Welcome back to the Die Hard retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the fourth film in the franchise, Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0 as it is known internationally). This was actually the first Die Hard movie I saw, and as of right now, it’s the newest entry in the franchise that I’ve watched (of course, that’ll change next week when I finally see A Good Day to Die Hard). After a 12 year absence, audiences thought that Die Hard was a thing of the past – could a fourth Die Hard movie give the franchise a second life? Read on to find out…
Live Free or Die Hard started life as an article called “A Farewell to Arms” in Wired, a theoretical piece on how modern day America’s entire infrastructure could be crippled by cyber terrorists. The article was adapted into a movie called WW3.com and was supposed to be released in the late 90s to capitalize on all the paranoia surrounding computers and the Internet in the new millennium. However, the movie ended up getting delayed and then was shelved all-together following 9/11. There were a couple of attempts to get the movie off the ground again, but it wasn’t until the movie was picked up as a Die Hard sequel that it finally gained traction. The modified script went through quite a few rewrites, with writers such as Doug Richardson (who did Die Hard 2), Mark Bomback, Kevin Smith (celebrity geek who appeared in the film itself) and William Wisher. At the same time, two other Die Hard sequels were being optioned, both written by Ben Trebilcook and both titled Die Hardest (remember this, it’ll be important later), but they were passed in favour of the WW3.com script. Eventually the script was retitled “Live Free or Die Hard” as a play on the state motto of New Hampshire, although it was decided that it should be titled Die Hard 4.0 in international markets since they wouldn’t “get it” (that said, as a Canadian, I didn’t “get” it, but there’s no denying that Live Free or Die Hard is a bad ass title… even if the movie doesn’t take place anywhere near New Hampshire).
The film was directed by Len Wiseman, who at the time was a pretty big name in Hollywood, having directed the very successful Underworld (although he had just come off of the major disappointment, Underworld: Evolution). Of course, now adays Len Wiseman is largely considered to be a reboot of Paul W.S. Anderson, since they are both known for making crappy films and the fact that their love lives are damn-near identical. Bruce Willis makes his return, obviously, although considerably more… bald than in previous Die Hard films. The villain, Thomas Gabriel, was played by perpetual up-and-comer Timothy Olyphant (seriously, outside of TV he just can’t seem to get that major break). Playing the role of McClane’s tag-along/”buddy” in the film is Justin Long as Matt Farrell, a computer hacker tied into the terrist attack crippling America. Probably best known at the time as “The Mac Guy”, which actually helps sell him in the role better. Also making an appearance is Retrospectives favourite Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy McClane. She has a relatively small role (basically little more than a plot device) but it’s actually considered her most famous performance. In any case, she does a good job convincing us she’s the utter bad ass daughter of John McClane, despite the limited screen time. Also worth noting is Maggie Q as Gabriel’s lead henchwoman, Mai Linh, who is pretty kick ass, if robotic.
The film takes place in the aftermath of a cyber attack on the FBI. The director of the FBI decides to track down the top hackers in the country who could have pulled this off, but it is discovered that all but one of them have been systematically murdered. John McClane is sent to pick up the last one, Matt Farrell, but a shootout ensues. McClane is forced to protect Farrell as cyber terrorist Thomas Gabriel launches a “fire sale” attack, crippling American society with coordinated, systematic hacks on key parts of the nation’s infrastructure. Of course, it’s up to John McClane to stop the bad guys and save the day…
Based on the above synopsis, it’s pretty easy to see that Live Free or Die Hard has some pretty big problems. For one thing, John McClane has pretty much been transformed from a vulnerable, realistic man thrown into a bad situtation to a T-800. McClane jumps from speeding cars, jumps from a freaking exploding F-35, jumps from an exploding power plant… okay, he does a lot of jumping, but that’s besides the point. McClane gets run through a gauntlet of death and just walks away from it all with a bit of blood and maybe a minor bullet wound to show for it. It carries on the legacy of With a Vengeance, but then takes it to the next degree of ridiculousness with plenty of unbelievable scenes. McClane himself has lost a lot of his character from previous films as well. While he’s still highly invested in his family, his character has basically been boiled down to “smart ass old guy with a gun”. No longer does McClane run from danger, he drives from Washington DC to West Virginia to find it. McClane doesn’t worry about getting hurt anymore, he’ll actively shoot himself to kill a bad guy. On one hand it makes sense for McClane to be somewhat transformed considering how much crap he’s been through over the years, but Live Free could easily be a stand-alone action movie if they just changed McClane’s name and no one would notice.
