As a high-octane action film starring Bruce Willis, Live Free or Die Hard is really quite spectacular -- what with its larger-than-life effects and nonsensical stunt maneuvers. But we're supposed to believe this is the next installment in the Die Hard franchise, and not "just another summer action flick." So when Detective John McClane leaps out of a squad car going 40mph, sending it up a concrete divider and into a conveniently-placed helicopter, you have to ask yourself this: Am I here for the popcorn action or am I here to spend two hours with one of my all-time favorite movie characters? If it's the latter, then you might find yourself slightly disappointed -- this isn't the same John McClane who woke up next to an unfinished cocktail and an empty bottle of aspirin. This is John McClane after he woke up next to an assortment of summer superhero flicks, chock-full of just enough explosive set pieces to make it worth your money.
If there's a Suspension of Disbelief machine currently on sale at your local Best Buy, then I suggest picking one up before heading to the movie theater. The first major difference between this Die Hard film versus the previous three is not the concept, but the execution. A group of clean-cut hackers hijack this country's most important support systems in an attempt to shut it all down while causing mass chaos. I can buy that. A jet hovering three feet above an active freeway? The fact that John McClane somehow has 47 lives when the rest of us get just one? Timothy Olyphant as a believable Die Hard villain? Kevin Smith's laughable role in the film (watching him try not to curse was almost as painful as watching him try not to act)? And McClane's daughter taking down a guy larger than three trees combined? This is Die Hard on steroids; jacked up to a level where it still looks familiar, except it's now capable of splitting you in two with its pinkie finger. But while it might hurt those expecting the punch, others will walk away not knowing what just hit them.
Once again, we find John McClane (Willis) right at the center of another failed relationship. This time, however, he's not fighting with his wife Holly; instead, he's finding it hard communicating with his now college-age daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Another female spark-plug capable of pressing all of the right buttons, Lucy, like her mother, insists on using the Gennero name in replace of McClane. We don't know why, and we certainly don't know how this father-daughter relationship became so estranged -- all we know is that it reminds us of the first three Die Hard films, and so that should count for something, right? With barely any set up, McClane is sent off by his superiors to pick up a hacker kid named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) in South Jersey and transport him to FBI headquarters down in Washington D.C. for questioning after their cyber-security system is hacked. Of the 10 or so hackers on the FBI's list, Farrell is the only one still alive. Problem is, Farrell, McClane and the FBI don't know that ... yet. A lot less reluctant than he used to be, McClane soon finds himself with a new wiseass partner and a group a beefed-up non English-speaking toughs out to make this road trip more exciting than a gallon of gas for under four dollars.
It's not hard to figure out how Mark Bomback went about constructing his script. Basically, he took a bunch of elements from the first three films, considerably upped the ante, watched The Rock a couple of times and introduced McClane's fiercest nemesis yet: technology. Like Die Hard with a Vengeance, the main two villains are one-kiss lovers -- he's a smart man with a grand master plan, and she's (Maggie Q) his non-speaking (except for three or four lines) assassin. Together, they make hacking some of this country's most secure systems look like opening a box of cereal for breakfast. Another element of all three Die Hard films is also present: the fish-out-of-water sidekick who's there mainly for comic relief, although he's also capable of helping McClane even if the man doesn't think he needs it. In a role that had a lot of people cry "bad casting," Justin Long does a surprisingly good job keeping up with the action veteran. Their chemistry is what makes the film feel more like Die Hard, and it also helps convince us that, in between films, John McClane didn't somehow become Robocop.
And that's one of the film's main flaws -- although he's a good 10 years older, McClane is faster and stronger than he's ever been. Whereas he really began to show his age in Vengeance, it appears he's now been injected with big-budget juice; the kind that makes it so you can survive several massive explosions and more blows to the body than you can count with seven hands. It's pretty cartoonish at times, and about as distant from the original as you can get. Speaking of, Timothy Olyphant's Thomas Gabriel is no Hans Gruber. Although the majority of his conversations with McClane are held via cellphone or walkie-talkie (as per usual), the guy is about as scary as the kid who just became a level 50 in World of Warcraft. He might be menacing behind the curtain (or, in this case, laptop), but get him out in the open and he's just a geek who likes to play with toys. It might be too easy to simply say Olyphant phoned (get it?) this one in, but the problems with his character are more because of story, not acting.
Ah, story -- Bomback and David Marconi get a B+ for effort in that department ... even if they did rip off the most memorable Die Hard scenes and attempt to re-create them here times ten. With the exception of a lame father-daughter setup (which is nowhere near as organic as the relationship between John and Holly) and more generic computer movie-speak than you'll ever want to sit through, Live Free or Die Hard is a pretty fun ride. Len Wiseman definitely knows how to direct an action sequence; just don't ask him to replace dialogue (there are two scenes in particular where the dialogue replacement is so obvious, even the 12 year-old in front of me pointed it out). But that's what you get for trying to go PG-13; a move that must have been decided well after a majority of the obcenity-laced scenes had been shot. The good news is that DH4 doesn't feel like a PG-13 film; instead, it fits somewhere between PG-13 and R. There's not a lot of blood and there sure as heck ain't nudity or sex, but the death toll is pretty damn high. I guess it just goes to show that watching a man die by way of a gigantic fan is certainly not as bad as watching him shoot his ... That being said, Live Free or Die Hard is not a bad film; it's the film we expected -- a sequel punched up to appeal to our Costco-sized addictions. Welcome to the new millennium John McClane, where the portions are huge but the quality isn't what it used to be.