Near the end of Live Free or Die Hard I noticed something peculiar. The baby-faced villain, played by Timothy Olphant, while talking of his master plan, says something about sending America “back to the Stone Age.” I pondered for a quick second, turned to a friend watching with me and asked “…Is this GoldenEye?”
He pondered for a second too, then turned to me. “Yeah… you’re right!”
Oh ho! Of course I am. |:3
Live Free or Die Hard is an action flick about John McClane, an outdated action hero who copes with the modern world of computer-savvy nerds, daughers with training bras, and the woes of operating a cell phone… a lot like James Bond adjusting to a political correct world without a Cold War. Live Free or Die Hard won’t win any awards for originality. That saying itself is a cliche… It’s a bundle of action movie cliches, a pastiche, through and through, of a lot of other things, borrowing liberally from the outside realm of videogames and television, notably the nonsensical Harrier jet-battling world of Metal Gear Solid 2 and the exhaustive “Give me back my daughter!” world of FOX show 24.
Gosh, I sure say “world” a lot!
It’s like the filmmakers, the fanfictiony dopes behind Underworld and Underworld 2, made a long list of every cool action/spy thing they could stuff in a movie, then did so. The director, Len Wiseman, admitted it was tough to figure out exciting new action scenes involving cars and bullets. Who can blame him? We’ve seen it all by now.
So, pastiche, mixing and matching, is the way to go. Live Free or Die Hard, despite the ribaldrous studio-concentrated effort to defang John McClane, repackages all the outrageous stunts, special effects and cliches we’re familiar with and presents them as new again. It’s 1985 by way of 1995, finally landing in 2007 and, miraculously, it lands on its feet, a bit battered, a bit bloody but entertaining nonetheless.
The movie’s foremost strength is Bruce Willis back as 80s action legend John McClane. As it was back then, much of the movie is him dealing with his peers though this time his peers are a little more competent and McClane himself is a bit out of his league now. He’s a fossil when it comes to dealing with all these younger folk with their iBooks and Xbox 360s (Gears of War mugs for the camera twice) but when it comes to busting heads and driving cars into motorcylces, he’s an ace. Visibly aged (with a subtle neck waddle), he’s still not all that eager to take up the hero’s mantle but now he knows he has to. This is a more confident McClane, one who faced his fears over the years and he slips back into action easily, destroying plenty of vehicles along the way, flinging the occasional New Jersey-raised insult at a deserving baddie.
One of which, aimed at the sometimes yummy, sometimes mannish Maggie Q, is decidedly racist. Granted, she was aiding a plot that would cripple America and given McClane’s Vietnam era origins it’s appropriate – he was pretty vicious to Alan Rickman’s Eurotrash henchmen as well – but you would think McClane, a xenophobic blue collar Reaganite, would be an anachronism by now. Well, cruel as it was, the crowd loved the line. I imagine most will. It’s not a stretch to believe McClane voted for Bush. Twice. He’s designed to represent the majority of America. He drinks beer, not wine. He’s a family man, a single dad with an ungrateful daughter because she takes her mother’s maiden name for her last instead of his, despite the amount of times he’s saved the world, despite the number of times the authority he helped put into office fucked up.
I wouldn’t go so far to call Live Free or Die Hard a smart movie because of its political content, just a more interesting one. It wouldn’t BE an 80s action movie without dumbass political content, which Live Free or Die Hard delivers in steamy gobs. This movie is all over the place. Right, left, red, blue, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, this might as well been been called Flip Flop or Die Hard. As a wide-release high concept package it has to pander to both sides of the fence. It’s got to simultaneously expose the outdated quaintness of chest-thumping macho bravado and the overeducated, namby-pamby frailty of long-haired wimps, here proxied by Justin Long. He’s the plucky hacker sidekick of the picture and the obvious stand-in for the 21st century audience. More familiar with porn than with girls, he’s never held a gun before either and McClane mocks him for his vast “toy” collection in his apartment.
“They’re models!” Long replies.
