Wow! I feel like such a man. After “Live Free or Die Hard”, the 4th installment in the “Die Hard” franchise, my testosterone is at an all time high after watching John McClane (Bruce Willis) do battle with another group of bad guys. He kicks some butt and I feel all the more manly because of it.
John McClane is asked by his supervisor to pick up a known hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long, the Apple commercials, “Accepted”), and transport him to Washington to be questioned by the NSA. The NSA has just had a major security breech in their system and they want to question all hackers who could have participated in such an event. As McClane arrives at Farrell’s apartment to take him in, a group of hired thugs working for Gabriel Chase (Timothy Olyphant) arrive to kill Farrell; he is the last hacker who helped them with various pieces of the puzzle for their plan. Now he is expendable, so he must die. The bullets fly and McClane does everything he can to protect Farrell. As soon as they are in the car, the truth sinks in for Farrell and he can’t come up with any reason why someone would want to kill him. They arrive in Washington, DC, just as the 4th of July Festivities are set to begin and things start to go wrong; the traffic lights go out, computers crash and a cryptic message plays on every television station. McClane knows they are in for trouble. Chase’s men are still after Farrell, so McClane has to protect him and find out what connection he is. Then Farrell realizes what is happening; it’s a “Fire Sale”. Someone is attempting to shut down every computer system in the United States. In other words, they are trying to shut down everything. Will McClane be able to save Farrell, the United States and his daughter while uttering memorable catch phrases?
Testosterone. This is the real reason I enjoy going to these films. As I have mentioned a few times, I love these Joel Silver-type action films, in which a hero has to fight against insurmountable odds to win the day (the girl, his family, his freedom, etc.). And there isn’t a better example of this genre than the original “Die Hard” directed by John McTiernan and starring Bruce Willis. “Die Hard” is the story of an everyday guy, a cop from New York in Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, a group of terrorists, led by Alan Rickman, take the company hostage and McClane finds himself in the middle of a deadly situation. Great action, crisp dialogue, a fantastic villain and a likeable hero all help to make “Die Hard” one of the best action films ever made, and the template for many copies, some of which weren’t bad either. With the inevitable sequel, director Renny Harlin placed McClane in the middle of an airport during a hostage crisis. Building, airport, both are enclosed environments, sort of. In “Die Hard with a Vengeance”, Willis’ McClane has to travel all over New York to outrun villain Jeremy Irons, while trying to keep his sidekick, Samuel L. Jackson safe. The sequels were fun, but they seemed to be pale retreads.
With “Live Free and Die Hard”, director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) places McClane in the middle of a cyber terrorist attack led by villain Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant, “Catch and Release”, HBO’s “Deadwood”) and his crew of cyber hackers. Ooooooh, cyber – hackers. Scary.
Olyphant is an interesting choice to play an uber-villain like Gabriel. He glowers and shows his thin smile on more than one occasion and these two elements help him look menacing, to a certain degree. Soft spoken, much like his character Seth Bullock on “Deadwood”, he isn’t a man you want to cross. And the fact Gabriel surrounds himself with so many guns and European goons make him even scarier. This is also a villain with a good, interesting plan to extract terror. As the film progresses, we learn he may have a closer connection to the rest of the plot than we initially thought, tying in his motive more concretely. I don’t think anyone could ever top Alan Rickman in the first “Die Hard”, but Olyphant does a nice job of creating his own persona.
The addition of Maggie Q as Gabriel’s girlfriend helps to amp up the danger quotient for McClane and Farrell. Maggie Q’s character is completely devoted to Gabriel and his cause, and he is completely devoted to her, so she will do anything to help him. When she comes into contact with McClane and Farrell, she isn’t going to give up easily and starts kicking and hitting, using every karate and martial arts move in her repertoire.
Cyril Raffaelli, a French stuntman plays one of Chase’s goons. After the attack in Farrell’s apartment, as McClane and Farrell head for the cop’s car, Raffaelli’s character spots them and starts to bounce down the sides of the building, seemingly using exposed nails for his feet, to the alley below. I first saw Raffaelli in the Luc Besson produced “District 13”, a French film with a lot of amazing stunt work, much of which is know as ‘Free running’ or ‘Parkour’, when the character seems to literally bounce from one spot to the next, moving at incredible speeds. Then in last year’s “Casino Royale”, Bond chased another practitioner of this kind of stunt work. Every time Raffaelli appears in “Live Free”, the stunts take on a faster pace, making the action move at a breakneck speed. This helps to make the film all the more thrilling.
“Live Free” has some amazing stunts, most of which were done with real stunt men and not CGI. The clip with McClane taking out an airborne helicopter with a car has been seen many times, but this happens in the first act. When I watched the film and realized this was happening early, I was a little disappointed. I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to top it. But there are two more elaborate stunt sequences, one of which is so over the top; it is a lot of fun to watch. And naturally, there are a couple of good, old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat scenes “Die Hard” style. When McClane engages one or more of the bad guys, they are always willing to fight to the death, so McClane gets beaten up, bruised and bloodied.
Both McClane and Farrell have a number of one-liners, which help to elicit laughter. But they don’t seem to be added merely to make people laugh, they generally occur at tense moments, to help the audience relax a little. When Farrell manages to utter an amusing quip, it helps to show how scared he is. McClane is just a smart aleck and uses these lines to elevate his tense mood.
In the best examples of these action films, the hero has to have a personal stake in the action, to make him continue to fight and battle with the villains. In fact, this has become a cliché. In some, the young hero meets a girl just as bullets start flying. He tries to protect her by dragging her out of harm’s way and she becomes a part of the story because the villains mistake them for lovers. Of course, they will become lovers. This is an over-used and weak method of giving the hero a personal stake in the outcome. Just as naturally, this same girl will fall into the victim’s hands before the end of the film. In “Live Free”, McClane’s daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is added to the mix and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that she will end up in Chase’s hands, the formula can’t deviate from that, but she proves to be a feisty young woman, very feisty indeed. Every time she exhibits this, she further proves how much like her father she actually is.
“Live Free or Die Hard” is one of the better action films I have seen in the last few years, and a fitting sequel to one of the best action films ever. It is nice to see Bruce Willis in a role that we enjoy, welcome and embrace.