Anesthetize Is What You Do
Live Free or Die Hard / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | June 29, 2007 | Comments ()
Say what you will about the man’s legal troubles, but John McTiernan could direct the hell out of an action movie, and Die Hard will always remain one of the greats. In the nearly 20 years since its release, much ink has been spilled about that film’s seminal importance in the genre — some of it right here on this site — and it’s all deserved. It was McTiernan (aided by d.p. Jan de Bont) who launched the franchise that launched its own brand of action films, and it was McTiernan who pulled the series back on track as much as he could after the orgiastic disappointment that was Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2. What made Die Hard so special was the way it married pyrotechnics with the utter believability of what would actually happen if one man, even one in pretty respectable physical shape, tried to take on a posse of angry German terrorists/exceptional thieves. Bruce Willis was sublimely perfect in the role, a confident mixture of everything you want to root for in a hero while stripping away the steroidal excess that had overtaken the genre in the 1980s. The first and third Die Hard films offered a grittiness, a realism in spite of the plots, that grounded them in our world and made them that much more believable, and enjoyable.
But the latest entry in what’s apparently just a very spread-out franchise, Live Free or Die Hard, is a terrible waste of the series’ and stars’ potential, a mockery of what the series used to be, and an abandonment of almost everything that came before it. Because here’s the problem: While the first three films all managed to revolve around John McClane, this one does so in only the most tangential and forced manner. In short, it could have been about anyone, at any time. There’s not a single special thing about Live Free or Die Hard that makes it worthy to bear the name of the films that have come before it; the plot, mechanics, and outcome are so generic and interchangeable that it seems they’ve been used a dozen times in just the past few years, and they have. In the ultimate insult, a movie hero whose exploits created a new(ish) section of action pics where a rogue cop gets trapped in a building/boat/bus and must fight his way up and out has become the victim of a clunky attempt to take a generic plot and shoehorn it into the once-fresh Die Hard mold. And that’s a shame.
The opening credits quickly dispatch with the setup: A small group of hackers nationwide is being targeted and executed pretty messily, presumably after doing something bad or getting in bed with the wrong people. From the start, director Len Wiseman brings the same sickening blue-green sheen with which he coated everything in Underworld, resulting in the kind of slick and queasy color scheme that’s quickly identifiable as belonging to vaguely tech-savvy thrillers in modern American film. (It’s a nice coincidence that some of the film’s look recalls Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, another paranoia-based thriller from the modern era, which was written by David Marconi, who co-wrote Live Free or Die Hard with Mark Bomback and, one assumes, a Magic 8 Ball.) The FBI, meanwhile, has been experiencing some security breaches, so Deputy Director Bowman (Cliff Curtis) attempts to round up some hackers for interrogation, and one of the few left alive is Matt Farrell (Justin Long). In order to ensure his safety, NYPD Lt. Det. John McClane is dispatched to Camden, N.J., to pick up Matt, which is when the bullets begin to fly. The still-anonymous hitmen attempt to kill Matt, but clearly haven’t reckoned on the staying power of John McClane, who shoots up the place and saves Matt’s life. McClane’s rescuing Matt is the first major action sequence of the film, and it’s only a few minutes in, but it feels oddly clean and lifeless. Part of this is because Live Free or Die Hard is the first film in the series to be rated PG-13, while the previous three were well-earned Rs, trading in the kind of violence and language and occasional sex that clearly marked them as adult entertainment. But the new film, perhaps in an attempt to pull younger viewers into the fan base, is a muted affair: Most killings take place off camera, and the few shootings that do happen on screen are often bloodless. The reality of the earlier films, particularly the first, has been replaced by a kind of deadened acceptance; McClane doesn’t even bleed that much, and this is the guy who once ran over broken glass to escape terrorists. Everything here has been simultaneously sped up and toned down. There’s far less blood and swearing — “jerk-off” becomes a default insult — but to make up for it Wiseman ups the pace, relying heavily on a handheld camera and flurries of quick cuts to make the action appear, well, as powerful as it used to be. Another byproduct of this is the emasculation and bastardization of McClane’s catchphrase, the iconic “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” which is here almost eliminated; a gun blast obscures the final two syllables. It’s a pathetic fate for McClane, and makes the film feel almost apocryphal, as if Wiseman is cobbling together a story without permission.
