In the original 1988 Die Hard, Alan Rickman’s bad guy, Hans Gruber, taunts stalwart hero John McClane by asking him if he’s “another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne…Rambo…Marshal Dillon…” McClane jokes that he was always partial to Roy Rogers because “I really liked those sequined shirts,” then ends the conversation with the now-iconic kiss-off, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”
The repetition of that phrase in three Die Hard sequels helps explain why I never really warmed to them. They’re lively smash-and-burn adventures that leaven their brutality with self-deprecating wit and something vaguely resembling a human touch; each boasts wittily choreographed action sequences, and even the worst of the lot, the sadistic and borderline-retarded Die Hard 2, pulls you in. But whatever their merits, each sequel—including Live Free or Die Hard, which opened this week—does more to undercut what made the original, and its hero, seem special. That’s a sin that no amount of boisterious ingenuity can erase. “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” wasn’t just funny because it was a blue-collar, East coast, wise-ass response to a James Bond baddie’s effete condescension. It was funny because it sounded like something a real person might say if he got caught in a situation that ludicrous. McClane’s comeback was a tonic, a contrast to all the other badass one-liners we’d heard up to then: James Bond’s icy British witticisms; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lame, mechanical approximation of same; Sylvester Stallone’s dead-eyed homicidal pledges (“I’m comin ta get yew”).
But when McClane says his signature line over and over in four movies spanning nearly 20 years, and when he somehow keeps wandering into the middle of sinister situations (except for Ripley in the Alien movies, no franchise lead has worse luck) and when he magically manages to absorb ever-more punishment the older he gets (in Live Free, he survives impacts that would flatten the Terminator) he comes to embody the image that Hans mockingly ascribed to him. The delight of Die Hard was that we’d never seen an action hero like McClane: physically capable but reluctant; impulsive and petty and emotionally transparent. When the same character shows up in Live Free or Die Hard to save America from cyberterrorists—after saving Nakatomi Plaza, Dulles Airport and New York City—he’s become John Wayne plus Rambo minus hair. Yes, I know; it had to be this way. When a movie becomes a hit—especially a dark horse like Die Hard, which had a trashy trailer and a leading man who was famous mainly for bantering with Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting—there will be as many follow-ups as the market can bear. Nevertheless, as much as I enjoyed the sequels, I wish they hadn’t been made. They make the extraordinary seem ordinary.
And that’s too bad, because the premise of Live Free is chilling—so keyed into real-world fears that I wish the screenplay (credited to Mark Bomback and David Marconi) had done more than use it as a springboard for another Die Hard sequel. When high-tech hijinks wreak havoc with the nation’s cyberstructure, the director of the F.B.I.’s cyberterror unit (Cliff Curtis) issues an all-points bulletin ordering local law enforcement to round up America’s most gifted and notorious hackers and bring them to the capital for questioning. When McClane gets the call, he’s in New Brunswick, New Jersey, creepily stalking his estranged daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and interrupting her in-car make-out session by yanking her would-be boyfriend out the vehicle and threatening to beat him to death. (If I were her, I wouldn’t return Dad’s phone calls either.) While picking up his assigned hacker, Camden troublemaker Matt Farrell (Justin Long), he survives an assault by a squad of machinegun wielding goons; ever the bulldog, he resolves to get the kid to Washington anyway, and arrives in time for the bad guy, Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) to unveil phase two of his diabolical plan: using his control over America’s computer networks to turn life into a video game. (In the film’s most unnerving sequence, Gabriel orders his own squad of hackers to mess with traffic signals throughout D.C., turning what should have been a typical rush hour into an outtake from The Blues Brothers.) Matt explains to the F.B.I. dunderheads—and to McClane, a Luddite who still listens to ’60s rock on his car radio—that this is part of a three-step master plan to destroy modern life as we know it. It’s called a “Fire Sale” scenario: Everything must go.
