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Live Free or Die Hard (review)

System Crash

Hoorah! John McClane is back! Yippee-kai-ay! Right?

Eh, not so much.

Could be action movies have been ruined in the 20 years between the original Die Hard — which was so brilliant and clever and funny and surprising and pure — and today by the likes of Michael Bay and Brett Ratner and all the fauxteurs who’ve crashed the party and fried our brains with their idiotic Die Hard knockoffs. But no: look back at Die Hard again, even after your senses have been stunned by Bad Boys II and Independence Day, and it doesn’t look dated, and it’s certainly not boring. It’s still fresh and crisp and economical and witty and ridiculously entertaining — we have not become so inured by the spectacle of the White House and the Empire State Building exploding for our viewing pleasure that we have ceased to be entertained by the simple elegance of a brick of C4 blowing up an office chair, if it’s done right. There was no reason why that same ethos couldn’t have been brought forward two decades… and in fact, there’s every reason why it should have been. We’re not just looking for another generic action movie in Live Free or Die Hard. We want the genuine exuberance of the yippie-kai-ay.
Yet this is what they’re giving us here: Generic Action Movie Starring Bruce Willis Cuz You Loved Him 20 Years Ago. Sure, there’s some cool action shit we’ve never seen before: SUV versus elevator shaft! F35 fighter plane versus semi trailer! But any old dumb-as-a-post action movie these days can do that. Live Free doesn’t feel particularly, you know, Die Hardy. Bruce Willis (Perfect Stranger, Grindhouse) looks exhausted, like he knows how tired action movies have gotten, and looks just a tad apologetic, as if he thinks that’s his and John McClane’s fault.

We don’t blame you, Bruce. Could be Hot Fuzz so perfectly satirized the past two decades of the Action Movie that it instantly ushered in the post-action era. Could be there’s nothing left to be done with the action movie at all. Could be it’s time to give it a rest for a while. Twenty years is a good run.

Could be it’s me, and could be it’s all of us. After 9/11 there was talk about how could we ever watch movies about stuff blowing up again now that it was all too real, but that didn’t seem to stop anyone from making them, or us from enjoying them. But this one might be venturing too far from fantasy, touching too close to reality. The big bad guy here, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant [Catch and Release, A Man Apart], a phenomenally talented actor who is phenomenally wasted here), is masterminding a “fire sale,” a wholesale electronic crash of the infrastructure of the United States, from banking and finance to mass media to utilities to the military. He’s one of these comic-booky villains who doesn’t really seem to have thought through his grand scheme, because the ultimate goal he hopes to achieve — which we don’t learn till late in the film, so I won’t spoil it for you — would seemingly be thwarted by the means he uses to get there, but that’s not really the issue (though it would have been nice if he were as clever as Hans Gruber). The issue is this: just the first steps of his plan sends, at a minimum, the entire Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., if not the entire country, into civil disorder. But that’s all subsidiary to John McClane sending a police car flying into a helicopter. I mean, yes, I am all for new and inventive ways of getting stuff to blow up real good, but this isn’t just Nakatomi Tower that’s in trouble here. It’s the entire freakin’ country.

The movie doesn’t forget that. No, it’s much worse: the movie doesn’t care as long as Bruce Willis gets to mouth off to the bad guys before he shoots them. Oh, the screenwriter, Mark Bomback (who also wrote the dreadful Godsend), is fully aware of the fact that his plot relies on gleefully pointing out to us that our national leadership is criminally incompetent and our law enforcement — except for McClane, of course — totally inept: Gabriel is taking advantage of many interconnected weaknesses in national security and defense to do what he does. And the good guys — like Justin Long’s (Idiocracy, Accepted) hacker Matt Farrell, an unwilling accomplice in Gabriel’s scheme now under the protection of McClane — know what the deal is too. The movie has barely started when Farrell sums up how deep the shit already is when he says: “It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome.” In other words, we’re not just fucked, we’re really, really fucked. And as Live Free ends, the metaphoric Gulf hurricane has just barely stopped blowing and raining. The real nightmare hasn’t even begun, no matter how many bad guys have been yippie-kai-ai’ed into hell, but the movie considers itself wrapped.

Could be my 9/11 hangover kicking in again, but that just doesn’t sit right with me. It makes it too hard to get a kick out of stuff blowing up.

And even that might not matter if a modicum of intelligence and wit had been expended on the action-movie plot. One of the first signs that something bad is going down is the simultaneous shifting to green of every traffic light in Washington DC, which causes thousands of vehicular accidents and then instant, total, snarling gridlock… but that gridlock disappears and reappears as is convenient to the plot. High-tech modern stuff comes and goes as required by the script: late-model vehicles have no daytime running lights when this thoughtless mess demands a completely dark traffic tunnel; OnStar works when all other cell networks, landlines, satellite communications are down. Wha’?

