In Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth instalment of the Bruce Willis action franchise, the bad guy, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), and his cronies, dismantle and lay waste to America’s high-tech infrastructure by a process called “fire sale”, which, if I’ve watched the film properly, merely involves computer hackers clicking away at their keyboards while incessantly shouting “download,” “firewall” and “router.” To say this process of cyber-terrorism is visually dull is an understatement. This is of course compounded when the director, Len Wiseman, of the Underworld franchise, seems hell-bent on cutting and moving the camera left, right, and every which way in an effort to keep the film bouncing. He does a commendable job at the big action set pieces – of which there are two notable examples – but time and time again, as the film cuts back to those dastardly villains, all Wiseman musters is close-up after close-up of keyboards, computers screens, and flashing lights. Although the idea of shooting a computer screen (with a camera and a pistol, respectively) is inherently dull, the effect of endlessly cutting and moving the camera only helps intensify the audience’s awareness of the con job. It’s as if we’re watching a magician perform a simple card trick while distracting the audience with wild hand waving, shouting and side-stepping.

That is not to say, though, that when not confined to computer terminals, Live Free or Die Hard isn’t entertaining. It is, in spite of the computer hi-jinks and thanks in large part to Bruce Willis’s performance. His John McClane is the wise-cracking, sarcastic and self-deprecating anti-hero audiences remember from the three previous films, minus the smoking and the swearing, however, which is unfortunate but understandable in a PG-13 film. It’s good to see Bruce blow up cars, offices and helicopters while retaining a twinkle in his eye that almost suggests he’s self-reflexively aware how preposterous it all is. It’s been sorely missed. The Die Hard franchise has always been built on the simple and endearing premise of caging our intrepid NYPD cop into situations that test his mettle and bravado: a high-rise office tower à la The Towering Inferno, Dulles airport, and the island of Manhattan, but here, scenarios of restriction and confinement are literally blown away as McClane and his partner, Matt, a wise-cracking, left-leaning, paranoid computer hacker played by Justin Long of the “I’m a Mac” ads, race through Washington, DC, in a hyper condensed form of cat-and-mouse. It’s basically a shorter, less tense version of Fox’s 24, but with more explosions, a bigger budget and a bald lead.

By eschewing the confined space in favour of greater destructive potential, Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback take great narrative leaps and cheats so as to propel McClane and Matt to their next stunt sequences, regardless of motivation or coherence, which regrettably fails to sustain any real momentum – something the other three films all had in spades. By the time Live Free (a great title by the way) inevitably reaches its disappointing climax, it’s already maxed out its welcome thanks in large part to the spectacular stunt sequence – involving McClane, a jet fighter, a semi truck and a collapsing bridge – that immediately precedes it. By not having any more gas in the tank to further the story the film simply fizzles out, despite the tacked on daughter-in-jeopardy caveat thrown in to spice things up. The problems with the film won’t stop anyone from ultimately enjoying it, because at heart, this is a popcorn movie, but at over two hours, the butter starts leaking from the bag, the popcorn turns stale, and pangs of butt soreness irritate. Maybe, just maybe, all of these distractions would have come and gone without a fuss if Fox had let McClane quip “Yippee-ki-yay, mother fucker.” Well, here’s hoping for a fifth instalment, sans computer screens, keyboards and routers.

Richard Saad
© Cinephile Magazine, 2007