Although Live Free or Die Hard is known internationally as Die Hard 4.0, the truth is that Die Hard was never really a bona fide series. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was just one really great movie, followed by a host of imitators, a couple of which happened to involve some of the same characters and filmmakers. Temple of Doom and Last Crusade were just Indiana Jones flicks; there’s only one Raiders. (Sorry, Mr. Spielberg, but revisionist DVD packaging notwithstanding, there is no such movie as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
In a similar way, call them whatever you want, the further adventures of John McClane pale beside the original no less than the Try-Hard and Fly-Hard adventures of Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes and Keanu Reeves. (Well, okay, Speed actually holds up pretty well.)
What made the original Die Hard such a unique film wasn’t one thing, but a perfect storm of factors. The insidious, disciplined invading force; the claustrophobic confinement; the emotional as well as physical punishment suffered by the panicky, hesitating, self-reproaching hero, so different from the impassive he-man heroes of earlier eras. The wounded emotional distance and dangerous secret solidarity between McClane and his estranged wife. The clever conceits of McClane’s increasingly desperate gambits for survival. And, of course, the electrifying anonymous confrontation via walkie-talkie between McClane and his opponent, a battle of wits and nerves.
A few of these traits were echoed in Die Hard 2 (Die Harder), and in some of Die Hard’s other imitators, though not enough to recapture the original magic. By Die Hard 3 (With a Vengeance), the formula was exhausted, yielding an in-name-only sequel that could just as easily have been a stand-alone film about other characters (and was probably originally developed that way).
Along with a host of other recent and coming sequels to 70s– and 80s–era franchises coming anywhere from a dozen to nearly twenty years after their most recent predecessors — including Terminator 3, Rocky Balboa, an in-production Indiana Jones sequel, and of course the Star Wars prequels — Live Free or Die Hard feels not so much like the continuation of a franchise as a revisiting of a historic institution, more like the Star Trek movies in relation to the original TV series than a continuation of the series.
In the case of Live Free or Die Hard, directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld), that’s probably a good thing. Like Captain Kirk putting on his spectacles in The Wrath of Khan, John McClane (Bruce Willis) can no longer pretend to be the same man he was twenty years ago, and in that distance is at least the possibility of finding new reasons for revisiting this character. The world, too, has changed, of course, not so much in terms of 9/11 — the Die Hard films were never really interested in real terrorism, only high-tech opportunism — as in the exploding significance of cyberspace as a crucial front in all possible wars on terror.
Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly, last seen in Die Hard 2, is still out of the picture; sadly, though not alas implausibly, she and McClane are divorced. Yet Live Free at least partly recoups her absence by reintroducing a character who had about a minute of screen time in the original film: Lucy McClane, John and Holly’s daughter, then about six or seven. Now in her twenties, she’s played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Final Destination 3) with a spunk and toughness befitting both her parents. Predictably, Lucy’s relationship with her father is as rocky as her mother’s was, and she also goes back and forth on whether she wants to be a McClane or a Gennero.
Wisely, Live Free doesn’t try to replicate the paranoia or intimidation of the first film. Twenty years later, battered by life, McClane can no longer be that panicky, brash cop, and Live Free shrewdly uses his history to advantage, establishing him as a dogged, world-weary old warrior who may still get mad and even desperate, but can’t really get all that frightened any more.
McClane knows that his opponent (Timothy Olyphant, The Girl Next Door) — an arrogant, ruthless computer security expert twenty years his junior — is smarter than McClane, and has the advantage of meticulous planning and surprise. But McClane has experience on his side; he’s played underdog before, and when he rattles his opponent’s chain, it isn’t blustering bravado, but seasoned tactical provocation. This time it’s his unflappable calm that intimidates his brash young opponent, not the other way around.
Somebody needs to be frightened, though, or the audience loses the sense of emotional urgency. So Live Free gives McClane a sidekick: Matt Farrell (Justin Long, Accepted), a young hacker who, in addition to providing technical support to the digitally challenged McClane, freaks out a lot — with good reason. He’s not as engaging or sympathetic as Sandra Bullock in Speed, say, but he gets the job done.
