Nineteen years after the original, the Die Hard franchise, character and star hold up

Live Free Or Die Hard

on June 29, 2007 by Annlee Ellingson
Nearly two decades after single-handedly foiling a high-rise robbery by European terrorists, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is an action hero from another era. More likely to find himself “in the wrong place at the wrong time” than to actively set out to save the day, he's just a regular guy. With no special powers—he can't fly or sling webs, and he doesn't have any fancy gadgets—he just uses whatever's at hand, whether a gun or his fists or a fire hydrant or a car-cum-missile. And when he gets hit—which he does, repeatedly—it shows on his bloody, broken, bullet-riddled body.

After 20 years, there's no need for exposition to introduce this character, as we known McClane well. Just a brief early scene, in which he pulls a grabby college boy off his Rutgers-enrolled daughter, brings us up to speed on his personal life (divorced and estranged from his kids) while setting up an important plot point that will play out later.

Although on his way home for the night, McClane is called upon to bring in Matt Farrell (Justin Long, best-known for playing a Mac in a series of Apple commercials) for questioning. Seems the country's transportation system is under attack, and this kid is one of the few hackers with the skill to pull it off. When he arrives at Farrell's rundown, yet high-tech, apartment, they're attacked by a bunch of baddies who mean business. They escape (it'd be a short movie if they didn't), and when they arrive at FBI headquarters in D.C., Farrell quickly realizes that a cyber myth is coming true: It's a “fire sale,” as in everything must go—first transportation, then Wall Street, then the power grid. With the city in 9/11-esque chaos, it's this unlikely duo that is best-equipped to put a stop to it.

The pairing works well, juxtaposing McClane's old-school analog brawn with Farrell's new-school digital brain. More than just a comic foil who slows McClane down with complaints about low blood sugar and his asthma acting up, Farrell plays a crticial role, as McClane is out of his league. Let's face it: The guy, who marveled at the touchscreen directory at his wife's work in the first film, doesn't even know that cell phones are traceable or that hotwiring a 21st-century car isn't such a good idea anymore.

Each is stymied by the other's skill set: “Have you done stuff like that before?” Farrell asks after he and McClane escape an opening action scene that emulates what he's seen only in video games before. “How do you know about this stuff?” McClane counters after Farrell once again prevents him from making a fatal mistake. The answer: “I don't know.”

Less interesting, unfortunately, is bad guy Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant, who played a decent, if reluctant, lawman whose surface stillness belied a seething rage on HBO's excellent Deadwood ). For someone who's bringing the nation to its knees, his motivations are disappointingly simplistic: Sure, he's a former government consultant bent on teaching the country a lesson after his warnings about the vulnerability of the U.S.' infrastructure went unheeded. But he means to get paid for his services, too.

Eventually Gabriel decides he's had it with McClane and locates and kidnaps his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) for leverage. In another inspired characterization, the coed proves to be just as much of a spitfire as her dad. Bathed in cool blues (versus the organic colors of blood and guts associated with McClane), Olyphant looks great, and in the climactic showdown Gabriel has his own moment of delicious wit. But next to McClane, Farrell and Lucy—not to mention his own henchwoman Mai Lihn (Maggie Q), who beats on McClane in an East-meets-West showdown; Federal Agent Bowman (Cliff Curtis, an interesting career on the rise); Warlock (Kevin Smith), whose Baltimore basement is the only place still lit after the entire Eastern corridor goes out—this villain is pretty bland.

The action, however, isn't. With a gentler PG-13 rating for a gentler age—there's no excessive swearing here (even McClane's signature line is truncated), no nudity and, tellingly, no smoking—what hasn't been scaled back from the original are the old-fashioned gunplay, fistfights and explosions. Rather, the ante has been upped on every level, unabashedly so. In an era characterized by computer-generated set pieces (see director Len Wiseman's own Underworld films), every stunt, although carefully choreographed and fluidly photographed, feels authentic, even the unbelievable acrobatics by French free runner Cyril Raffaelli. If you think you've seen it all, you haven't. And what's best is that McClane/Willis enjoys it as much as we do. Yippee ki yay. Distributor: Fox
Cast: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Cliff Curtis, Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Kevin Smith
Director: Len Wiseman
Screenwriter: Mark Bomback
Producer: Michael Fottrell
Genre: Action
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation
Running time: 130 min.
Release date: June 27, 2007
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