Live Free or Die Hard

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Frank Masi/Twentieth Century Fox
Len Wiseman/United States 2007

Live Free of Die Hard begins with a bang. Several of them, actually. It launches straight into the action within seconds of the theater lights going down and doesn’t stop until the lights come back up. Deafeningly loud and breathtakingly kinetic, the action is nonstop, fiercely uninterested in giving the audience a chance to breathe.

When Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) is sent on a routine assignment to pick up a young computer hacker for questioning, he is the last person to imagine that young Matt Farrell (Justin “I’m a Mac” Long) is an unwitting pawn in a conspiracy to bring down the U.S. government. But when the entire computer-based infrastructure of the country begins to collapse, it isn’t long before McClane and everyone else realize that the country is under assault.

In a crippling Fourth of July attack, the terrorists strike at America’s transportation, finances and utilities. With the nation debilitated and plunging into anarchy, computer mastermind Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) takes advantage of post-9/11 infrastructure consolidation and – in a move that is as much to make a point as it is to make money – prepares to walk off with billions of dollars. But high-tech Thomas Gabriel never counted on low-tech John McClane.

As usual, the Feds are out of step, but with Farrell’s technical know-how, McClane single-handedly takes on the terrorist network. The stakes have never been higher. As if saving an entire country wasn’t enough, Gabriel kidnaps McClane’s estranged, now college-aged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as insurance. Unfortunately for the bad guys, Lucy is most definitely a chip off the old block.

There is a line in Ocean’s Thirteen in which a character tells the heroes, “You’re analog players in a digital world.” There is a similar line in Live Free or Die Hard, but it seems to fit here far more organically than it did in Oceans. Live Free or Die Hard exults in its throwback hero from another era. For all their technical wizardry, the bad guys are no match for McClane’s old-school ingenuity and brawn.

In the same way, Live Free or Die Hard itself feels like a nostalgic throwback to an earlier time. As more and more movies rely on massive CGI enhancement and Hong Kong-choreographed wire-rigged fights, Live Free revels in good, old-fashioned fist fights and real, immaculately executed stunts. While the film does incorporate some digital action, it is largely limited to one particular scene (a completely unnecessary and implausible truck vs. jet battle), and it never overwhelms.

The action in Live Free or Die Hard is as high octane as anything you’ve ever seen. Have no doubt about it, Bruce Willis still knows how to kick ass and leave carnage in his wake. The stunts are phenomenal, especially those by Frenchman Cyril Raffaelli. (Like Sebastien Foucan in Casino Royale, Raffaelli is a disciple of parkour, a style of free-running movement based entirely on momentum and ricochet. Reminiscent of early Jackie Chan movies, Raffaelli dazzles with the untapped potential of the human body.)

The seductive Maggie Q plays Gabriel’s beautiful paramour, setting up an East vs. West showdown and one of the most satisfying, down-and-dirty moments of the film.

It’s great to see Willis back in the role that made him a star. His usual cranky, wisecracking, sardonic self, Willis’ McClane is certainly older than the barefooted hellion that scampered around Nakatomi Towers in 1988, but he is no less convincing. (I am reminded of recent pictures on the internet showing a much older Harrison Ford donning the immortalized hat and whip for the next Indiana Jones film). Yet McClane is not a superhero; in a cinema awash with indestructible deities, McClane – always in the wrong place at the wrong time – is a beaten, bloodied mess by the end of the film. Par for the franchise’s course. And as far as being a hero is concerned, he tells a shell-shocked Farrell that all that his heroics have gotten him is a divorce and estranged children. “Then why are you doing this,” Farrell asks. “Because there’s no one else,” McClane replies.

Director Len Wiseman (of the delectably slick Underworld films) has made a movie with little to no character development. Does he consider the first three films as set-up enough or does he realize that we don’t go to action films for character-driven plots? Wiseman seems to borrow elements from and even pay direct homage to a number of action films that have gone before his, including Goldeneye, T2, True Lies and, of course, the other Die Hard films. There are the familiar tropes: witty, testosterone-fueled exchanges over walkie-talkies and fiery action in elevator shafts, among others.

If there is one major fault to Live Free or Die Hard, it is that at some point well into production, someone decided that an R-rating would hurt its commercial viability, and a slightly more family friendly PG-13 version was decided on. Unfortunately, large amounts of the R-rated dialogue had already been recorded, forcing the filmmakers to go back over their earlier work and complexly retool what existed. The result is a sort of Japanese dubbing effect in which the characters’ mouths are out of sync with what they’re saying. It is, in a word, distracting. It is also fundamentally disappointing – even the now famous Die Hard mantra, “Yippee ki yay … ” doesn’t escape unmolested.

As Live Free or Die Hard appeared on everyone’s radar screens, magazines and Web sites fell all over themselves trying to compile lists of the best action films ever made. Almost without fail, the original Die Hard finds itself in the top spot. While certain action classics haven’t aged well, Die Hard, with its story of a man trapped in a skyscraper overrun with terrorists, is still an undisputed thrill ride from start to finish. Live Free or Die Hard isn’t nearly as smart a film, but it certainly is a fun, entertaining one. Don’t think too hard – just lean back, enjoy the ride, and remember a simpler time when Hollywood built sets rather than virtual environments, created jaw-dropping stunts instead of digital animation, and threw real punches instead of graceful, cartoon ballets.

© 2007 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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