Title: Live Free or Die Hard
Genre: Action, Thriller
The worry was that the twenty-first century had long stolen John McClane’s thunder. How could an old-fashioned, wisecracking good cop compete in a zeitgeist dominated by Jack Bauer and a team of genetically-altered superheroes? Live Free or Die Hard, McClane’s cheerfully ambitious comeback film, comments on this: “You’re a Timex in a digital age,” our hero is told by the fearsome cyber-terrorist villain. Of course in a movie like this, the proposition is almost self-refuting, since McClane proceeds to drive, punch, and shoot through the bad guys’ high-tech defenses. Timex, yeah right. In this — so far the summer’s best blockbuster, bar none — Bruce Willis and new director Len Wiseman prove that McClane and his ilk are not only no less relevant in the age of superpowers and omnipotent PDAs, but are, if anything, all the more badass.
This is not the year’s first attempt to revive the 80’s “one man…” action movie — that honor goes to Antoine Fuqua’s less skillful, perhaps more interesting Shooter, which combined the trademarks of the genre with the anger and distrust of 21st century politics. Live Free or Die Hard is more sanguine — though, not to be outdone, it still throws a few well-timed grenades at our endlessly bureaucratic, do-nothing state — but no less determined to put a modern spin of the genre. Instead of going the Jack Bauer route, outfitting McClane with inscrutably efficient portable electronics, it proceeds to make the technological revolution basically irrelevant: oh, you’re a hacker genius? McClane will kick your ass anyway. Indeed, transcending the power of technology is precisely the point: the nation-threatening conflict is a “fire sale,” in which computer-savvy baddies stage a systematic attack on the country’s infrastructure. Who you gonna call?
For both better and worse, though, the film makes a concession to the era by pairing McClane with young, wise-cracking good-guy hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long). As you might expect, this makes its stance on McClane in the internet age somewhat of a pulled punch: sure, he can cut through your high-tech defenses like butter, if he has one of the ten best hackers in the country by his side. On the other hand, the coupling introduces another great American tradition to the franchise: the buddy cop movie (yes, I know Die Hard with a Vengeance had Samuel L. Jackson, but come on). And while the usually charming Long is a bit of a grating chatterbox here, there’s a nice understated affection between him and Willis, with the latter doing a nice job of modifying McClane’s grim-faced persona to fit the bill.
Actually, that modification might be Live Free or Die Hard‘s most interesting contribution. We’ve always known that McClane didn’t lack a sense of humor — “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” etc. — here he reveals himself to be a bit of a softie, taking Farrell under his wing and having a series of tender moments with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who predictably gets herself in some trouble late in the film. I found myself oddly fascinated with the way this side of him is worked into his action hero persona — he is fond of brutal (and, when aimed at a detestable supervillain, utterly delicious) taunts, and prefers his violence accompanied by wisecracks and sarcasm. The contrast comes to a head in the frightening determination with which he comes after the captured Lucy, and to some extent in Lucy herself, who must be one of the toughest damsels-in-distress of all time.
Meanwhile, Len Wiseman holds up his end of the bargain in the action department, offering a non-stop series of hilariously, wonderfully implausible set pieces. When McClane, attempting to escape in a car from a helicopter, backs into a fire hydrant to have the stream of water knock the ‘copter off course, I nearly lost it. But Wiseman comes through in the more quotidian action scenes, too, and Live Free or Die Hard‘s technical proficiency is mostly up to the franchise standard.
I say “mostly” to preface what is likely to be the strangest complaint you will ever hear levied against a film this big and this expensive: I wish Live Free or Die Hard were more polished. Careless ADR looping and some bizarre cuts occasionally jolted me out of my McClane-induced reverie. Then again, it seems like the sort of inattention to detail of which McClane himself would approve. What a strange summer when an 80’s stalwart blows virtually everyone else out of the water. Not even a PG-13 rating can get in his way.