October 2007 -- Live Free or Die Hard. Starring Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Cliff Curtis, Jonathan Sadowski, Andrew Friedman, Kevin Smith, Yorgo Constantine, Cyril Raffaelli, Chris Palermo, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Music by Marco Beltrami. Cinematography by Simon Duggan, A.C.S. Production design by Patrick Tatopoulos. Costume design by Denise Wingate. Edited by Nicholas DeToth. Screenplay by Mark Bomback. Story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi. Article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin.
Certain original characters by Roderick Thorp. Directed by Len Wiseman. (20th Century Fox, 2007, Color, 130 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13.)
It’s hard to believe that Bruce Willis’s wisecracking NYPD detective John McClane has been absent from the big screen for a dozen years. With this blistering fourth installment of the Die Hard series, Willis seems to be laying claim to the “last man standing” title in the action movie genre. Which is appropriate, because almost twenty years ago, Willis and director John McTiernan (who returns as producer on this one) practically invented the smartass tough-guy action flick with their spectacular Die Hard,a film that promised—and delivered—“Forty stories of sheer adventure!”
In the original, ruthless villain Hans Gruber (played by a suave, menacing Alan Rickman) and his Eurotrash henchmen took over and terrorized an L.A. high-rise to loot the Nakatomi Corporation’s heavily guarded vaults. Like clockwork, everything went according to plan—except for one thing they didn’t plan on: Hard-boiled New York police sergeant John McClane was in the building. McClane was visiting the City of Angels on Christmas Eve to salvage his marriage to wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who had accepted an executive position on the West Coast to advance in the corporate world. When the goons started taking hostages, McClane started taking back the building, playing a bloody game of cat-and-mouse with Gruber and his gang.
Die Hard’s premise is “the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
What made Die Hard an unexpected smash hit was McClane’s sheer style. The sardonic cop hunted down the criminals and picked them off one by one, tossing off sarcastic one-liners and four-letter words while laying waste to the building. Audiences thrilled to this rollercoaster ride of a movie, not only for its spectacular action scenes, but also because it didn’t star a muscle-bound hero like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Willis’s McClane was a regular working stiff, a guy who made up for his lack of brawn with quick-witted common sense and uncommon resourcefulness, persevering when all options for survival seemed exhausted.
As he raced against the clock to rescue the skyscraper’s occupants, the no-nonsense McClane didn’t have time to go by the book. Half his battles were against LAPD and federal bureaucrats who did little except to dither and throw procedural roadblocks in his path. His combination of decisive action and impudence resurrected a distinctively American hero type—a throwback to Humphrey Bogart’s wisecracking detective Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon and Clint Eastwood’s supremely insubordinate San Francisco cop, “Dirty Harry” Callahan. By movie’s end, McClane had destroyed half the Nakatomi Tower, killed all the bad guys, saved the day, and won back the girl. What more could we have asked for?
Die Hard’s premise—“the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time”—has been copied numerous times since, in such movies as Speed and Passenger 57. It’s become so formulaic, in fact, that when the third installment in the franchise, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, was released in 1995, the pairing of Willis with Samuel L. Jackson came off more like Lethal Weapon 3-1/2 than a sequel. The fine line between action and comedy, navigated so deftly in the first two films, veered too much into silliness in the third, with the racial-tension subplot between the two leads undermining whatever suspense the movie aspired to build. That, plus Jeremy Irons’s hammy performance as Hans Gruber’s vindictive brother Simon, made for an anticlimactic motion picture.
Thankfully, with Live Free or Die Hard, director Len Wiseman delivers a genuine edge-of-your-seat action movie of the kind that’s been missing from the big screen since Willis still had a head full of hair.
This go-around, John McClane is back and badder than ever. He’s still a formidable S.O.B., still serving On The Job in New York, still barely staying on the wagon, still divorced, and still estranged from the kids. That estrangement doesn’t stop him from tailing daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at her Rutgers campus in the dead of night and forcibly removing her boyfriend from her parked car when the fellow gropes too far below her neckline. (Not that McClane really needed to—Lucy’s tough enough to enforce her own borders.)
He gets a call to drive down to nearby Camden and serve a warrant on suspected computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) and bring him to FBI headquarters in Washington. Just as he’s about to pick up his man, McClane gets pinned down in a hail of machine-gun fire from unknown assassins and barely manages to extricate Farrell.
