It takes John McClane (Bruce Willis) about 10 seconds to infuriate his daughter in Live Free or Die Hard. He appears unexpectedly outside Lucy’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) dorm room at Rutgers, just in time to pull the boy she’s been kissing from his car. As of old, John blusters and postures, as if to protect Lucy from this generic-seeming kid, whom Lucy is reluctant to call her “boyfriend” and John eager to deem a “jerk-off.” Much like her mother in Die Hard, however, Lucy doesn’t need John’s help (by the time he arrives on the scene, you’ve seen her putting off the boy’s advances). Exasperated by both males’ bad behaviors, Lucy focuses on her dad: “You are such an asshole.”
And with that, John McClane is back, recalling all the retro rightness and righteousness he first incarnated in 1988. Still the model of Susan Jeffords’ hard-bodied Reaganite hero, John revives a look and more importantly, an attitude quite opposed to recent technological acrobatics, comic book-derived antics, or wireworky martial arts. A manly man’s man who spends most of his movie filthy and bloodied, John is less desperate and certainly less sentimental than Jack Bauer, though equally adept at handling “terrorists,” fake or real.
Based in part on John Carlin’s “A Farewell to Arms” (Wired 1997), Live Free underscores John’s olden-days genesis, pitting him against and pairing him with two different digital whiz-kids. Nemesis Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) is a former DOD superstar whose warnings concerning a vulnerable security system and imminent “information war” were ignored. To shut him up, the admin insiders reportedly “ruined his reputation,” thus motivating his current scheme, a “fire sale,” in which all computer systems will shut down. Better him, he reasons, than some jihadist “outsider” (though he does employ an assortment of “others,” including lethal girlfriend Mai [Maggie Q] and the Parkour-inspired Rand [Cyril Raffaelli]). While Gabriel’s goal appears to be par for the action-movie course (world domination, bow-down respect, lots of money), he makes his point: a sincere I-war would be devastating.
In order for John to comprehend this point fully, he’s supplied with a genius-hacker sidekick, Matt (Justin Long), who also happens to be a target for Gabriel, as he’s contributed unwittingly to the code-writing. Appointed to pick the kid up in Jersey and bring him to DC, John is soon communicating with FBI agent Bowman (the always superb Cliff Curtis, here playing the solid government guy instead of the terrorist or drug kingpin, his usual assignment in mainstream fare). As soon as John shows up at Matt’s apartment, Gabriel’s minions arrive with explosives and automatic weaponry, which convinces the kid that his savior’s decidedly old-schooly approach to trouble — kill it, kill all of it — is in fact appropriate.
As they make their way toward DC (foolishly believing the feds, along with NSA and Homeland Security suits, will sort out the crisis, though Matt submits that the response to Katrina suggests otherwise), Matt thanks his new best friend for saving his life, while noting his own inadequacy. “I’m not like you, I can’t do this shit,” Matt whimpers, “I can’t be that guy.” John schools him, listing all the losses heroes suffer — divorce, estranged children, homes, security — before he sighs, “Trust me kid, nobody wants to be that guy.” But of course, John can’t help himself. He is that guy, filling the void when agencies and systems fall short, taking action because no one else can or will.
The action this time includes all manner of preposterous stunts, pitting a semi against a Harrier jet, surviving collapsing highways and building-decimating explosions, killing a helicopter with a car. Twisting his face and aiming his weapon (gun, architectural element, vehicle), John manages his brilliant offensives with craggy charm and hoary one-liners. Briefly surprised by Mai’s martial arts during their first encounter, he picks himself up and announces, “That’s enough of this kung fu bullshit,” descending on her with a pounding ferocity that leaves audience-surrogate Matt’s jaw dropped. Their extended fight scene (she’s this film’s Alexander Godunov) inspires John to especial vehemence when taunting Gabriel: she’s a “little Asian chick,” an “Asian hooker bitch,” or, quite colorfully, “at the bottom of an elevator shaft with an SUV rammed up her ass.”
John being John, his targeting of Mai as outlet for his basic rage at changing times is both apt and alarming. Marking him as a tediously generic hero (“that guy”), his language also ensures he won’t be mistaken for any “namby-pamby” politically correct champion. Though John is willing to own up to not understanding the speedy geek-speak shared by Matt and Warlock (Kevin Smith), he’s not about to relinquish his hard-body status. What made John work in the late ’80s was his one-two punch of sincerity and cynicism: he understood the cowboy he played was dated even then, and yet he retrofitted the character (and the “yippee-ki-yay”) for his moment: resentful of Asian tech and money, Eurotrashy villainy, and greed all around, including the ambition he saw in his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), here revisited in Lucy. (As Gabriel and Matt each observes, she talks and thinks like her dad, and she will, of course, come to appreciate his cocky pragmatism.)
The girls in the Die Hard franchise, like everyone else who is not John McClane, need rescuing or reckoning. John’s worldview, which makes everyone “other,” is both utterly inane and appealing in a post-9/11 Scary World. “I don’t think I can handle any more people trying to kill me,” offers Matt in between episodes. “You get used to it,” asserts John, walking off-screen with a determination that’s both familiar and extraordinary. The title Live Free or Die Hard implies the question that John embodies: if it’s impossible to live free today, dependent as all systems are on technology, surveillance, fear, and anger, is death the only alternative? The sheer silliness and seeming rigidity of the opposition speak to a generational frustration, associated with an aging white-guyness that both eschews digitalia and perforce embraces CGI (to achieve its stunts’ full-on fiery effectiveness). If Gabriel and Mai represent the threat of global tech, they also serve as John’s ideal foils: dressed in styley-Matrixy-black, thin and wifty-looking even as they’re bent on brutal annihilations.
John’s belligerent heroism, he argues, is born of necessity, his masculinity more like a scar than a choice. “Another day in paradise,” he sighs during a brief no-car-crashing-no-fireballing interim. His blunt-instrument MO, here undeniably successful, is part nostalgic, part outrageous. John’s backwardness looks chivalrous when it doesn’t look racist and misogynist, but his violence is only astounding.
Though he’s committed, as always, to his “job” (still NYPD) as a means to individual identity, he doesn’t claim a national or even an ideological affiliation. Live Free gestures toward a flag-waving US connection, set as it is around Independence Day. But it also celebrates John’s residual renegadeness, his blue-collar-guy’s irritation at what the state invariably gets wrong. And so the film gets to have it all ways, railing against hi-tech threats, soft bodies, fuzzy thinking, and “Asian chicks who like to kick people.”