Most action flicks–including the first Die Hard flicks–make the perfectly reasonable presumption that you’ll suspend your disbelief in order to enjoy the offered escapist fare.
To enjoy Live Free or Die Hard, however, you need to take your disbelief out back to the tool shed, put clownish, over-sized, rose-colored glasses on its face, and then punch it repeatedly in the nose until its vision is irreparably blurred.
Apparently it takes more than posturing and catch-phrases to make a good sequel.
Movies like True Lies that have a gleeful, farcical spirit can get away with going way over the top. In those cases, exploring the realm of ridiculous action-movie-cliches to solicit a laugh becomes an art form. Example: Jamie Lee Curtis’ often-frumpy housewife character, wearing a slinky black party dress in the middle of a terrorist compound, clumsily drops a loaded machine gun. As the the gun clatters down the stairs, it continues to fire, efficiently eliminating a cadre of baddies and saving her super-spy hubby from certain doom. Cue goofy one-liner from Jamie and clever one-liner from Arnold. Giggle! Or how about when the Main Bad Guy–clinging to the top of a harrier jet that Arnold is piloting–slides feet-first towards the back of the plane, coming to a abrupt stop when his crotch slams against the tail. Cue the cross-eyed face of agony. Guffaw!
For an action movie that takes itself seriously, though, “laughing with” quickly becomes “laughing at” when the action reaches outlandish levels. And, for Live Free or Die Hard… I mean: outlandish.
You know what used to be so great about John McClane? As the prototypical “average guy getting into extraordinary situations,” he could always be counted on for a sense of incredulousness. Even as he was jumping off of exploding buildings and mixing it up with yet another well-financed, highly-sophisticated terrorist group, you could count on his exhausted, maniacal laugh to suggest that he could hardly belief he was caught up in this shit (again!).
Where’s that John McClane, now? Sure the John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard gets appropriately bloodied. Christ, the filmmakers practically hit us over the head with that one. “You’re hurt! You need a hospital!” Yes, we get it, he’s John McClane… he takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’.
And, sure, we had an entire scene dedicated to his role as the Reluctant Hero. (He’s a hero because “no one else can be right now,” don’t cha know.) I mean, how else were the filmmakers going to fill time as his character drove from DC to West Virginia? Good thing that scene got put in, too… the reluctance wasn’t all that obvious during the rest the movie, as he did his best to fulfill the “I’m going to kick your ass” Action Hero Tough Guy role.
So Bruce and the other producers tried their formulaic best to recreate the John McClane we know and love. But they forgot one thing.
That indispensable sense of in incredulousness.
Without that, the audience loses sympathy for the character (and for the movie) because it no longer feels like John McClane is in on the joke. Rather, he is the joke, oblivious to the preposterousness of his circumstances and to the daffiness of his own machinations.
Average reviewers of Live Free or Die Hard seem to be split into two camps: The “Oh, don’t take it so seriously, it was entertaining” camp, and the “It sure was entertaining, I haven’t laughed that hard at a movie in years… Almighty God in Heaven, that was stupid,” camp.
I think we all could have enjoyed the movie for what it was–in spite of John McClane’s half-hearted imitation of his former self–if our expectations had been managed more carefully.
An image of Bruce Willis making farting sounds with his armpit while dancing a jig on top of a one-winged jumbo jet in flight would have done very nicely.
P.S. Seriously. The movie is that ludicrous. Spend $10 of your hard-earned money if you don’t believe me.
UPDATE: Dave’s Long Box has spotted some rather careless backdrop issues in LFoDH. If you’re going to enjoy this movie without being distracted by all the flubs and ludicrousness, may I suggest bringing along a flask? …or six.