Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Die Hard: following the increasingly improbable misadventures of street-wise police detective John McClane as he repeatedly crosses paths with dangerous super-criminals. The series has spanned five feature films from 1988 to 2013.
The Installment: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
We join John McClane on a special mission — hassling his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) while she is on a date. Then, before McClane can get back to work, presumably to go bust his son masturbating or something, McClane gets a call from his superior informing him that he needs to go take a hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) into protective custody and bring him to the Feds. Turns out Matt is mixed up with a group of – you guessed it, terrorist thieves – led by super genius Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant). Gabriel’s plan is to hack the government and stage a “fire sale,” an attack designed to target the nation’s reliance on computers and toss us back into the Stone Age! Or, I guess, like 1950. So McClane needs to keep Matt safe, using the skills he has picked up over the years, which apparently involved a lot of automobile stuntwork between 1995 and 2007. But I guess those adventures were probably unimportant or something, so we didn’t see any of them.
How do we judge Live Free or Die Hard? As a movie? Or as a Die Hard film? If you are young enough that Live Free was the first Die Hard movie to cross your path, either theatrically or just in general, given the 12-year gap of disinterest between installments here I think you can rightfully embrace the film as its own thing. If that’s your bag. As a silly, somewhat absurdist action movie it is kinda fun. I wasn’t bored. Len Wiseman is no Renny Harlin, but he proves to be capable enough to keep things moving while squeezing in some legit excitement now and then. There are interesting action compositions, such as the aerial shot of traffic clusterfucking in Washington DC. Some of the set-pieces are entertaining in a cartoony way, like the scene in which McClane is fighting Maggie Q inside an SUV that is dangling inside a deep shaft. And I even enjoyed Kevin Smith’s supporting role, actually managing to deliver a passable performance. If this film had starred Jason Statham and been part of the Transporter series, I may have actually liked it quite a bit. I mean, I would certainly be on board for skilled wheelman Frank Martin launching a car into a helicopter. I might even praise the moment (I loved when Frank attached a bomb to a helicopter with his car in Transporter 2) And here lies the Franchise Me quandary, because…
What Doesn’t Work:
…this is a terrible, terrible John McClane movie.
The second half of the ’00s saw a surge of “old man” action movies, ostensibly kicked off by Rocky Balboa and pushed to the max by The Expendables at the end of the decade. This film, originally titled Die Hard 4.0, was in development for many years, but it was part of this Hollywood thinking trend. The 00s were building franchises out of existing heroes (of the super variety), often skewing very young with casting. A whole generation of aging action stars were left with little to do, and disappointing box office returns when they did do something. Well, why not tap into the stars’ dormant but once popular franchises? That is fine motivation for the actors to get back in the saddle, but it is a lousy reason to actually make a motion picture. At least Stallone decided to take things seriously. Live Free does not feel like an attempt to bring back John McClane. It just feels like an attempt to bring back Bruce Willis. To be fair, no one was really dying to get John McClane back by 2007. At least I wasn’t. But if you’re going to make a John McClane movie, make a damn John McClane movie. Though that wasn’t the point. The point was to make a Bruce Willis action hit. Willis hadn’t played the lead in a box office hit since The Whole Nine Yards in 2000, and hadn’t headlined a hit action film since Armageddon. So marketing logic and star vanity prevailed. And I guess the studio thought, “Well, we got Renny Harlin off A Nightmare on Elm St 4. So, uh, let’s grab the guy who made Underworld. That made money, right?” “We’ll make it PG-13 too, you know, for kids! It’s not like the hero’s catchphrase has a swear word in it or anything!”
Problem numero uno is that this John McClane does not feel like the John McClane we had before. This is a two part issue:
Issue A): Bruce Willis does not act like John McClane anymore. A lot of actors go through a change as they get older, either through shifting interests (e.g. Bill Murray), just not giving a shit (e.g. Eddie Murphy), or a more inexplicable talent loss (e.g., Chevy Chase). I’m tempted to say Willis hit all three, but Moonrise Kingdom and Looper proved he’s still got “it,” if you can get him to give a shit. Regardless, The Sixth Sense was the beginning of the end for the Bruce Willis who had been on Moonlighting. Who, sadly, was the same Willis who had been in Die Hard. For whatever reason, even though Willis has yet to eclipse the critical praise he received for 12 Monkeys and Pulp Fiction, after the success of his sullen turn in Sixth Sense the actor decided to become all serious. Not dramatic serious so much as no fun serious. Dour. He would still do comedy – like a three episode arc on TV’s Friends - but the classic Willis charm only came in hints. On both Friends and his most successful film comedy, The Whole Nine Yards, the joke is about how stern and intimidating Willis’ characters are. But… Bruce Willis? I thought he was lovable and kinda goofy? Willis ran from his charm the same way Johnny Depp ran from his good looks. Willis seems to have an obsession with exploring his dark side and keeping his energy low-key. At this point I’d happily take a Hudson Hawk franchise, just to get some of his vintage smirking back in there. I don’t know if Willis is simply unable to connect with a character like John McClane anymore, or if he wanted to update McClane to his current persona, or what. But right down to his shaved head (if the movie was better I wouldn’t complain about missing his old hairline), this John McClane feels like a new character to me. There is no emotional connection, which makes the few ties to the previous films (such as seeing a photograph of Bonnie Bedelia) feel strange.
