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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