Sometimes you just need to see a well-deserved butt kicking. On that basis, the Die Hard series generally satisfies because all of the movies are intended to simply deliver what they excel at — a chance for really bad guys to get theirs. All three earlier editions made you reach for the popcorn: lively action, attractive cast, hero who can wisecrack in the face of death, and the requisite good smacks down evil by the end. “Die Hard” introduced this simple franchise formula in 1988 (along with that memorable one-liner) and made Bruce Willis a bankable action hero forever after. The film earned back its $28 million production costs more than six times over. The sequels did well financially. Now comes a fourth version, “Live Free or Die Hard.” So you wonder: Do Willis and company still have what it takes to save the world and the franchise? Was it better when it was wholly original, or do the filmmakers better understand what the audience wants and how to give it to them?
“Live Free or Die Hard” begins as computer screens blink off along the eastern seaboard: Hackmasters take control of federal agencies, Amtrak, Wall Street, even traffic lights! The bad guys cover their tracks by killing off associates involved in a cyber “fire sale” where everything must go. We reconnect with Detective John McClane (Willis), still with the NYPD, divorced now and estranged from his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He’s called to bring in hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) for questioning. They’re targeted for deletion, but escape. The stakes — to say nothing of the body count and wrecked vehicles — shoot through the roof when the crooks grab Lucy. McClane’s job now becomes Save the Daughter, Save the World. Look out.
The Defending Champion
“Die Hard” begins easily enough: NYPD Officer John McClane flies to Los Angeles to spend the Christmas holidays with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and family. He arrives for her Christmas office party as bad guys show up with more in mind than party crashing. They want to steal $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds from the security vault and one of their hostages is McClane’s wife. The body count builds and John’s task comes down to Save Holly and Save the Day. The script by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza delivers high-altitude heroics, smash-ups and humor. Entertainment Weekly magazine generously calls this the Greatest Action Film ever.
Big action is the currency and both films pay off big. “Die Hard” dangles Bruce Willis over the side of a building and offers gang leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who is both charming and lethal. German audiences apparently were not charmed: The European version of “Die Hard” gave Anglicized names to Rickman and his crew. Screenwriter Mark Bomback’s characters face no such identity crisis in “Live Free or Die Hard” — the villains are standard issue — and he delivers much more action. Director Len Wiseman stages several spectacular sequences, one in particular involves a helicopter chasing a car. The producers briefly considered Paris Hilton for the tough-talking Lucy McClane role; Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears reportedly auditioned for the part. They found the right actress in Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
And the winner is…
“Live Free or Die Hard” will not change your life but it demonstrates the franchise is healthier than ever. Neither is a perfect film, not by a long shot. This is well-written popcorn entertainment. Bruce Willis wears well and will effectively carry these films as long as he wants. It’s a loss not having Bonnie Bedelia and Alan Rickman in “Live Free or Die Hard” but Justin Long performs especially well. Both films do what they intend, but the newcomer gives more action and, surprisingly, hasn’t gone stale. “Live Free or Die Hard” will outperform the movie that spawned it, and why not: It’s an even better movie.