By:Brian Thomas
Review Date: Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In the weeks leading up to the first Die Hard movie in twelve years, star Bruce Willis has been interviewed just about everywhere (including Second Life), saying that Live Free or Die Hard is the best film in the revered action franchise since the first one. If Willis really believes that, then he has little idea of why Die Hard is one of the greatest action pictures ever made, and why the sequels failed to live up to it. It not only had decent characters, including Willis working his charm in the best way. What made it the “thinking fan’s action movie” praised by critics and audiences alike was its premise: introduce a finite setting so that the viewer knows where everything is, then drive your action scenes all over that setting, making sure to keep everyone moving and motivating action by information.

The sequels broke that premise. Though Die Hard 2 kept the action contained in a Washington DC airport and environs, Die Hard With a Vengeance took place all over the New York area and even into Canada. Live Free or Die Hard shatters the mold, sending our hero John McClane down to Washington, out to West Virginia, and pretty much all over the east coast. With the action wandering all over into unfamiliar territory, the audience isn’t as engaged, feeling that any old plot device can be thrown in at any time. You want to be along for the ride, but the movie keeps heading off in all directions.

Still, there’s much to enjoy here. Vengeance left Willis’ McClane making a phone call to attempt reconciliation with his estranged wife Holly. Here we find out that he failed in that attempt. Long divorced, McClane is still a lonely NYPD Detective who never received his due reward for saving the day, and he’s been chasing a more mundane variety of crooks ever since. Though daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in the role originated by Taylor Fry in 1988) is attending university nearby, she wants nothing to do with her old cop pop. Willis’ performance is solid and comfortable, giving hints that McClane may have gone a little crazy after all he’s been through, and he almost relishes a chance to dive into danger again, becoming much more aggressive and reckless than the younger version.

His attitude is mirrored by the film’s suave villain Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant of A Man Apart), who also feels that he is an unrewarded hero. Between them is young computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long, giving the film some extra heart with his puppy-dog eyes), a typically naïve Red Bull-guzzling Mac-slinging techno-nerd whose outlaw streak makes him a bit sympathetic toward Gabriel. If Gabriel rewarded the programmers he employed to write hacks for the nation’s toughest computer networks instead of sending assassins after them, Farrell might have joined his cause. Instead, he finds himself on the list of top hackers wanted for questioning when Gabriel and his team break into the nation’s cyber-defenses, and McClane is sent to haul him in.

Through McClane’s heroic actions, Farrell is saved from death and ends up becoming his sidekick, relied upon to use his skills whenever he can while Gabriel’s group starts to systematically shut down the country’s most vital computer systems, from transportation to communication to power.

It’s in this hacker theme that the movie’s second fault comes into play. Live Free buys into that old thriller cliché that “computers are magic” – any character designated as possessing computer skills can control anything from a gumball machine to the moon simply by connecting their Palm Pilots via a convenient socket, clattering on the keyboard for a few seconds (these guys never use a mouse), then crying out, “I’m in!” When Gabriel sends his girlfriend Mai Lihn (Maggie Q from Mission: Impossible 3) to shut down the eastern seaboard power grid, you can be sure that she’ll have no trouble connecting all her equipment and getting started. Movie hackers never have trouble finding the right driver for their wireless keyboards or bring the wrong cable. They just open up their notebooks and – you know. “I’m in!”

Another error is in the portrayal of the hacker lifestyle. Those with top level programming skills don’t live in their mothers’ basements, as Kevin Smith’s character does, unless of course they really love mom. They can afford to live in swanky condos and put up mommy in one of Florida’s finer retirement communities. They have wives and families. However, they do all collect superhero dolls. 

Live Free delivers some corkin’ good action sequences, including the car stunts you know from the trailers, an exploding helicopter or two, a hard-edged fight between McClane and Mai that continues down an elevator shaft, to McClane taking on an Air Force fighter jet in a duel with a 16-wheeler. Willis has also detailed how it was decided to use traditional stunts and practical effects wherever possible, which is in step with McClane’s old school attitude, so the action carries with it extra excitement. Still, the gags step over the line into the unbelievable here and there. Besides, even if it really is Willis (and his stuntman) accomplishing all the feats we see, the damage has already been done by the invention of digital stuntmen. We expect heroes to be able to do impossible things, and we’re not so impressed because we know that the wires were painted out.

Since the film was directed by Len Wiseman of the Underworld series and shot by cinematographer Simon Duggan (Underworld: Evolution, I, Robot), every shot has a chilly steel blue tint to it, giving things that special dawn-after-a-tough-night look which is entirely appropriate for the threatened apocalypse. With its positive elements applied to just another action hero, our expectations might not be so sorely wounded here. But this is a Die Hard movie, and frankly, it shouldn’t be askew at such a basic level.
Copyright © 2007 Brian Thomas, author of the massive book VideoHound’s Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks, available now!

Mania Grade: C+
Maniac Grade: B+
Reviewed Format: Theatrical Release
Rated: PG-13
Cast: Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Cliff Curtis, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kevin Smith
Writer: Mark Bomback
Director: Len Wiseman
Distributor: 20th Century Fox