The fourth Die Hard film, released as Live Free or Die Hard in the United States and simply Die Hard 4.0 elsewhere, came out in 2007, twelve years after the release of Die Hard with a Vengeance. There had been gaps in the series before (there was a five year gap between the second and third films), but nothing quite like that. So there was some question as to whether it would be a good entry in the franchise… especially as the 2000s and onward have been full of very-belated sequels that don’t live up to the originals.
Len Wiseman, director of the first two Underworld films, takes the helm here. Bruce Willis returns, of course, as John McClane, and of course John’s life outside of fighting crime and terrorism hasn’t gotten any easier. His daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is estranged from him, refusing to even use the same last name, but has a lot of the same belligerent attitude John himself has. But he soon has little time to worry about that, as FBI deputy director Bowman (Cliff Curtis) calls in a favor to NYPD to bring in a hacker that the FBI is interested in after a cyber attack. McClane arrives just as assassins try to kill the hacker, and we’re off to the usual assortment of shootouts and explosions. Hey, we all know why we’re here. Trying McClane’s patience is the hacker himself; Matt Farrell (Justin Long) is hyperactive, needy, and prone to rant on anti-corporate conspiracy theories, and quickly gets on McClane’s nerves.
This is a genuine personality type for some computer experts. I’ve worked with some. They’re exhausting.
This time around John McClane finds himself pitted against a cyber-terrorist, played by Timothy Olyphant, who is gradually shutting down the infrastructure of the United States. Matt’s role has to do with some initial code he wrote, not knowing its purpose, for the organization that the terrorist runs. Now he’s a loose end they’re looking to clean up. So McClane has to keep Matt alive and get him to where he can shut down the whole process. Chief among the assassins is the terrorist’s right hand girl, Mai, played by Maggie Q. Q doesn’t get much opportunity to do any character acting here, but she does get to play the action villain in spades. Her fight scenes are a lot of fun to watch, even if her durability seems rather unbelievable even by Die Hard standards.
I also had trouble believing the initial assassination attempt on the hackers in the beginning. The terrorist group hacks into their computers, uploads a virus, and then causes the computers to explode. This would only work, of course, if there were already an explosive in the computer, planted by the group, but even that has some logical flaws. If they had that in there, why did they need to upload the trigger as a virus later? Not to mention the extreme unlikelihood of computer hackers not building and repairing their own computers, which would eliminate the opportunity to plant the bombs. I’m willing to give Die Hard a pass on a lot of things for the sake of the rule of cool, but mostly I’m going to be ignoring the laws of physics, not basic logic.
For example, this gets a pass from me because it’s awesome.
The movie is filled with a lot of good, if not great, performances. Olyphant’s terrorist won’t be up there with Alan Rickman, but he gets the job done. Similarly, Cliff Curtis’s FBI director won’t stick in anybody’s memory long, but it’s not a bad performance, it’s just that his character isn’t meant to be a highlight of the film. Justin Long is very believable as the hyperactive hacker out of his depth, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s role as Lucy definitely comes across as a character that could be John McClane’s daughter. Kevin Smith has a small part as another hacker, and well, he’s basically playing Kevin Smith, so it works. And of course, Bruce Willis is comfortable in his role as John McClane himself, and continues to quip one-liners and trudge onward as he gets, as always, increasingly battered and bruised as things go on.
And yet, for all of that, I can’t give this movie very high praise. While I enjoyed it well enough, there was always something off about it, and I finally hit upon what it was. It’s better at being an action movie than it is at being a Die Hard movie. It feels like John McClane was stitched into the fabric of the film, rather than having it designed around him… and looking it up, that’s exactly what happened. Live Free or Die Hard started life as a script adapted from John Carlin’s article “A Farewell to Arms”, about a cyber attack, and was originally going to be an unrelated film entitled WW3. It was retooled into a Die Hard after that one failed to get greenlit. So it doesn’t feel quite like a Die Hard movie, because it didn’t begin as one. And as I also felt a bit underwhelmed by Die Hard 2: Die Harder (again, not a bad film, just not a good Die Hard film), I almost wonder if there should be a Die Hard rule of thumb similar to the Star Trek one, only here it’s the odd movies that are the good ones. Or, put another way, the ones with Grubers. Or put yet another way, the ones that actually started life as Die Hard films, because it turns out Die Hard 2 was also adapted from an unrelated screenplay. Here’s hoping that with 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard, the screenwriters actually knew they were writing for John McClane from the beginning.