Film Review: Live Free or Die Hard

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It’s always hard to dislike a movie that’s so self-aware that it recognizes its own weaknesses and embraces them in an attempt to make them a strength.

While 1988′s Die Hard is unquestionably an action movie classic, it’s also a rather odd foundation for a film franchise. Sure it spawned three sequels, each with increasingly silly titles, but there’s little in the way of connective tissue between them, aside from the star, his character’s name, the fact that he runs into terrorists more often than Jack Bauer and spends a lot of time talking over walkie talkies, radios and, eventually, cell phones. While each of the three previous Die Hards had their pleasures, it’s been almost 20 years from the original, and 12 since the last one.

So now out of Hollywood limbo comes Bruce Willis as the lucky/unlucky supercop John McClane, older, wrinklier and balder, but still a fairly ideal film hero to ride shotgun with for a an hour and a half, or, in this case, over two.

Willis’ age, and that of the franchise, is, it turns out, integral to the film, a rather clever move considering it launches with some of the most bizarre credits I’ve seen on a would-be blockbuster, like “Based on the article ‘A Farewell to Arms’ by John Carlin” and “Based on certain original characters by Roderick Thorp.”

When a smarmy, tech-savvy bad guy Timothy Olyphant, his sexy kung fu lieutenant Maggie Q and their small army of computer hackers manage to shut down the entire United States, in a urban legendary attack known as a “fire sale,” Willis finds himself up against bleeding edge cyber-terrorists and high-kicking, back-flipping, parkour-running post-Matrix bad guys, motivated by disaffection with modern Bush-run America. The plot is an mélange of today’s action movie tropes, with only the hero seeming not to fit into the movie.

At one point, Olyphant’s terrorist tells our hero, “You’re a Timex watch in a digital world.” Or, in other words, he’s a twentieth century action hero who finds himself in a twenty-first century action movie. In something of a cinematic sop to the audience, congratulating our nostalgia, Willis’ McClane soldiers on, intent on delivering a good old-fashioned ass-whooping to Olyphant, no mater how much punishment he takes or how ridiculous the set pieces get.

And they get plenty ridiculous, including a semi truck duel with a military jet (culminating in Willis briefly surfing on its tail) and McClane killing a helicopter with a car (he was “out of bullets,” he laughs). In fact, whenever his back is up against the wall, McClane tends to nonsensically jump behind the wheel of a car and do something retarded, which somehow ends up working out for him.

Yes, it’s silly, but Director Len Wiseman (responsible for the endurance tests that are the Underworld movies) and writers Mark Bomback and David Marconi know it’s silly, an so we see McClane reacting with surprise and bemusement to each action scene, chuckling at the destruction he causes and shaking his head at its implausibility.

It makes for a clever film, even if it’s kind of an empty cleverness, and with such a long running time, after awhile it can even grow irritating, watching the film seemingly congratulate itself on its own awesomeness.

But it’s summer, it’s the freaking fourth freaking Die Hard, and if there’s a better time or a better vehicle for empty awesomeness, I certainly can’t think of it.

On sidekick duty is Justin “Hi, I’m a Mac” Long, as a sarcastic, scruffy-faced, manpurse-rocking computer geek who handles the stuff that doesn’t involve explosions. Comic relief is provided by Kevin Smith, playing a fat nerd who lives in his mom’s basement, and late in the movie eye candy comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as McClane’s imperiled but spunky young daughter. They’re given enough attention and definition to make it possible to spin-off future, perhaps Willis-less Die Hards, guaranteeing future movies with strained plays on the phrase for titles.

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