A film review by Craig J. Koban
LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD
2007, PG-13, 130 mins.
John McClane: Bruce Willis / Thomas Gabriel: Tim Olyphant / Matt Farrell: Justin Long / Bowman: Cliff Curtis / Lucy: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Directed by Len Wiseman / Written by Mark Bomback / Based on a story by Bomback and David Marconi
Critics routinely vote the original DIE HARD as the best, pure action film of the 1980’s. I would vote differently. My choice would definitely be the first Indiana Jones adventure, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
Yet, upon strict scrutiny, the first of the DIE HARD films would most certainly be very close behind the first two INDIANA JONES pictures as the best of the 80’s action flicks. Along with Jones, Bruce Willis forged one of the great, iconic action personas of the last twenty years in John McClane.
Right from the get go, McClane was not your typical, muscle-bound, and indestructible hero that permeated action films of the 80’s. He was not some super-human, immeasurably strong brute like Stallone’s John Rambo or Arnold’s Terminator. McClane was a new, refreshing breed of anti-hero, more in the mould of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, but with far more humanistic impulses.
Willis played McClane as the ultimate everyman: he was a flawed, vulgar, dispassionate, and agitating figure and, more crucially, he was an emotionally and physically vulnerable character. When he got punched, he bled, and when bad guys wanted him dead, you sensed real desperation and fear in his eyes. It was McClane’s relative normalcy that made him stand out. He looked less like a steroid induced figure of violence and more like a real cop caught in really bad situations.
Oh, but make no mistake about it, terrorists of many varieties have found him very, very difficult to kill. Only the dismembered knight in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL was harder to eradicate.
Like a little foul-mouthed engine that could, McClane would always take a pounding and still come back to dish out more. He’s the kind disagreeably likeable figure in the sense that if you mercilessly beat on him, he would stand back up from a pool of his own blood and proceed to call your mother a whore. From a perspective of the cinema’s most memorable wise-assed, bruised knuckled, trash talking protagonists, McClane takes top honors. In all of the DIE HARDS - from the first one and its two sequels, DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER and DIE HARD: WITH A VENGEANCE – Bruce’s grumpy, potty-mouthed, and world weary cynic is the main attraction alongside its logic-defying action set pieces.
It’s been awhile since McClane made his way back to the silver screen (twelve years to be exact), but a classic hero like him can only be contained for so long. Now comes the long awaited fourth film in the DIE HARD QUADRILOGY entitled LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (taken from New Hampshire’s state motto: Live free or die). Essentially taking place nearly twenty years since the original, downtrodden and down-on-his luck McClane returns and once again finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has displayed an irreproachably bad knack for getting himself involved in the most severe of circumstances. The first film had him battling greedy German terrorists that were trying to rob a corporation and blow its high-rise to kingdom come. The second film had McClane doing battle with mercenaries and the third and most recent DIE HARD had the hero lock horns with another German terrorist that tried to engage in a monumentally complex scheme to rob the US treasury. LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD takes the villains to the next logical step: Virtual computer terrorists.
As the film opens we see McClane far removed from his glory days of wasting vile criminals at Nakatomi Plaza and instead seems to dabble away in his advancing years as a New York beat cop. Holly, the love of his life and the wife figure that kept him going in the face of insurmountable odds, has long since divorced John’s ass (her only appearance in the film is in photograph form) and his only semblance of a family is with his semi-estranged daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Lucy, you may recall, was that cute little kid in the first one that prayed for her daddy to come out of his battle with terrorists alive. Now she has matured into a twenty-something babe that is the object of every young man’s desires. Well, daddy will have none of that, as a humorous opening scene displays. Note to possible Lucy McClane suitors: Don’t make out with her in a car with an overprotective and hot-tempered John McClane lurking in the background.
