Live Free or Die Hard
Starring Bruce Willis
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Sometimes lowered expectations are a good thing. Coming into the summer movie season, Live Free or Die Hard looked like this year's Terminator 3 - the last wheezing gasp of a mostly forgotten franchise. So I'm pleasantly surprised to say that Die Hard 4 (as I'm going to call it for the rest of the review) is almost insanely fun.
Die Hard 4 scratches an itch I didn't even know I had. Sometime over the course of the last 15 years or so, the traditional shoot-'em-up action movie morphed into something else. Something...lamer. Think about The Mummy and its sequel, and how hard it was to become involved in their stories because everything felt so fake. If everything is digital, it's hard to feel any real risk, and therefore involvement with the plight of the characters. A giant sandstorm in the shape of a face isn't scary, primarily because it so obviously doesn't occupy the same space as the flesh and blood actors. You have to be a really skilled director (like Spielberg in Jurassic Park) to pull it off.
Len Wiseman, Die Hard 4's director, is no Spielberg. He directed the messy vampire/werewolf Underworld movies, which are some of the worst offenders of cheesy, bad CGI. But for this movie, he wisely eschewed his bag of digital tricks and went old school, making use of real stuntpeople and real exploding cars. It's a movie that's a little out of touch with modern times, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Bruce Willis's John McClane is also a little out of touch with modern times. The 12 years since the last installment of the series haven't been kind to the NYC cop. He's divorced, his daughter will barely talk to him, and he looks really really tired. Early on, he gets an assignment to pick up hacker Matt Farrell (yep, the Mac guy from TV) and bring him in for questioning about a computer breach the FBI just monitored. In keeping with the theme of "wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time" on which these movies are built, Farrell's evil employers pick this moment to try to kill him. Much mayhem and many explosions ensue, and Die Hard 4 never really slows down after this point.
The main scheme involves a group of cyber-terrorists who are planning a "fire sale," a systematic shutting down of everything in the country controlled by computers, creating mass chaos and an opportunity to make a few bucks. The scope of the villains' crimes has been escalating throughout the series, and this scheme is the largest yet. As McClane might be the least-qualified person to deal with anything involving computers (you get the impression he might not know what email is), he keeps Farrell along to explain how things work, for both his and our sakes. This, of course, leads to much protecting of "the kid," while still giving Farrell a few shots to prove his usefulness. It's all pretty by-the-numbers stuff, but somehow it works. I actually like Justin Long. I think he's given a series of solid comic performances, ranging from Galaxy Quest to Dodgeball, and he's a decent sidekick here, bringing the one-liners and incredulous reaction shots, and keeping Bruce Willis from sinking too far into grouchy old cop-ness.
Mostly, though, the dialogue scenes just exist to get us from one action scene to another. And the action scenes here are frequently amazing, assuming you don't get bogged down in "plausibility" and "physics." C'mon, it's summer! Why wouldn't you use a car to take out a helicopter? I don't want to give too much away, but there are several terrific set pieces, some of which reminded me of Speed, which is still the gold standard in improbable-yet-fun action. It's the kind of movie where if there's an Asian woman, you know she's gonna bust some martial arts moves. Where the bad guys don't kill our heroes when they have the chance, despite the fact that they kill innocent people all the time. Where railings exist to be fallen over, and power plants exist to blow up spectacularly. It's all so ludicrous, so...summery.
And there are plenty of legitimate problems. The editing is some of the worst I've seen in awhile, with closeups not matching long shots, and really bad ADR (dubbing during post-production). The main villain, played by Deadwood's Timothy Olyphant, is completely underwhelming, looking like he might burst into tears at any moment. And the entire subplot with Kevin Smith playing a basement-dwelling computer nerd is unnecessary, not very funny, and seems to be there just so Smith can continue his hobby of ridiculing geeks.
But you know what? It doesn't matter. These are small things to look past. In just a few months, we're going to be knee-deep in suicidal writer biopics, depressing war dramas, and (undoubtedly) Renee Zellweger's tears. So why not grab some popcorn, a big ol' Slushee and go see some crap blow up shot through a blue filter? Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1988!