Issue B): The script does not handle John McClane like John McClane. This has always been an action series that dipped into dumbness. “McClane’s Most Preposterous Feat” has been a gag category at the bottom of this series for a reason. Die Hard 2 and Die Hard with a Vengeance had already skirted into outlandish territory, but Live Free takes things to a whole new level of non-realism. One of the more false moments in the entire film comes early on when Matt asks McClane if he gets scared. Of course he gets scared! That’s McClane response. Then at no point in the film do we ever get a sense of that emotion from McClane. He is a machine. It is hard to understand why McClane hasn’t wound up president by now, based on the wholesale confidence he displays in every single situation in the film. In Vengeance I praised the way the film allowed us to see McClane through Zeus’ eyes, building McClane up as this weirdo hero. Live Free does the same thing with Matt’s character, but McClane is no longer a tough and super capable cop, now he is a full-on super hero. For one thing, he cannot be injured. Oh, he gets hurt, but the film follows video game logic — as long as enough time passes after McClane has gotten to safety, eventually he’ll be fine again. Up until the climax, the only time he appears truly hurt is fairly early in the film, which means each new injury should have been putting him in worse and worse condition. Instead he almost appears to get less and less injured, though more and more dirtied and covered in blood, as the film zooms along. That fear conversation feels like such bullshit because not only does McClane never act scared, he has no hesitation about needlessly endangering his life. It is like he knows he is the star of a movie, so he’ll risk some bumps and bruises, emboldened by the knowledge that he won’t actually die. He’s Wolverine. Hmm, how can I take out Maggie Q? I know! I’ll drive a car through a wall, hit her so she flies up on the hood, continue to drive through several more walls, until we fall into a deep ventilation shaft (or whatever that is). What the hell kind of plan is that?! Did he know the SUV would get hung up in the shaft, and not just plummet immediately to the bottom with him still inside? He is constantly pulling suicide mission stunts like this. Which is bad enough on its own, but…
How is he pulling all this cartoonish nonsense off? He drives an SUV through a wall, precision hitting Maggie Q who is standing about a foot and half away from Matt. Could McClane just sense where they were both standing before he crashed through the wall? Did he not care if he hit Matt? There is of course no answer, because Len Wiseman is treating the film like an Underworld movie. Which, if you don’t know, is about super-powered vampires. McClane can do anything. Fly a helicopter? Sure, let’s just add a clunky bit of exposition about flying lessons and a joke about his take off not being totally perfect. They at least call back to the first film, saying he took flying lessons to overcome a fear of flying (though this fear of flying isn’t acknowledged when he gets in a helicopter in Vengeance), but when it is just tossed out there in the same beat as them hopping inside the helicopter it comes off like a scene in a crappy horror movie where one of the characters suddenly says, “Killer bees? Hey, I was just watching a special about killer bees on TV last night…” And when McClane is launching cars high into the air without the aid of a ramp, like he’s on Dukes of Hazzard, or dodging missiles in a semi truck, or any of the other numerous improbable things he pulls off, moments like the flying lessons line come off purely as an excuse to service all the insanity.
McClane wasn’t appealing because he was so amazing at everything, as he is here. He was appealing because of the way he competently fumbled his way through desperate situations. Live Free‘s John McClane would have wiped out Hans Gruber’s gang in under 30 minutes. And that isn’t character growth, McClane building off his experiences like Burt Gummer in the Tremors series (random example). McClane is a fundamentally different character than he was even just one installment ago. Live Free plays around with the idea that McClane is doing all this insane hero shit rather dispassionately — it is his “duty” as an officer of the law. Okay. That is what he was doing previously. Yet it feels cheap to hear it said out loud now, especially when he is going out of his way to do such crazy, over-the-top shit, like he’s Captain America. If we were trying to take the character at all seriously, this John McClane is obviously a thrill seeker, like Jeremy Renner’s adrenaline junkie in The Hurt Locker. Trying to pass off chucking cars at helicopters as “duty” ruins the whole notion. Live Free wants McClane to be a Bond-esque hero now. He is no longer a normal man. So why even bother beginning the movie with him doing trivial “normal man” stuff like annoying his daughter? Just go the extra distance and begin the film with the end of a previous adventure like he’s Indiana Jones. Don’t try and meet me half-way.
