“Live free or die,” said General John Stark, a famous New Hampshire veteran of the American Revolutionary War, in his 1809 toast to the anniversary of the bloody Battle of Bennington that he’d commanded in 1777.
“Yippee ki-yay, sirs and madams.”
“Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker,” said John McClane (Bruce Willis) in 1988, after terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) asked him what chance one man could possibly have against a building full of armed terrorists.
The second half of General Stark’s famous quote is, “Death is not the worst of evils.” Is Live Free or Die Hard the worst of sequels? I saw it last night, and I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, some background.
“Yippee ki-yay, baby doll.”
If you want to get really technical, the first Die Hard film debuted in 1968. It was called The Detective and it starred Frank Sinatra as a cop named Joe Leland whose investigation of a high-profile murder case takes him deep into the seedy drugs-and-sex underbelly of New York City.
(I know what you’re thinking. Bear with me.)
The Detective was based on a 1966 novel by Roderick Thorp, a young American crime novelist who cut his teeth working at his father’s detective agency. In 1979, Thorp wrote a sequel to The Detective called Nothing Lasts Forever, which featured the return of Joe Leland. In the book, Leland’s visit to his daughter at a Los Angeles oil company is interrupted by a team of terrorists — led by Anton Gruber — who seize the building. Leland sneaks around and picks off the terrorists one by one — in increasingly violent and inventive ways — until the final, fatal-for-Gruber confrontation. I think you see where this is going.
Nothing Lasts Forever was adapted for the screen by Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man, Judge Dredd) and Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive, John Rambo). Joe Leland’s name changed to John McClane, and though Richard Gere was reportedly considered for the part it ended up going to an unlikely up-and-coming movie star named Bruce Willis. Minor-league scuffling as a private eye on the television series Moonlighting didn’t exactly qualify Willis as an action hero, but his appeal when the newly named Die Hard debuted in 1988 could not be denied. So even though Die Hard isn’t exactly a sequel to Sinatra’s film, it’s about the same character. And I think that’s a really cool piece of trivia.
Anyway, Die Hard still holds up as a classic piece of action cinema nearly 20 years later. The daughter from the novel was changed to McClane’s estranged wife, Holly, played by lovely Bonnie Bedelia. So right from the start we’ve got McClane frazzled by family troubles at Christmas time before the terrorists even arrive. Playing the perfect villain is Alan Rickman, whose character was changed to Hans Gruber (from the novel’s Anton). Suspense in the film comes from all kinds of directions. You’ve got McClane playing the most dangerous kind of hide-and-seek with a gang of terrorists who’ve got him outnumbered and out-gunned. And then you’ve got Holly with the other hostages, trying to play it cool and keep McClane safe while all of us out in the audience hope Gruber doesn’t find out her connection to the mysterious hero who’s killing off his men with methods that become increasingly brutal and creative. In addition to the action, there’s also lots of fun psychological stuff (thanks to Gruber’s genius intellect and total lack of morals) and visceral scares that tear right through to the heart of even the toughest of us. We cringe when McClane has no choice but to run bare-footed across a floor full of broken glass, and that’s nothing compared to the later scene where he has to pick the glass out piece by piece. There’s heart and humor in McClane’s relationship with a cop on the ground (Reginald VelJohnson) who’s trying to help him, and huge action (including the awesome moment when McClane avoids a rooftop explosion by cinching a fire hose around his waist and jumping off it) thanks to the taut direction of genre heavyweight John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October). Top it all of with a Michael Kamen musical score, and it’s golden.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder came along in 1990. It was also based on a novel (called 58 Minutes) but this time by a different author (Walter Wager). Doug Richardson (Bad Boys, Money Train) co-wrote the script with the returning de Souza, while McTiernan was replaced in the director’s chair by the decidedly more popcorny (and some would say flat-out corny) Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island). The action moves to Washington, D.C., where McClane is spending yet another stressful Christmas Eve (at Dulles International Airport) waiting for Holly to arrive from California. But when a rogue military group seizes the airport, McClane slips into “I can’t believe this is happening to me again on Christmas” mode and starts doing what he does best. There’s a special forces team — led by John Amos from TV’s Good Times! — that’s not what it seems, and lots of harrowing explosions including an ejection seat escape — that’s just as spectacularly (but lovingly) ridiculous as the fire-hose trick from the first film but maybe not as believable — and some old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. It’s fun, but maybe not quite as good as the original.
