“You just killed a helicopter with a car” … “I was out of bullets”
– John McClane, Die Hard 4.0
Before Bruce Willis had his charm ducts surgically removed and began headlining in an alarming amount of movies with 50 Cent, he was the ultimate star. Someone with the charisma and gravitas to anchor action films like Die Hard, The Fifth Element and The Last Boy Scout but also the acting prowess to lead in more ambitious fare like Pulp Fiction, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense. Hell, he was even great in Friends. There was something about his quiet every-man masculinity and the way a smile would slyly crack through the veneer that was very endearing.
As someone who was an avid fan of Willis as a child, imagine my disappointment to see him star in such poor fare as Cop Out, Vice, Red 2, The Cold Light of Day and GI Joe: Retaliation – movies he’s clearly not enthused to be starring in (if one can’t tell by the performance, see his horrendously awkward press tours). Thus, it was a pleasant experience to re-watch Live Free or Die Hard (also better titled Die Hard 4.0 here) on its tenth anniversary and be reminded of how charismatic Willis can be at his best.
Following the events of the previous three films (all examples of terrific Hollywood blockbusters), Willis’ John McClane is divorced and estranged from his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead – currently excellent in FX’s Fargo). Still an NY cop, he is requested to pick up Matt Farrell (Justin Long), a hacker – maybe connected to cyber terrorism – and deliver him to the FBI for questioning. While collecting him, McClane thwarts various hitmen sent to kill the computer wiz. Together they realise that Matt is a scapegoat for Timothy Olyphant’s villain, Thomas Gabriel, a former security analyst. He, along with his partner in crime Mai (Maggie Q), hope to launch a “fire-sale”, a legendary act of cyber-warfare designed to destroy America.
Live Free or Die Hard is a near-perfect Hollywood blockbuster for a number of reasons. The script by Mark Bomback does some interesting things with the character of John McClane. It places an old-school action hero – one who killed the villain of the first movie with the help of sellotape – into a digital world where he’s out of his depth. Not only does this work for comedic purposes – the banter between Willis and Long’s non-typical techie character (he is a nerd but also a cocky, smarmy jerk) is solid – but a nation-wide terrorist attack does raise the stakes substantially from the previous entries of the franchise.
Meanwhile – and the film does not get praised for this enough – Live Free or Die Hard also has some of the best action sequences from Hollywood in the past ten years. Directed by Len Wiseman (the filmmaker behind the Underworld franchise – movies both me and HeadStuff regular Richard Drumm, more extensively, will totally argue the case for), the set-pieces are both ludicrous and iconic. The first action sequence sees Willis throw a fire extinguisher at a group of terrorists and then shoot it, creating a massive explosion – and it just gets better from there. At the forty-five minute point, McClane drives a car into the air so as to crash into a helicopter – diving out before impact. Plus, the finale sees (spoiler) Willis literally shoot himself so that the bullet goes through his body into Olyphant’s character who has him in a headlock.
Willis aside, there is also parkour legend Cyril Raffaelli (District 13) as one of Gabriel’s henchmen, dubbed “Spiderboy” by McClane. He gets a chance to shine in some audacious set-pieces. One in particular sees him attempting to reach McClane – who is on a higher floor – by jumping between pipes and walls that are hovering above a fast-spinning turbine. The sequence – gorgeously lit in pale blues – really has a physicality, on account of Raffaeilli’s action prowess.
Plus, as mentioned before, its a joy to see Willis seem engaged with what he’s doing. In simple scenes – such as him interrupting his daughter’s date with a sleazy asshole or laughing hysterically after his car/helicopter shenanigans – he displays more charm and comic-timing than through all of Die Hard 5. Live Free or Die Hard, along with the first Red and Looper – is perhaps the last film where Willis really made an effort.
I hope the actor re-finds his raison d’etre before starring in M. Night Shymalan’s Unbreakable/Split crossover or Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish – two promising projects. Although Live Free or Die Hard is a tremendously enjoyable popcorn flick, for me, it’s a ultimately a reminder of how good Willis can be.