That infamous statement came to mind in the final reel of Live Free or Die Hard – known by the comparatively anemic title Die Hard 4.0 outside of America – as I watched Bruce Willis do battle with an F35 fighter jet in a devastated semi-trailer while the freeway collapsed around him. In today’s era of CGI-assisted excess, I’m surprised that Cameron’s extravagant philosophy hasn’t occurred to me more often. But something in Willis’s “ordinary guy” here pulling off jaw-droppingly superhuman feats while shrugging off horrendous near-misses and wounds gave it more relevance than I’ve observed in a while. The goal of the genre-less action film today – surprisingly rare commodity though it now is – has become to tease the limits of destructive potential, both human and property, while paying less heed to whether the sequences are nail-biting or exhilarating. More has indeed become more.
The Die Hard series itself serves as an ideal case study for this. The original 1988 film – rightly hailed as an action classic – prided itself on thrusting Bruce Willis’s amiable everyman into an action scenario not unlike the many that moviegoers had been enjoying over the last decade, but with the high-concept of confining the action to a single high-rise. John McClane was a stronger conduit for our own escapism than we’d seen in a long time – even Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones were too cocky and innately skilled to be relatable as well as likeable – and so the already spectacular action sequences and storyline were garnished with a sense of wonder.
Nearly twenty years later, Live Free or Die Hard bears the weight of the innovation – good and otherwise – in blockbuster filmmaking. Two sequels were offered in the interim, but neither scaled the heights of the original, especially since Willis was beginning to occupy the superhuman action man territory dominated by Stallone and Schwarzenegger (Planet Hollywood symbolised this). Although Willis never lost his natural charm, McClane became less of a neophyte as he racked up ever-grander experiences.
The fourth film sensibly acknowledges this by offering us Justin Long’s fugitive hacker Matt Farrell as a new conduit. Being a novice at risking his life, he views McClane with a befuddled awe at how he can comprehend and react effectively to the chaos thrown at them. While this helps, the film still goes to great lengths to test McClane, to the point where he can so clearly survive anything that the tension vanishes. That F35 face-off is visually impressive and laugh-out-loud outlandish, but carries no threat since we’ve already seen him negotiate a shoot-out around a four-wheel drive dangling down an elevator shaft after just having the snot kicked out of him. Although McClane bleeds and Farrell points it out, his endurance and victory are never in doubt.
But Live Free wants its cake and eats it too. It wants the spectacle but also to milk McClane’s 80s origins and current age for all they are worth. The mass-scale computer terrorism threat is a perfect counterpoint to McClane’s wilfully old-fashioned ways, and the script tips its hat to the abundance of martial arts action since the last 1995 installment by pitting Willis against some serious “kung fu shit”, which he angrily endures before shutting it down by bodyslamming Maggie Q from behind and throwing her into some shelves – old school.
The storyline is perfectly serviceable and refreshingly engaged with real possibilities. Mark Bomback and Doug Richardson retrofitted the script for the Die Hard franchise from an original by David Marconi that was based on a Wired article about the potential for a virtual terrorist attack on the US. Live Free depicts such an attack and somehow manages to place New York detective John McClane in a key position without inducing groans, which warrants respect.
McClane’s contrast with Samuel L. Jackson’s reluctant accomplice was beneficial to Die Hard with a Vengeance, but works especially well here since Long’s character represents today’s technologically-adept youth. Considering that some of the audience for this film were only toddlers when the third film came out, the inclusion pays dividends, and Long and Willis’s chemistry is fun. Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant is sufficiently cold and menacing as the architect of the grand plot, channelling a dark and driven version of Seth Bullock, but he’s no classic. The rest of the cast is nothing special, but they nonetheless deliver a far less infuriating series of performances than in director Len Wiseman’s inert Underworld series. Live Free or Die Hard is vastly superior to the disgracefully unwatchable first film in that series (I never subjected myself to the second), but they do share a lack of spirit. The fourth Die Hard entertains, but is nothing to rave about, although Willis is as effortlessly appealing as ever. He will always be one-note but has yet to be dull, and the Die Hard series can say the same.