Live Free or Die Hard (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

After twelve years haunting the shelves of video stores, John McClane (Bruce Willis) has been exhumed. The indefatigable hero of three Die Hard films during the 1980s and 1990s appeared to have reached his "sell by" expiration date with the lackluster Die Hard with a Vengeance, but Fox decided there was still room for the old school cop in the digital age. So John McClane is back - sort of. For, although this guy looks like McClane, sounds like McClane, cracks wise like McClane, says "Yippee kiyay" like McClane, and gets bloody like McClane, he doesn't always seem like McClane. Instead of an everyday guy getting the crap kicked out of him as he soldiers on to save his family, this guy is a superhero without the costume. If we, as the movie-going public, weren't so obsessed with familiar faces, there would be no Live Free or Die Hard. Take away Bruce Willis and this is straight-to-video material.

The filmmakers fixed one mistake of Die Hard with a Vengeance, but left two in play. This time, John is again fighting for a loved one, although now it's daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) instead of wife Holly, whose only appearance in this movie is via a still photograph. Unfortunately, the film forgets that the Die Hard formula works best in confined spaces, and has John zipping all across the East Coast, with stops in Camden (New Jersey), Baltimore, Washington D.C., and West Virginia. Worse, the lone wolf has been saddled with a partner. If it didn't work when the sidekick was Samuel L. Jackson, how's it going to work when that guy is Justin Long, the dweeb forever known as Mac from the Apple TV ads?

The story goes something like this: a cyberterrorist, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), is about to unleash Armageddon on the United States. As in all Die Hard movies, his motives are purely financial (only William Sadler in Die Hard 2 had a noble cause). He has a sexy henchwoman, Mai Lihn (Maggie Q), whose leg kicks are high enough to earn her an instant spot with the Rockettes. Meanwhile, our hero is at Rutgers, upsetting his daughter by interfering with her date and threatening to do nasty things to her would-be boyfriend if he rounds first base. That's when John gets the call - head to Camden to pick up hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) and bring him to D.C. for questioning. Unfortunately, John's not the only one who wants Matt. Gabriel wants him in little pieces - he knows too much. John arrives just in time to get involved in shootouts, car chases, and really big explosions. Eventually, when Gabriel gets tired of having an annoying New York City cop systematically whittle down his fighting force, he decides to even the score by kidnapping Lucy.

Director Len Wiseman at times forgets that he's directing a Die Hard movie, not another Underworld installment. Color desaturation might work well with vampires and werewolves, but it's not a great enhancement to McClane's world. Also, while the action sequences are assembled with workmanlike efficiency, they skate past preposterousness into the realm of outright silliness. I'll buy John jumping off the roof of an exploding building with a fire hose as a tether, but playing chicken in an 18-wheeler with a fighter plane while double-decker highways pancake all around him? Yippee kiyay, indeed.

The character of Matt Farrell is a major annoyance, and more than one audience member will wish that Gabriel would hit the mark and leave John on his own. Long isn't right for the part - he's too closely associated with the TV commercials (and, in an instance of "clever" product placement, the computer Farrell uses is a Mac) - but the writers exacerbate the situation by making him an irritating whiner. John may be a fly in the ointment, but Farrell is an albatross around the fly's neck. As the head villain, Timothy Olyphant isn't the best bad guy in the Die Hard series (hands down, that's Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber). In fact, he's not even the best bad guy in this film. That would be Maggie Q, whose role as a henchwoman ensures she won't be around for the finale. Then there's Kevin Smith. What's he doing here anyway, besides sticking out like a sore thumb? There is one bit of casting the movie got right - Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who had the lead in Final Destination 3, is great as Lucy. In my dream version of Live Free or Die Hard, she would have teamed up with Dad and things would have gotten a lot more interesting.

In some ways, Live Free or Die Hard is the perfect summer movies: there are lots of explosions, the action verges on maniacal, it takes an act of God to kill a character (whether good or bad), and the running length tops two hours. The movie generates some excitement and releases the occasional burst of adrenaline, but at times it feels more like a big-screen episode of 24 than another Die Hard. John's one-liners have become as mechanical as his methods. There are times when the old John peeks out from inside The TerMcClaneter, and we smile, but those moments are too few. Much has also been made about the PG-13 rating, but that's a red herring. This film is as violent as its predecessors, and the profane part of the tag line is still there. In fact, it's a wonder that the MPAA allowed this to pass without an R.

When it comes to pure, turn-off-the-brain action, Live Free or Die Hard delivers and it's at least a little less burdensome in doing so than any of the summer of 2007's other to-date blockbusters. While it would be nice to trumpet that John McClane has returned in triumph, that would be a lie. Twelve years is a long time between sequels and, while it can be said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, this length of absence encourages forgetfulness. Bringing back John after all those years might have made sense if the script was great, but this is pyrotechnics 101 with a side order of computer-geek-speak. Strangely enough, Live Free or Die Hard may work better for an audience that doesn't know much about the series is than it will for Die Hard die hards, who will be wondering who that impersonator is and what he did with the real John McClane. The original Die Hard came out of nowhere to blitz the 1988 summer box office. The fourth installment arrives with a weight of expectations that Atlas would have trouble shouldering and, when the dust settles in September, it's unlikely that Live Free or Die Hard will be one of this year's big success stories.

Live Free or Die Hard (United States, 2007)

Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Kevin Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Screenplay: Mark Bomback
Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Music: Marco Beltrami
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1