Live Free or Die Hard
Director : Len Wiseman
Screenplay : Mark Bomback (story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi; based on the article “A Fairwell to Arms” by John Carlin)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Bruce Willis (John McClane), Timothy Olyphant (Thomas Gabriel), Justin Long (Matt Farrell), Maggie Q (Mai Lihn), Cliff Curtis (Bowman), Jonathan Sadowski (Trey), Andrew Friedman (Casper), Kevin Smith (Warlock), Yorgo Constantine (Russo), Cyril Raffaelli (Rand), Chris Palermo (Del), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lucy McClane)
The toughest thing about Die Hard sequels must be coming up with the new titles. Having eschewed the simplicity of just adding a numeral to the end of the title after Die Hard 2 (1990), which carried the it-has-to-be-a-joke subtitle Die Harder, the filmmakers upped the ante in 1995 by challenging the reluctant hero, NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), to Die Hard With a Vengeance. That he did, but it left a burning question: How can you die hard again after having already done so with a vengeance?
Perhaps that's why it's been a dozen years since McClane last blasted his way across the silver screen, grumpy and recalcitrant as ever. In that time, of course, we had the terrible events of 9/11, after which there was no end of hand-wringing over the future of escapist action movies, especially those of the Die Hard variety that rely on terrorists hellbent on destruction. Of course, those doing the hand-wringing noticed fairly quickly that Die Hard DVDs and videos were flying off the shelves in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, suggesting once again that we love to placate our real-life fears by indulging in Hollywood's vicarious quashing of their exaggerated big-screen counterparts.
The title of the fourth Die Hard installment, Live Free or Die Hard, carries with it a self-reflexive nationalistic cheekiness that suggests the Fox marketing department has been doing its research. It has the same “you've got to be kidding” ring of Die Harder, but for many it will have the authentic flair of something genuinely arousing. The fact that the movie is headlined by a card-carrying Republican will no doubt enflame the pens of leftist critics who will see the whole enterprise as yet another sop to red-state reactionaries, and to a certain extent it is. But, at the same time, Live Free or Die Hard treads neatly on old-school heroics while also throwing barbs at the many faults of the U.S. government, especially its arrogance.
The central threat in Mark Bomback's screenplay is based on a Wired article that outlined the possibility of a so-called “Fire Sale,” a form of cyberterrorism that is just plausible enough to give you pause, but wild enough not to really keep you up at night. The idea is that a team of knowledgeable hackers could systematically disable the entire infrastructure of the United States by taking control of all the computer systems that run, well, everything. That is precisely what the film's villains, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and Mai Lihn (Maggie Q), are in the process of doing when McClane gets involved. He is called in by the feds to pick up a young hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) who may have been involved in the planning of the attack. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Matt had no idea what he was involved in and is now a target who needs to be protected.
Although older and slightly wearier than in previous installments (his marital troubles have finally ended in divorce and his daughter Lucy actively resents him), McClane still has plenty of spit and fire left in him, especially once he's placed in physical danger. He is positioned as an analog cop in a digital world, a canny way of resurrecting his character without altering him in the slightest. McClane's obstinate personality is perfectly contrasted by Matt, played by the Apple Guy himself, who brings his own sarcastic disposition and an anti-establishment “Virtual Generation” perspective. Of course, as a loner, McClane is himself is a kind of anti-establishment hero, albeit of the rightwing Dirty Harry variety, and the only time the movie really sags is when he launches into a prefab speech about the suffering of ordinary Americans. The last thing we need is John McClane pontificating.
Willis's participation in another Die Hard installment was reportedly inspired by a New Yorker who, seeing Willis and his producing partner Arnold Rifkin on Fifth Avenue in the days immediately following 9/11, approached them and asked, “Where's John McClane when you need him?” Of course, there's irony in that question because McClane has never been a conventional action hero. Remember that the first thing we learned about him in Die Hard (1988) was his fear of flying, and at the time Willis was known primarily for his screwball antics with Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting. McClane has always been a grizzled, sarcastic everyman, a reluctant hero who is backed into a situation and then goaded into fighting the good fight. His partiality to Roy Rogers over John Wayne is telling, and not just because it supplies him with one of the most famous action movie one-liners of all time. McClane's righteousness emanates not from some rigid ideological crusade, but out of simple emotions everyone can identify with: fear, anger, and, most of all, challenge. This is why it is always so important for McClane to be in direct contact with the villains throughout the Die Hard films: their war of words doesn't just underscore the physical violence, but defines it.
However, in Live Free or Die Hard, McClane is much more of a cartoon character than he has ever been. His ordinary qualities are quickly discarded as he survives increasingly outrageous action scenarios, beginning with a massive firefight in Matt's apartment, escalating in a car-helicopter stand-off in which the latter is destroyed by jumping the former off a toll booth, and reaching dizzyingly ludicrous proportions when McClane is driving a massive 18-wheeler up a series of highway bridges that are being systematically blown away by a futuristic F-35 fighter jet that has been led to believe he is one of the terrorists. Throughout everything McClane remains largely nonplussed, which is the very opposite of his responses in the original film. He and Matt even have a conversation about just how cool he remains under pressure, which robs the film of some of the giddy kick of the original, which was so crucial in setting it apart from the Stallone-Schwarzenegger action vehicles that defined the '80s.
Nevertheless, Live Free or Die Hard is surprisingly satisfying, largely because it is such an unapologetic throwback to pre-CGI mayhem. Sure, CGI is employed with ample frequency, but not with the incoherent bombast that director Len Wiseman brought to his two Underworld movies. Rather, there is a raw edge to the film's action that is not nearly as compromised as the film's late-in-the-game PG-13 rating would lead you to assume (the other three Die Hard films being unapologetically R). So, while there are plenty of explosions and gunfire, there is one bomb that doesn't get dropped, and watching for all the sudden cut-aways and postproduction overdubs used to remove it can make for an amusing game during repeat viewings.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2007 20th Century Fox