The Die Hard films were the action movies of my youth, a simpler time (yeah, right) when we'd line up to watch the latest game of cowboys vs. terrorists. Blockbusters promised uncomplicated thrills, spills, and, from the audience, hollering and Bronx cheers. Twelve years after Bruce Willis' ever-bloody, ever-unbowed cop John McClane last appeared on big screens, he's back to kick terrorist ass in Live Free or Die Hard. But the world has changed, movies have changed, and I've changed. The bad guy calls McClane "a Timex in a digital world" (is that an insult?), but what about the Die Hard brand in a post-9/11 world?
As directed by my generational contemporary Len Wiseman, Live Free or Die Hard shows at least a superficial understanding of what makes Willis' most fiscally successful films tick: a hissable bad guy (Timothy Olyphant as cyber-terrorist Thomas Gabriel), armies of henchmen (and in this case, a henchwoman), and NYPD cop McClane, reluctantly drawn into bruising fistfights and games of chicken with large vehicles and machinery. Protecting a family member (here, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as daughter Lucy) is always a nice bonus. Above all, McClane must be allowed to crack wise, especially at the bad guy, and most especially over phones, walkie-talkies, and—in 2007—webcams.
John McTiernan's superior Die Hard established a fresh subgenre of action hero in the works, crawling through air ducts and fire-walking over carpets of glass in a forbidding, terrorist-occupied skyscraper. Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2: Die Harder proposed a trashier but still compelling variation in the now-novel action setting of an airport (just try that today—complete with exploding commercial airplane—and see how far you get). McTiernan returned for Die Hard: With a Vengeance, which had manic energy to spare and significant added juice from Jeremy Irons' taunting puzzlemaster and Samuel L. Jackson's freaked-out everyman, a worthy foil for Willis.
Wiseman's Live Free or Die Hard, for my money, slips into last place in the series. McClane's charged with protecting Matthew Ferrell (Justin Long), a hacker and conspiracy theorist unwittingly involved in Gabriel's "virtual terrorism." The fear factor is technology turned against us, a so-called "fire sale" in which "everything must go": traffic controls, the New York Stock Exchange, power, communication (the promising premise derives from John Carlin's Wired article "A Farewell to Arms"). Mass panic sets in as comfort, convenience, and confidence crumble, but McClane isn't one for panic—he's one to go into action, grumbling all the way ("You know what you get for being a hero?" he asks Ferrell. "Nothing...a pat on the back"). But McClane's just venting: he knows someone has to be a hero, and if he's around, it's gonna be him.
Ironically, Live Free or Die Hard is all about hero worship. McClane has his own theme song ("CCR's "Fortunate Son," natch) and catchphrase to cheer ("Yippeekayay, motherf———", artfully obscured in the Dolby mix for a PG-13). His lamentation of unappreciation seems a bit disingenuous: hasn't he gotten enough attention for his exploits over the years? (And post-9/11, doesn't NYPD mean more than it used to, not less?) Neglected or no, McClane embodies the can-do-anything image of the modern man of action, writ big-screen large. His inability to grok computer jargon only makes him more of a common-man hero—the swaggering John Wayne crossed with Bill Murray's quicksilver-tongued deviltry.
And ultimately, Live Free or Die Hard falls down on this blue-collar job. McClane's superheroism in earlier films involved tremendous tests of his wits, bodily limits, and character. This time, each new challenge is like water off a duck's back to McClane. Yeah, he winces for a few minutes after rolling out of a speeding car, and Willis admirably takes a second at one point to register the distaste of killing, but such moments are hiccups in a chugfest of stupefying action. The penultimate climax—in the series of climaxes expected of a big-budget action movie—takes us to a cartoony height reminiscent of True Lies or the end of Mission: Impossible: eye-popping but entirely off the grid of credibility.
The script—which passed through at least three writers, but is credited solely to Mark Bomback—is unforgiveably flavorless. Bomback repeats by rote (even Long's character is a nerdy version of Jackson's wide-eyed tagalong in the last entry) and only rarely locates zesty hero-villain and hero-sidekick banter. Between Ferrell and McClane, it's mostly "Did you see that?!" (the former) and "What?" (the latter), and even Kevin Smith as senior hacker "Warlock" fails to shift the dialogue into a higher gear. Wiseman compensates for this weak tea with the escalating action: impressive parkour from the inexplicably French division of henchmen, kung fu from femme fatale Maggie Q, and gravity-defying vehicleslaughter.
It all adds up to passable action cinema, but disappointingly generic for a Die Hard film. Wiseman, with his tiresome blue filter, doesn't have the cojones of a McTiernan or even a Harlin; sadly, Wiseman seems poised to continue with a rebooted franchise likely to include return visits from Long and Winstead. Maybe they should call it Never Say Die...Hard, but if it's as disposable as Live Free or Die Hard, maybe they should just call it quits.