#1 in my ranking of the Die Hard franchise.
Unpopular movie opinion: Live Free or Die Hard is the best Die Hard movie. It’s the only one that makes a series attempt at a thematic point. It’s not about some deep relationship between the viewer and the world, or even the viewer and movies, but about the change in the nature of action in action movies over the decades since the original Die Hard. It also has the best villain since Hans Gruber going for it.
Some hackers have delivered code to a shadowy organization and then started getting killed off one by one. John McClane, for slightly unclear reasons, is sent to New Jersey to pick up Matt Farrell, one of the hackers on the FBI’s list, for questioning. So begins John McClane’s next foray into combatting terrorism and thievery, and I think it’s the smartest of his adventures. It really begins with the introduction to Farrell for McClane. It’s pretty typical generational stuff with the old man who doesn’t get all the young person stuff that Farrell spouts out of his smart mouth. That’s not the interesting part. What quickly manifests is the fight that breaks out between the terrorists out to kill Farrell and McClane.
As Thomas Gabriel says later in the film, McLane is a “Timex watch in a digital age.” He’s outmoded, and that extends into a meta commentary about the nature of action movies. McClane is a punch and shoot type of action hero. He doesn’t do acrobatics, but in the 2000s, that’s the sort of thing that was dominating action movies thanks to things like The Matrix, parkour, and some French imports. This wasn’t the age for John McClane’s brand of action, and yet here he is in a film in that time period. Do the filmmakers treat it as a throwback to another time? No, they bring the creaky old McClane into that era and have him fight that era itself. The French unit sent by Gabriel has a freerunner who uses motion to get where he needs to go, and McClane needs to figure out how to deal with it.
The visual nature of the conflict is at its height, though, during the chase through D.C. McClane has taken Farrell to the FBI who then redirect them to the NSA for questioning. As they progress through the city, Gabriel sends his helicopter of French mercenaries after John and Farrell in the car below. So, it’s McClane, using tools he can only access from the ground, fighting the representation of the new style of action movies that use a helicopter and never come to the ground. McClane uses the car to overturn a fire hydrant that shoots water into the sky, knocking one of the mercenaries out of the helicopter. At the end of the chase, McClane uses the actual car to take the helicopter out of the sky. He’s using the tools on the ground to take out the new antagonists in the sky. I love that.
The other major thing that I love about this movie is Timothy Olyphant as Thomas Gabriel. Gabriel is a really good bad guy. He’s got a strong motive. He warned the Joint Cheifs of America’s openness to attack on the digital front, they destroyed him for it when he tried to go around their backs. So, he’s there to make his point (with promises that he could fix everything that he broke), but also to enrich himself, all stemming from his sense of bruised ego, actual harm, and sense of righteous anger. On top of that, the way Olyphant plays him is great. Gabriel is completely in control, reminiscent of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, and alternatively sardonic and threatening when those around him screw up.
I really like the rest of the cast. Bruce Willis is somewhere between trying and giving up, but he still manages to make the role work. Justin Long is fine as Farrell. It’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy McClane that stands out for me. She’s strong and pig headed, just like her father, and when she gets re-introduced late in the movie, the way she fights back against Gabriel instead of playing the helpless victim is great.
The action is well filmed and actually carries a point beyond the mayhem. The acting is quite good, especially from Winstead and Olyphant. The antagonist has very solid motivations and his plan is both large scale and understandable (if, like most movies about computers, it overstates what computers can do). This really is the most complete package of a Die Hard film.