As society crumbles around them thanks to an attack on the country’s infrastructure by disgruntled government employees, McClane, ignorant of newfangled terms like “fire sale” hacks, is at the mercy of explanations from Long, who delivers them with all the douchebaggy smugness he honed in the Mac and PC Guy ads. He’s a know-it-all liberal sponge, self-serving and reeking of trite righteousness. Amidst the chaos the government is powerless, naturally, so he responds to the establishment-bolstering McClane with “It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome.” Okay, sure, he’s right about that irksome as overt commentary can bebut as powerless as The Man is it really looks like he’s trying in this case.
The authorities, represented by Once Were Warriors alum Cliff Curtis and 24 first season baddie Zelkjo Ivanek, are colored in a somewhat positive light, completely breaking the mold of the Stupid Chief rule of the 80s action flick. They don’t ask for McClane’s gun and badge here, instead they’re portrayed much as they are perceived today. Earnest and gung-ho but exceedingly slow and bloated, incapable of anything useful. So in that way, they do uphold the 80s action authority. They may not do much besides wait for McClane to get the job done but they are concerned. In the end the Feds get their moment in the sun anyway, with lots of loving shots of black helicopters flying to the final scene in slow-mo.
In the end though progressive leftiness outweighs everything else. This is a crowd-tested product, a PG-13 film and this what hurts it. Not enough to cripple it but some of the edge is gone. The violence, with a few exceptions, is bloodless. Most of the pain happens to the vehicles McClane routinely wrecks. He gives up his gun and kills things with cars and trucks. His excuse? “Ran out of bullets.” Entertaining for sure but I remember McClane shooting guys. I also remember him smoking, drinking and cursing like a sailor. Thanks to the pantywaist rating he’s forced to repeat “jerk-off” and other weak slurs no less than three times, which wears on the ears a little. Also, for a nationwide crisis the chaos is awfully sanitized. No riots, no mobs, nothing. Everyone seems to go home and stay there. A wise decision I guess by the filmmakers so they could avoid such sticky fallout and perhaps a realistic demand of the government, but some of it rang false. Either way, I hope the rumors of an R-rated DVD come true. Live Free or Die Hard works as a PG-13, no one is more surprised of that than I am, but it would be nice to get one last R-rated Die Hard, blood, “fuck!” and all.
Die Hard wouldn’t be anything without stand-out action which Wiseman and his crew deserve a heap of praise for. This movie feels like a classic action movie, before kung fu, shaky cam and CG infiltrated the genre. Each set piece is more elaborate than the last, each stunt pulled off convincingly and brutally. Guys (and girl) get hit by cars, smacked around, thrown down stairs, hit with tools, tossed down elevator shafts, leap from rooftops… and it’s all shot so you can fucking see it for once. Transformers may have had giant transforming robots – that was all I asked of it – but I wish I mentioned how frustrating it was when Michael Bay didn’t pull the goddamn camera back. Wiseman, uh, wisely gives you a full view of where each combatant is and it looks great. Curiously, the movie, in the fight scene between McClane and Maggie Q, denounces kung fu but wholeheartedly accepts parkour. One of the guys from District B13 plays a badass mercenary who hops all over the place and it looks like he does all his own stunts. Very impressive stuff, although I was reminded of Toad from X-Men sometimes. Whatever happened to Ray Park anyway?
And what about that Metal Gear Solid and 24 stuff? Well, the action is highly reminiscent of the MGS games, which in turn was derived from 80s action movies. Taking a page right out of Kojima’s PS2 masterpiece, the climax involves delicious carnage wrought upon by a Harrier. It’s awfully ridiculous and the only bit of CGI I could spot in an otherwise organic movie. Also, Bruce Willis and Justin Long share a strikingly similar relationship to legendary soldier Solid Snake and computer programming wimp Hal Otacon, who also collects “toys.” Unavoidable in a cyber story like this, I suppose.
The 24 similarities pile up. McClane’s daughter, just like dimwitted Kim, gets kidnapped yet in the short amount of time this has happened he manages to say “They have my daughter!” at least three times. Reminds me an awful lot of this sketch comedy bit. As mentioned before a 24 first season villain shows up, and there’s lots of scenes of people typing at computers in offices highly reminiscent of CTU. The movie follows the exact same adventure format, McClane traveling all over the East Coast in most likey a span of 24 hours, on July 4th no less. The American nationalism mixed with cynicism reeks of 24’s politics. Then again, Jack Bauer wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for John McClane paving the way for thankless single dad action heroes.
