Live Free or Die Hard

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This review was written for the theatrical screening of "Live Free or Die Hard."

The "analog" world strikes back in "Live Free or Die Hard." In his return to the signature character he originated in 1988's "Die Hard" and continued in two '90s sequels, Bruce Willis and his everyman hero, John McClane, use bare-knuckles brawn and brain to take on a computer-age villain bent on "virtual terrorism."

Meanwhile, the movie itself insists on keeping its almost nonstop stunts and action real with very little assistance from CGI. So when a car gets launched into the air to destroy a helicopter, or another car slams down an elevator shaft with McClane and the movie's bad girl clinging to its debris to duke it out to the death, it's all real. Well, maybe real isn't the right word: It's simply old-school stunts and movie magic.

Arriving with heavy marketing via outdoor ads and TV spots, this fourth "Die Hard" will light up the pre-July Fourth weekend and continue for many weeks more. Its broad appeal should make this one of summer's most certain hits.

There is scarcely a quiet moment in this movie's two-hour-plus running time as the filmmakers seem to have made a vow to up the ante in physical action with each passing minute. The early stunts involving gunfire and escape get the pulse racing. Then come flying cars, huge fireballs, collapsing freeways, leaping actors, a Harrier jet taking on a big rig and assorted hand-to-hand fights of increasing originality if not implausibility until one can only respond by laughing.

And to think it all begins with a routine if not mundane assignment for the NYPD detective: pick up a young computer hacker in New Jersey and bring him to the FBI in Washington for questioning. You do notice that McClane is not the same perky fellow he once was. His wife has divorced him, his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) won't talk to him, and he's none too thrilled with police work anymore.

The hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), starts to give him a hard time, which further exasperates McClane. Then a strange thing happens: Several heavy-duty assassins hit the hacker's apartment with all they've got. Somebody wants Matt dead real badly.

McClane and Matt barely escape, thus setting the pattern for a movie that now becomes a continual chase -- though who is chasing whom sometimes changes. It seems a mysterious cyber-geek is attacking the country's entire computer infrastructure with the intent of shutting everything down -- from traffic signals to Wall Street and from utilities to cell phones. Gradually, McClane realizes that the virtual terrorists want Matt dead because Matt might have unwittingly helped them in this task.

The figure behind the high-tech scheme is Thomas Gabriel (an immaculate and menacing Timothy Olyphant), a disgruntled former government security employee aided by various BWAs -- baddies with accents -- ranging from a cool Asian beauty (Hong Kong action star Maggie Q) to a Eurotrash muscleman (French action star Cyril Raffaelli). En route, McClane's daughter gets kidnapped, and the FBI's head honcho (Cliff Curtis) gets sidelined because all mobile phones cease to work.

Director Len Wiseman ("Underworld: Evolution") firmly establishes an atmosphere of chaos and confusion with a graceful camera and superior location work in dark alleys, building basements, fire escapes, elevator shafts, underground tunnels, freeway overpasses, jammed streets, smoldering piles, wrecked cars and any other place where humans can chase, shoot and kill each other.

Willis and Long make a great odd couple as they rumble from city to country and state to state in an odyssey of sheer endurance and survival. Willis supplies the muscle and wit -- his lines are always funny but never really mock the action -- while Long is alternatively scared and determined as the geek turns into a force of vengeance. Their on-the-run character byplay gives each scene an added oomph.

All actors playing bad guys have that evil spark that turn villainy into delicious malevolence. The most amusing casting belongs to filmmaker/Web site proprietor Kevin Smith, who turns up as a master hacker who never leaves his basement but might possess a key to taking Gabriel down.

Stunt work is among the best ever committed to film. There is something very satisfying in this digital age about an action film where CGI doesn't overwhelm, actors are in great physical shape and huge spaces are actual sets rather than virtual environments.

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD
20th Century Fox
Dune Entertainment in association with Ingenious Film Partners
Credits:
Director: Len Wiseman
Screenwriter: Mark Bomback
Story by: Mark Bomback, David Marconi
Original characters created by: Roderick Thorp
Based on an article by: John Carlin
Producer: Michael Fottrell
Executive producers: Arnold Rifkin, William Wisher
Director of photography: Simon Duggan
Production designer: Patrick Tatopoulos
Music: Marco Beltrami
Co-producer: Stephen James Eads
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Editor: Nicolas de Toth
Cast:
John McClane: Bruce Willis
Thomas Gabriel: Timothy Olyphant
Matt Farrell: Justin Long
Mai: Maggie Q
Bowman: Cliff Curtis
Trey: Jonathan Sadowski
Casper: Andrew Friedman
Warlock: Kevin Smith
Running time -- 128 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13

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