Dying Hard: Matt Revisits LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD

by     Posted 1 year, 284 days ago

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[With A Good Day to Die Hard set to open this Thursday, we'll be taking a look back at the first four Die Hard movies.  These reviews will contain spoilers since the movies have been out for years.  Click on the respective links for my look back at Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Die Hard with a Vengeance.]

The longest gap between Die Hard movies was the 12 years between Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) and Live Free or Die Hard (2007).  In the interim, the world had drastically changed most notably because of 9/11 and developments in communications technology.  No longer could terrorism be casually mentioned as a guise for a heist, and John McClane (Bruce Willis) wouldn’t be running around looking for the nearest pay phone.  As Live Free villain Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) says to McClane, “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.”  It’s a crappy metaphor since Timex has been making digital watches for decades, but the sentiment is noteworthy: Is John McClane a relic?  The question doesn’t really matter since Live Free or Die Hard barely qualifies as a Die Hard film, especially with Willis’ bored performance and the PG-13 rating.  Instead, Live Free is best explored as the way a Die Hard movie would approach terrorism if a Die Hard film was directed by a hand-tied fan who didn’t understand the essence of the franchise.

As we saw in Die Hard with a Vengeance, it doesn’t hurt to give McClane a partner, but the personality of that partner is crucial.  Live Free or Die Hard has McClane carting around hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long), whose life is in danger after he unintentionally contributed a world-destroying code to Gabriel.  Gabriel’s plan is to have a “fire sale” where he controls communications, utilities, transportation, and pretty much anything else he wants because computers are magic.  As the world starts crumbling around them, McClane and a reluctant Farrell decide to go after Gabriel, and save the day.  However, Gabriel gets an ace-in-the-hole by kidnapping McClane’s daughter/plot-device, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

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Live Free or Die Hard has a number of key misunderstandings when it comes to what John McClane does.  The top of the list is “John McClane Does Not Save the World”.  Part of the character’s charm is that he’s “The Little Guy”.  He gets put in a tight situation and has to scrap his way out of it.  Even when he seeks out the problem like in Die Hard 2, he’s still stuck in the confines of the airport, and he’s out to save hostages.  Even Die Hard with a Vengeance doesn’t have him saving all of New York City.  When the canvas gets too large, McClane doesn’t matter because he’s clearly not the only one who can save the day.  He’s trapped in Die Hard, Stuart is watching the airport in Die Hard 2, and he’s selected by Simon in Die Hard with a Vengeance.  In Live Free or Die Hard, it looks like every other law enforcement person in the country decided to say “Fuck it.  It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and my grill isn’t computer-operated.  Who wants hot dogs?”

The large canvas also lessens the urgency of the picture since McClane and Farrell are mostly on a road trip, so the film is taking place over the course of days rather than hours.  Even when the first three Die Hard movies aren’t having an action scene, there’s always intensity.  McClane has to keep running or driving fast.  Live Free or Die Hard involves leisurely trips through the countryside where McClane explains that he feels obligated to do the right thing even though his heroism has pushed his family away.  He’s picked his life back up from With a Vengeance, so it’s tough to believe his family would be driven away by heroism.

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It also can’t be his personality since the intensity has all but died away.  Willis seems mostly disinterested in reprising his famous role.  It takes about 45 minutes for McClane to start feeling like McClane again as he survives a brutal action scene, laughs in the face of death, and starts talking to himself.  Then Farrell interrupts by saying how McClane should probably go to the hospital, but McClane shrugs it off so they can keep pursuing Gabriel.  Willis occasionally comes back to life, but this a far more subdued McClane, which isn’t really McClane at all.

The quieter McClane puts all of the comic relief on Long’s shoulder when usually Willis would be the one doing the quips.  But director Len Wiseman doesn’t seem to see Live Free or Die Hard as John McClane’s movie as much as it’s about a fan’s perception of John McClane.  McClane has taken on the status of an idol in the popular culture, and Live Free wants us to identify with the worshiper, Farrell.  We get to hang out with John McClane!  Isn’t that cool?  Not really. We don’t want to be the guy who gets to hang out with John McClane.  We want to be John McClane.  The fanboyism deepens when Kevin Smith comes along as mega-hacker “Warlock”.  Aside from playing into the total cliché of computer nerds all live in their mother’s basement, we’re not watching a character, but a nerd who won a role in a movie.