Lucy has become so disillusioned with dear old dad that she has even went as far to take her mother’s maiden name (ouch!). Meanwhile, yet another terrorist enters John’s world in the form of Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant from TV’S DEADWOOD and this year’s Jennifer Garner romantic comedy CATCH AND RELEASE), who is a brilliant and maniacal cyber crook. As is the case with Hans Gruber, Gabriel’s motives are purely financial. He has been utilizing many of the country’s best PC hackers to launch an incredibly complex and elaborate plot to blast the U.S. back into the Stone Age. For reasons I will not get into, Gabriel is mighty p-oed at the government and essentially looks to completely shut down – via computers – the nation’s transportation, financial, and power systems and steal all of the country’s money in the process. On a level of sheer, unbridled ingenuity, Gabriel is by far the most inventive and fiercely ambitious of all of the DIE HARD villains. Whereas others wanted money, he wants cash and the entire country to be economically obliterated. Talk about sadistic passion.
While Gabriel plots his Dr. Evil-esque scheme to rule the U.S., McClane gets a call from his superiors to embark on a rather modest mission: he is to drive to Camden and pick up a hacker named Matt Farrell and bring him back to D.C. for some debriefing. Matt is played by Justin Long, the same one from those annoyingly sanctimonious and pretentious Apple Computer commercials; he's surprisingly effective and funny here. Unbeknownst to Matt, he has inadvertently provided Gabriel with some valuable PC Intel that assisted him with his mission to crush the U.S.. When McClane shows up at his door, he is not impressed with him. However, when a bunch of French goons with enough fire power to reduce his apartment to rubble show up, he grows to respect the resilient McClane that much more.
After a sensational gun battle in the apartment, McClane manages to escape with Matt and heads to the Feds, but by the time he shows up all of the city’s traffic lights have gone haywire: Gabriel’s plan has started. Of course, McClane will not let some cyber punk get the better of him, and thus begins a cat and mouse ordeal where John in pure McClanian fashion manages to escape certain death at the hands of Gabriel’s goon squad and becomes a constant thorn in his side. Gabriel grows so increasingly angered by this New York cop that he soon begins to set his sights on sweet Lucy to exact some revenge.
Much like the previous DIE HARD films, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD certainly does not forget to serve up viewers an endless smorgasbord of reality-suspending action set pieces that go out of their way to defy normal laws of gravity, physics, and logic in general. This is not a criticism, but a compliment. Once the film builds up pace, it becomes a pure, unadulterated adrenaline rush of explosions, car chases, fist fights, and gun battles. The DIE HARD films launched the genre that I dubbed "Cinema of Incredulity" where you witness the film’s laundry list of wickedly implausible action scenes with a wide-eyed and euphoric admiration. LIVE FREE certainly is bigger in terms of scale with many of its stunt pieces – and is clearly more cartoonishly preposterous – but they still are nevertheless a real treat to sit through.
There are many insatiably bombastic moments. The early apartment gun battle is spectacular, as is a later scene where McClane uses his car as a missile to destroy one of Gabriel’s helicopters (“I ran out of bullets," he smartly explains). Another fight he has with Gabriel’s henchman…or woman…Mai Lihn (the very sexy Maggie Q) displays a funny and brutal edge (realizing that he can’t match the woman’s martial arts skills, he decides to use a truck instead of his fists against her). All of this culminates to the film’s best – and most ludicrous – action sequence where McClane commandeers a semi, chases Gabriel who has Matt and his daughter in a van, all while Gabriel has tricked a F-35 fighter craft to engage in destroying McClane. Only a man with balls of steel would ever consider playing chicken with a missile equipped fighter jet while driving a truck. Predictably, McClane wins the battle, emerges from the ashes of it bloodied and bruised, offers up one of his smartass quips, and keeps going on to have his final battle with the bad guy. On a level of simple-minded, flashy action spectacle, it's hard not to admire this film.