The film’s plot should also be mentioned for being pretty ridiculous. Many, many articles have been written about how Live Free is basically the apex of Hollywood treating hackers like basement-dwelling Level 99 wizards. In fact, everything with computers in the film is basically just Hollywood cliche – everyone has a dozen monitors for each computer, laptops capable of magically hacking into US government databases instantly, hacking all of the US television networks simultaneously, sexed-up/impractical futuristic work stations for government security workers and instantly finding Farrell because of software analyzing all the voices on radio broadcasts… It’s pretty clear that very little actual research was put up on screen – well, except for when Gabriel manages to remote access Kevin Smith’s webcam, although at this rate that was probably just a lucky fluke (and yes, your webcam can be used to spy on you… sleep tight).
I’d also be making a mistake if I didn’t mention the MASSIVE controversy which was Live Free or Die Hard‘s PG-13 rating. Hollywood wanted to maximize profits on the film, which was fairly highly-budgeted at $110 million, and so cut out all of the f-bombs to avoid an R-rating (since PG-13 films tend to make more money than R-rated ones). Fans spewed vitrol over this decision, since bad language is considered a hallmark of the series, and the fact that John McClane’s own catchphrase is “yippee-ki-yay motherf–ker”… it’s just not something that you can do in a PG-13 movie. For that matter, Die Hard just isn’t really PG-13 material, although the fact that they managed to easily secure the rating by simply cutting out all instances of “f–k” (simply replacing them with more “minor” swear words which actually accumulate to a level equivalent of the first Die Hard) and removing a tiny bit of CGI blood says more about the MPAA’s standards than anything I suppose (the film easily has R-rating levels of violence fully intact, it’s just not bloody/gory). That said, this review is based on the Unrated version, which restores all of the cut language (maybe around 20 f-bombs) and blood, although the differences are really negligible – if you’re a hardcore fan who froths at the mouth at the thought of a Die Hard movie without at least one f-bomb, or hates any sort of compromise, then the Unrated version should sate your appetite in that department.
I’ve been intentionally front-loading all of the complaining in this review, and that’s because Live Free or Die Hard is a hell of a lot of fun. I know I’m probably going to get a lot of shit for this from Die Hard fans if any bother to read this review, but I really like Live Free or Die Hard. Len Wiseman isn’t a good director by any means, but this is probably the second best thing he’s ever done (really only rivaled by Underworld and surpassed by his coup to marry Kate Beckinsale). While the film is totally ridiculous and over the top, literally every single action scene is just plain kick ass. Seriously, I was listing all of the awesome scenes in this movie for the review until I realized that I had written down every single action scene to that point. The movie is ridiculous and fun that it puts movies which are supposed to be over-the-top action fests, like RED, to shame (without dipping into parody for that matter too!). There are so many awesome moments throughout the film that it’s hard to pick a true standout moment (although the car killing a helicopter is certainly the most iconic moment from the film). This is in part due to the fact that barely any CGI was used in the film (in fact, nearly everything that looks like CGI was either composited, such as the scene where McClane and Farrell are nearly crushed by a flying car, or used miniatures, such as the F-35 chase). It is also due to Len Wiseman, er, wisely deciding not to shake the shit out of the camera during action sequences. Bourne was becoming very popular at this time, and so studios were jumping on the bandwagon by trying to emulate its shaky-cam style… but they did a horrible job at it, making many movies just plain incomprehensible (see Quantum of Solace and Battle: Los Angeles). There is a tiny bit of shaky cam present in Live Free, but it is not distracting and plays second fiddle to steady, well-shot footage which presents epic action moments to us in all their glory.
