This fourth Die Hard installment opens with the
Fox logo going dark. We’re meant to take the power outage simply as an
indication of the plot shortly to unfold. In fact, we’re seeing the death of a
series, at least as far as this episode is concerned. Live Free Or Die Hard is
a kindred spirit to bad, blustery Bond movies, not the sharp
and entertaining films of John McTiernan, or even the comparatively pallid
first sequel helmed by Renny Harlin.
Twelve years after the last chapter, Bruce Willis doesn’t
smoke, talk or really move like John McClane. For the peanut gallery, it’s
apparantly enough for him to crack a few jokes and pull off some silly stunts. Bingo! He’s
in character. But you don’t have to look closely to realize this is a different
guy. Barely a New York accent and no sign of the language that grew
increasingly more foul as the going got tough. Maybe they called up John
McClane from Connecticut by accident.
He’s clean-scrubbed, but Willis looks tired. I’m not
surprised, since the plot of Live Free keeps him running from one city to the
other almost constantly, grabbing new cars, crashing them into helicopters,
learning to fly helicopters and dropping in on Kevin Smith, evidently the one
cockroach able to survive this film’s data apocalypse. The idea is that Thomas
Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant, exuding menace but not power — this is the summer of emo) and accomplice Mai (Maggie
Q) have roped unwitting hackers into creating conditions for a Fire Sale – a widespread
shutdown of infrastructure systems and services, so that the United States might be held for
It’s a reasonable plot, though full of generalized dogma
about our reliance on unreliable computer systems. Credited writer Mark Bombeck
(who wants to bet on how many uncredited hands stirred this soup?) has some of the
basics right. Sociopathic, distant villain. Attention-getting tactics. He even
combines Karl and Katya (from the first and third films, respectively) into one
hot, competent henchwoman.
But the absurd technobabble flies thicker than bullets, and
Gabriel is more like the entire trustee board of SPECTRE than even a distant
Gruber cousin. He kills without thought, despite not having any reason to do
so, eliminating any hope of getting us to enjoy seeing him work. His ability to
do seemingly anything can only be stopped by a superhuman adversary, so
McClane, somewhere between pages one and thirty, is forced to step up against
We’ve seen Willis fight on the wing of a plane before –
stretching disbelief – but this time the plane is in the air. He also takes out a helcopter with a fire hydrant geyser, and with a car. Impetuous
disregard for procedure and gutsy physical action have been replaced by the
same spandex feats and leaps of logic
that powered the action films for which Die Hard provided such sweet relief.
So the climactic fight against the villain’s primary
henchwoman isn’t a battle of fists, chains and knives. It happens in and around
an absurd upside-down swing set made out of a crashed SUV and an elevator
shaft. I still don’t know exactly how the SUV got in the shaft – I mean, I know
how it arrives, but it continues to not make sense. The action setpieces are almost always well-executed, but they’re also incredibly dumb and out of character.
Len Wiseman is competent when directing action, and I
actually admire a few of his choices, especially when it comes time to put the
camera far enough back that we can see stuntmen and effects at work. He throws
in some flavor of the year parkour action, and makes it look good.
But he’s tone deaf
for place and atmosphere. Compare the working police precinct of Die
Hard With A Vengeance to this film’s moronically glossy FBI computer
center – has anyone who worked on this film ever been in a government building?
Evidently decorative turbines are all the rage in Washington. I was also
shocked to see that a data storage facility was seemingly designed by Frank
Gehry. The footwork in this film is already beyond basic credulity, and when
every other location screams ‘movie set!’ it’s impossible to take the film as
anything other than a brutal goof.
He also glosses over easy details. We’re meant to believe
that a gearhead computer hacker wouldn’t notice ten pounds of C4 crammed into
the case of his rig? Guys like Matt Farrell install sensors that go off when
their CPU runs a single degree hot. Any number of explanations could be offered
for how the explosives were placed, but Wiseman just coasts by, hoping we won’t
ask any questions in the same way we accept a clean-talking McClane.
In thinking about Die Hard With A Vengeance, I longed
to see a new post-9/11 take on that film’s action; this movie would be as good
a way to deliver as any DVD commentary. But in this universe, it’s like the towers
never fell. Lip service is paid to the effects of terrorism. Farrell certainly goes on and on, occasionally
to entertaining effect, about the dangers of the Fire Sale. But I never felt
like the effects of Gabriel’s plan were manifest beyond the borders of the film
Meanwhile, the McClane/Farrell team-up gets the superficial details of a
buddy picture right – they talk a lot in cars and on the run together – without
any of the compelling back and forth instigated by Sam Jackson. Justin Long at least inflates his one-note character into a believably terrified bystander. He doesn’t carry the movie, but he rarely hurts it, either. Kevin Smith’s egregious cameo is more damaging; he looks wildly out of place.
Devin made the point in his Die Ha_d editorial that
this is truly an R-rated film in PG-13 clothes. That’s not inaccurate. Live
Free is often brutal. Bodies are slammed and thrown; one ends up ground into
hamburger. Some of the stunts look great. In the hallowed tradition of movie
illusions, we’re tricked into believing that the film isn’t pulling any
punches. But I’d trade it all to have Willis talk like McClane, excessive fucks
More effective than anyone else in the film is Mary
Elizabeth Winstead, as the grown-up Lucy McClane. Winstead evidently came to
set after a weekend marathon watching the first three films, and she knows what
a McClane is like. Lucy is tough and clever, and more fun than the clowns
around her. She also wasn’t originally in the script, which implies that at
some point, Bombeck or a rewriter realized that they’d forgotten to write the
main character into the story, and attempted to compensate.
Obviously, given how I’ve spent the past few days, there’s a
point at which I should pretend this movie has a different title, and look at
it simply as an action movie. But then it’s exactly that – simply another
example of a genre that’s grown tired and stale. Die Hard With A Vengeance still stands as a great example of how to properly revisit this series, and if Fox really wanted a Bond movie, they might have at least skewed towards Casino Royale instead of Moonraker.
3 out of 10
Zero Burning Nakatomi
Buildings Out Of Four