Let’s face it, there’s quite a bit wrong with Live Free or Die Hard.
Everybody’s got one bone or another to pick with the film, and, in most cases, they’re justifiable. Still, Live Free has enough working for it that it winds up being a completely serviceable action flick, just one that sadly falls short of the Die Hard standard.
Since newfound superhuman powers have been awakened within Det. John McClane’s aged physique (more on that later), Bruce Willis’s performance here is something of a different animal. He plays McClane to the hilt, cockier than ever with a plethora of wisecracks at the ready. Coupled with the feats of pure amazingness he performs, it all makes for a hyper-realized yet still more or less enjoyable McClane.
Timothy Olyphant plays the villain role of Thomas Gabriel, something he’s been successful at since earlier, similar turns in Scream 2 and Go. He’s not bad per se, but his character can’t quite rise to the ranks of the other villains in the series. It’s a tough act to follow the Brothers Gruber and the naked tai-chi of Col. Stuart (along with the father from Good Times!), but he does well with what he’s given to work with.
Justin Long isn’t too shabby in a somewhat convincing performance as Matt Farrell, a computer geek unwittingly looped into rogue-hacker Gabriel’s scheme to tear apart the U.S. infrastructure via systematic computer strikes. Farrell and McClane have an interesting chemistry that begins to take on more of a father/son dynamic as the movie chugs along. There’s a scene where McClane watches Farrell with a bit of admiration as Farrell tries to convince a vehicle emergency operator that his father has just suffered a heart attack and that he needs the operator to remotely start the car they’ve broken into. The movie could’ve used a bit more of these subtle character moments.
Supporting turns by Cliff Curtis (who thankfully doesn’t ask McClane if he ever had his shit pushed in), the gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane’s daughter Lucy and Kevin Smith basically playing himself are all fine in and of themselves, but ultimately don’t do much to enhance the movie.
The plot suffers from being borderline nonsensical. The way Gabriel’s weak-ass motives are revealed by Curtis via a stream of breathless exposition is probably one of the film’s more laughable moments. Gabriel’s plan boils down to little more than a repurposed hash of similar schemes from the first and third films: distracting everyone with a bunch of fucked-up shit while the bad guys run off with a ton of money behind everyone’s back. It’s a plot device that’s grown quite stale by this point. This being said, there are still moments that manage to grab your attention. The message delivered by Gabriel to the American public, made up of snippets from the televised speeches of various former presidents, is chilling and an impressive feat of editing. Soon after, another broadcast shows the Capitol building exploding, which turns out to be an elaborately staged hoax. It’s the mere suggestion that our society could be brought down so easily thanks to our near complete dependence on computers and technology that resonates.
One of the biggest problems with the film is in its decision to do away with everything that made us care about McClane in the first place. They went and activated “invincible mode” on our beloved hero, making it nigh impossible to relate to him the way we did in the first film. Die Hard With a Vengeance had already pushed the boundaries of what we’d willingly swallow, but this installment simply assumes we’re all on board with McClane being able to do things that normal people simply can’t do. McClane gets hit by a car in a darkened thruway, at something a little less than full speed! Considering that most men in their fifties these days can’t even go to the corner store without chipping a bone or shattering a femur in the process, stuff like this is simply inexcusable. And that’s not even the worst of it. The infamous McClane-versus-a-fighter-jet scene is something of an exercise in masochism to watch. Burdened with an overload of CGI and plain old silliness, it’s a sequence that is intended to wow us but ironically only manages to bring us back to the very era of 80’s cinematic excess that the first film shied away from.
It’s fair to say that Live Free or Die Hard also suffers a bit from being declawed in order to get a PG-13 rating for theaters. It was a questionable move on 20th Century Fox’s part, especially when you consider how big a part violence and colorful language played in the earlier films. Busting the film down to something a little more family friendly wasn’t something the fans or anyone else wanted. Granted, Live Free is still a pretty hard PG-13, but without the trademark swearing and gory bullet hits, the film feels misplaced inside its own franchise. Fox would go on to release an unrated version on DVD that reinserted gorier bullet squibs and a sprinkling of profanity, but, by then, the damage had already been done.
The action scenes range in quality from somewhat impressive to highly questionable. Early on, McClane is tasked with bringing Farrell into custody, which leads into an extended escape sequence where the pair are ambushed by Gabriel’s hit squad. It’s an effective scene and closer in tone to the previous films, even if some logic gets lost along the way. (Why rig a bomb that blows only if Farrell hits the delete button? Why not just detonate it remotely?!)
McClane continues to do what he does best and takes his pursuers out in a number of inventive, if not necessarily inspired, ways. One guy winds up catching a full blast from a fire extinguisher that McClane tosses at him and shoots, sending the dude flying out of a window and down to the street below with a satisfying thud. There’s another guy that he plants on a rolling desk chair and sends him careening down a long flight of steps. Live Free is peppered with moments like these, where McClane and even Farrell take bad guys out in ways that put a grin on your face.
Then there’s the scene where McClane gets into an all-out brawl with Gabriel’s smoking-hot squeeze Mai (Maggie Q). It’s probably one of the best action bits in the entire film, even as it goes ridiculously and laughably overboard by the end of it. Essentially, the two beat the living christ out of each other in one of the more brutal guy-versus-gal fights you’ll see in a PG-13 flick. After Mai tosses McClane out of a window four or five stories up, McClane returns to the fight armed with an SUV, which he then hits her with with at full speed, sending them the both of them careening into an elevator shaft. And then the fight continues.
While the scene is enjoyable in the way ridiculous action scenes tend to be, it still feels out of place in the Die Hard universe in look, in feel and in content. And that goes for the whole film. The shit on display here is simply too ridiculous, where the other films in this series featured action beats that were at least somewhat plausible. Live Free or Die Hard doesn’t care about the laws of physics, nor does it concern itself with the short-term effects of trauma to the human body. It lives to entertain us but, in the process, loses the heart that made earlier films in the series tick.