Walking out of Live Free or Die Hard, my first thought was, ‘Man, we could really use another Die Hard right about now.’
Some of you may not have been alive at the time, but the original Die Hard was a landmark because of how it went against the grain of the other action movies of the day. Instead of the incredibly buff, utterly unstoppable Arnold or Sly, Die Hard’s hero was a balding TV star who lost his shoes and was in way over his head when he stumbled on a terrorist hostage situation in Nakatomi Plaza. John McClane wasn’t well equipped and he wasn’t specifically well-trained – he was just an NYPD cop on vacation. What he had was guts, street smarts and a hard-ass attitude, and compared to the demi-gods of invulnerability we had running around in other action films, those traits made McClane a blue-collar hero and real American.
Now, two decades and two sequels later, John McClane has become just another superhuman action star, engaged in stunts and feats that stretch incredulity, demolish disbelief and betray the basic concept of the series. In previous installments we’ve seen a John McClane who had real personal issues and problems; in Live Free or Die Hard John McClane’s biggest character flaw is that he’s too protective of his now-grown up daughter. The man who once tied a fire hose around his waist and made a terrifying jump off a roof and barely believes he survived leaps forty feet off the wing of a crashing Harrier jet, lands hard on an upended piece of an expressway and slides down it as the fireball of the exploding jet chases him. This John McClane gets up, dusts himself off and immediately sees the bad guys he lost fifteen minutes earlier. This isn’t isn’t Die Hard 4, it’s Bald Terminator 4.
Live Free or Die Hard is a big, dumb cartoon, and its frantic quest for the NEXT! BIG! ACTION! SCENE! makes Bad Boys II seem restrained and realistic. I imagine that a generation raised on the Big Dumb Summer Blockbuster will love Live Free or Die Hard; anyone who actually enjoys the franchise will see this as an entry that shares only a title and characters in common with the previous films. It’s not just Die Hard In Name Only – Live Free or Die Hard is like the anti-Die Hard.
Which makes it that much harder for me to tell you that the action in the film is very well directed by Len Wiseman. None of his Underworld tricks are on display here; he’s made a film filled with solid, geographically aware, well-edited action set pieces. On top of that, it seems like the majority of the action scenes are practical and use living stunt people and actual vehicles that really exist in three dimensional space. Sadly, he undercuts this again and again by pasting Bruce Willis into shots (you’ve seen one such moment when Willis and sidekick Justin Long duck as a car comes flying at them), but most of the time Wiseman has made an action movie of the old school, let’s actually blow some of this shit up variety. Of course he can’t resist gimmickry – not only does the villain, whose whole plan involves hacking into computer systems – hire a karate type, he hires a parkour type. You know how the kids love them today. The parkour scenes in particular are well staged and well shot, but mystifyingly separate from the rest of the film – the parkour antics don’t serve any kind of purpose in the plan or even in highlighting aspects of John McClane’s character, they’re just in the movie because other movies have used them.
The action scenes are the high points of a movie that features perhaps the most proudly retarded storyline ever. Right from the very beginning of the movie, Live Free or Die Hard spits in the face of logic, reason, meaning and sense. As much as I devalue the intelligence, talent and moral qualities of many of the people working behind the scenes in modern blockbuster Hollywood, I have to believe that even these money-chasing shitheads MUST have known that this film made no sense on any level whatsoever. The movie opens with a number of hackers delivering code to inscrutable hottie Maggie Q; not long after they do that, a pack of C4 explosives conveniently nestled in their computers explode. When Justin Long’s computer doesn’t blow up, the plan B seems to be coming at his apartment with massive machine guns ablazing. Does no one in this terrorist organization own a silencer?
Of course Long survives the assault thanks to John McClane, who has arrived to take him to the FBI. Why John McClane? Reasons too contorted to bother explaining. Why is he taking Justin Long to the FBI? Upon receiving the codes they wanted, the terrorists hack the FBI computer system and turn it off for two seconds. Huh? All this does is alert the FBI to the fact that someone’s coming at their computers, and they try to round up all known hackers. When a bunch of them turn up subtly EXPLODED, how will the FBI not start taking massive action? This makes no sense for the terrorists from an operational standpoint, even taking into account their ultimately silly goals.
Remember when I asked how the FBI could not start taking massive action? They quite simply just don’t. The terrorists take down the entire US travel system – stoplights, Amtrak, FAA computers – shut down the government, fuck the financial markets and get control of all communications. But the only people seemingly doing ANYTHING about this are NYPD detective John McClane and his new Apple-touting sidekick. The movie takes place over the course of two days (during which McClane does not sleep or eat and seemingly regenerates from injuries that, only a scene earlier, left him bleeding, wincing and limping) but these two are the only ones who seem to be bothering to do anything about it.
