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.
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 John and his estranged wife. The clever conceits of John's increasingly desperate gambits for survival. And, of course, the electrifying anonymous confrontation via walkie-talkie between John and his opponent Hans, a battle of wits and nerves.
Along with a host of other recent and coming "sequels" to 1980s–era franchises coming anywhere from a dozen to nearly twenty years after their most recent predecessors—including Terminator 3, Rocky Balboa, an Indiana Jones sequel shooting now, 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 that distance offers at least the possibility of 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 Gennero McClane, last seen in Die Hard 2, is still out of the picture; sadly, though not alas implausibly, she and John 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 Lucy 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, John 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 he is, 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 sense of emotional urgency is lost. 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—and 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 Crichton-esque 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. I've said before that watching Die Hard is kind of like 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, but at least by someone with sufficient nerve, skill and luck.
Some suspension of disbelief is warranted, certainly, but push it too far, and we might as well be watching 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. With McClane, we need to feel, at least theoretically, that he 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 Freeis 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.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- When are the means justified or not justified by the ends? Given the gravity of the situation, are McClane's actions in the film always justified? If not, when and how does he cross the line, and why are his actions not justified?
- What makes someone a hero? Is John McClane a hero? What about Matt and Lucy? Why or why not? What does McClane's bitter speech about what being a hero "gets you" have to say about heroism? What about his answer to Matt's question about why he does it ("Because there's no one else to do it right now")?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Live Free or Die Hard is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language, and a brief sexual situation. Gunfire is ubiquitous, and countless victims are shot dead. There is a great deal of graphic and visceral violence, and several villains are crushed, smashed, blown up or otherwise dispatched in grisly ways. A short scene of a couple petting depicts a young woman's clothed breast briefly groped (she says no, and the scene goes no further). Language includes much misuse of the name of Jesus Christ, some crude language and innuendo, and a somewhat muffled instance of McClane's trademark four-syllable obscenity.
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox
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