In Live Free Or Die Hard’s most dazzling stunt sequence, a fighter jet pursues John McClane through a collapsing bridge and over its crumbling ramps. The pilot fires off missile after missile, causing devastating damage but otherwise missing John’s truck. John tries to speed up a ramp to safety, but the jet blocks his route. The ramp cannot hold out much longer. The truck slides down, onto the jet, wrecking its engine and sending it crashing to the ground. John, having leapt onto the jet from the truck, dives off to safety just as the jet explodes. He scrabbles out of the wreckage with a scoff, straightens himself in the American sun, cocks his pistol and walks off to find his abducted daughter.
By this point in the movie we have come to terms with John McClane. We have accepted his invincibility. Before the jet crash, he drives a police car into a helicopter; drives a stolen SUV through the bowels of a building, ramming his target through several walls and down a lift chute; engages countless henchmen in bloody fistfights; and dodges more bullets and missiles than Neo at an NRA convention. He’s no longer the John McClane of 1988, this we knew since the second film. He is John McClane, certified action hero. I guess after going through Die Hards 2 and 3, the obstacles in this one must seem like respite for him, maybe even nostalgia. Just another day on the job. Just another explosion to survive.
Live Free Or Die Hard is the fourth in this series, and it’s a carefully written, confident, utterly bombastic thrill ride through an intelligent plot that doesn’t hinge on its action sequences but uses them instead as loud punctuations, choreographed with extreme greed. Usually wall-to-wall action stifles the heart of a movie, but the action here is so efficient and well timed that we begin to appreciate all the hard work that went in to making them. Director Len Wiseman and Bruce Willis came to an agreement before filming began: Use as little CGI as possible. Set all the stunts in real time, in real places, with real people. What a smart decision that was. What we have here is not a visual effects extravaganza, where weightless bodies bounce off computerised cars and fall a hundred feet onto green screen floors. We have actual stunt people doing what they do best. We see the action before our eyes. Better yet, we can feel it. It brings us back to classic car movies of the ’70s and ’80s, and to the raw physical power of pioneers like The Terminator (1984).
This is important, because Die Hard movies require a lot of action, and because John McClane has been set up as a believable (though not entirely plausible) hero, we must also believe the action. To a point.
Then there’s the plot, which caught me off guard. I was expecting something simple, so as to not distract from all the action, but writer Mark Bomback has crafted a brainy screenplay that uses its characters wisely and exploits their personalities to motivate the story. Instead of stealing 64 million dollars from a wealthy corporation, why not steal hundreds of billions from an entire country? How would you go about doing that? Well, by doing what the bad guys do in this film, of course. I shall not detail the hows and wheres and whys. Rest assured, you will be intrigued by what goes on in this picture, and how, eventually, the bad guys intend to execute their master plan.
The lead villain, Thomas Gabriel, is played coolly by Timothy Olyphant as a computer expert who once worked for the Department of Defence but has since spiralled into paranoid anxiety after being kicked out. Olyphant fits just right. His eyes contain all there is to know about Thomas; they are glazed over, maybe with weakness, maybe with insanity, maybe with both. He speaks with a wavering calm. Yes, he is maniacal, but he is also, in a strange way, empathetic. It’s a tough combination. Thomas, through Olyphant’s assured visualisation, becomes a villain worthy of a great Bond epic.
Live Free Or Die Hard’s key moment, however, comes when John McClane (Willis) opens up to Matthew Farrell (Justin Long), a wanted hacker who staggers into the plot and almost gets himself killed on a number of unfortunate occasions. The moment is a quiet revelation, a piercing insight. It doesn’t make John mortal again, but it returns him to his humanity. They’re driving down the highway. Matthew says he is not like John; he’s not a hero. “You know what you get for being a hero?”, John replies. “You get shot at. You get a pat on the back. You get ‘atta boy'”. He smiles, then a sombre pause. “You get divorced. Your wife can’t remember your last name. Your kids don’t wanna talk to you. You have to eat a lot of meals by yourself”. “Why do you do it then?”. “Because there’s no one else right now”.
Best Moment | The playful, almost father-and-son banter between John and Matthew. Matthew had the potential to be an irritating character in the vein of Jar Jar Binks, but proves to be immensely likeable.
Worst Moment | The fight between Mai (Maggie Q) and John. I believe that initial car crash through the wall should have killed her. If not, ramming her into the lift chute should have. John can be the only invincible one.