"Die Hard" was ranked as the greatest action movie ever made by "Entertainment Weekly" last week and the 1988 film remains an important touchstone for a lot of what has followed in its wake (e.g., "Speed" was sold as "'Die Hard' on a bus"). It has been a dozen years since the third time Bruce Willis has played John McClane, mainly because it took a decade to come up with a story and script that would justify the return. I expected the wait would be worth it because Willis obviously has been holding out for something worthwhile, just like Spielberg, Lucas, Harrison et al. have been taking their time getting around to a fourth Indiana Jones movie. So, here here we are back for the fourth go around.
"Live Free or Die Hard" is a very good action flick. Not as great as the original, but according to "EW" no action movie is, so that is hardly a damning comment. John McClane is still a detective with the NYPD and still divorced, but this time around his personal headache is that his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is not speaking to him, or calling him dad for that matter. Then the FBI cyber-crime department gets hacked and McClane gets a call to pick up a local hacker and brining him to Washington, D.C. for questioning. The only problem is that McClane arrives at the apartment of Matt Farrell (Justin Long) just ahead of a bunch of guys with big guns. Somebody wants Farrell dead and it clearly has something to do with the cyber-terrorists who are starting to take down the nation's infrastructure one computer controlled support at a time. Farrell knows about "mutating algorithmic security codes," "fire sales," and how to use a laptop to control down the world. McClane knows how to take down a helicopter without bullets.
Len Wiseman, director of "Underworld" and "Underworld - Evolution," directs the fun that came from merging Roderick Thorp "certain original characters," namely John McClane and his grown up daughter Lucy, with John Carlin's article "A Farewell to Arms" (you can find it on the Internet). Carlin wrote all about the "soft-destruction" that can result from an "I-war," a term that refers not to an Internet War but rather an Infrastructure War. But this is a "Die Hard" movie and that means whatever people might be thinking or saying about what is going on, it always comes down to the same thing in the end. That, of course, is but one of the key elements in a "Die Hard" movie, the others being that the situation ends up being personal, improvising ways of getting out of sticky situations alive, receiving help from unlikely stories, and having to save the day because nobody else is in a position to do it. All that plus bleeding a lot.
There are all sort of little in-jokes with regards to the previous files (take a wild guess what it the name of the FBI agent McClane runs into) and well as obvious homages (e.g., fireballs in the elevator), and even if you have not see any of the previous three films recently you will still recall enough to get a lot of the self-reflexive moments. I am surprised that Timothy Olyphant is not quite as intense as he was on "Deadwood" as the villain, and Kevin Smith actually shows up without his glasses in an interesting role, but it is Long whose character is smart enough to do the right think sooner rather than later and Winstead who proves she is daddy's little girl who stand out in support of Willis.
However, we all know that ultimate an action movie comes down to the stunts, especially now that CGI is available to up the ante. The gold standard is from the original movie when the roof is about to explode at Nakatomi Plaza and McClane wraps a firehose around his waist and jumps off. This was pretty damn exciting in 1988 and as I recall the scene was THE clip they showed from the movie (stopping when McClane landed in the room and before the wheel at the other end stared dragging him down). But today, such a simple but powerful scene does not cut it. So there are cars spinning through the air or flying up to take down helicopters and fighter jets shooting missiles.
However, I think the best stuff in this movie are moments other than what stands out in the trailer. The initial shoot out at Matt's apartment is probably my favorite sequence from the film and all of that computer movie magic is not as cool as when Wiseman gets the camera to swing around one of the cars that McClane is driving like a maniac. So every time they ratchet up the special effects I found myself taking a step back from the movie instead of being drawn in. After all, the point of using Carlin's article as a springboard is because something this horrible could really happen, which creates some dissonance when contrasted with McClane rolling around on top of a fighter jet. Consequently, for me the decision to round up or down was going to come to the climax and what happens when our hero finally gets around to saying his "Yippee Ki Yay" line once again. Would then go "old school" or "high tech"? The rating above should give you a clue and explain why "Live Free or Die Hard" was the best of this summer's blockbusters. However, I did not recognize the piece of classical music they play in the second half of the end credits, and that is going to bug me to no end for the foreseeable future.