A live-action Looney Tunes, or rather, Hannah-Barbera cartoon. Live Free or Die Hard is Fred Flintstone in the land of the Jetsons. Never before has Willis’ gruff, now-iconic John McClane and the world in which he inhabits — an America ever under siege from gung-ho, high-tech terrorists and megalomaniacs — seemed more cartoonish. And that’s, ultimately, a good thing; the alternative would have been for an action franchise to take itself too seriously. And where’s the fun in that? In Live Free or Die Hard, intelligence takes a lunch break as screenwriter Mark Bomback and director Len Wiseman cook up some malarkey about a disgraced programmer’s plot to hack into America’s computer-driven infrastructure. The plot takes a back seat to Bruce Willis who gives all he’s got into maximizing the movie’s adrenaline quotient.
If nothing else, watching Willis take on the McClane role — effortlessly and with a charm that’s quintessentially American (a latter-day John Wayne is a comparison I kept returning to) — is reason enough for fans to check out this latest installment of the increasingly oddball action series. Even with the plethora of high-decibel explosions and chases, it’s Willis who carries this movie, at once intimidating and endearing in the role he patented into a billion-dollar franchise. But, to be fair, Live Free also works thanks to the chemistry between McClane and the timorous but resourceful hacker, Matt Farrell (played by Justin Long), who McClane must protect from the clutches of Thomas Gabriel, the techno-villain who, while putting his plan into operation, wants to eliminate anyone who could potentially sabotage him. As Gabriel, Olyphant’s performance is a reprisal of his square-jawed sheriff from Deadwood; I get the feeling this is the sum total of the actor’s range, and best characterized as “ersatz Eastwood.”
After America begins to shut down one Independence Day, causing the kind of widespread panic typical of all blockbuster actioners, McClane is ordered to bring in the dithering and wise-assed Farrell. At once, the two are beset by gun-wielding, rubber-limbed assassins (that they are French, and hilariously so, says much about our biases in the first decade of the 21st century). It’s up to McClane and Farrell to stay a step ahead of Gabriel, a battle that shifts from disasters of the digital to the analog variety, replete with helicopter- and car-chases (see picture), showdowns with aforementioned parkour-savvy Frenchies, hot Asian kung-fu chicks (Maggie Q, who is required mainly to pose sexily for each of her superfluous cutaways). When McClane proves too stubborn to die, Gabriel goes after McClane’s daughter (a saucy Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a college co-ed, with a testy relationship with her father.
Any sense of logic, cleverness, restraint, all get chucked out the window as Wiseman throws increasingly insane set-pieces our way, including a battle between a jet fighter and a semi-truck, a police car and a helicopter (see picture), and an SUV wreaking havoc inside a power plant (this is the first movie is which people, after getting smashed by on-coming vehicles, repeatedly shake it off as though they’d skinned a knee; till now, I thought only Wile E. Coyote was this elastic). And, through it all, McClane — down but never out — staggers victorious from the wreckage, with a sly grin and ready quip. It’s Willis that keeps this ludicrous stuff palatable, and grounded. But, ultimately, even he cannot rein in the excesses of Bomback’s script — whose intelligence sinks steadily from the tenth-grade level sophistication of the set-up to the fifth-grade hijinks of the film’s latter half. Always, the audacity of the staging and stuntwork must be applauded, but Live Free runs out of fresh ideas, and resorts to long stretches where all it’s doing is ramping up tension that we never took seriously to begin with. The result: A wearisome action picture with a hero who deserves better. Willis’ McClane is one of the few action heroes who have outlasted the material designed for them (Indiana Jones and James Bond, more often than not, are others). Like Jones and Bond, he is the kind of guy you wish you could sit down and have a beer with, while all the dust they kicked up is settling.
Directed by: Len Wiseman
Written by: Mark Bomback
Cast: Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Cliff Curtis, Jonathan Sadowski, Andrew Friedman, Kevin Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Sung Kang, Yorgo Constantine