Zeus was a fun diversion in Vengeance, but I would have preferred solo McClane back now. Though, seeing what we have to work with here, I’m just glad they didn’t pair McClane with Lucy for the whole film. Justin Long’s Matt is a fine character, and Long is good in the role, but his pairing with McClane doesn’t work for me. Zeus was a badass. He was a proactive and out-spoken character who challenged and pushed McClane. Matt is just a wiener designed to panderingly showcase how kickass McClane is at every turn. That gets boring. They attempt to make Matt useful, like Zeus was, but all he can offer is tech knowledge. There is a scene where Matt stops McClane from hot-wiring a car, and then pulls a con on the OnStar (or whatever) operator, tricking her into remotely starting the car. This is supposed to make Matt useful in a more practical “street” way, but his plan took about the same amount of time I’m sure it would have taken super-ninja John McClane to hot-wire the car. (He probably could just punch the dashboard, like Fonzy.) Plus, won’t McClane just need to hot-wire the car the next time they need to use it? It is meant to be a cute moment, but for me it just highlighted how uninteresting the Matt/McClane relationship is. The two have some fun banter here and there, but more often than not their conversations are just Matt marveling at how superhuman and amazing McClane is, or snarkily commenting on McClane’s age.
Vengeance broke the Die Hard mold by giving McClane run of New York City. What kept that Die Hard taste in our mouths was the fact that McClane was being restricted by Simon’s series of challenges. It placed boundaries on his actions. Live Free doesn’t have that. McClane and Matt can basically do whatever the hell they want, when they want to. 16 Blocks (2006), with somewhat of the same core premise as Live Free (a cop ordered to protect a witness that other criminals then try to kill), would have made a far more appealing Die Hard film for the simple reason that – as the title implies – all the action is restrained to sixteen city blocks. It sounds arbitrary, but hemming John McClane in brings out the best of the character.
I like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but the character of Lucy is weak and condescending. Her tough girl attitude, the filmmakers’ decision on her introductory scene (verbally schooling both her dad and her douche date) leads me to believe that McClane brought her up tough, preparing her for a world in which she might be kidnapped by super criminals. I guess her mother was essentially kidnapped twice. But the sassy ‘tude she gives Gabriel once she’s captive, and the way she too thinks Matt is a wiener — it is just a clueless attempt to not make Lucy a classic “damsel in distress” while still totally using her as a damsel in distress. Because Lucy is a blah character, like I said, I’m glad Winstead and Willis weren’t paired for the whole film. But from a screenwriting perspective they should have been. She’s an unnecessary element otherwise, since she’s barely in the film and exists just to give McClane and Matt something extra to work towards at the end.
This is minor, but since Live Free exists just to be a funny and wacky action film, why the hell wasn’t their more parkour in there? They cast District B13‘s Cyril Raffaelli as Rand for a reason. Then he does one parkour stunt at the beginning of the film, during the attempted assassination of Matt, and then has a fight with McClane later on that is over just as it is getting started. And the way it is staged and shot, you can be forgiven for not even noticing the parkour element at all, aside from McClane calling Rand a “monkey” at once point for leaping around so much. Missed opportunity. Especially for a film so willing to stretch the bounds of plausibility.
Overall Body Count: 30
McClane Kills: 10
Best Villain Dispatching: Not the coolest, or funniest, but the most visceral is the goon that’s hanging off McClane’s car door, who McClane removes by clipping a dumpster.
After McClane flings Rand off their speeding car.
Matt: Did you see that?
McClane: Yeah I saw it, I did it!
Listening to music in the car.
McClane: It’s Creedence.
McClane: Creedence Clearwater Revival? Classic Rock?
Matt: I know what it is. It’s old rock. That doesn’t make it classic. What sucked back then still sucks today.
McClane: You don’t like Creedence?
Matt: This is like having a pine cone shoved in my ass.
McClane’s Most Preposterous Feat: So… McClane is inside a street tunnel. A helicopter is hovering at the entrance, shooting at him. McClane’s plan is to drive a car very fast towards the entrance, not be hit by any of the high-power rifle’s bullet hitting the car, jump for the car, then the car will crash into a toll booth, but the car won’t actually crash into the toll booth, the toll booth will act like a ramp, sending the car up into the air and colliding with the helicopter, blowing it up. That was his plan?! Like, he expected that to happen?
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” Context: Gabriel has McClane held hostage, pressing his gun into McClane’s shoulder wound to keep McClane awake. Gabriel suggests that McClane’s tombstone should read, “Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.” McClane then suggests that the tagline should probably be his famous catchphrase, then pulls the trigger on Gabriel’s gun, sending the bullet through his own shoulder into Gabriel’s chest.
Should There Be a Sequel: No. Stop. Let Willis make more Red films.
Up Next: A Good Day to Die Hard
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes