Forget everything your high school physics teacher ever taught you, he never met Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) whose exploits in the Die Hard movies over the past 20 years have shown an utter disregard for the laws of gravity. While you’re at it you might as well forget all the conventional wisdom you’ve ever heard about how movie franchises like Die Hard inevitably go stale. John McClane is certainly older (and balder) than when we first met him in 1988 but the fourth installment of this rogue cop’s adventures, Live Free or Die Hard is still able to surprise and entertain.
It’s been twelve years since the last Die Hard movie and—given the technological revolution that has taken place in the intervening years—it’s fitting that John McClane’s new enemies are a high-tech bunch of disgruntled hackers, hell-bent on tearing the nation apart from the inside out. Though he’s living in a digital world, McClane’s preference for explosions, bullets and, when necessary, good old bare knuckle fighting are as analogue as ever.
The stage is set when McClane is assigned the task of escorting hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to Washington DC to be interviewed after an FBI computer security breach. But Farrell is another pawn in the cyber terrorists’ plot to execute a “fire-sale,” a systematic shutdown of the nation’s transportation, finances, and utilities. When McClane shows up at Farrell’s apartment the bad guys are already in place and prepared to take Farrell out. Luckily for Farrell, McClane is still packing his piece and a bad attitude.
Like the other chapters in the franchise, the premise is certainly over the top, but director Len Wiseman is able to take an initially improbable plot and suspend audience disbelief just long enough to create an amazingly pleasing action movie. As his other films, Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, harnessing the realist power of the camera is Wiseman’s mark. The idea of returning the entire country to the stone age with couple lines of code sounds implausible at first but Wiseman manages to take a plot device that should be in a techno-thriller and subtly ease it underneath the world of the eighties action genre.
Of course, being a “Timex watch in a digital age,” McClane is completely out of touch with techno babble. The casting of Long as the Linux-peddling nerd Matt Farrell could not have been more perfect. In Farrell, Long has created a character who is quick-witted and able to match Willis’ sarcasm line for line. The chemistry between them is as explosive as some of the action sequences.
Unfortunately it’s difficult to muster the same enthusiasm for the film’s villains. Most of the scenes involving the bad guys are nothing more than barely necessary plot devices that serve only as segues into the next action sequence. As the evil mastermind Thomas Gabriel, Timothy Olyphant doesn’t really act so much as clench his teeth and spit out awkward one-liner commands. “Execute phase one.” Scene. “Execute phase two.” Scene.
The same applies to the rest of the hackers as well. One henchman’s entire job seems to entail simply informing Olyphant’s character that “the download has reached twenty percent,” before we’re taken right back to a car chase. Though most of McClane’s dialogue is equally economical, at least Willis knows how to deliver.
The Rating Game
Longtime fans will be disappointed that Live Free‘s PG-13 rating (the previous three Die Hards have all been rated R) means that a certain amount “flavor” has been sacrificed this time around in order to appeal to a wider base. The problem with that decision isn’t that there is a lack of foul language–there isn’t a single “F-bomb” in the entire film–but rather there is a lack of realism. McClane’s daughter is kidnapped by a madman and he’s got an F-35 trying to blow him off the face of the earth and somehow he doesn’t let something slip? This from a franchise whose most quoted line is “Yippy-Kay-Yay-Mother[….]?”
For some bizarre reason the MPAA doesn’t frown on violence so the bone-crunching, blood-spilling bad behavior remains intact. The action alone in Live Free makes it well worth the price of admission to see it on the big screen with the surround sound. As far as the more colorful/believable language is concerned, I’ll wait for the director’s cut.
Ultimately, Live Free‘s greatest asset is that it harkens us back to the first Die Hard and reminds us of the barriers that film broke. In a time of invincible action heroes like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Die Hard introduced a new, fallible kind of hero who got whooped every once in a while himself. John McClane was an everyday guy who found himself in a situation with the potential to be great. Willis completely recaptures the original charisma of McClane that first launched his career. Live Free or Die Hard‘s premise of saving the entire nation may be far-fetched but somehow, in Bruce Willis’ capable hands, John McClane allows audiences to believe that it’s all in a days work.