Let’s hope A Good Day to Die Hard is better than this! Cal examines why John McClane’s fourth outing is the nadir of a once great franchise.
Who made it?: Len Wiseman (Director), Mark Bomback (Writer), Michael Fottrell (Producer), 20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cliff Curtis, Kevin Smith, Cyril Raffaelli.
Tagline: “Yippee Ki Yay Mo – John 6:27.”
IMDb rating: 7.3/10.
Live Free or Die Hard was released twelve years after the last outing of John McClane in 1995’s Die Hard With a Vengeance, and the hero is a changed man. Trapped in a digitally manipulated cinematic world controlled by a studio driven by profit rather than integrity, seeing McClane on the big screen again is just not the same. Live Free or Die Hard is Die Hard in name only – the film stars Bruce Willis and has plenty of action, but it is not Die Hard (or Die Hard 4.0 as it was known in these territories). Rather than visceral thrills, a true sense of danger and pulse-pounding excitement, Live Free is an appallingly generic creation manufactured by a roomful of studio executives whose only concern is to reach the widest demographic, quality be damned. Armed with a PG-13 rating, it’s a crushingly bland, forgettable and inexcusably moronic action film which resembles Michael Bay more than John McTiernan. Then again, at least Bay makes R-rated action films like Bad Boys and The Rock.
A computer mastermind, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) looks to bring America to its knees by taking control of all computer systems and systematically disabling the country’s infrastructure. Now divorced and estranged from his children, John McClane (Willis) is assigned to travel to Washington, D.C. to pick up computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) who’s wanted by the FBI for questioning in relation to Gabriel’s scheme. As it turns out, Farrell inadvertently helped Gabriel achieve his goals, and has been targeted for assassination. With armed assassins looking to kill Farrell, and with all hell breaking loose all over the country, McClane pairs up with the frightened young hacker, setting out to stop Gabriel. The mission soon becomes personal, though, when Gabriel kidnaps McClane’s daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Willis went into damage control a few months before Live Free polluted cinemas, trawling Ain’t It Cool News to assure people that the film will still satisfy despite its PG-13 rating. How wrong he was. It’s a far bigger issue than Willis or Fox would like you to believe, as it robs the picture of the immediacy and badass violence which has grown to define the franchise. McClane still shoots the bad guys, but they expire out of frame and refuse to bleed, which actually harms coherence. In an early apartment shootout, for instance, McClane shoots a henchman, but it’s unclear exactly where. Hence, when the wounded henchman continues walking and shooting after reacting to being shot, one must wonder where on earth he was hit. Profanity was eliminated from the script as well, with McClane forbidden from uttering curse words to convey his frustration or spice up his wisecracks. McClane never feels out of his element in Live Free, thus there’s no sense of peril. Director Len Wiseman may be able to stage big set-pieces, but he cannot for the life in him create danger or desperation. Everything feels so calculated and emotionless, with writer Mark Bomback throwing in an action scene every ten minutes willy-nilly to please the teenagers.
Die Hard was a cinematic godsend in 1988, as it was a grounded thriller film in a sea of over-the-top action fiestas. Live Free, on the other hand, replaces gritty action with the exact type of logic-bending spectacle that the original Die Hard provided sweet relief from. When Gabriel blacks out a tunnel in one scene, the drivers for some reason accelerate into the darkness instead of switching on their headlights or, you know, braking. Later, McClane taunts and provokes Gabriel when he’s threatening to shoot his daughter in the head. It’s empty-headed, gung-ho scripting intended to raise cheers from the teen crowd, but mature Die Hard consumers will realise how dumb it is. And I know henchmen cannot shoot straight, but to this extent is ludicrous, with McClane shooting a fire extinguisher in front of armed guards for five to ten seconds… but said guards do not even raise their guns. And then there is the infamous jet scene, which is high atop the list of “Stupidest Action Scenes In Film History.” Yes, McClane brawled on a plane wing in Die Hard 2 and surfed a truck in Vengeance, but this stuff is at least somewhat believable. This, on the other hand, is moronic in too many conceivable ways. It goes on and on, but suffice it to say, none of the over-the-top action beats, no matter how much money was thrown at them, come close to matching the intensity of the final standoff at the end of the first Die Hard.