Adding to the fun are the assortment of “talented” bad guys who shake up the action at times. The first of these is the random parkour villain (dubbed “Hamster” by McClane) who flips, shoots and does all sorts of crazy shit, which is a joy to watch in spite of its ridiculousness (even if he’s basically a rip-off of the parkour bad guy in Casino Royale). Maggie Q also shakes things up by kicking McClane’s ass with martial arts in a rather entertaining fight sequence which culminates with McClane deciding to fight kung fu with an SUV (although McClane’s misogynist taunting is a bit off-putting, but I suppose it can be justified in the context of the film). Sure, these characters are pretty flat and make the film all that more ridiculous, but at least they’re far more visually interesting that the faceless goons McClane wipes out in the previous two films in the franchise.
And speaking of goons, Thomas Gabriel’s a pretty good villain. Sure a lot of his threat comes from his unrealistic hacking skills, but it makes him a legitimate threat in the film. In any case, Timothy Olyphant’s performance is quite menacing, even if he doesn’t live up to the same level as either of the Gruber brothers (mostly because the script makes Gabriel’s character somewhat boring). Meanwhile, Matt Farrell is the “ordinary guy”, sort of like Zeus Carver was in With a Vengeance. He’s the character the audience relates to, a sarcastic geek who can’t hope to be as badass as John McClane… actually, he basically embodies a modern day version of the whole “every man” aspect that defined the original Die Hard. Live Free would be much weaker (and far less funny) without Farrell and McClane’s dialogue playing off of each other, representing the past vs the present, a criminal vs a policeman, etc. Of course, Farrell himself isn’t just a foil, he actually gets to use his tech savvy to help McClane, who would be utterly lost without his expertise. Farrell sort of represents the bridge between the Die Hard films of the past and this film, since computers have become ubiquitous since then. There are also quite a few in-jokes in the film which also bridge the 12 year gap between this film and the last Die Hard, most of which are quite subtle. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more, but I noticed that there was an FBI agent escorting McClane called “Agent Johnson”, McClane saying that he was afraid of flying until he took some piloting classes and an off-hand comment about “taking it under advisement”. For my money, this is how references to previous films in the franchise should be handled, rather than employing the Predators or Rise of the Planet of the Apes model where they basically pull you out of your seat and go “HEY! DID YOU SEE THAT? THAT WAS A REFERENCE TO ANOTHER MOVIE! AND WE WROTE THE WHOLE PLOT TO ACCOMMODATE IT!” These were very well-done, subtle references which can easily go over your head and make subsequent viewings more enjoyable.
Live Free is a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it isn’t a proper Die Hard movie at all, but it is a really kick ass action movie. However, if you watched it and would only be satisfied with a movie in the Die Hard mold, then that won’t matter to you. The movie is totally over the top, but it’s consistently and entertainingly over the top (whereas With a Vengeance became over the top halfway through after being relatively grounded in its first hour). The movie’s PG-13, but it’s still quite violent and has a lot of swearing – just no f-bombs in the theatrical version. “Yippee-ki-yay” gets cut off (in the theatrical version), but the moment it happens is easily the best usage of McClane’s catchphrase since the first film. You may not like where the Die Hard series has gone in this film, but this is what Die Hard is now (if my impressions of A Good Day to Die Hard are correct anyway). Hardcore fans seem to hate the movie, but it’s the highest praised film in the franchise since the original.
For my part, I really like Live Free or Die Hard. It doesn’t really fit the Die Hard franchise particularly well, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun and way more consistent than any of the previous sequels (including With a Vengeance, which many fans dub the “only good Die Hard sequel”). If you can get over the fact that it’s a new, different kind of movie with the title of “Die Hard” then I’m sure you’ll be very entertained. If not, then you’re entitled to that opinion, but I can’t say I agree with you or will step down from my own assessment.
7.5/10 (oh yeah, I’m definitely going to be receiving hate mail for that)
Be sure to come back soon for the fifth, and final, part of this retrospective series with A Good Day to Die Hard!