Oh, and all of McClane’s snarking? Not that snarky.

But hey: If you’re looking for the latest dumb-but-diverting action movie from the guy who brought us Underworld and Underworld: Evolution and whose next project is Untitled Underworld Prequel, then you are so set, dude.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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  • Fuggle

    Watching the trailers, it seems like they rob the movie of the thing that endeared the original McClaine character to me so much (which waned and kinda waxed again with the second and third movie) …

    In the first movie, he’s no Rambo, no Terminator, no gun-toting superman, he’s just a fairly normal cop. Everyman with a badge and the capacity to bust a few heads, but get truly beat up (not just dirty) in the process.

    And it looks like by Live Free Or Die Hard, they’ve turned him into a generic action superhero.

    You didn’t touch on this part (or at least, I didn’t read it as such) – so I’m curious: is that just the editing of the trailer, or is the character now truly just anoter generic action hero in just another generic action movie (that part is already fairly established, saldy…)

  • Some Dude

    I’m a big action movie fan, but everything I’ve seen lately just seems unengaging. There’s nothing more disappointing to me than an action sequence that’s clinical and boring. I caught a rerun of Die Hard on cable few weeks ago and was surprised to find that it didn’t feel dated. It contains a perfect mix of plot and action.

    I haven’t seen Hot Fuzz yet, but am looking forward to it.

  • http://beerdiary.firedrake.org/reviews/ Roger BW

    Die Hard killed the 80s’ model of action film: all of a sudden you no longer needed scary big muscles to be an action hero (though one-liners were still vital). Or a large-scale threat: never mind banana republics and Afghanistan, this was about a few dozen people in a single building.

    It seems only appropriate that the franchise (ghastly word in this context) become the thing that it destroyed. The question is, who’s going to be the next person to “reinvent” the action film on a small scale?

  • http://www.clayj.com Clayj

    Roger, I think the action film has already been “reinvented”… in the Jason Bourne movies. There, you’ve got a hero who does what needs to be done without a bunch of pithy one-liners and with the reality that he is as human as the rest of us. As I’ve pointed out on this site before, he gets hurt and that affects him for the rest of the movie. More action films need to follow this model.

    I’m still going to go see this movie… the one thing I hate is that the DVD, when it comes out, is going to look out of place with the Die Hard box set I already have.

  • MaryAnn

    is the character now truly just anoter generic action hero in just another generic action movie

    The movie is not very Die Hardy, and McClane is not very McClaney. So the answer to your question is, sadly, yes.

  • http://www.filmjudge.co.uk David

    Something I always liked about McClane is that he, like Indiana Jones, was always a bit… shit. He always seems a little out of his depth, either because he forgot to put any shoes on, or because he’s hungover in a vest. He seems like the last person capable of ‘killing a helicopter with a car’. He did some cool stuff in the other films, but they always seemed like the actions of a man on the back-foot; the underdog. Here he just looks like a generic badass. I guess I’ll have to wait and see – not out here for a few weeks…

  • David C

    I’ve never understood why it’s apparently so difficult to get a handle on the John McClane character in these sequels.

    You shouldn’t be able, by definition, to just pull out a script written for someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or The Rock, say, and turn it into a Die Hard movie. McClane is, and should be, a very competent but very human character – he’s only action-movie-superheroic in, perhaps, his determination and ability to fight through pain (but you know he *feels* the pain.)

    Yet the (still pretty good) third movie was just such a rewrite, and this one certainly seems Generic Action Hero-ish.

    If you’re making a Die Hard movie, you’re blessed with a character who’s already distinctive, to be portrayed by a gifted actor who you know can pull off the part! Why not write to that?

  • Fuggle

    Well.

    I gave in, and went to see it.

    And it did at least do one thing right – it was one of the rare times I’ve seen Fortunate Son used both apropriately and without irony.

    Pretty much a spot on review, sadly.

  • MBI

    But dude… did you see how he killed that last guy at the end? AWESOME. That’s all I came for, I don’t care about the rest of the movie.

  • MBI

    Also, while your review is pretty much dead-on (especially about the 9/11 stuff), I’m surprised you didn’t mention the film’s best part: Lucy McClane! She was awesome, I would have watched a whole movie about her.

  • http://www.clayj.com Clayj

    Also, while your review is pretty much dead-on (especially about the 9/11 stuff), I’m surprised you didn’t mention the film’s best part: Lucy McClane! She was awesome, I would have watched a whole movie about her.

    That would be Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from here in North Carolina. When I saw that she’d been cast as Lucy, I couldn’t help but notice that she really does look like the little girl who played Lucy in the original Die Hard, but 20 years older. The resemblance is amazing.