Reel Opinions

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

There was a time when action movies had actual stunts, not just actors working in front of a green screen with the CG danger added in later. I look back fondly on that time, and whenever I see the lead character suddenly turn into an obvious computer animated video game character dodging out of the way of trouble, a little bit of my soul cries out for the good old days. A lot of those memories came flooding back while watching Live Free or Die Hard. To say that this movie left me with a big smile on my face would be an understatement. This is the most unashamed balls-to-the-wall action film I've seen in a very long time. Director Len Wiseman (Underworld: Evolution) has created not only a blissful little piece of popcorn entertainment, but has also given us a reminder of what real stunt work and action set pieces are all about. If only the movie was about a half hour shorter, it'd be perfect.

Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) may be a bit older and world-weary (not to mention balder) than the last time we saw him in 1995's Die Hard with a Vengeance, but he fortunately still hasn't lost his knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, John's been given a simple assignment to pick up a computer hacker by the name of Matt Farrell (Justin Long) and escort him to the FBI for questioning. When he arrives at Matt's apartment, he finds that the FBI aren't the only people looking for him, as some armed men are also gunning for him. John finds himself thrust into a dire situation that holds the very world in the balance. A team of cyber terrorists led by a disgraced man of the government named Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) are planning to throw the nation into chaos over the 4th of July weekend by slowly taking control of and destroying the nation's technological structure, thus throwing the world into chaos. John now has to race against time to try to stop their plan, as well as keeping Matt alive long enough to find out what the terrorists want with him. And when McClane's estranged adult daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Grindhouse) gets involved as a captive of Gabriel's, all bets are off.

In the months leading up to the film's release, much has been made over the fact that Live Free or Die Hard has been given a PG-13 rating, instead of an R like the previous installments. If you were to listen to the fans on Internet chatrooms and message boards, they would lead you to believe that this is next to blasphemy and a crime against nature. To those people that uptight about a rating that appears in the bottom corner of a theatrical poster, I have this piece of advice: Calm down, take a deep breath, and then go see this movie and enjoy it. Despite the toned down rating, the latest Die Hard still delivers all the thrills, explosions, chase scenes, and over the top fights that you have come to expect. Yes, a couple of the villains' death scenes have been obviously edited in order to achieve the PG-13, but I must ask is a movie's worth measured by the amount of fake blood on display? Quite frankly, I was looking for some laughs, some white-knuckle thrills, and a lot of fun. The movie delivers, so I'm not going to get my underwear in a bunch just because there's slightly less gore on display and four letter words aren't flung about like they're going out of style. Like it'd actually be a better movie if it did have those things. I say those people can hold out for the "Unrated" DVD. Those of you who can look past the rating and see the movie for what it really is are certain to be satisfied.

I guess I should get off my ranting soapbox and actually talk about the movie, huh? Well, what is there to say really? This movie delivers on action and thrills more than any other movie this summer. Not only is this the best of the big sequels released so far this season, but it's also probably the most fun I've had watching a potential blockbuster movie this summer. Screenwriter Mark Bomback (Godsend) gives us plenty of danger for John McClane to get himself into, but he's also smart enough to pace himself so that there's a good amount of distance between the action sequences. This way, they don't become overbearing, and the movie doesn't start to resemble a mindless video game. Some of the highlights included in the film is a perilous scene where John must escape from a SUV that is hanging upside down in an elevator shaft. (How the SUV got inside the elevator shaft, I will leave up to you to discover.) The film's climactic chase scene concerning a very large truck and a jet that is shooting down a highway with missiles is also jaw-dropping in its wonder. The fact that these scenes are all done with no blatant CG imagery and actual stuntwork makes it all the more amazing. After seeing super heroes fighting giant computer animated monsters made out of sand, and pirates battling CG sea monsters, this is like a breath of adrenaline-soaked fresh air. The action sequences are well worth the price of admission alone, and I think it's safe to say that we won't see any better this summer or perhaps even this year. The one-liners and constant sense of humor help keep things fairly light in tone, without diminishing the sense of urgency or danger. It's nice to see that despite John McClane's obvious skill, he still takes quite a beating, and by the end of the film, he can barely even stand up. By my count, McClane should probably be dead by the 70-minute mark of this film or so, but hey, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for his sake.

Let's face it, John McClane will probably be Bruce Willis' most iconic and remembered role of his career. At least in Live Free or Die Hard, he reminds us why. He's instantly likeable, and despite some of his near superhuman heroics that he pulls off, he still manages to remain down to Earth as a character thanks to Willis' charisma and humor. Justin Long (best known for the famous "Mac vs. PC" commercials on TV) makes for a likeable sidekick. He's comedic and quick-witted, without ever becoming annoying or tedious. He is able to play off Willis well, and create genuine chemistry. The only area in the major casting that makes a crucial misstep is Timothy Olyphant as the head villain. He's never a very threatening presence in the film, no matter how much he bugs out his eyes or sneers at the camera. I kept on thinking that some of the people working for him would have made a better villain, especially Asian actress Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible III). She plays his second in command and love interest, gets a memorable fight scene with John McClane about half-way through the film, and is able to convey a much better sense of cool and calculating menace than he ever does. It's a shame that she's not used more, but at least she does get one of the more notable fights in the film.
Live Free or Die Hard will never be mistaken for anything more than summer escapism, but it at least excels in the field it aims for. With a running time that stretches over two hours, the movie does come dangerously close to wearing out its welcome, and the final stand off is somewhat anti-climactic with everything getting wrapped up way too easily. Still, until the last 10 or 15 minutes, the movie is a wonderful reminder of what summer blockbuster entertainment is all about. If you can look past the "dreaded" PG-13 rating, I think you'll find that it's still the franchise you know and love. It may not be as memorable as the original film (which still stands as one of the all-time great action films), but in a summer filled with sequels that don't even seem to be trying, Live Free or Die Hard is the kick that audiences are looking for.



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