Summer Boom Time

Simply smashing: An airborne patrol car demolishes a helicopter in the fourth chapter of the series starring Bruce Willis, this time as a geezer up against some evil geeks.
Simply smashing: An airborne patrol car demolishes a helicopter in the fourth chapter of the series starring Bruce Willis, this time as a geezer up against some evil geeks. (Twentieth Century Fox)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Summertime may have officially arrived five days ago, but everyone knows it's not bona fide until an action movie that kicks major tushie hits the screens. And "Live Free or Die Hard" -- the latest installment of what by rights should be the creakiest adventure franchise in Hollywood -- does the honors with gritty, more-is-more abandon. At a time when the action genre has come to be dominated by sleek, matte surfaces and set-'em-and-forget-'em computerized effects, "Live Free or Die Hard" seeks to remind viewers of the simple, nostalgic pleasures of watching stuff get blown up and bad guys get smoked.

And oh, how they blow up and get smoked, albeit in the course of yet another numbing two-hour-plus running time. As "Live Free or Die Hard" opens, it looks like it's going to be one of those "Matrix"-y odes to technology and Zen battle, with an unpromising montage of jittery computer screen close-ups and attractive young people wearing headsets and typing.

But soon enough, a ranch house belonging to one of those computer geeks goes up in the first of several fireballs, and we're off to the races. It turns out that all that typing is being masterminded by an angry webmaster and his hacker minions, who are busy executing a systemwide monkey wrench that will bring the entire country to its techno-dependent knees. The FBI, on the trail of hacker minion Matt Farrell (Justin Long), asks New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) to track the kid down in New Jersey (no, not Hackensack) and bring him to Washington for questioning.

Thus does Our Man McClane, who began offing terrorists 19 years ago in the very first "Die Hard" (this is the fourth), find himself doing battle with the new cyber-version of the baddies, as he and Matt wend their way down I-95 while the entire country's transportation, communication and utility systems go blooey. Preoccupied with a disintegrating relationship with his daughter and a chronic case of existential alienation, McClane is the muscle of the team while Matt --who the villain is desperately trying to eliminate before he can talk to the bureau -- is luckily played by the guy from those Apple computer ads on television. (The villain, named Thomas Gabriel and regrettably underplayed by Timothy Olyphant, resembles Richard Clarke if he'd watched "Speed" one too many times. Far more memorable is Gabriel's assistant Mai, played by the gorgeous Maggie Q, whose character is the target of McClane's most offensive verbal epithets.)

Director Len Wiseman, who most recently perpetrated the dreadful "Underworld" movies on an unsuspecting public, does a pretty good job at what's most important in "Live Free or Die Hard": deliver the whammies on a regular and, with a little luck, surprising basis. With the bad guys here representing technology at its most insidiously powerful, the filmmakers set themselves up as the champions of all that is analog, old school and authentic; thus, the stunts in "Live Free or Die Hard" have the snarling crunch of a junkyard dog. When McClane first encounters Matt's pursuers, he bluntly dispatches them with a decidedly low-tech fire extinguisher; a few moments later, he drags one of them through an alley on the side of his car, finally smashing him up against a dumpster.

Indeed, in "Live Free or Die Hard," most people are taken out by way of vehicular homicide, manslaughter or recklessness. The best scenes in the movie involve the three-way smashup featured in the ads, an SUV dangling in an elevator shaft and a hilarious sequence involving a helicopter. (According to the paper-rock-scissors calculation, fire hydrant beats copter, and car trumps both.) With the exception of some really nifty black rubber computer keyboards and a terrorist-threat sequence reminiscent of the culture-jamming cult band Emergency Broadcast Network, "Live Free or Die Hard" at times seems to have been constructed entirely of concrete, rebar and chain link.

The fact that some of the effects in the film were generated by the very computers that the filmmakers hold in such disdain is beside the point in a movie that deploys technology in the service of the 1980s action aesthetic the first "Die Hard" defined. With his head shaved and comfortably showing his age, Willis seems to nod toward the McClane of 1988, while admitting that with years come limitations. He still takes bullets and beatings with improbable aplomb, showing a degree of physical stamina that the neurotic, stammering Matt both admires and finds ludicrous. "There's tough and there's stupid," Matt suggests at one point, having not received the memo that the "Die Hard" movies mean to be both, in a good way.

Willis and Long have an easy, witty rapport, or at least they seem to: The dialogue is so slurry and rapid-fire that most of it sails past like so many overturned tractor-trailers. The point of their relationship, of course, is that while Matt represents the future, it's McClane, with his unerring sense of old-fashioned values, who will triumph. (Actual quote: "It's not a system, it's a country!") As easy as it is to misread "Live Free or Die" as a conservative wish-fulfilled fantasy, McClane is as disgusted by dithering feds and the modern surveillance culture as he is by weedy, lily-livered knowledge workers. For him, they're all just part of one big O.K. Corral. Like so many genre exercises featuring the lone hero with a gun, "Live Free or Die Hard" doesn't subscribe to any particular ideology, other than what can best be described as libertarian testosterism.

It's not for nothing that "Live Free or Die Hard" is set during a Fourth of July holiday weekend; with its early fireworks and yippee-ki-yay set pieces, it dutifully engages in the cinematic excesses that have come to be seen as American as apple pie, if the pie were suddenly set on fire and smashed into billions of gooey pieces. If audiences aren't rolling their eyes at the movie's over-the-top final sequence, in which McClane drives a semi-trailer on the Baltimore Beltway while being shot at from a fighter jet (hey, just another day on 695), they'll be laughing, both with and at it.

And they'll be grateful for the movie's ambitious, if essentially contradictory mission: to keep it real, even as it engages in unreality at its most preposterous. Is "Live Free or Die Hard" utterly ridiculous, completely absurd, totally insane? Of course it is. Forget it, Jake. It's summertime.

Live Free or Die Hard (130 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, profanity and brief sexual content.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company