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In addition to not really putting the focus on McClane, Wiseman doesn’t have much of a villain in Gabriel simply because Gabriel is working from mixed motives.  The dichotomy of a tech-savvy villain against the old-school McClane would work except we get it non-stop from McClane’s relationship with the tech-savvy Farrell.  Therefore, Gabriel has nothing left except being torn between being a terrorist and being a crook.  The franchise is at a crossroads, Live Free or Die Hard wants to take both paths, and it ends up going nowhere even though Olyphant does his best to bring some life to his muddled character.

There are no terrorists in the first three Die Hard movies.  There are thieves and kidnappers posing as or behaving like terrorists, but there’s no ideology.  However, their actions and what they provide as entertainment would be highly-questionable in a post-9/11 world.  In Die Hard, a giant explosion in a tower is referred to as “property damage”.  In Die Hard 2, an airport is taken over, and the bad guy crashes a plane to prove a point.  In Die Hard with a Vengeance, bombs go off throughout New York City.  The curious thing about With a Vengeance is that there had been a foreign attack on U.S. soil by that point, and it happened in NYC.  The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was meant to bring down the tower, but it only managed to kill six people although it injured thousands of others.  But when it’s brought up in With a Vengeance, Detective Walsh tells Simon, “You know what a mess that was.”  No character in a 2003 movie could have gotten away with calling 9/11 “a mess.”

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Terrorism and government incompetence were very real in 2007.  As Farrell tells McClane, “It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome.”  So government isn’t going to save us from the world’s greatest hacker/thief/pseudo-terrorist.  You can feel the hesitance of Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback to make the villain a true terrorist, but they also want to make a real Die Hard movie, so the bad guy has to be in it for the money.  Live Free wants to have it both ways, and it leaves Gabriel feeling like a villain in search of a motive.

Even though I don’t think he’s a particularly good director, I feel some sympathy for Wiseman because you can see that he lacks the freedom to make a true Die Hard movie, but he’s still partially to blame for contradicting his own film’s values.  There’s nothing he could have done about a studio mandate for a PG-13 movie.  People are killed in bloodless shootouts, and the word “fuck” isn’t allowed even though it’s part of McClane’s signature catchphrase.  But the PG-13 doesn’t prevent Wiseman from harkening to the old-school values of his protagonist.  Rather than rely mostly on practical effects and stunt work, Wiseman throws digital cars at McClane and has him jumping off of fighter jets.  The parkour henchman would be a nice flourish if other action films hadn’t already been doing it.  There’s also the ridiculous fight against Mai Linh (Maggie Q) who gets rammed by a car three times before she dies by plummeting down an elevator shaft.  Remember when McClane dispatched a henchman by falling down a flight of stairs?

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More infuriating is the final confrontation with Gabriel makes the helicopter takedown in With a Vengeance look like a masterful resolution.  First, Gabriel says McClane’s tombstone will read, “Always in the wrong place at the wrong time,” even though that hasn’t been McClane’s relationship to Gabriel.  It’s McClane’s life in the first two Die Hard movies, so that’s the writer talking and not the character.  Furthermore, Gabriel holds McClane hostage in the dumbest way possible: rather than putting the gun to McClane’s head or back, Gabriel points the gun into McClane’s chest, which means he’s also pointing the gun at himself.  No one has held a hostage like this or will ever hold a hostage like this.  And then McClane sacrifices himself with a trademark line smothered by the censors as we hear, “Yippie-ki-yay, mother-”*gunshot*.

For all of its many, many flaws, I don’t hate Live Free or Die Hard as much as I’m simply bored by it.  My lack of hatred comes from the fact that Wiseman feels like a fan who’s doing his best to make what he thinks is a Die Hard movie.  Sadly, he lacks the talent and the resources to make that vision come to life.  It’s a film of sad ironies and missed opportunities, but it’s essential in illustrating the Die Hard franchise because it shows what not to do.  There’s value in Live Free or Die Hard.  It’s just not the value the movie would like to have.

Rating: D

[Tonight: My review of A Good Day to Die Hard]

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  • Lance

    Hmm. Well, Live Free or Die Hard may not be the best in the franchise. But honestly, Matt, I think you ought to stop applying the word “misunderstands” to somebody’s choices just because you disagree with them. There are right choices and there are wrong ones, and as a critic you have a right to point out the choices you disagree with, but when you say others misunderstand a character or a franchise, you’re basically making the review about yourself and how you do understand said character or franchise. It’s like you’ve put yourself in the role of a professor, and it just comes off the wrong way.

