With the release of A Good Day to Die Hard (the fifth Die Hard film) this week, we’ll be be posting several features taking a look at the franchise.
The word is out on the fifth Die Hard film, A Good Day to Die Hard: it’s no good. It currently holds a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an almost unanimous (save for two outliers) ‘rotten’ consensus among the top critics. This would probably be the death of the franchise were it not for Bruce Willis insisting that A Good Day will be followed by a sixth film. At the very least, if A Good Day isn’t the death of the franchise, it would appear to be its nadir. Richard Roeper, filling in for Roger Ebert, was so badly moved by the film that he gave it the prestigious rating of one-and-a-half stars.
Before A Good Day came Live Free or Die Hard, once the worst film in the franchise, and once the most maligned (at least among fans if not among critics). Most seem to be indifferent about it, and I thought it was sub-par when I first watched it six (six!) years ago. The odds were never good for Live Free. Die Hards one, two and three are an incredibly tough act to follow. Those films are impressive simply on a technical level alone, and I feel quite comfortable saying that we’ll probably never see another action film as well written and as thematically rich as the first film. Even discounting those two factors, expectations for Live Free were high, but we were all bracing ourselves for the possibility that it could all go wrong. So, six years on, is the verdict still the same, or has it aged better than we might have expected?
Live Free or Die Hard is exceedingly generic, and that is its greatest crime. It is every modern action film rolled into one: a set piece-to-set piece design (in other words, the plot exists only to justify the action within), a technophilic villain with too many computer screens around him, a superhuman hero that cannot be stopped, and ample helpings of computer generated graphics. Even on a behind-the-scenes technical level the film is about as general as they come. It has a generic screenwriter (Mark Bomback, responsible for Constantine and The Race to Witch Mountain), a generic director (Len Wiseman, responsible for Underworld and next to nothing else), and a generic cast with no standouts other than Willis. (Sure, it has Timothy Olyphant—now the sexiest man on television with Jon Hamm according to all women ever—but in 2007, the only thing he was known for was Deadwood and being in the Hitman movie.)
The fact that Live Free is so boilerplate is remarkable if you consider how stacked with talent the first and third films were (the second film less so, but still more than the fourth). John McTiernan, director of the original and With a Vengeance, is more than capable, and he was backed by a storied production crew that had been responsible for the likes of Predator. Die Hard also used to bring in a legitimate crop of actors. Despite the fact they weren’t exactly known in the United States at the time of their appearance, Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons are both supremely talented; Samuel L. Jackson and Bonny Bedelia are no slouches either. Being generic is not something the Die Hard franchise was previously known for. The first Die Hard film changed the trajectory of the action genre in one fell swoop, and the second and third films continued to tread new ground. Yet there is little new about Live Free—its hacker-centric plot has been done before, and its action is reminiscent of shows like 24.
While its generic design is its most egregious artistic flaw, long-time fans of the franchise take greater issue with the way Live Free ignores the stylistic hallmarks of the previous films, and specifically with the way the hero John McClane is depicted. In Die Hard: With a Vengeance, McClane was a depressed alcoholic cop that was on paid leave from the force and was well on his way to being fired. He was a broken man, an un-hero. Despite that, in the twelve intervening years between the two films, McClane seemingly developed two traits: he became superhuman, and he also became MacGyver. Live Free finds him unkillable and unstoppable, and anything he can’t destroy with ordinary bullets he eliminates by exploiting his environment with wacky finesse. An example: when a helicopter is in his way, he jumps his car off a makeshift ramp and crashes it straight into the chopper. Problem solved. By the end of the film, he has eluded a fully-armed fighter jet using an eighteen-wheeler. One of those things is a frighteningly efficient killing machine; the other is a lumbering, unwieldy automobile. The wrong one wins.
It’s not that having a dominant hero is so bad (though, again, that character type is completely generic)—it’s just that that’s not who John McClane is. John McClane isn’t allowed to be that successful; John McClane must fail before he can win. He was unable to save some hostages in Die Hard, he was unable to stop an entire airplane full of people from perishing in Die Harder, and he was unable to stop the bombing of a train and a boat in With a Vengeance. But there’s no failure for him in Live Free, and that’s a real problem. He goes from being a lovable underdog to being an unbreakable weapon, and there’s just no reason for us to root for this new and improved McClane.
On the other hand, we can’t pretend like Live Free is a total disaster. There are some good moments here, and even some redeeming qualities. The hand-to-hand fighting in this film is well done—I’m specifically recalling the fight between McClane and Maggie Q, which is probably the film’s stand out sequence. The Die Hard films never had a whole lot of one-on-one brawls—Die Harder is the only one with an extended fistfight—but this easily fits as the best duel across the four films. And, as much as we might hate to admit it, this sequence also boasts perhaps the single most impressive moment in the entire franchise: the bullet dodge. It happens in a split second—McClane and an enemy have pistols pointed at each other’s heads; as they each squeeze the trigger they both lean away so their shots miss—but each time I see it I want to stand and applaud. (As a side note, it’s also worth mentioning how chilling the film is at times. The concept of hackers shutting down the entire country should be enough to frighten anyone, but it’s the inclusion of that creepy Presidential speech mashup video that really makes me shiver.)
We’ve looked at Live Free or Die Hard through the lens of a Die Hard film because it does, after all, have the name Die Hard in the title. If it was its own stand-alone story, completely separate from the Die Hard franchise, we might not be as hard on it. Look at it in the abstract: it’s not a great film by any means, but it’s probably not horrible either. It’s about average, which is just fine for your run-of-the-mill action flick. But this isn’t coming packaged as a run-of-the-mill action flick; it’s coming packaged as a Die Hard film. Of course people are going to be disappointed—once upon a time that name meant something. Now it seems as if Fox is set on doing its best to water that name down. But in 2007, the words Die Hard promised something of a much higher standard than what Live Free or Die Hard has to offer. Is it egregiously horrible? Probably not. But it’s certainly not good enough to be a Die Hard film.