So what honestly sucks about Live Free or Die Hard? Kevin Smith’s cameo as the best hacker ever or whatever comes closest but even he manages to escape true suckage by his limited time on screen. When he’s on he’s annoying for sure, with tons of Star Wars memorabilia all over the place and a gratuitous Boba Fett line got my eyes rolling. We get it, Kevin Smith. You love Star Wars, I do too, but there are much better ways of showing it. Check out The Venture Bros. guys, they got pop culture references down to an exact science.
Timothy Olyphant is fairly effective as a digital age villain though he’s nowhere near the evil Oxford class act of Alan Rickman. No one could be! For one thing, Alan Rickman was genuinely hilarious. Olyphant is fucking earnest all the time. He’s just not as fun. When he is, he’s inadvertently funny, delivering lines that should come across as menacing and ruthless even though they’re coming from someone who looks like a tech support guy. How is anyone supposed to believe him as the Hitman?
Live Free or Die Hard also straddles the sci-fi genre, or at maybe fantasy, not because of the outrageous Harrier jet fight, because of the crazy Hollywood way computers and technology are used to accomplish anything and everything. Again, this goes back to GoldenEye, with hackers using mysterious software and chatting and sending e-mail without a thought. It’s could most likely be more social commentary, how unreal it is the villains’ technology can do to wreck the country. Infiltrate surveillance cameras, manipulate traffic, hijack emergency hotlines, control power plants… Everything works lag-free too. No blue screens of death or ctrl+alt+delete. One of these days a movie will show how frustrating working with a shitty computer is really like. Maybe if Office Space was an action movie.
It’s pretty insane but it’s also necessary to buy for the movie to work and it does add a great sense of tension as you’re never sure what technoligical snafu McClane’s going to have to go up against next. Essentially, the bad guys are invisible, unpredictable, operating out of sight. Hm, how timely. What is lame however is the amount of shots there are of p-e-o-p-l-e t-y-p-i-n-g. The opening credits, the first thing you see, is people just… typing.
Despite that Live Free or Die Hard winds up to be a pretty good movie, like a lost 80s relic just recently uncovered by Willis, Wiseman and their crew. Is it better than Transformers? Absolutely. Although it’s PG-13 this movie doesn’t kid around like Transformers does. Is it better than the first Die Hard? No fuckin’ way. Instead it enjoys the prestige as the 2nd-best Die Hard, or maybe the 3rd-best. The first half of Die Hard 3 is pretty good, before the last half completely loses steam. Also, Sam Jackson beats Justin Long any day.
Here are my 24/MGS/GoldenEye notes I jotted down after I left the theater:
In Live Free or Die Hard (LFDH) Timothy Olyphant is a patriotic psycho leader of a rogue group of other patriotic psychos. In GoldenEye (GE) Genereal Ouromov is a patriotic psycho leader of a rogue faction of Russian soldiers. I hesitate to go the extra geek mile and include Metal Gear Solid 2’s General Gurlukovich but then I’d probably have to include other patriotic rogues like Liquid Snake, Solidus, General Volgin and a host of other nutcases.
Die Hard – GoldenEye connections
Patriot psycho leader: Timothy Olyphant – General Ouromov
Leggy enemy chick: Xenia Onatopp – Maggie Q
Plucky hacker sidekick: Natalya – Mac Guy
Villainous hacker henchman: Boris – Glasses Guy
Villain’s plot: Rob Britian’s wealth – Rob America’s wealth (“back to the Stone Age”)
Hero’s plot: Old misogynist dinosaur in the digital age.
Hacker’s surprise after hero trashes a vehicle: “You’ve done that kind of thing before?!” – Justin Long “What is it with you and vehicles?!” – Natalya Simonva
Motifs: Computers, computers, computers! Helicopters! Destructive chases!
Hacker’s last trick: Setting up an encryption code the villain can’t crack during the climax.
Check list of every awesome action flick and video game. Harriers. Helicopters. McClane and Mac Guy = Snake and Otacon? MGS. “Swat a bothersome fly.” = killing a helicopter. Killing a ninja chick in a computer lab (with a car). Fights A Harrier. And SURFS it too.
24! “They have my daugher.” Dennis Hopper’s brother. Story probably takes about 24 hours. Teams of dudes at computers. Sexy daughter kidnapping.