It’s been 12 years since “Die Hard With a Vengeance” exploded into theaters and I’ve missed my old pal John McClane like an absentee father. A working class quipster with a mean streak a mile wide, McClane represents the ideal antithesis to the strapping, indefatigable superhero, involved in a bone fide classic (1988’s “Die Hard”), a merrily fun rehash (1990’s “Die Hard 2: Die Harder”), and a sweaty, barnstorming, pitch-perfect trilogy closer (1995’s “Vengeance”).
Now it’s 2007, and John McClane is a changed man. Trapped in a cinematic world that’s reliant on CG ephemera and a backed by a studio wary of excluding youngsters (the new film is rated, ahem, PG-13!), our fatigued hero returns to the big screen, and it just isn’t the same.
Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) is a computer mastermind who wants to bring America to its knees. Using his hacking skills, Gabriel slowly shuts down the country while trying to exterminate the competition. On that list is Matt Farrell (Justin Long, in what amounts to a co-starring role), a pasty, Red Bull-swilling nerd who is now a major target for assassination. Sent to retrieve Matt is Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), who becomes the hacker’s protector when all hell breaks loose. In an effort to save the world, Matt and McClane travel all over Washington D.C. and surrounding network hot spots to stop Gabriel and prevent the financial structure of America from being wiped out.
So, the film stars Bruce Willis, features multiple objects and buildings going kablooey, and has “Die Hard” in the title. However, I couldn’t detect much “Die Hard” in this mediocre picture. Instead of pulse-pounding excitement, a sense of claustrophobia and threat, and carefully portioned violence, we have a distressingly one-note creation that doesn’t take many artistic gambles and lacks even the most fundamental imagination for two-fisted mayhem. It’s a Michael Bay-lite version of a cinematic cornerstone, and it’s one of the bigger disappointments of this year.
A majority of the poison invading “Live Free” stems from a lack of McClane in the film’s diet. Sure, Willis is all over this baby, but the presence, the sheer balls of the character has trouble finding a spot inside all the technological gobbledygook and director Len Wiseman’s insistence on a stunt sequence every 15 minutes (you could set your watch to it). Instead of McClane in over his bloodied head, praying for a miracle, we have the character on the fringe of all the excitement, balancing between his confused Luddite charms and his classic Jersey attitude. McClane almost feels like the bouncer of the film, called in to provide the combat while the rest of the actors get to play a more important role in the plot.
The beauty of the “Die Hard” franchise was that it put McClane first, and built a world of hurt around him. “Live Free” uses the character simply as an exclamation point, pulling out the one-liners and tough guy touchstones to please the faithful, but adding no sense of purpose. “Live Free” comes dangerously close to self-parody at too many junctures, even pushing McClane’s daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) into the mix for cheap laughs. By the time the battered cop throws down his signature “Yippee Ki-Yay” line (neutered in the film by a gunshot sound effect), it all has the cultural and bruiser appeal of hearing Gary Coleman bust out “Wat’choo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Willis!” for the millionth time.
Wiseman may claim to have “Die Hard” in his blood, but he misinterprets the franchise with “Live Free.” His foot is constantly on the accelerator in a bid to please the action fans with robust scenes of destruction and hand-to-hand combat. “Live Free” is a massive film in scale, but it soon resorts to noise to hoist its energy up. There’s no rolling sense of danger in the film, and Wiseman could learn a thing or two from John McTiernan on the power of creating desperation. “Live Free” is easily the most coldly calculated film of the series, reducing the bloated plot to fragmented pieces of exposition and our beloved hero to a cameo amidst all the fireballs and carefully arranged disaster areas.
Also of some concern is the lack of a genuine villain. I have no idea what gave the producers the idea of bringing Olyphant on as the heavy, but he predictably drops the ball in such a critical role. He’s a kitten rolling around with a lion, playing constipated aggravation badly when he should be create a bigger dent in the threat factor. We know McClane is going to save the day, but it shouldn’t be a forgone conclusion the minute Olyphant shows up looking like a Starbucks manager on a particularly itchy morning shift. McClane deserves a more powerful and charismatic foe than this.
Wiseman redeems this issue with one bit of inspired casting. Putting French actor Cyril Raffaelli in a supporting role as McClane’s most nimble nemesis, the “District B13” star gets to strut some terrific, gravity-defying moves that confuses our hero, and throws in something vaguely resembling creativity and invention in a very leaden film.
As for the rating issue, it’s a bigger deal than Fox and Willis would like you to believe. While the PG-13 allows for head-bashings and gunplay, it robs the film of the visceral agony that defined the earlier installments. In “Live Free” the bad guys expire off screen or they bleed black blood (or no blood at all). Also pushed out of the script is the language. If you ask me, a potty mouth is what gave McClane his spark; he was a cursing machine, giving smirking focus to his frustrations and spicing up his comebacks. There’s little of that in “Live Free,” which feels alien to a series of films that were defined by their profane brutality and careless misbehavior.
Perhaps “Live Free” will please the average audience member looking for cheap thrills to beat the summer heat. I respect that, and I wish them well. However, I fear the more hardcore followers of the series will have a harder time swallowing this troubling sequel. At the very least, “Live Free or Die Hard” will have the viewer looking back fondly at the three previous movies (not a bad batting average). You’d think with 12 years to cook something up, they could do better than this.Rating: C