Security goes to the movies: Live Free or Die Hard

In which qualified reviewers look at the film, and nerds look at the tech details

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Our terrorists -- featuring stereotypical Russian ruffians, nerdy computer experts and a smooth criminal mastermind -- easily hack into the U.S.'s vital systems, giving them access to traffic lights, stock tickers and gas mains throughout the country. [Now, there's a dashboard I'd like to see. I love how Hollywood can seamlessly integrate entire national infrastructures -- in its mind, anyway -- but still can't create nondisgusting fake butter for the popcorn.]

The government, natch, is completely ineffective at tracing, preventing or anticipating these attacks. And why should it be otherwise? Anyone smart enough to know how to hack America knows there's more money to be made in actually doing it than in stopping it. [Too true, regarding money, but I love filmmakers' idea that they're the first guys to wonder about the prospects for cyberterrorism. If I were a CERT geek, I'd be storming the box office for my refund right about here.]

Our virtual terrorists start down this dangerous path in an unlikely fashion: uploading a virus to a hacker's computer that causes his C4 hard drive (it's the latest in solid state!) [Write speeds aren't so hot, but the seek times are positively explosive.] to explode with a press of the Delete key, thus erasing the user. [I need this; usually my drives just explode and take my data, making me wish I could die.] Surely there's a less-convoluted means of killing a computer geek? [Yeah, dial-up.] What are they going to do, throw their Marvel action figures at the bad guys? [Most of the geeks I know have an unnatural fondness for explosives and sharp objects; watch yourself, pal.]

That's pretty much the extent of Long's repertoire when he's first introduced as hacker Matthew Farrell. Friendless and isolated in a rundown apartment -- think Neo at the opening of The Matrix -- Farrell spends the first hour of the film being dragged into situations no cop would put a nerd in, complaining about his asthma and blood-sugar level [Oh, that's not a nerd stereotype.], and whimpering as society falls down around him.

Finally, McClane grabs him by the shoulders and shakes some sense into him: "If you were a hacker, what would you do next?" [I thought he WAS a hacker? And isn't that really a better question for a social engineer in any case?] With that simple encouragement, Farrell suddenly transitions to a useful sidekick, predicting moves and producing "mutating encryption algorithms" [!!!] -- his specialty, after all, being "math-based security [!!!!!]." [So he's, like, a cross between Whitfield Diffie, Keanu Reeves and Urkel? I hate Hollywood.]

The dynamic duo is antagonized by a suave, debonair, black-clad ex-government agent named Gabriel -- nope, no fallen-angel symbolism here -- who's missing everything but a goatee to stroke as he gloats of his technological superiority. [I'd actually expect to find the goatee on the hacker, but whatever.]

Though nothing could be more boring than watching a hacker hack [Dude, you're obviously going to the wrong hacker cons.], the discrepancy between Gabriel's style and McClane's creates a certain tension. Gabriel calmly and methodically plots drastic situations for McClane to maneuver out of as he faces off against everything from rush-hour traffic to an F-15 fighter in increasingly frantic scenarios.

McClane’s response to any threat is to throw a vehicle at it -- an approach that lacks subtlety, yet underscores the film's theme. Die Hard 4 is not about the dangers of society's increasing reliance on technology; it's a celebration of the American everyman and his resilience. [Which means vehicle-throwing guys are more American-everyman than geeks? That's what I was afraid of with this movie.] We don't need no stinkin' kung fu or fancy computer know-how or technobabble. [With that attitude, though, we will be needing a high H-1B quota.] The times, they are a-changin', but a good ol' gun has gotten McClane this far and continues to be the NYPD's finest's best friend, right through to the end. The finale is nothing we haven't seen Wolverine do [Now who's geeking?] -- given McClane's apparent invincibility, he may as well have a mutant healing factor -- but it’s still a glorious smackdown, and getting there is half the fun.

The directors show remarkable restraint in refraining not only from any Macintosh jokes at Justin Long's expense [You don't say -- making the Mac guy a security whiz is the funniest thing I've heard about this movie yet.], but also any too-obvious movie-computer clichés. Though no easily identifiable operating systems are apparent, and the software always features easily understood status screens such as "Uploading Virus" and "Insert Decryption," more realistic text would be a lot more boring (and difficult) to read. [More boring than character development in a Die Hard movie?] Though the depth of the terrorists' capabilities may be unrealistic, it's no more egregious than believing that Jeff Goldblum can write and upload an extraterrestrial virus with his PowerBook. [if Independence Day is the Mommie Dearest of nerd movies, surely that moment is our "No wire hangers!" scene]

Willis' age doesn't slow him down, and neither does his supporting cast. Bonnie Bedelia does not return as McClane's ex-wife Holly Gennero, but the lovely Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Sky High, Final Destination 3, Grindhouse) plays their daughter, neatly combining Holly's looks and John's personality. Tim Russ, the Delta Quadrant's favorite Vulcan, plays a minor government weakling [Geek shout-out alert!], and Kevin Smith continues to allow himself to be typecast as the geek he is. [And that is obviously both a shout-out and a chance that Smith is off making money in order to fund his next geekish movie, which would be fine news.]

Live Free or Die Hard is a surprisingly fun flick, with plenty of action and humor -- intentional and otherwise. Despite the PG-13 rating, the film sports plenty of coarse language, and the violence seems limited only from showing each goon's gruesome end, leaving that to our imagination. The blockbuster season may have kicked off months ago, but this film is a solid entry in the summer lineup.

[Thanks, Ken! As for my side of things: Are you a security person with a sense of humor? This could be a good way to watch things go boom for a couple of hours. Otherwise, sounds like it's one you should save for DVD night, possibly with a Demolition Man chaser -- but meanwhile, be ready to field the usual stupid questions from civilians. Not to mention the inevitable I-told-you-so from Mac fanboys who really do think this is a secret pro-Mac flick. Yippee-ki-yay m... oh, you know. -- AG]

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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