The original Die Hard was a beautiful machine of mayhem, full of colorful characters and great, funny dialogue that had little to do with the action (“Hello, this is Agent Johnson…No, the other one”). Since it made big money, it has spawned several unmemorable sequels, including the new one, Live Free or Die Hard. The first film had crazy action sequences and a winning hero in blue-collar NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), but it also let itself breathe and flesh out all the other pieces on the board — it probably has the best overall supporting cast of any action flick in the last twenty years, starting with the incomparable Alan Rickman, whose Hans Gruber has spoiled us for all other movie masterminds in or out of the Die Hard franchise.
The new film brings back McClane and the insane action, but is as clueless about the original’s appeal — what makes it compulsively rewatchable — as the previous two follow-ups. It turns McClane into a wisecracking action figure, running here and there with computer whiz Justin Long to protect him from nefarious hacker Timothy Olyphant. It throws in some comic relief — recruiting Willis’ fellow Jersey native Kevin Smith as a cellar-dwelling hacker who calls himself The Warlock — but by and large it lacks personality.
For starters, Timothy Olyphant just isn’t a terribly compelling villain, or a particularly threatening one. Sure, his posse of minions manage to blow stuff up and perforate every standing piece of architecture with gunfire. And sure, he manages to kidnap McClane’s estranged, college-age daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). But there’s no menace to any of it, because if Olyphant’s hacker can do pretty much anything with computers, McClane can do pretty much anything with brute force. It’s nice of 20th-Century Fox to give us a Batman vs. Joker movie a year early, but it’s still not a Die Hard movie.
Director Len Wiseman (fifteen when the first Die Hard came out) foregoes the Hot Topic style of his previous Underworld series and delivers a fast-paced romp. The proceedings are brutal, though not bloody enough to get an R rating; there’s been much grousing on the Internet about Fox forcing a PG-13 on this installment, whereas the others were allowed all the gore — not to mention all the F-bombs — they needed. Truthfully, it doesn’t make all that much difference, since this wouldn’t feel like a John McClane adventure even with the splatter and the hero’s signature line, “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker.” Willis rocks a chrome dome here, ostensibly because McClane is older and balder now — a fine time to capitulate to realism in a movie that sees McClane outracing a disintegrating overpass in a truck — and he retains McClane’s puckish habit of taunting his foes with reminders of how he killed their buddies. Willis is lighter of spirit here than he has been in a while, but the appeal of his character — the working-class guy who outwits evil geniuses with a little bit of Jersey street smarts — gets nuked here because most of his triumphs are based on dumb luck (killing a helicopter with a car) or flatly superhuman feats of agility.
Which, to be fair, seem to be shared by the villains. Maggie Q (who has yet to be used well in a Hollywood film) appears as one of Olyphant’s thugs, and she mops the floor with Willis, who then drives a car into her at full speed, plowing her through several walls. Despite this, she’s unharmed enough to continue beating the snot out of Willis moments later when the car is dangling in an elevator shaft. A lot of people keep wanting a sequel to Willis’ 1991 goof Hudson Hawk, but Live Free or Die Hard comes close to being Hudson Hawk 2 without the singing and the hipster indolence. John McClane has been hauled out of mothballs to show all the young pups how action movies are done, a good idea in theory but not, apparently, in execution.