Anyone looking for an intellectually challenging motion picture should know better than to expect to find it in a movie called Live Free or Die Hard (I guess they thought that calling it Die More Hardest would be stretching things even by lowest-common-denominator standards). However, anyone in search of Bruce Willis (looking for all the world like Mr. Clean) being a smart-ass bad-ass while engaging in an increasingly preposterous series of action/adventure set pieces will likely have little cause for complaint.
This attempt to resuscitate the Die Hard franchise, after the passage of 12 years and the remainder of Mr. Willis’ hairline, is surprisingly effective at doing what it sets out to do. No, it ain’t art, but then it doesn’t purport to be. Good heavens, it doesn’t even purport to make much sense as near as I can tell, which is a good thing, because it doesn’t. All it asks of the viewer is to not think about it, just sit back and enjoy the ride. And, frankly, it’s a good ride—a little too long—but still a slick, unpretentious vehicle that’s built for speed.
The plot—to the degree it matters—has the U.S. virtually brought to its knees by the computer machinations of homegrown terrorist Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant, Catch and Release), who appears to be in a snit because the Homeland Security folks wouldn’t listen to his warnings concerning the vulnerability of the security system back when he worked for them. (One needn’t worry about the homegrown nature of this terrorism, since Gabriel not only has Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible III) as his Asian partner in crime, but a variety of henchmen who seem to speak Spanish, French or Russian depending on what scene we’re in, so we can take comfort that something un-American is afoot here.)
Since part of Gabriel’s dastardly plan involves a variety of unwitting hacker pawns, he lets his goons take care of any loose ends on this score. That works OK till John McClane (Willis, of course) gets sent to bring in one of the potentially hazardous hackers, Matt Farrell (Justin Long of Jeepers Creepers and Apple Computer commercials fame), for questioning. Gabriel and his murderous minions expect to run into McClane about as much as most people expect the Spanish Inquisition. After laying waste to the bad guys—and several blocks of buildings and an assortment of cars—über-bad McClane and über-nerd Farrell settle in to the kind of odd-couple repartee that keeps this sort of entertainment alive in between derring-do and things blowing up.
In the meantime, Gabriel’s plot gets further underway—including such nefarious ideas as turning all the traffic lights in Washington, D.C., green. (Whether or not he appropriated this gag from The Italian Job (2003) or from the playful warlock antics of Jack Lemmon in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), it does create an effective mess.) The whole thing is meant to bring about something the film calls a “fire sale,” wherein everything crashes because of computers. (Personally, I have no idea whether such a scenario exists or could exist, but I take heart in the fact that there must be the most über über-nerd of all time (a choice role for Kevin Smith) living in his mom’s basement in Jersey who could screw with anyone undertaking such a thing.)
There are all sorts of twists, turns and subordinate plotlines—one having to do with McClane’s strained relationship with his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Grindhouse) that’s clearly a setup for a showdown—but none of it matters much. The movie is all about snappy dialogue and transparently ridiculous action, action and more action. Now, none of the action tends to make even marginal sense. What kind of ultra-sensitive control room is set up so that you can ram a truck into it from a parking garage? Or what jet pilot is going to weave in and out of the collapsing interstate overpasses he was responsible for launching a missile into in the first place? But it doesn’t have to make sense. The movie never pauses long enough to worry about it, nor should the viewer.
What is rather refreshing—and surprising in light of Wiseman’s Underworld flicks (unless the credit here is really due to second unit director Brian Smrz)—is that the action itself tends to be handled coherently. The geography is occasionally sketchy, but rarely does the film descend to the level of shooting the action in close and frenetically cutting it together so that you can’t tell what’s going on but know it’s supposed to be exciting. Rather than ersatz editorial excitement, Live Free or Die Hard generates actual excitement, which is a notable achievement in itself.
Willis and Long have good chemistry (though, as an aside, someone should clue Long in on the fact that the macho three-day-beard-growth look is more effective if you can actually grow a beard), and the whole film moves at a lightning pace. The script is hardly a masterpiece of good writing, but it does cleverly keep the audience waiting for McClane’s trademark “Yippee ki-yay” line (the last word of which is largely obliterated by a gunshot for PG-13 purposes) and manages to keep topping itself in terms of outrageous set pieces. Sure, this isn’t great filmmaking, but it’s a terrific summertime thrill ride. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation.