As someone who intends to become a network security professional, I know a little something about hacking. Not how to penetrate people’s systems or anything like that, but I know about security flaws, I know about ways a possible attacker might come at your system, and I know that the visual for these attacks would be pretty boring. After I learned that the premise of Live Free or Die Hard would involve cyber-crime, I developed a lot of reservations about how this film could turn out. However, after much deliberation, I decided to give the film a watch.
The movie brings back Detective John McClane of the NYPD. Now formally divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughter, he’s ordered to take a computer hacker from New Jersey to Washington DC for questioning related to an attack on the FBI’s computer system, as well as the deaths of several other hackers. After he arrives at the house of the hacker, Matt Farrell (played by Justin Long), some assassins attempt to kill Farrell, ringing alarm bells for McClaine. As John and Matt make their way down to DC, a series of hacker attacks, masterminded by former NSA hacker Thomas Gabriel (played by Timothy Olyphant), bring the US infrastructure to it’s knees. It’s up to McLane and Farrell to stop Gabriel’s plot before millions of lives are lost.
First thing first. The concept of the story isn’t totally off base – the concept for Gabriel’s attacks was covered in an article in Wired magazine that in turn inspired this movie. Additionally, the director does a decent job of not spending time on the intricacies of the attacks, instead focusing on just showing someone typing or working on a computer to show that the attack has begun, and only then cutting to the after effect. While this gives the implication that the time it takes to do the attack is very fast, it’s good visual shorthand.
Additionally, while Gabriel is a hacker, the film does take time to distinguish Black Hat hackers from White Hat hackers (security consultants). They don’t spend a lot of time on it – but it’s significantly more time than most other films spend on the concept. Also, while most of the hackers in the film tend to be geeks of the room decorated with figures and geek paraphernalia variety (and one lives with his mother), they’re generally socially comfortable. Even some of the hackers working for Gabriel don’t look too bad. Also, the film has bad guys who use parkour and martial arts who end up getting taken out by McClane, they all get their licks in on McClane first, and he looks appropriately beat up by the end of the film.
However, the film is not without some faults. By the end of the film, John McClane has gone beyond the regular “terrorists” and other criminals he’s faced in prior films – having taken out the Joint Strike Fighter and a Helicopter, among other massive pieces of damage he’s wrought. While the way they do it is (with the exception of the sequence with the JSF as an exception) isn’t totally implausible, it’s so far over the top from the stuff he’d done in the 4 earlier films in the series that I could almost say that this film has little to no similarity to the earlier films in the series.
As a lesser nitpick, Gabriel as we see him really doesn’t feel like a hacker. What we’re told he can do, and what he’s done in the past meshes with the mindset of a hacker – a real hacker, someone who explores systems to see how they work, and if something doesn’t work right (or is broken) tries to fix it. It’s the mindset held by a hands-on person. However, in the film Gabriel rarely touches a keyboard. He doesn’t fiddle with electronics. The only possible way for him to be more hands off would be for him to be sequestered in some secret lair, petting his cat while giving out instructions to his lieutenants by intercom at the start of the film.
I had fun watching this movie. It’s not a stellar film. However, Justin Long’s character is probably one of the better depictions of hackers in cinema, the action sequences are fun, and it’s always nice to see Bruce Willis take on the John McClane role again. I recommend at least giving this film a rental, and certainly outright buying this if your a fan of the Die Hard series.