare you a synopsis of it’s techno-terrorist plot) it’s the little details that are telling.
In the first three films, McClane was usually paired with various black supporting characters to give him a little “soul”. No more. I’m guessing Willis’ various harmonica performances have proven him soul deficient, so instead Willis is paired with various young actors to prove that he can still dazzle the Facebook generation. In fact glued to his side is a young computer hacker named Matt that McClane is transporting to D.C. Played by Jeepers Creeper’s star and Mac shill Justin Long, Matt seems to be on hand to squeal oohs and ahhs at every act of derring doo that McClane executes (“there’s tough and then there’s crazy” Matt gushes in a man-crush moment). Rather than winning back his wife yet again (poor Bonnie Bedelia appears only as a driver’s license picture) McClane spends his time between reloading trying to patch up things with his twenty-something daughter and in a particularly awkward cameo it is fanboy fave Kevin Smith (looking less sexy than you may remember him) as the hacker king “The Warlock”. Throw in the young Timothy Oliphant as the latest criminal mastermind (who is far less intimidating than previous bad guy turns by British thesps Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman) and it seems a little like Willis is playing this fourth round against the JV team.
For a film set during the Fourth of July weekend there is also very little flag-waving, in fact, perhaps signalling the leftward slide Willis himself has shown in his recent political asides, McClane is shown entering D.C. with Creedence’s anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son” blasting from the car stereo. His personal politics are still a little creepy though, he seems to enjoy beating up the female villain a little too much (shades of Arnold’s pounding that skinny blonde lady robot in T3), then taunts her boyfriend after she’s dead by calling her an “Asian whore”. Another sign that chivalry is dead I suppose.
The film’s press has really played up the fact that this is an old-fashioned action film, filled with real stunts and real crashes, but they’re gilding the lily quite a bit as all sorts of spectacle and violence here is semi-conspicuously computer enhanced, including a few glaring digital blurs that are thrown to their simulated deaths. Director Len Wiseman is no stranger to digital effects being a veteran of the two Underworld films, too bad his faceless direction is missing the momentum and coherence that John McTiernan and Renny Harlin brought to the earlier films.
Despite being the least effective film in the series, enough of the action set pieces work (especially the opening shoot out in a Camden tenement) and Willis, shaved bald and taking no-nonsense, inhabits this summer blockbuster the way a movie star should. Loud, stupid and short-of breath in it’s final lap, like McClane himself Live Free Or Die Hard overcomes the odds to improbably stick to the ribs like cinematic comfort food.
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Presumably tiring of big American blockbusters is French director Luc Besson. Reviled by many of his countrymen for bringing a Hollywood flavor to films like Le Femme Nikita, Besson has won success in the States with stylish and erratic films like The Professional and The Fifth Element. Besson has favored producing over directing in recent years, finally breaking his sabbatical with the character-driven fable Angel-A. A surprisingly modest film shot in crisp black and white by Besson’s regular collaborator Thierry Arbogast, Angel-A is full of fine elements that never quite add up to much.
Jamel Debbouze resembles on overgrown member of Our Gang as the down-and-out Andre, ready to resolve his gambling debts by jumping of a bridge into the Seine when be notices the uber-leggy Angel-A (Rie Rasmussen) beating him into the drink. He drags her out and this ethereal blond repays his bravery by dedicating herself to fixing his life in return. They make quit a pair, she, looking like a beautiful colt on new legs and him a head and a half shorter with a the type of face rarely seen outside a kennel club. Together they wander around an oddly empty Paris discussing Andre’s self-defeating ways while Angel-A endearingly fucks, fights and scams in an effort to turn her man’s life around.
At a mere ninety-one minutes, Besson’s undeniable visual flair goes a long way towards rescuing the picture but he hasn’t figured out whether he wants Angel-A to be a divine savior, Andre’s repressed sub-conscious of or a romantic ideal woman. While thin and under-written, Angel-A shares a quality with Besson’s earlier work, a visual simplicity that makes his films linger warmly in one’s memory while seeming slight when actually viewing them. I may have left the theater non-plussed but I’ll be darned if those images of the willowy angel and the tree stump of a guy aren’t still floating to the surface days later, like a bittersweet dream I only half remember.