Of course, the fact that this is a Die Hard movie means that the Fire Sale plot will be exposed as a mammoth diversion, orchestrated to let Gabriel and his henchpeople (including his gorgeous, kung fu-kicking wife, Mai Lihn, played by martial arts star Maggie Q) steal an obscene amount of money. This is a cop out, and a disappointing one; while Olyphant’s Gabriel is probably the least scary of the series’s villains, he’s the most complex, because he’s motivated by professional grievance and ideology. Originally hired after 9/11 to assess flaws in America’s cyberstructure, he warned that the whole thing was vulnerable, and rather than accept the bad news (and the price tag required to fix it), Gabriel’s bosses fired him and dragged his name through the mud. Until the screenplay’s other shoe inevitably drops to expose him as a common thief (as McClane’s wife Holly labeled Hans in Die Hard 1), Gabriel seems bears less resemblance to Hans and Simon than to Gary Oldman’s Egor Korshunov in Air Force One, who is motivated by more than filthy lucre, and whose viciousness doesn’t negate the fact that he often speaks the truth. (Called out as a villain by the Chief Executive, Korshunov replies that he won’t be lectured by the leader of a nation that killed 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas.) Gabriel seems to enjoy pushing America to embrace its worst caricature. He makes Wall Street soil its collective britches by driving stock prices down, and terrifies the general public by broadcasting fake atrocity footage and a bewildering montage in which U.S. Presidents appear to deliver pieces of the same incoherent monologue. He’s like a lethal performance artist, destroying the invisible mechanisms that govern modern life to conjure the horror he foretold and expose the thin line between civilization and chaos. Kevin Smith’s cameo appearance as a hacker named Warlock—Matt’s rival and sort-of guru—includes a throwaway line about zombies that inadvertently suggests the richer film that might have been, if the filmmakers had followed Live Free’s ideas to their logical end, and told a story about ordinary people struggling to do right while society crumbled. But a summer action picture wouldn’t dare go there, so Live Free repeats the same Die Hard tropes once more for old times’s sake. (Besides the thief-posing-as-terrorist bit, the movie has a recurring gag about Lucy changing her last name, and an Ayn Randian spark between Gabriel and Mai Linh that evokes the Jeremy Irons-Sam Phillips relationship in Die Hard with a Vengeance.)
There’s a strong conservative undertow throughout. Matt starts out a free radical—a far-leftist verging on anarchist, like many outlaw hackers. He dismisses the federal government as a bunch of corrupt incompetents (“It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome!”) and blows off mainstream news reports as fearmongering corporate media hype—so of course he ends up a grateful surrogate son of McClane and a reborn patriot who regrets the destruction his hacking helped cause. McClane jump-starts Matt’s change when he rebuts his political screed by snapping, “It’s not a system, it’s a country.” That line exposes the script’s conservative mindset. McClane forces a disengaged, bratty young dissenter to shut up, grow balls and do something constructive. The picture’s such a daddy-to-the-rescue fantasy that it could be called Die Hard 4: Get with the Program. The attitude doesn’t really rankle because it’s consistent with Hollywood action pictures dating back to John Wayne’s autumnal westerns; this is an inherently conservative genre, and McClane’s Joe Sixpack sentiments are fundamentally decent. It might have been fun to see the Democracy Now!/Fox News Channel dynamic played out more pointedly, as a Socratic dialogue with bullets and explosions instead of words. But the film’s political consciousness is as half-baked as Gabriel’s Dark-Prince-of-Chaos routine. It’s ideological shadowplay that’s ultimately a cover for making money.
Director Len Wiseman (the Underworld movies) delivers the expected ratio of close-quarters gunfights, hand-to-hand ass-kicking and vehicular insanity. The film boasts two chase sequences that rank with the best I’ve seen—McClane and Matt fleeing a chopper full of Gabriel’s hitmen and a climactic duel between an F-35 jet and an 18-wheeled truck in and around a collapsing interstate mix-master. But these setpieces paradoxically diminish Live Free or Die Hard by reminding us that it’s yet another overscaled summer action movie; they’re nowhere near as heartstopping as the bit in the first film where McClane accidentally falls into an elevator shaft, bounces downward a couple of floors and barely catches himself. In Live Free, McClane fights Mai Lihn inside a vehicle that’s hanging upside-down in an elevator shaft, and 50 body blows, two dead bad guys and one fireball later, emerges victorious, crowing like a barfly that just whipped his drinking buddy at pinball. When did Everyman become Superman?