Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Rating: B

Dir: Len Wiseman
Star: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q

Despite Vengeance becoming the biggest financial draw of the series to this point, it took a dozen years before Willis was ready to strap on the vest again. He made a number of comments at the time of release playing down #2 and #3, and saying this was the “true” successor to the original. I’m not quite sure why he took that approach: while offering solid entertainment, there’s nothing particularly special about this to substantiate his claim. Instead, it’s very much business as usual with McClane (Willis) taking on a bunch of terrorists – in this case, techno-criminals led by Thomas Gabriel (Olyphant), a former consultant turned black-hat hacker. Not exactly being John’s field of expertise, it’s fortunate he has the help of another hacker, Matt Farrell (Long). He’s a kid, unwittingly part of the plan, whom McClane rescues from Gabriel’s efforts to tie up with extreme prejudice, the loose end Matt represents.

His skills allow McClane to keep up with Gabriel, who aims to hack and take over the infrastructure of the entire US, in order to loot the financial system of countless billions. Films with a tech-based high concept like this are always risky, because it’s easy for them to date quickly and badly. That isn’t the case here: precious little has changed in a decade about the basic idea, with concerns still valid about the vulnerability of crucial systems to outside attackers. Earlier this year, Ukraine was hit by something not totally dissimilar to the movie’s “firesale”, with the national bank, main power company and largest airport among the simultaneous victims. It could certainly happen here.

Bonus points for Maggie Q, as about the only significant woman character in the series since Mrs. McClane, as Gabriel’s lover and main sidekick. Though McClane is unimpressed, as only he can be. After disposing of her, he taunts the villain by suggesting Gabriel call “1-800-HENCHMEN” and ask, “Can I get another dead Asian hooker bitch over here right away?” Ouch. If Olyphant is a bit bland – he’s no Irons or Rickman – the solid plot and generally decent supporting cast help: Long (weird sidenote: he looks a bit like the guy who sits next to me at work!) isn’t as irritating as movie hackers can be, and grew on me over the course of proceedings.

The film certainly benefits from Wiseman’s fondness for practical effects, even if the merging of them with the characters is occasionally a little wobbly. At the time, the director had only helmed the first two films in the Underworld series, though fortunately we were spared the sight of Willis in a PVC catsuit. Still, can’t complain about either the scene where McClane fires a car into a helicopter (top), or faces off against an F-35B attack fighter in a 16-wheeler. Both offer the kind of certifiable insanity which large-budget action films are all about, and barely appear at all constrained by the film’s PG-13 rating. About the only loss there is McLane’s trademark line, which is now apparently addressed just to his Mom, if you know what I mean. I can live (free) with that.

[July 2007] Let’s get this out of the way first: Not As Good As The Original. Though having said that, few action films in the twenty years since have come close. Better than Part II? Certainly. Better than Part III? Yep. All told, not a bad effort, though there are a couple of problems, not least the immensely irritating geek (Long) whom Willis has first to rescue, then protect and, finally – after the bad guy (Olyphant) captures McClane’s daughter (Winstead) – team up with. Naturally, the geek who previously had no idea how to load a gun, suddenly becomes a crack-shot. Similarly, McClane, who was previously a cop with smarts, now borders on the superheroic, casually launching cars to bring down helicopters, in what may be 2007’s biggest “I’m so sure” moment, to borrow a line from Chris. The film desperately needs a villain like Alan Rickman; Olyphant doesn’t cut it, and his henchwoman Maggie Q makes a better impression, in a brutal brawl with Willis in a power-plant. [She was also in MI:3, but really, go see Naked Weapon for a better use of her talents.]

Enough grumping. There are some glorious moments, both the aforementioned battle, and the “jet fighter vs. juggernaut” sequence which has echoes of True Lies, but does go in some impressively different destructive directions. McClane remains as fine a character as ever, particularly when taunting the villain that his girlfriend is now “at the bottom of an elevator shaft with an SUV rammed up her ass.” The PG-13 rating is occasionally irritating, and one yearns for the unfettered aggression which marked earlier entries. Still, the two hours pass with admirable speed and few slack moments, though I could have done without quite so much hackerish explanation, especially since it turns out to be of little real relevance. That hardly counts as a spoiler, if you’ve seen the last three films: maybe some day McClane will actually meet some straightforward criminals, who are simply robbing a bank. That’d make a nice change.