Yet, the film has issues, as is the case with its woeful predictability. Lucy is just barely developed early on in the film to be nothing more than a kidnapping victim in the film’s third act (ho-hum). A smarter and more intriguing choice would be for her to perhaps join dad on his mission; she definitely matches his verbal tenacity and spunk. Also, these films are only as good as their villains, and Timothy Olyphant’s Gabriel never really emerges as a grandiose and menacing figure. Alan Rickman, William Sadler, and Jeremy Irons were slick, cultured, and subtly scary. Olyphant is a fine actor, but he’s never a plausibly threatening antagonist; relative to the DIE HARD villains, he’s fairly bland and one note. A much more satisfying choice would have been to make Maggie Q the lead villain, which would have given McClane a new type of cunning adversary. Mai Lihn is LIVE FREE’s most ruthless and determined figure whose maliciousness would have been best suited as the lead terrorist. Then there is a cameo by Kevin Smith, whose presence I normally welcome in any film, but here he kind of sticks out like a sore thumb.
Of course, there is also the issue of the film’s rating, which has rarely ever been a reason for a criticism on my part for a film’s relative worth. LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD was stubbornly rated down to a more family-friendly PG-13, whereas all other films in the series were a hard-edged and tough R. Although LIVE FREE may be the most violent films to be rated below an R, the verbal crudeness of its main character has been unsatisfactorily subdued, which only proves the contrived hypocrisy of the MPAA. Showing people blown away is acceptable, but hearing characters utter foul words left and right is not. McClane himself was such a riotously enjoyable scatological figure that dropped endless F-bombs like they went out of style. Here, his naughty words are sugarcoated down to PG levels, which in itself is disingenuous to the character’s impulses. McClane looks like his characteristic self in the film and fights with gusto, but his foul tenacity is all-but-subverted by the film’s rating. When he delivers his trademark line of “Yippie-kai-yay, mother fucker” the last word is unceremoniously muffled by a gun blast. One word: lame.
There are many instances where the film quickly goes from tight close ups to long shots of its characters with some painfully obvious dubbing of dialogue, perhaps to subvert more of the film’s raunchy dialogue. The film’s rating is agitating considering that (a) it was done purely for financial reasons (theoretically, a lower rating means more can attend) and (b) they will eventually release an R rated DVD later anyway…so why not just release it now? As 2004’s ALIENS VS. PREDATOR proved, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD should have known to never, ever take a distinctive R-rated film property and hope that it will work as a PG enterprise.
LIVE FREE was directed by Len Wiseman, who made two categorically awful UNDERWORLD movies. He shows that he is more than equal to the task of making LIVE FREE’s action montages vivacious and energetic. Yet, there are times where he lets his predilection for CG effects drown out the film’s humanity. Part of the joy of the early DIE HARD films was to see the amazing stunt work and the gung ho spirit of its hero, but there are moments where the McClane is less an everyman hero and more a computer generated stuntman ala Batman or Superman. LIVE FREE has advanced the series into the digital age in terms of its story and implementation of its set pieces, and that’s not altogether a good thing. In this film there are too many times where you marvel at the visual effects more than you do at the raw guts and fortitude of the hero.
LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD emerges as a real paradox. As a typical summer/popcorn action vehicle, the film is slick, well tooled, and consummately made. If the previous three DIE HARD films were not around, then LIVE FREE easily could attain the level of an enjoyable – but systematically disposable – action flick. Remove John McClane from the equation and insert another character and actor, and the film still could have seen the light of day. Yet, as a worthy follow up to one of cinema’s most revered series of action films, LIVE FREE is regretfully a letdown. Bruce Willis’ McClane can most assuredly be placed alongside Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, and Mad Max as one of the indelible anti-heroes of the movies. There’s no doubt of that. Yet, with a lackluster main villain, a routine storyline, and a PG-13 sanitizing of the main star that desperately wants to escape and be a rougher R-rated force of justice, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD feels too perfunctory for its own good. Willis is still fun to watch, with his snarling vigor and sly, smirking level of ruthlessness and determination. It's just unfortunate that his McClane is just in the wrong movie here.
GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013)
ranking of the DIE HARD Pentalogy:
1. DIE HARD
2. DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER
3. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013)
CrAiGeR's ranking of the DIE HARD Pentalogy:
1. DIE HARD
2. DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER
3. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995)
4. LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007) 1/2
5. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013)