Review: “Live Free or Die Hard”

A moderately respectable return to a mold of old, “Live Free or Die Hard” manages to deliver adequate action-techno thrills in a way that is both smarter and sillier than expected. Whilst there are some nods to the old franchise, the film certainly doesn’t feel like a “Die Hard” movie in tone.

That may not necessarily be a bad thing. The original “Die Hard” works to this day because of it not only helped kick off the modern action movie genre, but incorporated a clever surprise twist, confined space tension, excellent antagonists and a genuine sense of jeopardy.

The follow-ups however went the same way of the “Indiana Jones” sequels – they simply couldn’t beat a formula perfected in the first film. Thus, like Indy, we got an all too serious and dark second entry, and an enjoyable third entry which used strong supporting performances and more jokes to hide both the lack of suspense and the fact that it was a less compelling remake of the first at its core.

The fourth entry sits above the second thanks to a successful contemporizing of the ‘thieves posing as terrorists’ central premise by successfully exploiting both modern society’s over reliance on computers, and the culture of fear that has been generated and exploited in recent years due to the ‘war on terror’. It’s idea of virtual terrorism is an interesting and quite relevant one, and at times when it dangerously descends into technobabble, it pulls it back into real world speak thanks to Willis who effectively serves as the audience’s voice.

Yet there’s nothing here not seen in dozens of direct-to-video movies every year, right down to the karate-flashing evil henchmen and trite supporting characters. The twist that was so smart in the first film is cliched as hell now, and there’s no attempt to disguise or play with it in any way, resulting in very little plot – a dangerous proposition as there’s little in the way of character as well.

The humour, one of the more unique things about the “Die Hard” films, is barely apparent and restricted to some scant flat one-liners. Even the location hoping, one of the few factors that ‘vengeance’ did so well, feels strange and despite the Washington DC setting, the movie feels like it was shot on some Canadian backlot much of the time.

The cast is also not helpful either. Willis keeps all the best lines for himself, but they feel more artificial than ever and as clumsily inserted as much of Schwarzenegger’s weaker repertoire. Yet he’s an easy guy to root for, even if it feels like we’re only getting glimpses of the McClane of old. Timothy Olyphant does solid work as the villain, keeping his refined menace both cool and serious throughout. It’s not a memorable turn, but it is consistent right through even with a generic backstory.

Less successful is the normally fun Justin Long who is just plain annoying as McClane’s geeky computer hacker sidekick. Oddly miscast, Long isn’t helped by a script which turns his character into either a whinging irritant, or one of those overly self-reflective personalities who drops into tedious “I thought it’d be cool, but in reality it’s not” style speeches at least twice by my count. Filmmaker Kevin Smith fares a little better in his scant scenes as a geeky hacker, but is still decidedly light on the laughs.

Faring better is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a rather bland young actress but one who at least gives the role of McClane’s daughter more assertive fire than expected. Armed with some great fighting skills, Maggie Q stands out as a henchman and her one-on-one with Willis proves the film’s single best and most brutal fight scene. Speaking of brutality, the film’s PG-13 rating has had little effect. Short of less swearing and one or two kills that are more off screen, the film remains as brutal and hard-edged as its predecessors with the unkillable Willis as usual covered in blood and grease by the film’s end.

Director Len Wiseman shows an improvement with his handling of action. Some scenes are utterly ridiculous in a real world concept, notably the silly big finale set piece involving a truck, fighter jet and collapsing highways, but the scenes are efficiently filmed and effective enough to boost your adrenalin that they work in spite of the cheese. As long as he can get rid of his tedious Tony Scott-wannabe visual tone (complete with high contrast and desaturated warm colors), this shows promise for the budding “Underworld” helmer.

Ultimately if it weren’t for the presence of Willis and a few outlandish action sequences showing off its budget, there’s little to nothing separating it from average Steven Seagal or Michael Dudikoff fare. Yet it works for the most part as what it is – an old-fashioned grounded action Summer movie.

There’s no sign of reinvention or a compelling story to justify resurrecting the “Die Hard” franchise, in fact there’s only occasional reminders that we’re even watching one of those films, but it’s not a dismissable or disappointing follow-up – sinply a forgettable one. You’ll enjoy it and move on, but when it comes time to rewatching the films again on DVD, it’s one you’ll likely skip.