In the twelve years since Bruce Willis’ everyman cop John McClane last foiled a villain’s grandiose scheme on our cinema screens, the notion of terrorism in the real and cinematic world has changed. In Live Free Or Die Hard, McClane acknowledges that he is a bit of a dinosaur, a concession perhaps that this film might be an action film for an older audience who remember the series from the late 1980s/early 1990s. In its plot about cyber-terrorists crashing a majority of the computerized systems that run everything from the traffic lights to the air traffic control to the utilities, the film manages to keep technobabble-filled exposition and scenes of people typing away on their computers to a minimum. And while the film does offer the expected amount of wanton destruction and property damage that accrues when McClane is on the run from and on his way towards confronting the piece’s bad guys, it doesn’t quite live up to the promise that the original trilogy of Die Hard films held.
Live Free Or Die Hard is by no means a bad action film. It’s entertaining for most of its franticly paced runtime, and most of the action sequences satisfy. However, measuring against the rather strong yardstick of the Die Hard franchise, it does come up short.
Die Hard movies have always been noted for the strength of their villains. In 1988, the first film rocket launched the career of an unknown British actor named Alan Rickman, thanks to his deliciously snide and evil performance. Die Harder (1990) contained the one-two punch of William Sadler and John Amos, while 1995’s Die Hard: With A Vengeance features Jeremy Irons finding plenty of meat on his bare bones-scripted character. This time around, though, Timothy Olyphant’s performance barely registers. In the previous films, the audience cheered when the villain gets their comeuppance. Here, we barely shrug. But the blame can’t really be placed on Olyphant alone. The script barely gives him anything to work with and develop. His character’s romance with henchwoman Maggie Q is about as perfunctory as it gets and whatever payoff the relationship is supposed to have in the film’s third act falls flat because of that. Also, Olyphant’s ultimate motivation reveals the character to be having nothing more than a big selfish cry-baby tantrum.
Another tick in this film’s minus column is director Len Wiseman who has shot Live Free Or Die Hard as if it were an installment in his goth-vampire Underworld franchise rather than a Die Hard movie. Some of the sequences are shot in murky lighting, rendering such potentially exciting such as the fight in the SUV wedged in the elevator shaft (don’t ask) difficult to follow.
Although it has been over a decade since he last played the role, Willis slips back into the John McClane character rather effortlessly. The intervening years have not been kind to character and we cynically learn that heroes don’t always get “happily ever afters.” Justin Long, as a computer hacker whom Willis’s character finds himself paired with, may be playing his umpteenth variation on his stock quip-spouting nerd character, but it works well here and he and Willis share a chemistry that helps keep the film from being just a string of action set pieces. Mary Elizabeth Winstead also does good work as McClane’s daughter, even though the part as written describes the same character arc that McClane’s wife, as played by Bonnie Bedelia, did in the first film.