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Live Free or Die Hard   B-

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Len Wiseman
Writer: Mark Bomback
Cast: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Cliff Curtis, Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kevin Smith.

Review by Rob Vaux

This year's honorary It Could Have Been Worse Award goes to Bruce Willis, who proves nearly as durable as his signature hero, John McClane. Dragging the Die Hard franchise out of mothballs after 12 long years at first seems like an act of stunning boneheadedness. And yet somehow, inexplicably, Willis and director Len Wiseman kinda sorta turn it into a good time... though it requires a considerable amount of audience goodwill to get there. Live Free or Die Hard has the same queasy mixture of pseudo-realism and unrepentant balderdash that marks the three previous films in the series, and that balance was never more precarious than it is here. But if you can accept that -- if you can take the chilling post-9/11 undertones amid a cocktail of pure '80s action-movie blarney -- then I'll be damned if it doesn't deliver the goods.

Wiseman uses the earlier Die Hard films as a security blanket, providing us with the comforting presence of a reliable formula while shifting things just enough to make the exercise worthwhile. Willis, of course, is vital in this regard, slipping into the role of McClane like a beloved pair of sneakers. He's older, he's paunchier, he's seen a good deal more of that rough road of life, but he's still the same guy who blew a whole building up rather than let some skeevy Eurotrash walk off with a pile of stolen money. Once again, he stumbles inadvertently into a sinister plot of stunning ambition, orchestrated by nasty people exponentially more intelligent than he. Ordered by his captain to bring in wanted computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) for questioning, McClane arrives just in time to keep the lad from getting snuffed by a band of heavily armed assassins. They work for Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), the man with the plan for this go-round, who's using a gang of technodweebs to crash every vital computer system in the country. Fire departments, traffic coordinators, the FBI, gas and electrical power... all of them run on computers, we are told, and all of them are supremely vulnerable to being shut off like a switch. Farrell inadvertently helped design the programming to make such a cataclysm possible, and once he's served his purpose, Gabriel is more than happy to bump him off. But then McClane comes along like he always does, and though outgunned and outmaneuvered, he's played this game too many times to just walk away.

The scenario builds with the same deliberate pace that we've come to expect from the series, as Gabriel's ultimate goals become clearer and McClane -- with Farrell in tow -- slowly tracks him down through various stages of elaborate setup. It also adroitly demonstrates the film's mixed blessings, exacerbating the bad points even as it confirms the good. The original Die Hard benefited from a supremely slick scheme, allowing us to revel in the villains' cleverness even as we were rooting against them. We could see how smart they were; we could watch the elegant tumblers of their plot slowly falling into place. Live Free relies a lot more on assumption than exposition. Like the heroes of Fox's 24, the bad guys here are plugged into everything -- able to access a bafflingly complex array of computer systems, social services, TV feeds, and cell-phone networks with the push of a button. The film shows us the results of their efforts, but the logic involved becomes very fuzzy, based largely on our willingness to accept that someone could do this with nothing more than a good computer. We take their inhuman hypercompetence as a matter of course; the regular authorities act as fumbling patsies while Gabriel goes about destroying the foundations of society with apocalyptic ease.

And yet that also gives Live Free or Die Hard a surprisingly subversive undercurrent. Like the original, it treats the U.S. government with remarkable disdain, painting them as hapless nitwits at best and active threats at worst. Gabriel manipulates and reroutes their good intentions at every turn, relying on their paranoia and arrogance to keep them tripping over their own feet. When McClane starts causing problems, Gabriel uses the apparatus of power against him: diverting police cars to lead him into an ambush, feigning a 911 dispatch to abduct his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and in the film's bombastic climax, siccing an unwitting F-16 on him by assuring the pilot that he's a terrorist. Live Free drives the point home most exquisitely in Gabriel's broadcast message of doom -- a video cobbled together from the speeches of a dozen U.S. presidents, their words twisted against the very institutions they represent. The gimmick brings an unsettling ambiguity to a film where right and wrong are otherwise clearly labeled; the government, it assures us, is not our friend.

Live Free's more overt bells and whistles adopt a similar formula, with preposterous action scenes concealing surprisingly graceful subtleties. Wiseman dispenses with all notions of plausible physics early on, as evil henchmen spring from the woodwork and McClane pulls out his usual desperate bag of tricks to take them down. None of it bears an even passing resemblance to reality, and though Willis bleeds convincingly as always, his character's frailties can't disguise how tenaciously unstoppable he really is. The original Die Hard was praised for bringing human vulnerabilities into an era of the Schwarzenegger übermensch, but two decades later, McClane's indestructibility stands out far more than his everyman fears. Bouts of misogyny disrupt the proceedings as well, notably in a nasty melee involving Gabriel's girlfriend (Maggie Q), which becomes far uglier than its creators presumably intended.

Having said that, Wiseman delivers plenty of energy and enthusiasm to balance out the shortcomings. As a director, he's always had a strong grasp of three-dimensional space -- even his turgid Underworld pictures made good use of multiple planes of action -- and a larger budget gives him room to fully flex those muscles. The resulting mayhem displays a distinctive sense of height and depth, as McClane rams police cars up into hovering helicopters and minions clamber expertly among ceiling ducts and fire escapes to pursue him. The notion is further enhanced by recurring use of Parkour-style fight choreography (the New Hotness of action films, highlighted most recently in Casino Royale) and by the presence of ace acrobat Cyril Raffaelli who gloriously flaunts his skills as one of Gabriel's chief minions.

It's never high art, nor does it pretend to be... and that's OK. If anyone has any doubts of its intentions, they need only turn to Willis, grumbling good-naturedly and giving the bad guys that look that says, "I fucked up Alan Rickman and he was forty times cooler than you." Though implausibility confounds it, at least it has the good sense to keep a few surprises in reserve -- and frankly, if you can't check your incredulity at the door, then this is not the movie season for you. Unburdened by high expectations, Live Free or Die Hard remains solid and serviceable, with enough new tricks to give this old dog of a franchise one last lease on life. Its edges may be bruised, its face may be bloody, but like its veteran hero, it still finds a way to get the job done.

Review published 06.26.2007.

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