As I watched Bruce Willis grind his way through the fourth film in the Die Hard series, I couldn’t help thinking of all the great moments that came before in those previous (especially the first) films and how this new one echoed that which came before. Of course, John McClane has come a long way since he walked into that office building at Nakotomi Plaza back in 1988, but so have we. That first film changed the course of the way action movies as we knew them were made, affecting so many films to come in the same way as films like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead altered the horror film genre.
Bruce is up to the challenge in Live Free or Die Hard, and now his John McClane is a grizzled, bald, but still strikingly handsome man of fifty-two who sits in parking lots waiting to check up on his college coed daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Last time we saw her in the first film, she was a little girl answering the phone and appearing on TV with the slimy news reporter (William Atherton) who was eventually clocked by a nice right hook from her mother, Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia). Now years later, Lucy has inherited her mother’s feistiness and her father’s cockiness, which is a surefire way of saying she has a date with the terrorists.
In this film the terrorists are led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood fame). He is rather slick with the computers, and his Chinese girlfriend (a cold martial arts expert played by the beautiful Maggie Q) is part of the gang of terrorists riding around in a large tractor trailer that is actually a hi-tech mobile headquarters. There is some sort of gobbledygook about codes and hackers who helped them set a plan in motion to stop the country in its tracks and also steal its collective wealth electronically.
If you’re still with me (yes, I know the premise sounds ridiculous) I think that the whole point of this movie is to not care about the plot. No one comes to these films wanting logic or reasoning; we’ll save that for other genres and certainly not the blockbuster summer season. Live Free or Die Harder goes from impossible to improbable in the first thirty minutes, but that didn’t stop me from going along for an enjoyable, but rather bumpy, ride.
McClane has been sent to escort Matt Farrell (Justin Long, as one of the aforementioned hackers) to Washington D.C. for questioning. Why an NYPD detective is being sent to New Jersey to do this begins the string of unanswerable questions, so make a list if you like, but it really doesn’t matter. McClane barely gets the kid out of the apartment alive after a battle with some killers sent to take him out. Yes, McClane is showing his age and then some, but he still has the ability to take on the bad guys (some obviously half his age).
Of course, trying to duplicate the tension and anxiety that built in the first film is no longer possible. What happened then was unique: McClane in his bare feet and undershirt, battling a group of terrorists single-handledly while trapped inside a skyscraper. It was a lovely cat-and-mouse game, pitting Willis against an incomparable Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber. There was a wit and sensitivity in that film that has been lacking in the rest, and also the undercurrent of humor is notably missing, especially in this fourth installment.
One may recall that even the terrorists were humorous in Die Hard (remember the Asian terrorist looking both ways before stealing a candy bar and then eating it as he shot at some cops?). In particular, McClane was sarcastic, witty, and more than an intellectual match for Rickman’s seemingly sophisticated and superior Gruber. That was the beauty of the first film, and its climax still stands as one of the best I’ve seen, creating that iconic line of dialogue, “Yippee ki yay, mother^%$#*$” that has managed its way into the ending of the other films.
By the time McClane and Farrell get to Washington, everything is a mess. The traffic lights aren’t working, the Internet is done, the terrorists control all TV networks, and even the fries at McDonald’s are messed up. McClane gets little help from the FBI, but he does get support, and that’s another thing that is notably missing here. Especially in the first film, McClane was not only pitted against the terrorists, for even the cops and the FBI were unappreciative of his efforts inside the skyscraper. Just as Jack Bauer of 24 works best when he is on his own and being chased by good and bad guys, John McClane should be as he described himself best in the first film: “A monkey in the wrench, a fly in the ointment, a pain in the ass.”
McClane eventually has a great battle with the Asian girl, and though she bests him with her martial arts skills, McClane ends up the winner as he drops an SUV on her in an elevator shaft (please, don’t ask me how), and this sets Gabriel into revenge mode, and this means a kidnapping of Lucy that will lead to a final showdown.
One might be hoping for a “Happy trails, Hans” ending, but that is not in the cards. McClane foolishly walks into a trap (I can almost hear him as Hartigan in Sin City calling himself a stupid old man) and almost loses to Gabriel, but a couple of quick moves by Lucy and Matt turn the tide. But when McClane takes out Gabriel he barely manages to utter the iconic line, and even loses the last part of the phrase (remember, this film is not rated "R") since he has shot himself in the process (again, it's better not to ask how).
I still think the first film of the series was the best, with the third film Die Hard with a Vengeance coming in number two, this one coming in number three, and the second film, Die Hard 2, being my least favorite. Many years ago, the first Die Hard promised to blow us out of the back of the theater. That was true then and I wish I could say it was true now, but Live Free or Die Hard is simply good ridiculous fun, and in this summer season featuring less than satisfying sequels like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Spider-Man 3, that is just fine by me.