The fourth entry in the "Die Hard" franchise and the first one in twelve years, the specifically post-9/11 "Live Free or Die Hard" is almost a breath of fresh air when stacked up against some of the other recent summer blockbusters. Sure, the story details are preposterous and the plot overly convenient, and a brief statement on the way the government manipulates the news media for the purpose of striking fear in the American citizens is about as deep as things get, but so what? Audiences that seek out this particular film already know what they are in for, and it has nothing to do with literary dialogue, three-dimensional characters and thought-provoking social commentary. No, what fans will be clamoring for is the return of bad-ass detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he flattens some skulls and pummels his way through death-defying acts of heroism in a bid to save the world. They can rest assured that this is exactly what they will get.
While visiting New Jersey's Rutgers University in a failed attempt to spend some time with estranged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), John McClane is assigned to travel to Washington, D.C. and pick up a hacker wanted for questioning by the FBI. Once at the apartment of Matt Farrell (Justin Long), an attempted hit on his life sends he and John on the run. The following day, D.C. and, little by little, the entire east coast are put into a sudden state of paralysis when all electrical power run by and connected to computers shuts down. The mastermind of this terrorist attack is Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who plans to steal billions of dollars by reconfiguring the country's technological infrastructure. John and the understandably frightened Matt set out to thwart Thomas' plota mission that becomes all the more personal when Lucy is kidnapped and held hostage.
"Live Free or Die Hard" doesn't really forward or broaden the character arc of John McClane aside from establishing that his wife has left him and his relationship with his children have faltered. He's the same old John, a little older and more world-weary than before, but still not above putting his life in harm's way or sneaking in a good wisecrack when the situation calls for it. The screenplay by Mark Bomback (2004's "Godsend
") reportedly started life as a stand-alone action flick and was later tweaked to accommodate the series, but a good enough job was done in rewrites so that the seams scarcely show.
A lot of controversy has been made over the PG-13 rating (the previous three installments were R), but this softer rating pleasingly does not equal out to a watered-down version. The violence is rough and gritty, if not too bloody, and the way that McClane's decidedly R-rated catchphrase"Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker"is handled is not nearly as cornball as it might sound on paper. Only in some awkward and glaring post-production looping does the film cut corners for the sake of reeling in the under-17 demographic.
Though the plotting begins to tread water in the second halfis it an unspoken rule of the genre that the protagonist's wife or child always be captured by the bad guys?"Live Free or Die Hard" unveils enough tricks up its sleeve to forgive the archaic clichés. Director Len Wiseman (2006's "Underworld: Evolution
") smartly incorporates the aid of CGI only as a set-piece enhancement, instead relying mostly on complex stuntwork and practical effects as he creates some of the more intense action sequences of the year. The artificial "Pirates of the Caribbean
" trilogy and the abysmal "Fantastic Four
" pictures could stand to learn a thing or two. A scene involving a truck perilously hanging from an elevator shaft is veritably exciting, as is another set in a tunnel. A climactic showdown involving a Hazmat tractor-trailer, a missile-firing jet and a rapidly collapsing freeway is truly thrilling and inspired.
In a prolific career, John McClane remains Bruce Willis' (2007's "Perfect Stranger
") most iconic role. Willis slips back into the part like he never left it, at once tough, macho, likable and unstoppable. In reality, the amount of bang-ups he incurs would leave any normal human being dead, but that's merely a leap in logic one must accept in this type of film. Justin Long (2006's "Accepted
") is an unlikely partner for McClane as Matt Farrell, but the odd-couple pairing works quite well. Long is very good in a very real way, humorous in spots but never overplaying it so much that he becomes unwanted comic relief. On less solid footing is Timothy Olyphant (2007's "Catch and Release
"), miscast and poorly written as head villain Thomas Gabriel. Olyphant can portray antagonistic types with the best of them (i.e. 2004's "The Girl Next Door
"), but here he looks too clean-cut to be believable. In essence, Thomas is a metrosexual unwilling to get his hands dirty, and that's no fun at all. In comparison, Maggie Q (2006's "Mission: Impossible III
") is vivacious, appropriately spiteful and well-equipped to fend for herself as henchwoman Mai Lihn.
As crowd-pleasing spectacle, "Live Free or Die Hard" fits the bill. Suspenseful and rousing and rarely stopping long enough to wear out its welcome, the film satiates what it sets out to fulfill while never rising above the disposably mindless. Sometimes, that's enough, and Bruce Willis proves with "Live Free or Die Hard" that there's still enough vigor left in John McClane for further sequels to come.