Live Free or Die Hard
Director: Len Wiseman
Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant
It’s a sequel to a franchise that’s actually older than its PG-13 target audience. It’s an action movie starring a guy in his 50s. It’s the fourth movie in a series that went way downhill after the glory of the original. It has the groan-inducing name of “Live Free or Die Hard,” which is the sort of thing studio executives bat around a room, giggle over, and then say, “No, really, we need a title.” Oh, and the only thing the director has ever done is “Underworld.”
So, really, there’s every reason to expect this movie to not just suck, but to be a humiliating abortion of a film that will make Bruce Willis fans forget the debacle that was “Hudson Hawk.” The kind of epic disaster that will make those of us who loved the original “Die Hard” embarrassed of that fond memory.
So isn’t it great that this movie kicks insane amounts of ass from start to finish?
The fact that the kid sidekick Willis picks up in this film is played by Justin Long, the much-reviled “Apple guy” in the Apple-versus-PC commercials (contrary to the scripts, hipster smugness falls to John Hodgman’s dorky charm every time) will invite an obvious comparison: Long plays a hip slacker/hacker who is skeptical of all that aging tough-guy Willis represents. Willis fights with a gun, the kid eventually fights with computer code. The movie isn’t PC-versus-Apple, it’s analog versus digital, and that analogy plays out very well.
The movie makes a lot of effort to be bigger, darker, slicker and more youth-friendly than its predecessors, and it works — because it is still a Die Hard flick. The filmmakers start by going through the checklist of “Die Hard” must-haves. Willis’ Detective John McClain stumbles into a big case and, by being the stranded guy in the wrong place, is the only one who can save us. Check. Family estrangement that has to be worked out. Check. Other law enforcement are mostly idiots, except for one good cop Willis can, at a distance, buddy up with. Check, with a twist. Willis and the villain taunt each other by walkie talkie. Check. Shit blows up real nice, and Willis really, really takes a pounding. Big ol’ check.
Knowing, then, what kind of film they’re making, cast and crew go out and just deliver, scene for scene, stunt for stunt, raising the tension and the payoff incrementally as a vague coterie of villains attempt a “fire sale” — a nationwide infrastructure hack that shuts down everything that is computer-run and necessary to keeping the country running, from FBI computers to the coast-to-coast power grid. The series of coincidences that draw Willis into the periphery of the action are as plausible as the film requires. The movie builds to a great climax and a satisfying emotional resolution.
So what’s to criticize? Inevitably, viewers with more techspertise than mine will pick apart the nature of the Evil Scheme and the methods through which it is implemented. There are a good number of small gaffes — when a character’s cell phone is showing no signal, the bad guys are still able to get a “fix” on her location, which on the face of it makes no sense. But, seriously, we’re not watching a documentary on how to take down the U.S. government here.
There are also a few problems in the cast. Long is very good, despite his Apple commercials, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as McClain’s daughter. Her personality shows that she’s McClain’s daughter, and the actress actually looks like she could be the daughter of Willis and, especially, Bonnie Bedelia, who does not reprise her role from the earlier films. But the bad guys “¦ apart from the generic flunkies, there is someone named Maggie Q as the Asian Stereotype of the Moment — she is a tall, thin dragon lady with mad martial arts skills, executed in high-heeled boots. Hey, we all need our sublimated dominatrix fantasies, but I’m getting tired of this one.
Worse, by far, is the fact that uber-badguy Timothy Olyphant looks, and acts, exactly like that American Idol goofball Ryan Seacrest. No one’s made me watch an episode of that show for several years now, and I still couldn’t get over how it appeared that Ryan Seacrest was going to destroy America. Which had been my argument to the woman who used to make me watch that show, but I had never thought he’d do it via computer terrorism.
Speaking of terrorism: As in the earlier films, personal revenge and personal greed are the villains’ motives here. In our new age of global terrorism, that seems like a copout. Would throwing in Muslim bad guys, feeding another stereotype, be better? Probably not. But still. The film goes out of its way to portray federal law enforcement as less utterly incompetent than in the previous films — Willis’ cop buddy here is not only a fed, but an assistant director of the FBI. So if we make that concession to the modern age, couldn’t we have come up with terrorists that somewhat reflect the same age? I suspect the answer is, “Not if you want to have any fun.” But the thought does come to mind.
Bottom line, though, this movie works. Director Len Wiseman keeps things moving at a great clip, with terrific sets, great stunts and action pieces, and a pace that warms us steadily from frightening but plausible gunfights to insane battles between fighter jets and 18-wheel big rigs. There’s some similarity to Willis’ 2005 film “16 Blocks,” but where Richard Donner delivered a cop-chase-action film on more of a realistic scale, this is the cartoon version that constantly tops itself with tension, violence and overt analysis of what it means to be a manly hero in the modern world. It’s like the best season of “24″ ever. It may also be the best action film of the summer, and a worthy successor to the classic original.