You could be forgiven for approaching Live Free or Die Hard with some skepticism. It’s been 19 years since the classic original, and by the time of 1995’s gimmicky Die Hard with a Vengeance (the second sequel), it appeared that the series had run out of gas. But if skepticism is okay, so is nostalgia, and you could be equally forgiven for harboring a certain fondness for this fourth installment, especially as it is relatively old-school in its approach. Live Free or Die Hard brings back the genre of lone-hero-against-the-baddies action that went out of style when no suitable successors to the Willis/Schwarzenegger/Stallone school of hard knocks heroism could be found. The movie is so implausible, so outrageously absurd in its action that I almost feel guilty for recommending it. Yet there was something about the picture that felt good, like slipping on a beat-up old pair of slippers. Something these things are most comforting when they’re all broken in.
Bruce Willis is back as John McClane, who now has a very tumultuous relationship with his college-age daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). McClane receives a call from the FBI asking him to transport computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to Washington, D.C. They believe Matt might know something about a frightening security breach that has just taken place within their computer system; his life might also be in danger because of it. McClane thinks it will be an easy task until people with high-powered automatic weapons start taking aim at them both.
Matt does indeed have a vague idea of what’s happening, and when he and McClane put the all the pieces together, they point towards Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant). The maniacal Gabriel has a master plan to create a “fire sale” – a systematic shutdown of America’s infrastructure, which, as most things are these days, is run by computers. His scheme involves everything from shutting down traffic lights to crashing the stock market. As McClane gets closer to finding out the location where Gabriel is operating, the villain responds by kidnapping Lucy. As the old saying goes: this time, it’s personal.
I’m not going to spend any more time on plot. This is a Die Hard movie, after all. What counts is the action, and it’s good, assuming that you are willing to completely suspend your disbelief. I mean completely. One exciting scene involves an SUV stuck in an elevator shaft, with McClane and Gabriel’s henchwoman Mai Lihn (Maggie Q) dangling out the doors. Another has a jet fighter shooting missiles at McClane (who’s driving a semi truck) as he traverses a crowded highway. You obviously can’t think about logic too much – how does an SUV get inside an elevator shaft anyway? – or the whole thing falls apart. I don’t expect that die hard Die Hard fans are going to care about logic, though. Insanely over-the-top action sequences are a staple of the series, although the original remains the most exciting because it at least somewhat grounded itself in reality. The events of that movie were implausible but not impossible. In Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane is pretty much indestructible (not to mention incredibly lucky).
Do I wish that this latest installment had a little more realism? Of course, but if the movie is not a classic, it’s at least a step up from Die Hard with a Vengeance. And, to a large degree, the picture is redeemed by some good performances that compliment the stylishly-filmed mayhem. Bruce Willis looks like he’s having fun playing this character again. I thought he seemed kind of bored in the last one. Perhaps the time away has brought back some of his enthusiasm for McClane. Willis is well matched by Timothy Olyphant, who usually plays bad guys but really seethes in this role. He makes Gabriel just the meanest guy ever as well as a strong foil for the hero. Justin Long, meanwhile, has proven himself quite charismatic in comedies like Dodgeball and Accepted (not to mention those “PC vs. Mac” commercials), and he brings the same kind of easygoing charm to this movie as well.
Last but not least, we get Kevin Smith, the famed indie director who pops up in a supporting role as Warlock, another hacker whom McClane and Matt turn to for help. His “command center” is really a dingy basement, tricked out with Star Wars memorabilia, video game systems, flat-screen TVs, and computers. Warlock has that bizarre “don’t-trust-the-system” ethic that defines the hacker culture. In his own films, Smith has specialized in depicting guys who live in a suspended adolescence on the fringes of society. Casting him as Warlock was a masterstroke, and he adds some very effective comic relief to the story.
The truth is that no sequel can or will ever top the original Die Hard. It was a unique action movie done with style and intelligence. The sequels have proven – with varying degrees of success – that the John McClane character can be a bona fide action hero as well as just a workaday cop trying to prevent terrorists from taking over a high rise. Audiences follow him because he fights the good fight, and there is something cathartic about watching that. Live Free or Die Hard works on this exact level. Action movies don’t get any more mindless than this, but sometimes mindlessness is fun too. Yippie-ki-ay.
( out of four)
Live Free or Die Hard is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.
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