But maybe that’s because it’s not a big deal. The US transportation system is shut down… except when the movie needs McClane and friend to travel enormous distances in a moment. The movie jumps from Camden, New Jersey to Washington, DC to Baltimore, Maryland, to West Virginia like nothing. I know these are not massive distances, and that you could travel between all these points easily in two days, but I kept thinking that leisurely drives of a couple of hours just aren’t feasible when the entire infrastructure of the United States is destroyed piece by piece and you’re apparently the only two damn people worried about it.
Of course no one in the US government can even begin to figure out what’s going on, but Justin Long and his hacker pal, played with irritating gusto by Kevin Smith (a guy who officially needs to retire from movies and settle into a nice life of doing conventions and selling figurines of himself), get the whole thing in a couple of minutes. It’s worth noting that Kevin Smith is such an elite hacker that he tries to hack into the bad guy’s systems without even masking his IP address. Smooth move, lunchbox.
What’s the big plan? It turns out that Live Free or Die Hard has the same plot as Die Hard With A Vengeance: start a terrorist attack as a distraction while you steal money. In Vengeance it was the US gold reserve. This one kicks it up a notch: it’s ALL THE MONEY IN AMERICA. At least all of it that’s counted digitally. There’s also a level of revenge for our bad guy, Gabe, played with metrosexual abandon by Timothy Olyphant – he was once a high level government cybersecurity guy, but when he pushed too hard that America’s networks were insecure and that a massive attack could happen, he got smeared and fired. So he’s bringing that exact attack to show all those jocks just how right he was all along!
Live Free or Die Hard attempts the banter between McClane and the villain, a hallmark of the series, but this time it all falls flat. Blame can’t fall on Olyphant, although his villain schtick works better coming out of a European (or a James Bond villain, which is what he really resembles). The fault is all Willis, who is completely unable to connect with his old character. To be fair, it’s not there for him on the page – none of McClane’s dialogue feels like McClane dialogue. But Willis has been making a number of ersatz Die Hard sequels in recent years, and while the characters in 16 Blocks or Hostage never had the full McClane, they still contained more elements than his character here in a reputed Die Hard movie. Willis’ performance is an utter failure even beyond the script; this John McClane isn’t just a different sounding character, he doesn’t have any of the tics or quirks that made him work in previous films. McClane’s not hung over – he doesn’t even get tired. And forget about a clichéd ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’ – McClane rarely seems winded, let alone pushed to the physical edge. All too often it feels like he’s holding back. My theory is that as Willis gets older and less physically sure of himself he’s less willing to play someone as physically vulnerable when it comes to his signature role. Whatever the reason, it stinks.
Weirdly, Justin Long is the best part of the whole film. His character is closer to John McClane – he’s fully aware of being a guy caught up in insane events. The only thing he’s missing is the tough guy attitude, but Lucy McClane, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, has that in spades; maybe if they get married they can have a little baby who will one day be able to be the lead in a REAL Die Hard movie. When Long was announced there was a fear that he’d be a goofy, good for nothing sidekick, and the script really makes him that way, but the actor invests a level of realism – or what passes for it in this Looney Tune – in his character. Long’s hacker isn’t just the butt of McClane’s jokes or trading quips with the ‘analog cop in a digital world,’ but rather he’s the only character seemingly aware of the scale of what’s happening and has feelings about it.
It’s a bad sign for a movie critic when you’re thinking about the rating you’ll give a movie during the movie. In the first half of Live Free or Die Hard, which was filled with unbelievably ludicrous stunts and gags (McClane defeats a shooter in a helicopter by running over a fire hydrant and hitting him with a geyser of water. Totally inane), I was leaning to giving the film a passing mark. It was stupid, but it was competently made and Wiseman showed restraint and even growth. But as the second half of the movie dawned the events onscreen got bigger and bigger and bigger until I wondered if McClane and his sidekick would somehow be rocketed into space to fight in zero G – honestly, the film is on that trajectory in the end. While there’s a strong last minute resurgence and a truly great villain elimination, Live Free and Die Hard never recovers from going so big that it leaves the franchise’s own rules behind. I understand that in each Die Hard the playing field has gotten bigger, but the action needs to stay on a human level. This John McClane should be wearing a cape instead of a badge, and that’s no fun. Like I said, we could use another Die Hard right now.