  • Johnny Boi

    Spot on review Matt.
    Looks like they’re castrating the latest Die Hard too…PG13! Oh well :(

    • nintendo zapper

      its rated ‘r’ dude.

  • Mavro

    4/4.

  • Wega

    Well, I think it has to do with the fact that I already saw A Good Day to Die Hard, but I don’t manage to hate Live Free or Die Hard at all. Sure, the plane was a foolish idea and the parkour thing had already been used, but it seemed to me that the director really wanted to convey the idea of an out-of-his-element hero. And that was ALWAYS McClane. You didn’t mention McClane covering the camera to secretly speak to farrell, or his rant for the nerd ‘toys’. Those are gutsy bets on revamping the kind of humor you say Willis characterization lacks. I don’t think we needed McClane talking to himself on another elevator shaft to get the Die Hard feeling. Also, he WAS in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was sent to pick up Farrell. It all goes from there. I usually agrre with Matt’s critics, and I cannot wait to see him comment the piece of crap this last installment is, but I think you could use the sugestion in the last comment: “you ought to stop applying the word “misunderstands” to somebody’s choices just because you disagree with them”.

  • Bruce LeeRoy Came 2 Check You Homie!

    Look we know it was the weakest out of them all! But It fits he is getting old now and he pulled of an OK performance for it’s faults. But I agree that it’s better when he is confined to one location. This new one will backfire if the keep him in open world for too long. I did see the trailers and pictures they got him in some deep shit!! I’ll give it a chance it’s an action flick that’s been around and still delivers!

  • Jake

    This movie is far more entertaining and FUN than Die Hard 2 is, which is straight up boring compared to 1, 2 and 3. I don’t think DH4 is as great as 3 and it’s nowhere near as GREAT as DIE HARD, but it’s a lot fucking better than 2. If it was rated R, it would not get so much shit from the fans.

    • Jake

      Obviously i meant boring compared to 1, 3, and 4……

  • Diego

    Just to clarify… the cars flying over McClane scene was NOT CGI but pretty old school compositing. FYI.

  • Junierizzle

    I like Lige Free or Die.Hard for what it tried to be- a fun action movie. The main complaint I hear about is that John isn’t playing an.Everyman. Guess what, when you take down TWO terrorist groups you pretty much cease being an Everyman. After that you sort of become a.bad ass. That’s exactly how Willis played it. He wasn’t bored he was just used to it.

    • Diego

      Amen to that bro!

  • J Wilson

    Two points:

    1) The original – and overseas – title, ‘Die Hard 4.0,’ was far more appropriate, and would’ve given people a better idea of what to expect.

    2) This movie – in it’s unrated form – is more fun, and has a better replay value, than Die Hard’s 2 and 3. I suppose that’s subjective, but once you know about the special forces guys being in on the heist in 2, and the school bomb being a decoy in 3, over a third of those movies are unsuspensful and (dare I say?) boring.

    Food for thought.

  • Scurvy

    Quite the thorough review and yet no mention of Bruce Willis fighting a F-22 Raptor?!

  • indy42

    Two things:

    1) The cars being thrown at McClane weren’t digital, they were practical, with McClane and Farrell added with green screen. To be sure, it looked a hell of a lot better than the grenade-explosion scene from Die Hard 2.

    2) Seems you missed it, but Gabriel wasn’t just pointing the gun at McClane’s chest, he was pushing the gun into McClane’s gunshot wound from earlier. Pretty nasty stuff, actually.

  • indy42

    The cars being thrown at McClane weren’t digital, they were practical, with McClane and Farrell added with green screen. To be sure, it looked a hell of a lot better than the grenade-explosion scene from Die Hard 2.

    Also, seems you missed it, but Gabriel wasn’t just pointing the gun at McClane’s chest, he was pushing the gun into McClane’s gunshot wound from earlier. Pretty nasty stuff, actually.

    • indy42

      ….And double post.

      *self-facepalm*

      • J Wilson

        Happens, mate. The tragic flaw of this otherwise decent site.

  • Jake Doe

    “Live Free is best explored as the way a Die Hard movie would approach terrorism if a Die Hard film was directed by a hand-tied fan who didn’t understand the essence of the franchise.” – Matt Goldberg

    Let me take a wile guess Matty…….YOU understand the “essense” of the franchise. Seriously, fuck off. Your poor excuse for writing just some across as condescending and obnoxious. SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP!

