I walked into the theater expecting the worst from Live Free or Die Hard. It’s the first in the franchise to be rated a wimpy PG-13 instead of a very Hard R, and it didn’t help that when I walked up to the cinema where it was to be shown that the signs out front proclaimed the screening sponsored by a local easy listening radio station. There’s nothing hard about any of that, nothing hard at all. But this fourth Die Hard movie is a pleasant surprise. Though they’ve taken the annoying tact of truncating the “f” word off the end of John McClane’s trademark catchphrase, otherwise the hard-hitting, beat to a bloody pulp edge that these movies have always had remains. Director Len Wiseman accomplishes that inside a PG-13 rating by taking the film right to the MPAA’s edge. He’s appeased the Fox executives desire to make it teen friendly by shaving inches (blood spatters only 4 inches instead of 11), and still leaves enough room for McClane to punch the shit out of all of that prime demo pandering crap.
Die Hard 4 fits together in much the same way Die Hard 3 did, with maybe a little bit of True Lies mixed in. Instead of being locked in a building or an airport the way he was in 1 and 2, McClane is sent roving across the countryside with a sidekick. In 3 that sidekick was Samuel L. Jackson. In this one it’s Justin Long as Matt Farrell, a computer hacker in over his head. The country’s computer infrastructure is under attack by high-tech terrorists, and McClane and Farrell end up being our last line of defense through a series of completely bogus, silly plot coincidences which you won’t care about since you’ll be too busy watching McClane fall down an elevator shaft.
The action is faced paced and hard hitting. Wiseman has done a meticulous job of editing the film, staying right with the action and the gore until the last possible second, when it might push the film over the R-rated edge, and then jumping away from it to something else. He does it so skillfully you probably won’t even notice the Hard that’s missing, by the time you walk out of the theater your brain will have automatically filled it all in. However, maybe he should have also edited out most of the movie’s driving scenes. It’s hard to believe when you consider how seamless the rest of the effects work in the movie is, but most of the film’s driving scenes look like something that fell out of 1957. It’s so bad it’s jarring. At times it’s almost laughably obvious that Willis and Long are sitting in a fake car in front of a green screen. You’d think they’d be able to do something that Hollywood has been doing right for decades. I guess they spent their effects budget on helicopters. Given the choice, I’d have gone with exploding whirlybirds too.
Willis is still great as McClane and I’m starting to think this is one character that’s only going to get better as he gets older. By the time Willis is 80, I’d be perfectly happy to see McClane wheeled in to take over for Bruce Campbell’s Elvis in some sort of nursing-home based Bubba Ho-Tep sequel. The older he gets, the crankier he gets, and the more fun there is to be had. It helps that he has such a good rapport with Justin Long. Long is sometimes hit or miss. He’s good in movies like Galaxy Quest and Idiocracy, but he’s sort of a waste of space in Accepted. In Live Free or Die Hard he’s at his best, and his chemistry with Willis works. Special thanks to the script, which doesn’t turn Long’s character into one of those boring hacker fountains of techno-babble. Instead that role is filled by Kevin Smith, in a cameo as the stereotypical, basement dwelling, computer nerd. Kevin’s a master communicator so he’s great on screen, but the films seems to treat him as if he’s twelve instead of thirty-seven. Something about that’s not right, and it’s no fault of Kevin’s.
If there’s any real criticism to be leveled at Live Free or Die Hard though, it’s that the movie never really shows us anything new. The action is big and fun, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking and for the most part it’s a bunch of riffs on action sequences we’ve seen before either in Die Hard movies or in other, inferior action films. It doesn’t help that the villains and their master plan are kind of a bore. Sure they’ve cooked up an intricate scheme, unfortunately it’s a lot like the one used by Simon Gruber in Die Hard: With a Vengeance except instead of dump trucks these bad guys are doing everything with computers. Dump trucks are a lot more interesting. Because the script is so intent on being hip with modern technology, a good portion of the film’s most evil moments are spent watching bad guys type furiously at computers. Luckily it’s not long before the not so technologically savvy McClane picks up a laptop and uses it to bash someone over the head.
The bottom line here is that Live Free or Die Hard will fit pretty comfortably on a shelf with the rest of the Die Hard movies. If you’re one of those people who thinks that the only good Die Hard movie was the first one, then this isn’t going to change your mind. On the other hand, if you’re like me and you think Die Hard: With a Vengeance was a blast, then you’re going to feel much the same way about this one. McClane is back, and since he doesn’t get to say it properly in the movie I will: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfuckers.