Monday, July 02, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard / **½ (PG-13)

John McClane: Bruce Willis
Thomas Gabriel: Timothy Olyphant
Matt Farrell: Justin Long
Lucy McClane: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Mai Lihn: Maggie Q
Bowman: Cliff Curtis
Warlock: Kevin Smith

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Len Wiseman. Written by Matt Bomback, based on the article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation).

Walking out of the latest “Die Hard” adventure, I ran into an increasingly frequent problem. I was with several members of my family and they were expressing their mostly positive reactions to the film when the Shadow of the Critic fell over us all. It was no accident that I was the last person whose opinion of the film was picked from the group. They know I’m a Critic, and everyone knows that a Critic loves nothing more than to pick on, tear apart and over-analyze what is essentially just a good time. My wife reminded me that even critics need to keep in mind that a movie is supposed to be a good time, and critics are supposed to have as much fun at the movies as anyone else. Still, the best I could muster was, “Well, I’m conflicted.”

I’m conflicted because “Live Free or Die Hard” is essentially a good time. But even a film that is supposed to be nothing but fun can have varying degrees of success. So far in this summer of sequels, just about every one of them has succeeded as entertainment but pushed the envelope too far in one way or another compared to their predecessors. “Pirates of the Caribbean” tried to squeeze too much into what was already a bloated running time. “Shrek the Third” relied too heavily on juvenile humor and more obscure pop culture references, while forgetting the series’ originality. “Ocean’s Thirteen” gave us the beautiful faces and flashy execution we desired, but forgot to provide a compelling heist. And “Spider-Man 3” supplied more villains and less substance.

“Live Free or Die Hard” does provide exactly what any audience member should expect—Bruce Willis’s no-nonsense cowboy way of cutting through all the procedural BS and just shooting all the bad guys until the last one falls so we can all go home and feel safe again. It sticks to all the “Die Hard” signatures like fast-paced action, snappy one-liners, and an over-involved plot that turns out to be just a distraction from a much simpler crime by the villain.

Reprising his career-making role as NYPD cop John McClane, Willis is joined in his battle against the bad guys by Justin Long (the Mac guy from the PC vs. Mac commercials), as (fittingly) a computer hacker who inadvertently helps the villain in his plan to disable all technological resources throughout the United States. Thomas Gabriel is played with typical “Die Hard” villain slickery by Timothy Olyphant (HBO’s “Deadwood”). Gabriel comes armed with countless henchmen, allowing McClane to rack up a miraculous body count.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Final Destination 3”) also appears in the film as Lucy, McClane’s daughter who prefers his estranged wife’s name to her dad’s. She seems to exist mostly as a reference to past “Die Hard” films and doesn’t really come into play until the final act. Instead, the relationship between McClane and Long’s hacker carries the action. Long acts as a great foil to Willis’ one-time everyman hero, representing the everyman of the new age, the techno-brat. Long even lands a few classic one-liners of his own.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback (“Godsend”) does a good job realizing the technical horror that John Carlin theorized in his 1997 “Wired” article. And there is certainly a good deal of irony in the fact that McClane, the technologically impaired dinosaur of a hero, must go up against a virtual terrorist in this fourth installment. But as usual, the focus of the film is the action and the physical beating McClane will take to win the day.

Like any “Die Hard” film, this one takes the action over the top. Director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) puts the audience back into McClane’s violent world quickly, with early action sequences that set the nonstop pace. But it was as the action sequences became more grandiose, that my feelings began to be conflicted. Can a “Die Hard” movie go too far over the top? The answer to that is probably, “No.” But the way in which it goes over the top can greatly affect the success of even a “just a good time” film.

By the final act, McClane finds himself rolling across the wings of a fighter jet in a sequence not unlike the climax in James Cameron’s “True Lies”. But that film was itself a parody of over the top action films. Is “Live Free or Die Hard” supposed to be a self-parody? Probably not, but at times that’s exactly what it is. While parodies aren’t necessarily bad, they require a detachment from the “reality” of the film that doesn’t quite mesh with an established action model, like “Die Hard”.

But again, I don’t really know. Like I said, I’m conflicted. I mean, this film sure would look great on my new widescreen HDTV, so I’ll probably see it again. If you really want to know what I think, get back to me then.

Read John Carlin's "A Farewell to Arms" article here.

Buy it: Die Hard movies

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