McClane needs him, too. Professedly based on a Wired article by John Carlin called “A Farewell to Arms,” which speculates on the possibility of a coming “I‑war” or information war, Live Free drops McClane into a Crichtonesque techno-thriller about virtual terrorism, a hacker takedown of the infrastructure. In this cyber-battle the two-fisted McClane is something of an anachronism — an “analog cop in a digital universe,” the villain sneers.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t still lots of old-fashioned analog shooting, explosions, vehicular chases, punishing fight scenes, and general havoc. This may be a cyberthriller, but there’s still enough meatspace mayhem to leave McClane battered to a bloody pulp, as usual.
Even the mayhem has been upgraded, as McClane — like James Bond in the new Casino Royale — faces opponents who make flamboyant use of parkour, an athletic, free-form mode of locomotion that involves daring and efficient traversing of obstacles in emergency fashion. There’s also a kick-boxing Asian beauty (Maggie Q, Mission: Impossible III), as well as a bruising battery of large-scale set pieces: helicopter versus patrol car, SUV versus Maggie Q in an elevator shaft, even Harrier jet versus semi rig on an elevated highway.
Some of the violence is good old white-knuckle escapist action, thrillingly well-staged and wincingly visceral; other times, as with McClane’s previous adventures, it seems unnecessarily sadistic. And then there are sequences that go over the top into self-parody cartoon mode, like the most preposterous James Bond stuntwork, or like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s Last Action Hero and True Lies. The Harrier/semi duel, in particular, simultaneously recalls Schwarzeneggar’s Terminator 3 and True Lies.
Ironically, Live Free is much more effective and exciting when it keeps the action on a smaller and more believable scale. In my review of the original Die Hard I compared one of the film’s pleasures to reading those Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbooks; even if you never actually plan to leap from a burning building, say, or take on a high-rise full of gun-wielding terrorists, there’s something empowering about feeling that the thing could conceivably be done, if not necessarily by you, at least by someone with sufficient nerve, skill and luck.
Some suspension of disbelief is warranted, certainly, but it’s crucial that we feel we’re watching a flesh-and-blood human being, not the Terminator, a semi-indestructible machine slogging through a gauntlet of punishment that would clearly rip an ordinary mortal to pieces. That can be cool too, but it’s a different kind of cool. We need to feel, at least theoretically, that McClane could conceivably be killed, that he’s at least capable of being killed. Live Free ventures too flagrantly across that line a few times.
Despite its drawbacks, Live Free is possibly the freshest and most enjoyable of McClane’s outings since the original. The cyber-terrorism angle, though filtered through a Hollywood lens, is sufficiently grounded in reality to be genuinely unnerving, and there’s real adrenaline-pumping excitement, not just expert production values, in much of the action.
For almost twenty years, the original Die Hard has been the standard by which modern action films are measured. Live Free or Die Hard doesn’t rival its predecessor, but it honors the tradition.
Along with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, John McTiernan’s Die Hard defined a generation of action-adventure movies.
Link to this item
It should be said that my English isn’t that good, so please excuse me for any mistakes. I discovered your website through a link from a Brazilian Catholic blog, and I find every once in a while a link to individual reviews or a quote from them on Brazilian blogs. You may even have other Brazilian readers that have already made contact.
I also have the first Die Hard as a personal favorite, and having finally watched the fourth one this week and reading your review, I wanted to share some opinions and information regarding them both. Something that I would like to bring to your attention that I haven’t seen you or anyone mentioning is that the fact that Die Hard and The Fugitive are among the best recent action movies doesn’t seem to be a coincidence: they have something in common, screenwriter Jeb Stuart.
I don’t think I consider Live Free as really superior to the other sequels. In it, Bruce Willis doesn’t even seem to be interpreting John McClane, but his character from Hostage, instead. Unlike you, I think that the fact that his wife went away irresponsibly downplays the good emotional plot of the first movie. The blueish, bleached standard modern cinematography also diverts from the colorful, alive Jan de Bont’s work in the first movie. Not to mention the really insipid music score, contrasted to the wonderful one from Michael Kamen. The production values doesn’t seem to be that good, either. The result is, in average, good, but should be much better.
On the other hand, I definitely agree with you about the fact that the girl who played his daughter was really good and think she was underused, and did a wonderful job reproducing various McClane’s traits. There was also a insightful comment on Barbara Nicolosi’s favorable blog post about the movie, mentioning the “clever swipes at the dime-store anarchism so many people flirt with,” which I think were an inspired part of the script and really score points for the movie.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.