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Live Free Or Die Hard

After John McClane (Bruce Willis) took down a helicopter by shooting a car at it, Goodson turned to me and said, "that would be a season finale on 24." And that was just the end of the first act of Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment/revival of Willis' franchise.

By the time this Len Wiseman-directed thriller reaches the end, we've seen much, much more blowing up: truck vs. fourth floor, semi-truck vs. Harrier jet (I'm suspicious that I'll see the same scene in Transformers) but not, alas, monkey vs. robot.

If you've never seen any of the Die Hard movies, this one won't leave you guessing. The long-threatened divorce has finally happened, and our introduction to McClane comes when he interrupts his now grown daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in the midst of a date.

Unfortunately for him, he's missed the plot already in motion, as hackers all across the country have been repaid for coding jobs with death. Since the Department of Defense has noticed, they earmark Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to be picked up. Guess who gets the assignment?

And it all explodes from there.

Ostensibly based on a non-fiction article entitled "A Farewell To Arms," this film at least starts out by offering a plausible if hopefully far-fetched scenario. Farrell calls it a "Fire Sale," a terrorist attack in which everything must go if it's controlled by computers. With methodical precision, Wiseman shows the potential breakdown as services come under the control of the villain, Tom Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant). If it seems too easy to fool the various governmental branches whose job it is to prevent this sort of thing, Farrell takes the cheap shot of pointing out that it took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome.

Of course, this should be about that one ordinary man prevailing against the odds, which means that the idiot factor of everyone else has to be cranked up. As usual, no one can shoot straight, and they can't seem to put two and two together until it's too late. After so many movies in which this sort of thing happens, you think the government would train its security offers not to fall for the old fake hazmat team bit.

When the action gets loudest, however, you want to forgive this. Wiseman has put together some truly spectacular stunts, in one of which even McClane delivers our reaction - "whooooaaaah…" Just like Renny Harlin went awry in Die Hard 2, Wiseman starts losing the humanity of McClane amidst the action. He's supposed to be an ordinary guy just slugging forward, but the injuries he sustains stretch belief. Granted, it's not like he loses a lot of blood; all of it is exactly where he put it on his clothes and sweaty extremities.

At the core of the script, at least, McClane fits the theme. He doesn't understand the technobabble shooting around him, but he does understand the consequences. Willis plays him with an appropriately exhausted look, but never letting you forget that like the best of cops, McClane registers his surroundings at all times. That can range from commenting on Farrell's magnificently doomed action figure collection (great set decoration there) to noting tiny details in the lair of The Warlock (Kevin Smith), the king of all hackers.

Yet Live Free or Die Hard does a poor job of giving us context. Unlike the previous films, the plot here supposedly has sprawl. It's not one man stuck in a building or an airport; it's one man fighting to save the Eastern Seaboard. Or maybe the entire country; it gets hazy. The action remains tight and claustrophobic, even on the city streets. The best scene illustrating the citizenry's panic comes in a crowded police station, but hey, that's just Saturday night at Kaiser to some of us.

Wiseman composes interesting images, though he's undone here by sloppy editing in some places. A lot of Justin Long's dialogue has clearly been added after the fact, perhaps to clarify the plot. Though the director handles action well, he's not much for actors. Few young actors can summon the coiled fury that Olyphant can, but here he just wears one expression, somewhere between petulant and surprised, that gives him nowhere to go. Most of the actors could be replaced by puppets and the performances would be about the same.

Even McClane's catchphrase has lost its impact. Part of that stems from the desire to get a PG-13 rating, which cuts it off so that we can finish it for ourselves. But it also feels forced, like too much of the dialogue. It's unclear whether or not McClane is supposed to be a throwback to the witty action hero or not. His one-liners need work.

It's serviceable. Like its hero, the Die Hard series keeps lumbering forward in the face of danger. Things blow up good. Good guys save the day. And in the end, you'll have fun. You just might have trouble remembering why.


Derek McCaw

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