Len Wiseman is becoming the next Michael Bay, and considering the kind of career Bay has had, and will continue to have for a long time, Wiseman should be smiling right now. How familiar are the two men’s styles? If you didn’t know that Wiseman had directed “Live Free or Die Hard”, you might have guessed that Bay was at the helm. The explosions, the gunfire, and the false bravado — all trademark Bay. And again, considering that Wiseman has never made any pretenses of making “art” films, that should come as a high compliment to Mr. Kate Beckinsale.
In signature “Die Hard” fashion, the latest installment (there are rumors of more sequels) finds New York Police Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) being called away from stalking his daughter (she refuses to talk to him) to bringing a computer hacker (Justin Long) in for questioning. The situation: someone has hacked into the FBI’s computer division, and the feds are justifiably perturbed. The problem is, most of the hackers on the list are already dead — killed by the shady Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who has something very, very big planned for the country.
It is eventually revealed that Gabriel is a disgruntled former Government employee, and despite his pedigree as a computer nerd, has somehow mobilized a mercenary unit (including girlfriend Mai Lihn (Maggie Q.)) for an attack on America’s computer infrastructure. Gabriel claims he is doing the country a favor by exposing its weakness, but like all true “Die Hard” villains, he talks a good game, but seems more concerned with stealing the financial data of the country’s wealth. Of course, he hadn’t counted on John McClane to enter the picture, and it just so happens that when Gabriel’s men arrive to kill Long’s Matt Farrell, McClane is also there. Oops.
Much running, shooting, falling, chasing, and blowing stuff up ensues. Through it all, John McClane proves unkillable (hard to die, if you will), much to Gabriel’s chagrin. Along the way, McClane ends up being the only man, with the help of Farrell, who can stop Gabriel’s plans. They also find some comic relief and assistance from basement dwelling hacker Warlock (a hilarious segment with writer/director Kevin Smith), who agrees to assist McClane only after Gabriel grabs McClane’s daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Like father like daughter, as Lucy soon gets on Gabriel’s nerves as well.
As per usual, the Authority are useless, and if not completely inept at their jobs, then are completely too stupid to help out. Leaving, of course, the job of saving the day to our man John McClane. This is, after all, the entire premise of the previous three “Die Hard” movies — only one man can avert disaster, and his name is John. John McClane. Oh sure, the foot soldiers try to lend a hand, but the bosses are, always in a “Die Hard” movie, complete morons. Which is what we’ve all come to expect, and to not have “Live Free” follow the formula would just be wrong at this point.
What makes “Live Free or Die Hard” isn’t the ludicrous plots (and yes, they are quite ludicrous, even by “Die Hard” standards), but instead the stunts, the gunplay, the fisticuffs, and the stuff that blows up real good. Wanna see John McClane take down a helicopter with a cop car? Check. McClane going mano-a-mano with a high-kicking Maggie Q? Check. McClane being completely outclassed by French action star Cyril Raffaelli? Check. Which reminds me: Bruce Willis is respectable as an action star because of what his McClane goes through here — he is willing to get kicked, punched, and tossed around like a rag doll. Sure, McClane eventually wins, but that’s more script contrivance than anything, and since he is the star, we’re willing to accept it.
And what of the much ballyhooed PG-13 rating? To be honest with you, I couldn’t tell the difference. McClane certainly gets bloodied up something good, and the bodycount is pretty impressive. Characters get shot by the buckets, people get thrown down elevator shafts and burst into fireballs, and a character gets chewed up by giant fan blades. Not exactly “kiddie stuff”, if you were concerned about such things. Which, I will admit, I was. In a recent interview, director Len Wiseman noted that for the DVD release, there would be a R-rated version, but the only difference will be additional blood splatters inserted with the help of CGI. After having seen “Live Free or Die Hard”, I have to respond with a, “Why bother?”
“Live Free or Die Hard” lives and dies (pardon the expression) by how much you enjoy following the improbable adventures of John McClane. Even for a guy who has single-handedly taken down gangs of well-armed, well-financed, and well-trained mercenaries more than once, it still takes great leaps of suspensions of disbelief to believe that McClane could survive even 1/20th of the situations Wiseman and company puts him into. For every gravity-defying, bullet-dodging stunt that McClane must perform, co-star Justin Long earns his paycheck by cracking wise. I wouldn’t be surprise to learn that Long adlibbed a lot of his lines. Or at least, Long did so well I was willing to believe that he was making it up on the fly.
The other main factor of a successful “Die Hard” movie is a credible villain. I am a fan of Timothy Olyphant, having followed him throughout his “Deadwood” career, but he makes for a poor “Die Hard” villain. Hans Gruber would eat this guy for dinner. Not only is Olyphant’s Gabriel an ex-computer whiz turned cold-blooded mercenary (that in itself is ludicrous), but also Gabriel’s entire operation defies logic. On one hand, he has a gaggle of nerdy tech guys working for him, and on the other hand he’s ordering foreign mercenaries around like he’s been killing people all his life. But while Olyphant is lacking as the chief villain, Maggie Q.’s henchwoman could give Karl a run for his money. Miss Q. continues to climb the Hollywood ladder, and deserves a leading woman role very soon.
So where will they put McClane next? Perhaps on a spaceship? “Die Hard in Space”? There is a pattern to the films: “Die Hard” was set entirely in and around a single building; “Die Hard 2” took the action outside to a more wide open space — an airport; “Die Hard with a Vengeance” used up the entire city of New York; and now, “Live Free or Die Hard” has expanded to the entire East Coast. So, where next for McClane? The charm of the original was one guy trapped in a building full of bad guys, with no place for him to go but around them. With the action having moved into such open spaces, I don’t know how they could put the genie back in the bottle.
Then again, they could pull a “Die Hard Begins”, and go back to basics. “Die Hard in Prison”, perhaps?
Len Wiseman (director) / Mark Bomback, David Marconi (screenplay)
CAST: Bruce Willis … John McClane
Timothy Olyphant … Thomas Gabriel
Justin Long … Matt Farrell
Maggie Q … Mai Lihn
Cliff Curtis … Bowman
Mary Elizabeth Winstead … Lucy McClane
Jonathan Sadowski … Trey
Andrew Friedman … Casper
Kevin Smith … Warlock