    I would love LOVE to see you make a movie, not cause I think you have actually have any shred talent, but because I would love to see what kind of shitty movie you’d make. You can apply your elitest knowledge of film and make your own movie then write a review shitting all over it, seeing is how thats all you know how to do.

    -Biggest fan

    • J Wilson

      I figure he’s entitled to his opinion, though you make a point about film theory guys. There’s a reason they don’t actually produce films.

      That said, Die Hard 4 gets an A- from me.

      (For context, 1 gets an A+, 2 gets a D-, and 3 gets a B)

    • peopleRcunts

      People like you are cunts. You and 90% of people who come here just to complain about his reviews are the scum of the universe.

      HONESTLY how can you complain at a bad review for this film? This film was directed by Len FUCKING WISEMAN one of the worst directors out there. Who makes the female role in Total Recall larger just for his shit of an actress wife who can’t even act!

      Go fuck yourself. If you can write better reviews then start your own fucking site.

      Do I agree with all his reviews? No, but people have their own opinions numskull. Get fucking over it. And stop coming here fuelling more internet hate for no reason what so ever. You are only doing it because you have seen other people hate on him and think it’s cool.

      Go die in a toilet.

      • J Wilson

        I actually like Matt’s reviews, so I’ll assume you’re talking to the other guy.

  • buzzfunk

    The only reason the movie did not work for me was, Justin Long.

    The dude is a bust. Terrible actor. Bad casting. IMO.

    Other then that, it was fine. Good action and whatnot.

  • Northern Star

    I agree with the sentiment expressed in the article that it’s difficult to make a popcorn movie about terrorism in a post-9/11 environment… had this film been shot BEFORE that terrible September morning in 2001, I have no doubt it would have been considerably more violent and the villains would have had no hesitations killing scores of innocents, but that is simply not going to happen in a big studio film nowadays… it’s why James Cameron decided not to make ‘True Lies 2′ and also why (among other reasons) ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ should have been – and for me is – the last ‘Die Hard’ film.

  • RorshachLives!

    ‘Die Hard 4.0′ should have been a full-blooded and ferocious face-off between an old school brawler of a cop (McClane) and a techno-terrorist group intent on widespread death and destruction and bringing the entire U.S. to it’s knees… with a hard R rating and lashings of ultra-violence for maximum effect! Instead we got a tame and toothless PG-13 paper tiger with no bite and a useless hacker sidekick to clog up the works… ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ should have been the last one, but had this one been the shit, it would and indeed SHOULD have ended the franchise on a high note!

  • Vance

    This was my second favorite DIE HARD film, behind the original. I’m a behind-the-scenes junkie, and if the reviewer had bothered to watch them, he would know that Wiseman took great pains to do the stunts in camera, whenever possible. Yes, even the “You just killed a helicopter – with a car!” scene was pretty much practical.

    Maybe it is just the fact that it is the newest, but LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD is the one I can still watch repeatedly and enjoy.

  • Chris

    This movie was abysmal, Matt has it right. It had absolutely no soul, despite whatever Len Wiseman tried to do as a fan. It wasn’t JUST the PG-13 rating (though that pretty much clipped its wings), but the entire idea of John McClane had been stretched to the very edge of credulity. If the second film was a cash grab repetition, the third one was a brilliant way of mirroring the first, while remaining totally fresh. It took the fight to John’s home turf (NY being reversal on LA), made the venue bigger, and the villain a direct link to Hans. It was a personal vendetta and repercussions of the first film that made the story and grander scale work. The fourh film simply dumps McClane in another big city setting and involves him in a situation which he has nothing to do with other than being around. That seems, at a glance, like the McClane story, but it’s just a generic glossing over. It’s the most egregious example of Hollywood’s “bigger is better” mentality. It’s hollow and becomes increasingly more ridiculous over the course of the film. People like to whine about McClane jumping onto the ship in Vengeance, but that’s nothing compared to the ludicrousness of him standing on a fighter jet. Len Wiseman may have tried his best to recreate what he thought was Die Hard, but it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t on point. The guy has never made a good film, and the best thing I can say about him is that, at this point, he’s lucky the newest Die Hard is so awful, as it makes his look good by comparison.

  • scarpredator

    Watch the unrated cut of the film, and you will be much happier with the final result. It’s not watered down, and no gunshot censoring the “Yippee-kai-yay” line.

  • scarpredator

    Watch the unrated cut of the film, and you will be much happier with the final result. It\’s not watered down, and no gunshot censoring the \"Yippee-kai-yay\" line.

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