Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, or as Bruce Willis’s John McLane explains in Live Free or Die Hard. He’s that guy who’s just crazy enough to do what no one else will do, and so he does it because there’s no other choice. It’s pretty much the same philosophy that Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs brought to the Lethal Weapon franchise. Both Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) ushered in that late ’80s zeitgeist of the cop, pushed to his limits, who is willing to fight the bad guys by being as bad as he needs to be. Both franchises have made it to a #4 installment. This is a dangerous time for these kinds of movies. The actors are aging out of their prime, the jokes are funny now through repetition not originality, and the action is expected and often perfunctory. So we put both of them in our Smackdown ring together and let them fight each other. Two Heroes, One Review, No Ties…
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John McLane has had the time since 1988 to grow into a world-weary cop who knows that no matter how many times he saves the world he’s never going to get a proper thank you. Live Free or Die Hard has a plot that is about a disgruntled hacker causing a “fire sale” where all the systems in America crash simultaneously. On paper that probably looks a little forced, but in execution it works. It works because it sets up a series of increasingly violent and spectacular action sequences, but it also works because it gives a chance for Bruce Willis to hang out for a movie with Justin Long who’s currently so much fun in those Apple commercials. There’s nothing in this film that’s actually real but Willis plays it straight, Long is charming, and it’s fun because you really start to care about these two.
The Defending Champion
Martin Riggs also grew up a little since his debut in the first film as a cop in the middle of nervous breakdown, to the point that in this last iteration, he was more a fearless risk taker than somebody who was commitable. In Lethal Weapon 4, the franchise still has the same buddy-cop formula with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover and, so, it has a feeling of familiarity which can be good and bad. But even Joe Pesci is back. He was a revelation in Lethal Weapon 2 and deserved an Oscar but, by this film, he’s just supporting cast with a schtick we’ve come to like and expect. The new energy comes from Chris Rock and he delivers a jolt of fun that the film uses to great effect. Did I mention that Jonathan Lemkin and Shane Black wrote a nicely plotted script about Chinese gangsters who smuggle peasants into the U.S. and sell them into slavery? It almost doesn’t matter because it’s really only about setting up the action sequences.
Now that we are in the digital age, a copy of something can be identical to the original on a technical level. But in the age of analog videotape, each copy lost a little something in quality. And a copy of a copy really started to show its degradation. But a copy of a copy of a copy, well, forget about it. This is the challenge. Even though both these films are made possible by the digital effects tsunami we’re living in, the story-telling is still in the analog age, and that “generational quality loss” is a real danger.
Bruce Willis plays John McLane without hair in Live Free or Die Hard and that choice tells us something. It means that the actor is willing to acknowledge his own aging, and that, by extension, he has to play the character as having done the same thing. In the same way that Rocky Balboa completely worked for Sly Stallone and became, in my view, the best sequel of that franchise, this choice works for Die Hard. This is not to argue that Live Free or Die Hard is the equal or superior of the original Die Hard because it is not. That first time out was so fresh, and the scale was reasonable enough to feel real jeopardy. If there is a problem with Live Free or Die Hard, it is that the producers have let it grow outside the margins a bit too much. Having John McLane in a semi-truck take down an Air Force jet fighter is fun on one level, but it also means we have created a superman who cannot really be stopped by anything.
Lethal Weapon 4 had the same problem. It, too, had all the technical skills of the first three films in the series, and the action scenes were equally outrageous, absurd and beautifully executed. But while Willis gave a little more heart to McLane, Gibson seemed to be trying to re-capture the glory days of Riggs and everything felt like a shadow.
Two high-octane action franchises — two cop heroes who will risk anything — one winner:
Lethal Weapon 4 had its supporters and fans, but it also was showing its age, enough so that somehow the actors, producers and studio all must have known that their time was over and they were lucky to make one last film that wasn’t an embarrassment. In contrast, the team behind Live Free or Die Hard has, like Rocky Balboa, let the franchise show its character’s life arc. It’s the reason that Bruce Willis and Justin Long work so well together — Willis is analog and Long is digital — they have real issues. It’s possible to actually see a Die Hard 5 some day, although if they do it, they ought to go back to their roots and scale the action down to something like that first office building, or else Bruce Willis will have to stop nuclear war by riding a bomb like Slim Pickens. In any case, one film is running out of gas in this Smackdown and the other is picking up steam, and the decision goes to the new champion, in the theaters now, and that’s Live Free or Die Hard.