1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance brought the action to New York City, where Hans Gruber’s crazy brother, Simon (Jeremy Irons), runs McClane through a harrowing game of “Simon Says” with massive civilian casualties as the consequence for failure. A down-on-his-luck and barely sober McClane gets help from a innocent by-stander named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), who gets dragged into Simon’s vicious web because he tried to help McClane during the first of Simon’s twisted games (which is brilliant in its harrowing simplicity, by the way). It’s always fun watching Willis and Jackson together, and there are lots of amazing action/suspense sequences as Simon pushes the men from one end of New York to the other. (Tell me you didn’t watch that movie and immediately fantasize about driving a taxi through Central Park.) The film tends to drag a bit in the middle, but with McTiernan back on director duty it’s a more brutal ride than Die Harder. The script by Jonathan Hensleigh (Jumanji, The Saint) was certainly a lot of fun.
But that was 12 years ago. In the meantime, many rumors about Die Hard 4 have come and gone. In 1998, Ben Affleck told Kevin Smith’s View Askew website that Willis had asked him to play his partner in Die Hard 4. Affleck described the plot as “a low-concept, man-against-nature type thing in the jungles of Brazil.”
Willis himself said this to Playboy in 1999: “Me and three cop buddies get abducted. We’re taken into the Amazon and have to escape without all the explosions and pyrotechnics.”
I remember reading other interviews with Willis around the same time period, and he always said it would be a low-tech, knives-and-fists survivalist kind of thing.
In the intervening years, it was rumored that Justin Timberlake would play McClane’s grown son, and later that Britney Spears was THIS CLOSE to signing on to play McClane’s daughter. None of this happened, of course.
And that brings us to Live Free or Die Hard, which turned out as opposite from the original premise as it possibly could have. The first Die Hard didn’t just write the book on modern action movies. It became the book, and spawned an entire generation’s worth of homages and knock-offs. (For example, Speed was touted as “Die Hard on a bus.”) There are times when Live Free or Die Hard hits you in the gut like the original did, and there are times it feels like one of the first movie’s own testosterone-fueled imitators.
Either way, it’s a whole lot of fun.
I saw the movie last night with Mike, Casper and Walsh, who are excellent guys to see action movies with. Casper was my high school English teacher who, at any time, is just as likely to be analyzing Shakespeare as he is to be getting complaints from his neighbors because he’s watching Terminator 2 too loudly. Walsh was my high school math teacher, who used to like to organize Steven Seagal marathons. (When he was watching Executive Decision with his wife, Anne, she turned to him upon Seagal’s character’s death and said, “This is the best Steven Seagal movie I have ever seen.”) And Mike just loves movies, period, and I hope Melissa will forgive me for dragging her fiancé to action movies all summer. (Don’t worry, Melissa. We’ll go to a crappy dollar movie as soon as possible.)
We really enjoyed the movie. Lots of laughing, lots of “I can’t believe he just did that” kinds of reactions.
Here’s the scoop:
The bad guy here is Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a cyber-savvy nut with a bone to pick, a point to make and the smarts to make it happen. Gabriel initiates a “Fire Sale,” as in, “The world’s on fire, and everything must go.” It’s a three-pronged attack on the nation’s computer systems that takes down transportation, utilities and finally the financial sector, all while mucking up key communications in the process. (Don’t worry. The communications conveniently work whenever McClane needs to contact somebody.)
Gabriel’s also got a sexy ninja-master girlfriend named Mai, played by the preposterously hot Maggie Q from Mission: Impossible III. She’s the kind of girl who can hack into your computer system while she’s kicking you to sleep the hard way. (If I had a girl like that I’d probably want to give her the world, too, but I’d like to think I’d try to find a more honest way to do it.)
And into the fray comes John McClane, who was doing the Jack Bauer thing back when Kiefer Sutherland was still just a Young Gun (or a Lost Boy; take your pick). McClane’s no stranger to bad days, and his gets a whole lot worse when he’s sent to pick up young hacker Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) after yet another badly-ending argument with his daughter, Lucy, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (from Tarantino’s Grindhouse segment, Death Proof). Gabriel’s men try to assassinate Matthew — who unknowingly helped create the algorithm that put all of this in motion — but McClane goes all Die Hard on his henchmen. Before long he’s killing helicopters with cars and riding an F-35 stealth jump-jet like he’s Captain America. And of course the bad guys kidnap Lucy, making McClane even more determined to give these guys a good old-fashioned Yankee dirt-nap. God bless America!
This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
Live Free or Die Hard is directed by Len Wiseman, who sucked far too much of the fun out of his Underworld films. I mean, why make a movie about werewolves fighting vampires when your best idea is to keep them in their human forms and have them wear matching black leather coats while shooting at each other with guns? Come on! At least the second one had some more monster stuff, but like its predecessor it buckled under Wiseman’s ponderous pacing and penchant for faux-Shakespearean plotting.
But this isn’t Underworld 3. It’s Die Hard 4, and that means something.
And luckily, Wiseman delivers.
