“Live Free or Die Hard”
The premise for “Live Free or Die Hard,” the fourth installment of the Die Hard franchise is really ironic as it is ingenious. Having a plot where NYC cop, John McClane must now battle against cyber-terrorists, the movie and its hero come to show that fighting the old-fashioned way with real stunt work is the way to entertainingly defeat the bad guys. And here I was about to write, “Take that, digital superheroes.” But in a way, McClane could be considered a superhero because he is a near impossible man to kill, as he climbs out of falling SUVs or hangs at the back of a fighter jet and jumps and slides down onto a bridge (with a tiny help from visual effects, of course).
Being a hero from nearly two decades ago, it’s interesting to observe how the mold of the American action hero has changed over the years. Think of the grittier movie and TV counterparts of recent years like Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer who talk less and just get down to business. I have to admit I sorely missed the wisecracks that no one delivers better than Bruce Willis as McClane. It is also highly welcome to see more old-fashioned, wild stunts with sweat and guts, in this age of overblown CGI.
The story in this fourth movie involves a group of computer terrorists led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who systematically shut down every sector of the government's computer systems from security and finance to electricity. Initially, McClane is simply ordered to transport a brilliant computer hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long) from NYC to DC government headquarters for questioning. It would be redundant to say that he will soon be having another very bad day, which may include trying to rescue his kidnapped estranged daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), killing more terrorists when not spouting taunting remarks to them and somehow thwarting the plot.
Director Len Wiseman knows the key ingredients of the Die Hard formula and polishes them very well. He has a keen eye for directing spectacular action sequences, as his Underworld movies showed, and he crafts one outrageous set piece after another, just as a superior summer movie should. In no less than ten minutes into the movie, we already have a gun battle where McClane rolls and shoots out a fire extinguisher to blast a guy out a window. My personal favorite is a fierce and then dizzying fistfight between our hero and Gabriel’s lover, Mai (Maggie Q) who shows some nifty martial arts moves. And that’s not even mentioning an insane scene when he drives and catapults a police car into a helicopter.
Of course, the most important element is Bruce Willis in his key, career-defining role and age seems to have had little effect on him. There is a reason Willis fits so well in the Die Hard movies and that's because his performance remains grounded and down to earth, despite the implausibility of the plot and the action all around him. Some may say that he is a little too self-referential here but that is perfectly in line with his character having fought scores of villains and thinking this is more of the same old, same old. At one point, when Gabriel threatens to kill Lucy, John simply says, “You won’t kill her because you’re scared of me and wouldn’t have any leverage left.”
All the other actors do a fine job and provide able support. Timothy Olyphant is appropriately menacing as the villain but when it comes to Die Hard villains, we know basically there is Hans Gruber and everyone else. The surprise is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as she gets some juicy moments where she refuses to be the typical damsel in distress and tries to own up to her father's reputation.
As for the controversy regarding this film being given the more commercially viable PG-13 rating (the previous three films were all rated R), the movie still retains the spirit of the franchise, which is in the gloriously implausible action scenes and McClane’s wisecracks and cranky amusement at the situation. Fans will notice that he does curse a lot less and doesn’t smoke but the intensity of the violence is still intact albeit with less blood. In fact, this may be the most violent PG-13 movie to date and it is a wonder the sheer quantity of violence that was considered acceptable.
All ratings debate aside, “Live Free or Die Hard” delivers the quintessential summer thrill ride and shows that the franchise is far more durable than any of the other sequels you will see this year. There is a scene when Gabriel says to John McClane, “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.” Yes, but that, of course, also means he can take a licking and keep on ticking. As long as Willis is in on the action, I’m game for more.