With Len Wiseman releasing Total Recall next week, I thought I’d take a look at his last reboot of a classic action movie, the extremely divisive Live Free or Die Hard. As many have guessed from the title, I fall squarely in the ‘pro’ camp, to the point where I find the criticisms (and vitriol) lobbed this film’s way downright mystifying. I can get not liking it. I can’t get liking the previous Die Hards and not liking this one.
For one, the actual action is so obviously excellent that attacking it seems like a total waste time. Wiseman and his crews did spectacular work in this film, and I’d go as far to say it’s the current high water mark for Hollywood stunt work. Many, however, claim it’s too over the top and sanitized, that it makes John McClane into an absurd, superhero type figure. I suppose that’s a subjective criticism, and maybe I just have a higher threshold for that sort of thing. To me, the action is certainly unlikely, but the film makes it just plausible enough to fly. The CGI is extremely limited, and when it is present, it exists solely as a threat to McClane, which is actually thematically appropriate, just as the apparently limitless power of the actual technology at work is. Personally, nothing seems out of the norm for the series. The Die Hards have always been a celebration of how badass John McClane is while making the best of a bad situation, be it while he’s jumping off the roof of an exploding building, ejecting out of a grounded fighter jet, or surfing a cement mixer through a flooding tunnel. It’s not like scenes have been robbed of stakes or a sense of danger, have they? That’s really a truck hanging precariously in an elevator shaft, that’s really a transport truck getting shredded on an exploding freeway.
Besides the action McClane takes part in, many object to how the film characterizes him, which I find equally befuddling. Some claim he’s become too capable. But he’s always been inexplicably capable, hasn’t he? It’s not like he failed to save the day in any of the first three movies. He’s always in been the wrong place at the wrong time, and it’s never truer here. In the first Die Hard, he’s the hardened New York Cop in elegant, liberal California, and now he’s the archaic dinosaur in an era that has no use for him. He’s a timex watch in a digital age. The Matt character does a great job of highlighting this, while also revealing other virtues and subtler courage foreign to McClane’s classic, masculine action hero.
That’s what bothers me about the hate this movie gets. It’s an extremely well written action movie, and it’s clearly put together by some absolutely enormous fans who have pondered the ins and outs of the series and McClane’s status as a film icon. It paints McClane as the reluctant hero he always was, but also delves into the tragic life of a guy who keeps stumbling into these sorts of situations. Life has constantly forced him to up his game, and he’s alienated himself from those he holds most dear. His loneliness is poignant when put in the context of all his great achievements, and his reconciliation with his tough as nails daughter feels merited.
Speaking of Lucy McClane, she’s an example of how Live Free orDie Hard manages to address some (dare I say?) weaknesses of the original. As great a movie as the first Die Hard is, there’s no denying that there’s a profound, insidious sexism at work all throughout it. McClane resents his wife’s success and independence from the beginning. He believes her pursuit of prestigious work is tearing up their family. His climatic removal of her watch, a gift from her company, in order to save her life is a particularly hideous metaphor. Thankfully, in the context of the series that moment becomes a lot more forgivable, as McClane’s attitude is revealed to be toxic. By being divorced from Holly in Live Free or Die Hard, the plot rightly punishes him for his behavior in the first film. Plus, there are quite a few ass kicking females in this movie, so that helps too.
Basically, if you like Die Hard and hate Live Free or Die Hard, you’re probably a bad person. Just kidding. But people’s reaction to this movie does speak to something I’m finding out more and more: you can’t make all the fans happy, no matter how strong a film you put out. Guys like Len Wiseman, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, were doomed from the start because their biggest fans are simply different people than the wide eyed youths that saw and cherished the original movies. So, warts that were always inherent to the series become absolutely glaring on late additions in the cold light of cynical adulthood. Anyway, as an enormous Die Hard fan, I offer Live Free or Die Hard a much deserved (and much delayed) tip of the cap. It may be the only great late addition to a beloved trilogy. I’m excited to see Wiseman and company get back to work.