At first I was really annoyed by his reliance on the same high-contrast, blue-filtered cinematography he used in the Underworld flicks. (The previous Die Hard movies weren’t shot like this. When did we decide that this was going to be “the blue one,” Len?) But thankfully it doesn’t last beyond the first 20 minutes or so. Minor quibble.
As for the rest of the film, keep in mind that it’s a lot more Michael Bay than it is John McTiernan. The good news is that the action generally flows well, despite a few glaring instances of shoddy editing — and some really poor lip-syncing — that betray a film shot as a hard R but chopped up to get the PG-13.
(Remember when Die Hard 2 was shown on ABC, and they looped out “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker” and replaced it with “Yippee ki-yay, motherfalcon”? That’s one of the most pathetically awesome things that ever happened, ever.)
Ever since Sebastien Foucan ricocheted himself all over that construction site fight in Casino Royale, all the cool kids want to put parkour — the coolest kind of free-running — into their movies. Here we get French actor Cyril Raffaelli (District B13), as one of Gabriel’s henchmen, trampolining himself over, off and around his surroundings in a couple of killer sequences that benefit from Wiseman being smart enough to pull the camera back and show the man doing what he does. It’s some amazingly breathtaking stuff, and that’s what I like about the basic Die Hard premise. It’s real physical/psychological stuff that gets its intensity from its in-your-face realism.
Lots of Live Free or Die Hard happens at the opposite end of that mandate. There’s some really horrendous green-screen work in a couple of the explosions, but most of the obviously digital automobile stunts that I griped about from the trailer look much better in the finished film. It could be argued, however, that the absence of such over-the-top silliness (which makes McClane seem more like Superman than a New York cop) would have left room for more of the truly exciting (and dangerous per its realism) physical stuff, like the widly brutal ass-kicking that Willis and Maggie Q let loose on each other.
The craziest stuff involves the F-35 Lightning II, a brand new Lockheed bird — formerly known as the JAST, in case you’re Bob and you’d like to make fun of it — that combines stealth capabilities and fighter agility into a compact little airframe powered by the most powerful fighter engine ever built.
The Air Force version takes off and lands like a normal fighter plane. But the Marine Corps version replaces the secondary fuel tank behind the cockpit with a lift fan hidden behind movable doors. The engine nozzle also rotates downward and, when used with the lift fan, allows the F-35 to take off vertically and hover and do all kinds of ridiculously crazy low-speed maneuvers.
Gabriel uses his computer genius to send an F-35 after the big rig McClane’s in, and it’s one of the biggest and most dazzlingly preposterous sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie. And as utterly stupid as it is, I loved every second of it because I’m a big fan of the F-35 and what the hell, it’s a big, dumb, fun summer movie, so why not? The plane uses its lift fan to duck and weave under and around a complicated interstate overpass, bringing the full fury of its guns and missiles against the big rig. Before it’s over, Willis is riding the Lightning — ha! — like he’s Slim Pickens:
In fact, you can watch part of the sequence right here, but I’d rather you didn’t because it ruins how the sequence ends:
The film’s PG-13 rating doesn’t take anything away from the action’s suspense or brutality. In fact, this movie features some of the series’s most brutal kills.
How is it okay to show Lucy McClane’s breast being forcibly groped, but then it’s not okay for her dad to say his famous “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!” line without the “fucker” being drowned out by action sounds? That particular choice is disgustingly hypocritical and wholly inappropriate. I’d have accepted the “yippee ki-yay” sans “fucker” if it hadn’t been for the groping. As it stands, there’s no way to justify cutting one thing but still doing the other. (Worse yet, the groping was completely unnecessary.) I’m still mad about that.
But despite that major frustration, I had lots of fun watching the film with an opening-night crowd that laughed and cheered throughout.
Justin Long is hilarious here, and he does a nice job of showing how truly awed and terrified a hacker would be at seeing even the wildest doomsday conspiracy plans coming to fruition around him. His line delivery is perfect, and when push comes to shove he’s capable at shoving back (however awkwardly). Nicely done.
Gorgeous, winsome Mary Elizabeth Winstead is just as tough a McClane as Bruce Willis is. (And she’s a redhead. Whammy!) As for Willis himself, he brings it home like a pro and cracks wise during even the most dangerous moments. (The monologue he gives while he’s driving the police car on his way to killing the helicopter had the entire theater cackling.)
Timothy Olyphant mixes one part detachment with two parts intensity to make his villain cool, and Cliff Curtis is excellent as a harried Homeland Security agent trying to cut through the red tape and nail down a solution. Kevin Smith has a short but funny role as a hacker McClane and Matthew go to for some last-minute help in bringing down the bad guys.
For the most part, Live Free or Die Hard trades in what could have been a harrowing exploration of what would happen in such a scenario for an outrageous exercise in summer movie mayhem.
We had a lot of fun watching it, and I’d see it again in a heartbeat.