While watching Live Free or Die Hard, two questions kept going through my head: Does the world still need John McClain? and Does the world still need Die Hard movies? After exiting, I'm pretty sure that the answers are "no" and "yes."
I'll explain the former answer first: Live Free or Die Hard does pretty well without McClain, it has a great story and might have been a better movie without the Die Hard label and the constraints that come with it. If it had been made in the style of The 39 Steps or North by Northwest where a pair of truly ordinary people solved the crisis, there would be more opportunities for greatness. As an action movie, Live Free is very good. As a Die Hard movie, it's pretty average.
Live Free's greatest asset is its source material, a 1997 Wired article entitled A Farewell to Arms, which describes how the U.S. could be vulnerable to a digital attack. Consider these cryptic quotes from the article's opening:
Live Free is different from your average action movie because it can establish genuine fear. When hackers start manipulating traffic signals to cripple Washington, D.C.'s transportation system, you wonder why it hasn't happened yet -- same goes for their activity surrounding the Eastern Power Hub in West Virginia (this aspect may actually be fictional, as there is no city of 'Middleton' in West Virginia, and I haven't been able to find anything on Google relating to a central power hub for the East Coast). Like the Wired article said, there appears to be no real answers to what the hackers are able to do in Live Free, and you start to wonder just how McClain figures into the solution. Many of the scenes find McClain twiddling his thumbs while Matt Farrell (Justin Long) hammers away on his roll-up keyboard. McClain conceivably supplies the muscle in their relationship, but most of his action scenes seem forced, as without the Die Hard label they probably wouldn't have been in the movie.
From former National Security Agency director John McConnell: "We're more vulnerable than any other nation on earth." Or former CIA deputy director William Studeman: "Massive networking makes the US the world's most vulnerable target" ("and the most inviting," he might have added). Or former US Deputy Attorney General Jaime Gorelick: "We will have a cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor at some point, and we do not want to wait for that wake-up call."
And the Pentagon brass? They commissioned their old RAND think-tank friends, who combed through the Day After results and concluded, "The more time one spent on this subject, the more one saw tough problems lacking concrete solutions and, in some cases, lacking even good ideas about where to start."
But the world needs Die Hard? I say yes. It had been too long since we have experienced the kind of characters only Die Hard can bring us: the Female Villain Who is Not as Defenseless as She Looks (but cannot hear a 50-year old man sprinting toward her from behind in a closed room), the Villain Whose Skill Becomes His Undoing (Jungle Boy in the ventilation room) or the shot of Bruce Willis Grinning While Dripping Blood and Reloading His Gun. In this resurgence of comic book, horror and CGI movies these kind of standbys often get left in the cold, but you can always count on a Die Hard to remind us of them.
This was usually a good thing, but it seems like the comic book movies may have affected the Die Hard franchise like John McTiernan slipping on Green Lantern's Power Ring. This manifests itself in the form of the aforementioned FVWNDSL slipping in and out of She-Hulk mode, especially the time she gets hit head-on by a truck going at least 40 mph without even coughing. The hacker villains' abilities sometimes rival that of Galactus, able to shut down power to vast expanses of cities but still retaining the ability to power up an individual elevator in the blacked out area at their whim. The hackers' god-like powers hurt much of the credibility established by Live Free's great story: at one point they gain control of a webcam in a character's house and make it point in their desired direction (I didn't realize webcams had the kind of motor mechanisms that would enable such a move -- and should I be worried about a hacker gaining control of my refrigerator and directing it to run me over?).
Die Hard movies have never really gone for realism, but the aforementioned trips into fantasyland seem to amend the movie's rule book as it goes along. The biggest damage the digital terrorism does to McClain is that he's not fighting something tangible -- the viewers have to imagine like he does that trillions of pieces of code are infiltrating the U.S. and crippling it. There's no central horde of villains carrying out the evil deed, it's a bunch of programs designed by hackers hundreds of miles away. In this sense, I wish the Wired article had been adapted for a non-Die Hard storyline. We still need Die Hard movies, but we also need McClain to be working in his native habitat.