The original “Die Hard” was a blast of superheated fresh air when it descended upon unprepared moviegoers in the summer of 1988. That film introduced us to wisecracking, gun-toting southpaw NYPD Detective John McClane, who has become an American institution. It not only established TV heartthrob Bruce Willis as a major action star, but more importantly also demonstrated that action films could be intelligent and engaging beyond the requisite mountains of bullet-riddled corpses. The film’s runaway box office success spawned the inevitable pale sequel and even a surprisingly good third installment. But you know that it’s tough to keep a hard man down and John McClane is about as hard as they come. After retiring to the comfortable confines of the 5-day rental racks at Blockbuster for the last 12 years, he’s back and busted up as ever.
The fourth installment, “Live Free or Die Hard” (as if “Die Harder” wasn’t embarrassing enough) sees our favorite urban dinosaur finally making the leap into the digital age. He’s fought Armani-draped thieves, renegade military battalions and Eastern European militias, but now McLane faces his toughest enemy to date: a disgruntled sysadmin. The man in question is one Thomas Gabriel (steel eyed Timothy Olyphant, “Deadwood”), a computer network analyst who was unceremoniously terminated by the NSA when he demonstrated that US data security was vulnerable. In retribution, he engineers a cyber attack on the US public infrastructure using a whole lot of LCD monitors, PDAs and a battalion of French commandos with a penchant for parkour (which appears to have supplanted wire-fu as the new black amongst stunt choreographers).
Caught up in all this is Matt Farrell (Justin Long, that dweeb from the ‘Hi! I’m a Mac’ commercials), a freelance software engineer/part-time hacker whom Gabriel duped into developing an algorithm that allows him to hack into all the US government computer systems. The details aren’t really that important since they are of little consequence to the rest of the film. Suffice to say that much mayhem ensues.
And therein lies the problem. Director Len Wiseman (the “Underworld” films) hasn’t created an action movie as much as a mayhem movie. While the stunts in the previous “Die Hard” films were all suitably preposterous, this fourth installment doesn’t just jump the shark, but puts Bob Beaman to shame. One of the endearing qualities of John McLane was that we felt every shot to the gut with him, which made him human and accessible. After seeing some of the stuff that goes on in this movie, I half expected McLane to head to a phone booth for a quick whirl before tackling the next stunt.
We all winced in pain when McLane tread barefoot across a room full of broken glass in “Die Hard.” This time around, seeing McLane crushed under a crashing fighter jet doesn’t even elicit a batted eyelash. I thought I was supposed to be watching a sequel to “Die Hard,” not “The Terminator.” I suppose this is symptomatic of the gradual desensitization of the action movie audience over the last 20 years. Each subsequent film feels it has to visually and aurally out do the last one lest it not validate its bloated budget (“Transformers,” I’m looking in your general direction!). That’s too bad because 1995′s “Die Hard with A Vengeance” proved that that wasn’t necessarily true.
You may have also noticed that “Live Free or Die Hard” has a PG-13 rating rather than the expected R. But don’t be fooled. The violence is jacked up as far as possible, just without the blood spray. The result is that the action will get your blood pumping, but there is a distinct lack of visceral thrill. I know it’s a trite adage by now, but sitting through the movie often feels like you’re watching a video game.
The cast of “Live Free or Die Hard” is almost irrelevant. Willis is McLane and McLane is Willis, so we know what to expect. Since playing the iconic everyman hero in the original “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis has essentially played the same character to one degree or another in all of his subsequent films, and we still love him. He stands alongside Sean Connery and Al Pacino as the only Hollywood actors I can think of who have successfully pulled that stunt off.
On the other hand, Olyphant is completely forgettable as the movie’s villain. He has no discernable purpose or goal of any consequence, and he does nothing to accentuate his badness. He’s just a guy with a chiseled jaw that knows how to show a USB port a good time. Action films hinge on the bad guy. The good guy is a known quantity, so it’s up to the bad guy to provide the steam. For example, mention Hans Gruber to anyone and they’ll immediately know whom you’re talking about. Same goes for Goldfinger or Dr. No. In 20 years time, mention Elliot Carver or Renard or Thomas Gabriel to someone and I’d be impressed if you got more than a blank expression in response.
Long is serviceable as the nerdy, immature computer geek doing his 1337 h4X0rZ (on what appears to be a Mac. What’s that? No iPhone!? Oh wait, they couldn’t get them activated in time.), but he’s required to whine too much. On the other hand, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the cheerleader in “Grindhouse”) is quite plucky as McClane’s estranged daughter Lucy, and hottie hapa Maggie Q (“MI:3″) sports a stunning figure and more cleavage than I remember from “Naked Weapon” as Gabriel’s high kicking henchwoman.
In the end, “Live Free or Die Hard” is, at its heart, your typical brainless summer blockbuster, and within that scope it works pretty well. The shame is that the original “Die Hard” had a great deal of thought and ambition put into it, which is why it is a bona fide classic. “Live Free or Die Hard” lacks both, and thus will most likely fade from memory before the summer’s out.
Len Wiseman (director) / Mark Bomback, David Marconi (screenplay)
CAST: Bruce Willis … John McClane
Timothy Olyphant … Thomas Gabriel
Justin Long … Matt Farrell
Maggie Q … Mai Lihn
Kevin Smith … Warlock