For all its reliable, over-the-top action, the Die Hard franchise’s success has always been predicated on its jokey self-deprecation. The ace up the sleeve of these films has always been their wry, sarcastic attitude, one defined by star Bruce Willis and typified by its first sequel, whose SNL parody-worthy title—Die Hard 2: Die Harder—is so upfront about its flippancy that it damn near preempts serious consideration of the series. The same holds true for the cheesily-monikered Live Free or Die Hard, the latest dizzying adventure involving NYC detective John McClane (Willis), here a bald 52-year-old commissioned to protect a computer hacker named Matt (Justin Long) who has unwittingly helped former government egghead-turned-evil genius Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) bring about an event known as a “fire sale” in which all national electronic infrastructures are ground to a halt. Dumb as it wants to be, the film (as with its three predecessors) understands and playfully owns up to its inconsequentiality, a tactic that doesn’t make it any more smart, but does allow it to indulge in rollercoaster outlandishness with an ingratiating tongue-in-cheek smile on its face.
Helmed by Len Wiseman, Live Free or Die Hard makes little pretense toward reality, literally piling explosions on top of collisions on top of fisticuffs and gunfire and mayhem in a manner free from both logic and the laws of nature. It is, to a large degree, a film engaged in a game of one-upmanship with itself, as it kick-starts with a frantic sequence in which McClane and Matt are besieged by French hitmen (trained in parkour!?!) in the kid’s apartment, and then spends the rest of its bloated runtime attempting to outdo each previous, extreme set piece. Desperate to keep his camera swinging around crashing cars and people dangling from lethal heights, Wiseman finds himself mainly unable to competently shoot or edit any calm, one-on-one conversations. And his allergy to anything other than icy blue-steel colors borders on the nonsensical, since unlike with his Underworld pics—where this style served as a sleek aesthetic complement to his vampire protagonist’s emotionless disposition—it proves a perplexing, ill-fitting visual match for McClane’s newest exploits. Still, the director knows how to proficiently concoct and stage crazily elaborate situations for his hero, and the sheer, goofy bravado that underlines the action is such that the potency of its thrills is directly related to their lunacy.
Though marketed as an everyman rather than a superhero, Willis’s McClane completes his ascension to full-fledged cartoon with Live Free or Die Hard. As before, he takes a merciless beating throughout, taunts Gabriel via walkie-talkie (as well as web cam!), and interrupts his derring-do to lay some self-pitying blather on Matt, explaining that all he’s gotten for his good deeds is an ex-wife, an estranged daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s resentful Lucy) and lonely meals by himself. Boo hoo. This pose is pure, unadulterated garbage, since McClane, so confident and skillful that he needs no plan to take down his enemies, is wholly divorced from the rest of humanity—unless, that is, I missed the memo stating that everyone is now capable of hanging from a suspended semi-truck, then falling onto the wing of an out-of-control, pilot-less fighter jet, then jumping from that aircraft to a vertical slab of decimated freeway and sliding to safety while being chased by a raging fireball. The film is at its most natural when McClane drops the woe-is-me routine and does what he does best, which is talk smack to foes and chuckle with arrogant, slightly amazed delight at his more mind-boggling feats, such as destroying a helicopter with an airborne police car.
On the whole empty-headed, Wiseman’s cacophonous blockbuster nonetheless isn’t as blissfully unaware as it would like to seem. A deliberate throwback to the Ahnold-Sly ‘80s during which vigilante he-men kicked ass and took names later, damn the consequences or the wussy bureaucrats and weak-kneed bleeding-hearts who got in their way, Live Free or Die Hard—unsurprisingly headlined by a celeb Republican—is cast from the genre’s time-honored conservative mold. The central dichotomy between techie Matt and Neanderthal McClane is cast as between “digital” and “analog.” But it’s also, fundamentally, one between the liberal young guard and traditional old guard, as Matt’s lefty conspiracy theories about corporate America and the media are juxtaposed with, and then demolished by, McClane’s steadfast (and, as the title implies, patriotic) belief in cowboy gallantry as the surest path to justice. McClane’s definition of heroism as doing what’s necessary when no one else will is at once universal and yet—in light of his taking down terrorists with a bull-in-a-china-shop rampage notable for its absence of subtly and abundance of bloodshed—is also employed for the type of escapist fantasy that, since 9/11, has become painfully out-of-date. Not to say that Live Free or Die Hard‘s vision of America’s superheroic ability to save the world isn’t, in the moment, often exhilarating—just that its black-and-white worldview isn’t quite the satisfying comfort food it once was.
More unpleasant than the notion that Matt’s nationalism and manhood can only be validated with a gun, though, is the misogyny that creeps into Mark Bomback’s script. It’s equitable that Maggie Q’s stereotypically cold, kung-fu baddie should, after delivering a whupping to McClane, suffer a few vicious retaliatory punches to the face. Yet it’s distressing that the movie has to push its everyone’s-fair-game ethos past the breaking point during McClane’s subsequent description of his fallen female adversary as “another dead Asian hooker bitch,” vitriol which resurfaces when Lucy—who papa McClane is determined to keep chaste—is slapped around and derided as a “bitch” by Gabriel. Since this nastiness isn’t adequately balanced by an equal measure of vulgar male-on-male slander, these malicious verbal punctuation marks stand out like sore sexist thumbs, and reveal a disagreeable latent anger in both McClane and the supposedly frivolous proceedings. Such sporadic offensiveness, however, doesn’t completely cast a pall over the exuberantly rambunctious second half, in part because greater indignation is ultimately invited by the MPAA, who in their archaic, hypocritical pro-violence, anti-profanity inanity, somehow found this adult film’s litany of point-blank executions, corpses, and hostile chauvinism—but not McClane’s “Yippee-Ki-Yay-Motherfucker” quip, cut short before its impolite conclusion—perfectly acceptable for the PG-13 crowd.