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Live Free or Die Hard

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/27/07 14:22:03

"Yippie-ki-yay, indeed."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

So it turns out John McClane finally quit smoking. He’s cut back on the profanity, maybe due to losing too much change to the swear jar. He’s a lieutenant detective now, which is a nice pay bump, in good shape for his age. But he’s also divorced again, and this time even his kids want nothing to do with him. Sure is tough being a smart-aleck renegade cop these days.

As you already know, “Live Free or Die Hard” is the fourth installment of the “Die Hard” series (continuing the rule that each “Die Hard” movie have a sillier title than its predecessor). The issue is that it’s been twelve years since the previous chapter, and nineteen since the first. Is John McClane still relevant, or is this just another cheap cash grab from a studio aching to revive any popular franchise?

Probably a little of both. McClane, like Rocky, Rambo, and Indy Jones, is a hero that can always rake in the cash, no matter how long the time off, and Fox knows it: they’ve been struggling to get a fourth movie rolling for years now, only now succeeding. On the other hand, Bruce Willis never lost his touch over the years - some could even say he’s even gotten better with age, as he’s shown he’s not afraid to take the occasional artistic risk. And hey, wiseacre heroes never go out of style, especially if the wiseacre hero is played by Bruce Willis.

To bring McClane into the 21st century, screenwriter Mark Bomback takes all those previous jokes about the cops’ inexperience with technology to absurd extremes: for this adventure, our hero is up against cyber-terrorists who’ve hacked into the nation’s computer systems, bringing the country to a screeching halt with blackouts, communication failures, and raids into government databases. John McClane, meanwhile, “a Timex watch in a digital age,” as the film’s villain describes him, uses old school brute force to save the day. Who needs cell phones?

“Absurd extremes” pretty much sums up the entire film, which takes the “Die Hard” idea and tweaks it as a post-Michael Bay stuntfest. Director Len Wiseman (whose only previous helming experience is the laughably awful “Underworld” series) seems too afraid to give the audience any sort of down time. Forgetting the original film took its time setting everything up before unleashing the slightest bit of action, Wiseman and Bomback instead take their cues from the faster, more chaotic “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” which opened with an explosion and never looked back.

Indeed, where “Vengeance” took McClane out of a single location and let him roam free throughout a city, “Live Free” goes further, letting him race from city to city over the course of several days. Which may seem like a cheat for a “Die Hard” film, but curiously “Live Free” manages to seem compact despite its sprawling story - as McClane runs from location to location, he never seems to stop, and neither does the audience. It’s not until the whole thing’s finally over that we stop and think, “Wait a sec, just when did that guy sleep? Or eat? Or pee?”

Nonstop gusto is what makes “Live Free” work despite itself. Compared to “Die Hard” and “Vengeance” (still the best two, and both, not coincidentally, directed by the same person, John McTiernan), “Live Free” is pretty damn ridiculous. But on its own (or if compared to the brainless “Die Hard 2,” whose awful script and horrid acting get cancelled out by exceptional action set pieces), it’s a total blast, an exercise in excess that defies logic and plausibility in a fearless effort to entertain.

Here are some things you will see in this film: a car is sent hurtling mid-air into a helicopter, both exploding; a car drives through a building and winds up dangling in an elevator shaft; a semi truck outruns a collapsing freeway; John McClane jumps onto, and then off of, a fighter jet; and so on. (One stunt involving a fire hydrant is particularly inspired.)

All are incredibly preposterous, especially the whole bit with the fighter jet. So why do we cheer when we see Bruce Willis do this stuff, but when similar mindless stunts-for-stunts’-sake show up in other action flicks, we balk? I’m not really sure myself. It’s not as though Len Wiseman is a master filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing. It’s not as if this is an impeccably crafted effort. (For proof, watch for the film’s countless editing flubs, most of which involve faulty, mismatched dubbing.) It’s not as though this is the smartest script on the block. And it’s not as though this movie is taking itself less seriously (or, for that matter, more seriously) than other actioners.

Perhaps it’s all in the attitude. McClane’s screw-you demeanor is always a hoot, often imitated but rarely duplicated. Seeing it return in these troubled times makes us grin. And in “Live Free,” the comic relief has been ramped up to giddy heights, all the while maintaining a strong balance between thrills and laughs. It’s plenty funny, but it’s never a full-on comedy.

Adding to the comic relief (when Willis’ own one-liners alone just won’t do), we get Justin Long, playing a hacker who winds up as McClane’s sidekick. From a story angle, he’s just a cliché: the tag-along who gets to explain to our hero all the technobabble that gets tossed around. He’s also a plot device all his own, as the story kicks off with McClane having to pick up the kid and transport him to Washington, D.C., a simple mission that falls apart just as all hell breaks loose - memories of “16 Blocks” remain swirling in our heads - and having the kid be slightly connected to the bad guys provides the story with a few easy shoves in the right direction.

But Long is too much of a comic talent to let his character become just a mere plot device. Like Samuel L. Jackson in “Vengeance,” Long gets to be the everyman stuck along for the ride. And his knack for smarmy backtalk and wry sarcasm makes his character a terrific compliment to McClane. They’re two wisecrackers stuck together, and the formula works. (I’m sure the fact that Long’s youth helps the aging franchise appeal to a younger demographic was not lost on Fox executives.)

Rounding out the supporting cast are Timothy Olyphant, whose scenery-chewing as the key villain is endlessly delightful, even if the character as written is far from Gruber-caliber; Maggie Q, as the ass-kicking henchwoman who goes to work on McClane in one terrifically brutal fight sequence; and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose turn as Lucy Gennero allows for a nice tie back to the original movie (and whose evolution into a tough-as-nails young woman is a nice touch).

So to get to the real point: no, “Live Free” isn’t as solid a “Die Hard” movie as it could have been, but it’s great to have John McClane back on screen anyway. His return offers plenty of what we want in an action flick. The stunts are incredible, the laughs are delightful, the pace is breathless. Whatever it lacks in such things as logic and plausibility, it makes it up with pure, all-out fun.

A side note. “Live Free or Die Hard” has been granted a PG-13 rating by the MPAA ratings board. This has caused some hesitation among fans, who insist a “Die Hard” movie be chock full of mayhem, bloodshed, and, of course, a certain profane catchphrase. But Fox, eager to find a broader box office potential, eagerly edited their film down to accommodate such a rating. We still have bullets and bombs, but it’s all intentionally bloodless. Besides, hey, they can always put that stuff back in for the “unrated” DVD. In this case, “Live Free” is the perfect example of the insane reasoning that goes on in Hollywood.

But here’s the thing. The fault doesn’t lie merely with Fox. Bowing to studio pressure, the MPAA has given us what may very well be the movie with the largest death count ever for a PG-13 film. Extras are offed by the dozens, often in truly brutal ways. Some of the deaths are left off screen, some are not. All are very violent. But, hey, at least nobody’s smoking or having sex or saying any “f-words,” so sure, PG-13 all the way. And with that, the ratings board has hit a new low in its worthlessness. Yippie-ki-yay!

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