Live Free Or Die Hard

By Nathan J. Campbell

Good action movies tend to tap into the zeitgeist, that is, the spirit of our times, drawing upon collective fears of a particular historical moment, while transforming them into escapist entertainment that simultaneously numbs our senses with explosions and one-liners, while also providing vicarious catharsis as we see our nightmares portrayed and “resolved” on screen.

For “Live Free or Die Hard,” the fourth installment of the “Die Hard” series, the writers wisely decided to make the menace facing the world, and particularly protagonist John McLane, one that taps deep into our insecurities: Computer systems that run the infrastructure of our country, which controls everything from traffic lights to financial information. These systems are so much beyond our understanding as average citizen, that the idea of an attack upon them is a source of anxiety, if not of pure abject terror. For this reason, there is no “better enemy” for John McLane in his latest adventure, “Live Free or Die Hard,” than electronic terrorists.

Timothy Olyphant snarls his way through his role as the leader of the bad guys, Thomas Gabriel, a former government programmer with a chip on his shoulder. In the pantheon of “Die Hard” villains, Olyphant¬ís Gabriel is no match for the sheer menace of Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber. However, his performance as the handsome face of computer-based terrorism is powerful and magnetic, intriguing if not captivating us for the duration of the saga.

A one-man-takes-all comer action movie is only as good as the man at the center, and it would be tempting to say that Bruce Willis, at 52, is too old. However, when held up to fellow action movie stars-old guys Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford, both of whom are ten years older than Willis, and both of whom have released new entries in their iconic action series, Willis looks pretty spry.

The complaint against McLane in this latest “Die Hard” is that he is too tough. The appeal of McLane, when we first met him in 1988, was that he was human and ordinary. He was a tough guy, to be sure, but when he got hurt, it slowed him down. He felt it, and we as an audience felt it. Beyond that, he had human motivations. He wasn¬ít trying to save the world, because he really just wanted to save his wife.

“Live Free or Die Hard” tries to set up a similar reason for the viewers to sympathize with McLane through his estranged daughter, Lucy. Problem is, she is clumsily introduced at the beginning of the film, and then forgotten for most of the yarn until she resumes her function as a plot point. The fact that she's estranged is too obvious–John McLane couldn¬ít possibly have had a healthy, normal relationship with a woman.

Nonetheless, despite his shortcomings, McLane's reluctance to adapt to modern technology is poignant. This is especially true, when our “Analog Hero in a Digital World” has such a charming sidekick as Justin Long. Who better to play the comic relief than a first-rate hacker It helps that Long plays the part well, with the right mixture of whining reluctance, sarcastic wit, and hidden competence.

One of the biggest questions of any actioner is how thrilling are the set-pieces Thus, many movies flirt with the fine line that runs between the awesome and the ridiculous, without falling over too far onto the wrong side of that line. By that standard, “Live Free or Die Hard” opens with a laughably implausible execution of hackers via C4 wired into their computers. But things get better as the movie settles into a more comfortable rhythm. The chemistry between Willis and Long obliterating any objections the audience might have to the villains' plot, which seems silly if we are allowed to ponder about it for too long.

The lion's share of the action scenes combine Willis's old school, butt-kicking charm with Long¬ís more nervous witticism. This combination guides them through the film as they careen around the Eastern Seaboard trying to put the kibosh on Olyphant¬ís reign of terror. It's therefore too bad that the film ends with a whimper, and the climactic sequence veers into truly silly territory, with McLane squaring off against a fighter plane in a scene that recalls “True Lies,” to unflattering effects and diminishing results. But fortunately, the weak opening and closure do not sink completely this otherwise decent entry into the “Die Hard” series.