So the action begins. And the action doesn’t let up for almost two solid hours. By the time the two get to D.C., we learn that Matt is one of eight hackers who had been recruited to write code for a mysterious employer with (unbeknownst to them) nefarious aims. Once they served their purpose, everyone was slain—except Farrell.
The action begins. And it doesn’t let up for almost two solid hours.
As the sun rises, it’s the Fourth of July—and all hell breaks loose. The nation’s transportation infrastructure goes haywire as all traffic signals turn green, causing cars, trucks, buses, and trains to collide. When McClane arrives to transfer his prisoner to FBI computer-security agents, he realizes that Farrell is the only one who grasps the method behind the madness grinding every metropolitan area to a standstill.
“It’s a fire sale,” Farrell explains to McClane and FBI agent Bowman (Cliff Curtis). “Everything must go.” He means an Information Age equivalent of 9/11, with cyberterrorists taking over government computer networks and crippling America’s transportation, financial, and public-utility infrastructures.
In time, the pair discovers that the meltdown is the megalomaniacal revenge plot of übergeek Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who used to occupy a spot high up the Department of Defense food chain. For years, Gabriel had warned DoD officials that America’s computer-network security was vulnerable. To prove his point, he had used a laptop to shut down NORAD. Rather than being given a commendation, though, Gabriel got the pink slip.
Left to his own devices, technological dinosaur McClane wouldn’t have had the savvy even to begin to hunt down the elusive Gabriel. And left to his own devices, wan hacker Farrell probably couldn’t have beaten one of his own collectible action figures in a fair fight. But, thanks to the division of labor and the time-tested sidekick plot device, this temperamentally mismatched team is unstoppable.
Charging through a rapid-fire series of action scenes, McClane is a human battering ram, taking out the bad guys and giving techno-wizard Farrell time to hack into the system and try to undo the damage. What a stroke of casting genius to pair the cantankerous McClane with the Mac Guy from Apple’s TV commercials, in order to figure out the cyber pirates’ next moves and head them off at the pass!
This is a nearly perfect action picture, and just in time, too: I thought they forgot how to make ’em like this. For a movie so preoccupied with computer Armageddon, it eschews over-reliance on CGI special effects, opting instead for a stylized, yet gritty, look that never overwhelms the real with the virtual. Simon Duggan’s adroit camerawork and Nicholas De Toth’s editing hit all the marks, reasserting the brutal aesthetic of the original as the visual standard for action films.
Live Free or Die Hard is refreshingly Old School.
Like Bruce Willis’s forthright portrayal of John McClane, Live Free or Die Hard is refreshingly Old School. McClane is a situational hero, not the mythological “One.” There are no Matrix-styleshots of him plinking bullets out of mid-air as he suspends time through Zen-like mental focus. In many ways, this is the anti-Matrix. When Asian siren Mai Linh (Maggie Q) puts her kung fu moves on McClane, the camera doesn’t pan 360° as the two fighters go into Praying Mantis poses. Our hero just dusts himself off, gets behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer, revs it up, and slams her across the room and down an elevator shaft.
Shortly after he launches a police squad car airborne in order to take out a helicopter, he and Farrell find themselves back on the road. Still shaken after being fired upon by Gabriel’s henchmen, Farrell asks the seemingly detached cop what it’s like being “a hero.”
“You know what you get for being a hero?” McClane fires back. “Nothing. You get shot at. Get divorced. Eat a lot of meals alone. Your kids won’t talk to you. Nobody wants to be that guy.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because there’s nobody else to do it, that’s why,” he replies.
That’s a real man’s answer. Only a naïve boy would set out to do heroic deeds; a man has the wisdom to know that true heroism is revealed when trying circumstances put character to the test. To a cop, being a hero means more than just showing up for work; it means seeing the job through. In the tradition of the best action heroes, John McClane does the dirty work most people can’t or won’t do.
Like last year’s Rocky Balboa, Live Free or Die Hard bookends admirably with its original. More than the previous two sequels, it captures the timeless spirit of the lone “cowboy” with a score to settle.
At one point, Gabriel smugly mocks McClane: “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.” But when he takes McClane’s daughter Lucy hostage, he learns the hard way that McClane is also a ticking bomb.
Millions of fans can only say: Yippie ki-yay!