To Wiseman’s credit, it’s admirable to see action scenes lensed with steady photography, free of the shaky-cam which plagues modern action films. However, editing is often shoddy. ADR is painfully obvious at times, close-ups occasionally don’t match long shots, and continuity looks messy from time to time. Furthermore, while the surface sheen is enticing for teens, Wiseman is tone deaf for atmosphere, place and general grittiness. John is thrown through a glass window at one stage, but only walks away with a tiny cut when it should have resulted in a gushing wound. Plus, compare the ambiance of the police precinct of Vengeance to the glossy, clean-feeling FBI computer centre here. The FBI HQ generally feels like a set created by a production designer beset with “cool” things, while the precinct in Vengeance is simple and believable. Added to this, there’s the corny and trite “passing of the torch” material in the script, another PG-13-friendly addition to try and reach the teens. See, McClane shows Matt the ropes of how to be “that guy.” It’s sickening and out-of-place in a Die Hard movie. Speaking of the dialogue, it’s horrible. Rather than exuberant chatter, everyone talks in clichéd action movie speak, and there are only one or two McClane wisecracks that are worthwhile, none of which are fit to hold a candle to the best quotes from the original Die Hard.
Perhaps Live Free’s biggest sin is the way it desecrates the character of John McClane. In Die Hard, he’s a potty-mouthed, cigarette-smoking, vulnerable and fully-rounded action hero who worries about his chances of survival and delivers a tearful message for his wife. Here, McClane is an unstoppable terminator who marches onwards, killing effortlessly and tactfully abusing Gabriel even though his daughter is a hostage. And it’s a goddamn insult to hear McClane’s trademark “Yippi-ki-yay motherfucker” line being cut off by a fucking gunshot. Added to this, Willis looks incredibly bored throughout, as if he had a terrible time on-set. Kevin Smith – who plays hacker “Warlock” – famously spoke out about Willis’ constant clashes with Fox executives (below), and it shows in his performance; Willis looks depressed to be taking part in this PG-13 travesty.
The supporting cast is woeful. The Die Hard trilogy is beset with colourful supporting characters, all of whom have distinguishable personalities and deliver worthwhile dialogue. Live Free comes up short in this respect. Most awful is Olyphant, a great actor who drops the ball in this crucial role. He needed to be a badass villain able to intimidate and threaten, but he’s a complete fail – he looks like a Walmart manager at the end of a long day shift. McClane deserves a far more dangerous and charismatic villain. At one stage, Gabriel even exclaims that it would be preferable for him to mastermind the attack rather than a foreign terrorist who’ll do worse things. Even the script is aware that Gabriel is a fucking pussy? Long, meanwhile, is purely insufferable, a whiny sidekick with none of the charm of Samuel L. Jackson or Reginald VelJohnson. Long’s chemistry with McClane fizzles when it should soar. The only worthwhile actors here are Cyril Raffaelli and Mary Elizabeth Winstead; the former is a capable acrobat who pulls off some impressive stunts, while Winstead is good eye candy, and she makes the most of her role.
For 13-year-old boys who enjoy Transformers and other such summer blockbusters, Live Free or Die Hard is for you. Literally. Fox designed the movie specifically for you. Enjoy it. Or maybe you won’t, and you’ll see this awful movie for the superficial trash that it is and realise that you deserve a lot better. And do not even get me started on the unrated edition, which adds obvious, phoney CGI blood puffs and a few lines of profanity that were clearly dubbed after-the-fact. Live Free is simply atrocious, an absolute embarrassment to the Die Hard moniker. While watching it, you’ll just keep wanting to turn it off and watch the original trilogy instead. Die Hard 2 may get flack, but it’s head over heels better than this tosh. With twelve years to make another Die Hard, is this really the best they could come up with?
How to ruin a “realistic” action saga in thirty seconds.
- According to Bruce Willis and Len Wiseman in the DVD Commentary, the story originally involved McClane’s son, Jack. Originally, he was supposed to be the computer hacker John has to deliver to the FBI. Eventually that idea was dropped and the hacker became the Matt Ferrell character. It was then decided to bring in his daughter Lucy to keep up the series continuity of McClane always having a personal stake in what happens in the story. Jack will appear in A Good Day to Die Hard.
- Prints were sent out to UK cinemas under the fake name “New Hampshire” – a reference to the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto and the movie’s original title – in spite of the title being changed to Die Hard 4.0 in European territories.
- This film addresses the apparent continuity error in earlier instalments – McClane is afraid of flying in the first two films, but not the third. Here, he explains that he took flying lessons in order to “face his fears.”
- John McClane’s date of birth is revealed as May 23, 1955 when Thomas Gabriel looks at his dossier.
- In the beginning credits when Kevin Smith’s name comes on the screen. The “m” in smith disappears and you see “Sith” for a few seconds paying homage to Kevin Smith’s love of all things Star Wars which also reflects in his character in the movie.
- This is the first Die Hard film without the music of film composer Michael Kamen. Kamen died in 2003. Portions of Kamen’s previous “Die Hard” scores, however, were incorporated into the score by Marco Beltrami.
- Wiseman cameos as the Pilot of the F35 jet. How fitting.