It’s the Luddite versus the techies in “Live Free or Die Hard,” and guess who wins. Back for a fourth round after a decade on the sequel sidelines, Bruce Willis enthusiastically resurrects resourceful working-class cop John McClane as the unlikely opponent of computer creeps bent on bringing down a digital-dependent nation. Tone careens madly from serious peril to action camp and everything in between, but the sheer quantity of often outrageous stunts should help overcome franchise mustiness to entertain general auds and rack up solid returns here and abroad.
First two “Die Hard” installments appeared in 1988 and 1990 — the third followed in 1995 — meaning that those interested in reviving the series had to confront the fact that much of the target aud for such a picture wasn’t even born when John McTiernan’s original hit the screen. Fox, scenarist Mark Bomback and co-story writer David Marconi have responded in obvious and safe ways, pairing Willis with a scruffy young computer geek with an anti-authoritarian streak and an aversion to physicality (Justin Long), making the villains disaffected (and very attractive) Yanks rather than foreign religious fanatics, and tailoring the package for a PG-13 rating rather than an R, which is what the previous three entries received.
Helmer Len Wiseman, a musicvid vet with a certain following based on the “Underworld” duo, plays up the incongruity of McClane being forced to confront the technical expertise of very 21st-century baddies who know how to shut down communications, data and security systems with the tap of a laptop key.
When the FBI realizes its computers have been hacked into, McClane is assigned to haul in Matt Farrell (Long), a New Jersey slacker on a laundry list of suspects. Even this isn’t easy, however, as French (!) assassins frantically attempt to take Matt out even as McClane endeavors to spirit him away.
In short order, the ultra-efficient culprits, led by ice-cold, black-clad tech genius Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), bring Washington, D.C., to the sort of standstill it hasn’t experienced since “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” After Wall Street is thrown into similar disarray, Matt sees that someone is setting off a “fire sale,” a three-step plan to shut down everything in the country that’s run by computer.
While the government — Homeland Security, FBI, NSA, the armed forces, police, et al. — scrambles to figure out what to do, McClane tries to keep Matt alive at least long enough to reveal what he knows about the dastardly project in which he was an unwitting participant. At every turn, they are attacked by Gabriel’s well-armed goons, precipitating numerous action scenes that are ludicrous on the face of things — McClane successfully battles a marauding helicopter with a fire hydrant, then a vaulting car, and later rides the wing of a spinning fighter jet — but so much so that they’ll become the sort of audience talking points people will have to see for themselves.
Along the way, the anti-gov nasties also kidnap McClane’s daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), making the battle “personal,” in time-honored tradition.
All the “Die Hard” films have centered upon terrorists, but the ones until now dwelled in the pre-9/11 world; by avoiding contempo reality (there’s barely a mention of it), new entry can legitimately be accused of evasiveness, even timidity. But filmmakers largely disarm this sort of criticism by recasting the film as a virtual action cartoon, one you can laugh at and even enjoy for the preposterousness of its propositions. Any doubts about how seriously pic is intended are dispelled in the third act with the arrival of Kevin “Clerks” Smith as the ultimate high-tech geek who humorously handles an overload of exposition and helps close the noose around Gabriel and his misguided cohorts.
Head shaven and still in fine shape, Willis has no trouble convincing that he’s still capable of handling heavy action. Long’s character spends so much time seeming desperate that thesp has little opportunity to give him other personality traits, leaving Matt a basically rote creation. Olyphant is all unruffled smoothness as the vengeful villain, while Maggie Q, as Gabriel’s martial arts-proficient g.f. and Winstead as McClane’s initially estranged daughter provide incidental hottie moments.
Set pieces’ outlandishness notwithstanding, pic’s physical aspects feel convincingly real.