Live Free or Die Hard
2007Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Bruce Willis
aced with Live Free or Die Hard, in which an improbably sexy computer geek seeks to unleash digital chaos on the United States, what would you guess is its year of origin? The film’s hilariously, knowingly over-the-top title alone suggests an earlier era of muscle-bound, dirt-and-grease action vehicles that have since surrendered to the commercial demands of computer-generated franchises. And what about the searing, implacable menace of technological dependence that composes the film’s sinister dramatic thrust? The white-guy-on-white-guy duel at the film’s heart, a loose dichotomy of relative good versus relative evil, with a violent, grinning cat-and-mouse game board stacked up between them?
This is clearly not a film of this century. The heyday of its species harkens back not too far, though—shall we say to about two decades ago, right around the time the first Die Hard opened in American theaters? That movie, along with a pair of dubious sequels, is the consummate action-hero vehicle, the face of a blockbuster era. Back then it was all about Bruce or Arnie, about big guns, big egos, and big threats to the city, the country, hell, the world. Armed with a .45 and booming single-sentence wit, the threat was never too serious but apparently always serious enough to justify the pyrotechnic slaughter of any number of men who were on the wrong side of the hero.
It’s from this antiquated paradigm that Live Free or Die Hard has emerged, and as out of place as the movie feels, there’s something keenly charming about a John McClain movie in the summer of 2007. Yeah, he’s older and more sedately fitted for the NYPD routine, but this is the same guy we know from before, and the refreshing air of thematic simplicity suggests too much time has passed since we last met. Even in a movie that sees a taxicab used as an assault weapon against a midair chopper, the film’s action is insistently old-fashioned and red-blooded, which means huge jets, car chases, and one-on-one, coarsely choreographed fighting.
Finally. The irony, lost on few, is that this old-school action romp is precisely what we need to breathe a little life into this bleak summer, where more-expensive-still new-age products have led to a saturation of visually identical movies too many weekends in a row. Live Free or Die Hard is at least ten years behind the curve, but so what? It hums along at an appropriately brisk pace, carefree and jaunty, with a major selling point more impressive than its surprisingly ambitious set pieces: the eternally wired Bruce Willis. Dude is older, and he looks it, with a bald scalp and a new loner outfit that’s honestly a bit of a bummer. Even as he throws himself (literally in most cases) into his foes with his boyish charisma, it takes him a few minutes longer to get up after he finishes each job.
Of course, he eventually does, only to repeat the formula as many times as the running time will allow, which in this case is admittedly too many. The evil-doers at his will this time operate at the behest of an ex-government techie (Timothy Olyphant) who fashions some kind of nonsense designed to shut down the country’s computer-based infrastructure as revenge for a past administrative transgression. McClain becomes an unwitting player in the mess when he’s sent to pick up a greasy hacker (Justin Long) who may be able to reverse the damage already done.
Okay, fine, when I say “may be able,” I mean “definitely can.” These details are immaterial, really, because they serve only to provide a welcome excuse for explosions and other modes of machismo expression. Live Free or Die Hard’s plentiful stunts are nicely packaged by director Len Wiseman, who seems almost giddy in their execution after three years of dragging his feet through the bloody pathos of vampires and werewolves with the Underworld films. He seems to care as little about the plot that enables the action as the audience, and it’s mostly just the same, though his considerably less deft hand at storytelling does cause a few hang-ups with the arrival of McClain’s daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose parallel story is neither plausible nor especially necessary.
Wiseman does, to his credit, wherever possible avoid the temptation to indulge screenwriter Mark Bomback’s vague pretensions to make this movie about the war on terrorism. Anthrax and even the buzz phrase “digital terrorism” are thrown around whenever the resident higher-ranking official (Cliff Curtis) gets his plot-necessitated screen time, which is mercifully at about a 5-to-1 ratio to the gun fights. The only other noticeable facet that sets the film’s time period apart from its precursors comes late in the film, when McClain’s signature pronouncement (it begins with “yippee” and ends with “motherfucker”) is conveniently cut off by a gunshot to secure a teen-friendly rating. Cries of creative bankruptcy will not go unheard, and yes, you do begin to wonder how many times McClain can hurl the apparently more family-friendly taunt “jerk off” at his opponents, but there are times when even the most cynical viewer just has to shut up and jive with the fireworks.
Live Free or Die Hard is currently in wide release.