Film Reviews

Past Action Hero

Still an all-American bloodhound after all these years, Bruce Willis' Detective John McClane begins Live Free or Die Hard sniffing around a Rutgers-Camden parking lot and busting the frat boy who's been trying to cop a feel off his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Oh, Dad! Since much of the ol' action hero's aging core audience is presumably tied down these days, the main duty this time—for Fox not least—is to serve and protect the kids. Can we get Kevin Smith to play a "digital Jedi," joysticking for freedom in his mom's basement? Can we say Yippee-ki-yay, muthafucka and still get a PG-13?

Of course there's a terrorist scheme in the fourth Die Hard, something about a spurned patriot's warped bid to expose the weakness of our hackable homeland security—better him bringing Armageddon, this white American says, than "some religious nut job" (and surely the studio agrees). But the real intrigue has to do with whether McClane—"a Timex watch in a digital age," per the lead baddie (Timothy Olyphant)—can log in to 2007. This is nothing new for the geezer blockbuster. An arthritic Rocky Balboa was sweating computer simulations of his slugging ability last winter, and before that Firewall had Harrison Ford climactically futzing with an iPod, of all things. (Meanwhile, Governor Arnold, out of the multiplex but still serving his constituency via CNN, has been busy making California safe for hydrogen-fueled Hummers.) As for Willis, wasn't it nine summers ago that he stubbornly fended off Y2K with jumbo drill bits in outer space (not to mention guarded daughter Liv Tyler's virtue against the advances of frat boy Ben Affleck)?

Maybe McClane, in '80s action parlance, is too old for this shit. But at least he's blessed to have youth in tow, as his new partner is a 20-ish hacker from Jersey who helped the villains get a virtual leg up before offering his one-man Geek Squad to the detective in trade for protection. So as the bad guys (including a Demi-esque Maggie Q) plot a nationwide blackout by computer, the digitally challenged McClane mans the old reliables—pistol, CB radio, various motor vehicles and what's left of his wit(s)—while the kid (Mac pitchman Justin Long) remains exclusively in charge of code-breaking, which means he's often seen at a keyboard flipping his bangs and typing really fast. Would you believe these two don't get along at first? Alas, generational conflict here is reduced to a high-speed feud over the merits of Creedence Clearwater Revival: Driving the getaway car, McClane blasts "Fortunate Son" on the stereo ("Oooh, that red, white and blue"), prompting the kid to declare, "This is like having a pinecone shoved up my ass." (Hello, PG-13!)

Suffice it to say we're far from the original Die Hard (1988)—now a model of restraint and even characterization, an action flick recently chosen as the best of all time by EW. Where regular-guy McClane was afraid of air travel in '88 (!) and still getting his car towed two years later, these days, despite some 401(k) complications, he's possessed of the kind of superhuman calm that comes with a $20-million paycheck plus a sizable piece of the backend. Even the FX budget bows to the star's demands, as director Len Wiseman (Underworld) duly diverts his July 4th weekend mayhem from pricey D.C. to rural West Virginia, where the power station that controls the entire Eastern Corridor still requires hands-on analog operation: God bless America. As much as any Rocky bout (if not a Mel Gibson film), the Die Hard series remains predicated on the spectacle of its hero's battering. But Willis' newly cultivated Zen is such that swinging into the side of an elevator shaft looks no more fatiguing to McClane than an intense session of Bikram yoga. (Under duress, Bruce just breathes through it.)

Where the first three Die Hards are full-on disaster movies with towering infernos, crashed airplanes and a Manhattan on red alert, the threat in the post-9/11 installment is virtual. The villains' craftiest trick is hijacking our cable news networks—tweaking the ticker ("What if you dial 911 and no one answers?") and otherwise communicating through split-second snippets of presidential addresses from Ike through Dubya. (As per the movie's libertarian title, all commanders in chief are equally scary here.) The baddies' would-be panic-inducing broadcast of a blown-up U.S. Capitol won't much rile anyone who saw Independence Day. And though McClane's young sidekick comes on like a junior Chomsky ("The news is completely manipulated!"), by now everybody knows that fear is little more than must-see TV—or, at worst, can't-see TV if there's a blackout.

Maggie Q's particular menace can be put down with another PG-13 quip (she's a "little Asian chick, likes to kick people"), but the trickier challenge in Live Free is a familiar one to our listless hero: getting Lucy, like Mom in '88, to go by the last name of McClane. Whatever she decides, Dad is really going to have to live freer or die harder next time.