Live Free or Die Hard
When a film franchise really takes off and becomes successful the studios usually have the installments follow in fairly rapid succession. This is especially true for action oriented movies since you don’t really want your stars getting too old to keep up and even surpass the physical remains of the first films. For a fast pace, action laden film in such a franchise to come out after a dozen years have intervened is simply unheard of. On any list of the best film franchises the "Die Hard’ films have to be close to the top. When it comes to sheer action and thrills few films can match the three Die Hard flicks. The first installment came out in 1988 with 2 and 3 following in 1990 and 1995 respectively. Three big budget action adventure films in seven years is not bad considering the pre and post production work required. Then the character of John McClane disappeared for a dozen years. Bruce Willis had gone on to many films in the mean time and all of us Die Hard fans thought, ‘okay, it’s a trilogy and that is it.’ With ‘Live Free or Die Hard’ out favorite detective in a torn tee shirt is back and the magic is still there. From the first time Willis takes the screen all doubts as to whether he still has is vanish. The stunts are bigger and better than ever. There are many differences here from the first three films; mostly a shift in style and presentation. What matters to most of the fans is the fact that Willis can still deliver. This is a film that you watch with friends and cheer loudly at the screen. I really can’t imagine the possibility of a fifth film but that was said after number three and we were delightfully proven wrong.
To go up against New York City Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) no run of the mill crook will do. You need a super villain worthy of a Bond nemesis. Here the job is aptly filled by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who should be in the terrorist hall of fame. He used to be one of the good guys working for the FBI but career frustration can turn anyone into a terrorist genius. His diabolical plot is to turn the government’s computers against them bringing the national security to a halt. He is usually seen with his henchman, er, henchwoman, Mai Lihn (Maggie Q) who is as deadly as she is beautiful. Villains like Goldfinger were a bit short sighted in hiring brutish minions like Odd Job when they could have had a lethal looker like this. Her ability for extreme high kicks is almost makes the film worth while on its own. McCane happens to be in Rutgers with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Since he is in the neighborhood the Feds ask McClane to take a run over to Camden, NJ to pick up a hacker, Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) to help diagnosis a serious breach in their computer security. Back in Washington Assistant Director Bowman (Cliff Curtis) has his hands full; the traffic system in DC is shutting down and the Stock Markey is on the verge of crashing. McClane is ordered to take Farrell into protective custody since he is apparently the only one who can avert the coming disaster. This must be common knowledge so Gabriel sends thugs to kill him and McClan. As we all know from the last three movies there is nothing that gets John McClane angry like a criminal mastermind trying to kill him. He tends to take things like this personally. With that preliminary matter dispatched McClan and Ferrell head off to a power station in West Virginia. There both men can do what they do best. McClan will fight off the bad guys with muscle, wits and some snappy bon mots while Ferrell brings the computer systems back online. During the battle McClan kills Mai Lihn which gets Gabriel very angry. It’s hard to find good help in the megalomaniac super villain world. His response is to kidnap Lucy to keep McClane off the case. While Gabriel taunts McClane with a web-cast of his daughter’s plight a hacker friend of Ferrell, Warlock (Kevin Smith), traces the evil overlord’s location. Gabriel should have gone to Wikipedia and looked up the Evil Overlord list of what not to do. It’s right there; don’t get into prolonged chats with your foe. The rest is pretty standard faire with explosions, gun fights and more explosions.
Director Len Wiseman had some pretty big shoes to fill following two installments of this franchise helmed by John McTiernan. The director of the two Underworld flicks may know how to dress a femme fatal but he falls short of keeping even a minimal story line going. True, you don’t go to a film like this for the story, they are all pretty much interchangeable but some degree of flow has to be present. He does know the single most important thing for this type of flick, action. The stunts in this movie must have paid for new homes for most of the union stunt men in the business. Not only does McClane break most of the civil rights of the bad guys he breaks a few of the laws of physics in the process. He survives more explosions that is humanly possible, perhaps he still has that ‘Unbreakable’ thing going for him. Destroying a helicopter in flight with a car is great to look at but you do have to keep yourself from thinking too much. This is not difficult considering the almost non-stop action here.
There is one thing that can be said about a Bruce Willis movie, he delivers what the audience wants. Even in his fifties he can run rings around many younger actions stars. The reason is the audience can truly identify with him. He plays the familiar character of John McClane with ease, like a visit with an old friend. While all the bad guys in any of the Die Hard flicks have technology on their side McClane has instinct and guts. Willis doesn’t make his character into a brutish man; instead he gives us a look at a man beset with many personal problems who has a good old fashion sense of family and duty. Willis makes a bloody, torn tee shirt into a real super hero costume. He also gives us plenty of his trademark witty delivery of his dialogue. There is a little touch of irony with Justine Long playing a hacker; he is the face of Apple Computers in all those ‘I’m a MAC’ commercials. Here he manages to stand toe to toe with Willis not only with the action but also the witty banter. He helps to give a ‘buddy flick’ feel to the film. Timothy Olyphant was incredible in the late, lamented ‘Deadwood’ but here he is not menacing enough to play a villain of this caliber. He has the snarl down but doesn’t quite sell the ‘take over the world’ vibe. On the other hand Maggie Q is everything you want in a evil sidekick, kick being the operative word. She is the epitome of beautiful but deadly.
Typical of modern big blockbuster DVD releases 20th Century Fox offers several ways to purchase the film. There is a widescreen PG-13 rated version, an unrated version and an unrated collector’s edition. Most online retailers have the collector’s edition for about $3 more so why go with any other. This movie was the only member of the franchise to be rated ‘PG-13’, the others came in with an "R’. Many felt that this watered down the action and that the unrated version is closer to the feel of the other flicks. Of course the anamorphic 2.35:1 video is stunning with bright realistic colors. The Dolby 5.1 audio will give all your speakers a real workout. The sub woofer is well used during the many explosions. This is not a film to watch late at night unless you have your neighbors with you. In the collector’s edition there is a ten part featurette on every aspect of the making of the film. The featurette, called ‘An Analog Hero in a Digital World’ covers everything from the stunts to what it takes to resurrect a franchise after a dozen years. There is a commentary track with the director and screenwriter as well as a look at the Die Hard flicks called ‘Yippie-Ki-Yay MotherF********!’. This is not the best of the bunch but it is a great experience.