McClane and Matt eventually make it back down to Washington, D.C., when the bad guy makes himself known: Secreted in a command center that borrows the set design of every Bruckheimer movie ever, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and his team of hackers begin to tear down the pieces of the information grid holding the country together, playing with traffic lights, power stations, and the New York Stock Exchange until the nation descends into a mild panic, at which point they pirate the TV stations and release a nonsensical video informing everyone that things are going to get bad, or something. This is another fatal flaw in the by-the-numbers screenplay. The earlier Die Hard films, specifically McTiernan’s, hinged upon a villain who was at least smart enough to try and double-cross people: Hans Gruber held hostages to get POWs released when he was actually just ripping off the company; Simon Gruber planted bombs in businesses and schools to terrorize the city, when he was actually just stealing gold from the Federal Reserve for his creditors, and then screwing them over by saying he’d blow it up when really he planned to keep it. But the apocalyptically named Gabriel is no Gruber; he just wants to wreck the grid and take everyone’s info and money so he can … take everyone’s info and money.
So it’s up to McClane, who’s too independent to do anything but tackle the problem head-on, and his sidekick Matt, who’s nerdy and unassuming and a decent comedic foil, to stop Gabriel and save the country. Their efforts to pursue and kill the bad guys lead to some pretty impressive action sequences, though here again Wiseman gets stuck. Live Free or Die Hard is the first film in the series to truly belong to the digital era, and not just because of its recycled hackers plot line; many of the effects shots are CGI-dependant, with McClane and Matt dodging flying cars, among other things. But the numbing barrage of computer-generated gimmicks is nothing new in action movies, and certainly doesn’t live up the fantastic set design and prop work of the earlier films; the subway explosion sequence in Die Hard With a Vengeance worked so well because there was actually a train car being flung through the rubble, but Wiseman’s film is cold and polished and too easily classified as just another flick where an actor crouched in front of a green screen and pretended to be scared by something that would be digitally painted in later. The best action sequences are the ones where Wiseman smartly relies on stuntwork and in-camera effects, notably the fight scenes between Willis and Cyril Raffaelli, cast solely because he’s an expert in the gravity-defying French practice of parkour, meaning he can fly unaided. Seriously. The balletic grace with which he bounces off the walls is almost enough to make up for the fact that many of the effects are the same old thing that have been done to death.
That said, Willis is still plenty entertaining in the role, though he’s been manufacturing the aloof asshole persona for so long that playing McClane is a cake walk. Long is eminently likeable, as well, even if the gag of saddling an older man with a geeky young counterpart starts to wear thin by the hundredth time Long says something in leet and McClane furrows his brow in puzzled annoyance. Still, Long is perfecting the role of the nebbish sidekick who just might get the girl, and he’s good at it. In this case, the girl in question is McClane’s daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who’s pretty and spunky and doesn’t do much except get herself into predictable trouble and provide a thin personal connection between McClane and the bad guys. Olyphant, meanwhile, is lazily efficient as Gabriel; he’s intense and broody and wears dark shirts, but really, any square-jawed, athletic man could have pulled off the part.
Live Free or Die Hard is ostensibly based on “A Farewell to Arms,” a feature story that ran in Wired 10 years ago about the possibility of the country’s infrastructure being hacked in a next-gen war, though really the story is broad enough that it’s really based on the fears people live with every day. The screenplay also deals pretty heavily with pop political references and post-9/11 mindset; at one point, when McClane wonders if the government shouldn’t have agencies devoted to computer terrorism already, Matt answers, “It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome.” But then later, McClane delivers a sermonette about the virtues of America as a country and ideal, as if Wiseman either can’t decide which way he wants to play things or if, again, he just wants to hit all the bases. The political speechifying is somewhat unavoidable, since “terrorist” carries a lot more weight now than it did when McClane stormed Nakatomi Plaza. But it also distracts from the action and characters, which should be Wiseman’s focus. Combined with the senseless and derivative computer-based mayhem, it all becomes a blur, and watching John McClane walk through a world so clearly alien to him is a little unnerving. Gabriel at one point says to McClane, “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age,” a pointed observation that gets at the heart of the film’s problems, namely, that McClane has become a relic, an icon of movies gone by, which is why the world needs his return now more than ever. But Live Free or Die Hard doesn’t herald a comeback. If anything, it could be one of the first nails in the coffin for the series, which has sunk from the heights of its creation to become its own worst enemy: an instantly forgettable action movie.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.