Entertainment Weekly, that bastion of film scholarship, in June published its list of the 25 Greatest Action Movies of All Time. Lists exist only to stir up controversy, but they’ve got to be kidding. The Bourne Supremacy and Kill Bill over Point Blank , Police Story 3 , and Peking Opera Blues ? Where are Sergio Leone, Don Siegel, William Friedkin, even Takashi Miike? And number one on EW’s list: Die Hard , perfectly timed for the release of the newest sequel.
Not even EW could justify adding Live Free or Die Hard , the fourth installment in the series, to its list. But what’s important is that the movie be familiar with the list, and be comfortable tweaking it, and its own legacy. Which it is. Nearly every minute is so preposterous, we’re in the pleasurable territory of intentional self-parody.
There are two questions you must never, ever ask during Die Hard 4 . These are "how?" and "why?". Such as, how can a hacker in a West Virginia basement re-route a CB radio call from a moving truck to the headset of a helicopter in flight? Or why, if the bad guys can blow up a power station with a keystroke, do they capture it manually? (For that matter, what are the security guards doing with machine guns, and where were they when Enron was screwing up California?) The movie double-dog-dares you to call its bluff.
Detective John McLane, Bruce Willis, has an unrivalled knack for being the right guy in the wrong place at the right time. He is pitted again against high-tech terrorists who are really common thieves — a sub-genre this series created. Gabriel, Timothy Oliphant, the inexplicably well-dressed and -financed villain, is attempting what, we learn, hackers call a "fire sale". That means he will paralyze the country with a three phase plan: block the communications network, disrupt the financial base, and shut down all public utilities. If an action movie is only as good as its villain, this one is destined for the dust bin. Compare Gabriel to the images that spring to mind when I say the name "Hans Gruber".
The beleaguered bureaucrat in charge of controlling the chaos, Bowman (Cliff Curtis in the Fred Thompson role), has a claim to the top spot on a list of the most ineffectual characters in action movie history. I counted at least five times when he shouted, "I don’t care how, get me a (fill in the blank) immediately!" Finally, in his exasperation, he grabs a gun, commandeers a helicopter, and arrives just in time to completely miss the climax. Again, as self-parody, that’s funny.
Live Free or Die Hard is good counter-programming against the animated and science fiction spectacular movies of summer. It’s nicely retrograde, and even with an olive branch to the demographic – a hacker sidekick played by Justin Long, the kid from the Macintosh commercials – it’s Windows 95 in a Vista world. Some of the down-and-dirty stunts are better than the inevitable over-the-top set pieces. Watch for the moment when a stuntman is thrown backwards down a staircase — while sitting in a chair.
1980s actioners produced a toxic byproduct as, in their third acts, the hero exacted sadistic revenge on the upper-level henchmen, then the super-bad guy. You expect suffering for our pleasure here, but that element is largely missing from Live Free or Die Hard , perhaps to sneak it in as a PG-13. Before you know it, everyone’s wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the back of a parked ambulance. The efficiency of the wrap-up is welcome, as is, on the whole, this modest trip down memory lane.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.