LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD
Running time 130 minutes
Written by Mark Bomback and David Marconi
Directed by Len Wiseman
Starring Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant
Len Wiseman’s Live Free or Die Hard, from a screenplay by Mark Bomback and based on a story by Mr. Bomback and David Marconi, turned out to be too close to real life when I tried to see it for the first time at my neighborhood theater, the AMC Loews Orpheum 7 on Third Avenue, on its opening day. About an hour into its engrossingly wild and explosive proceedings, at the moment when its band of mysteriously motivated nerdy computer-geek bad guys seemed about to bring the country to its knees by shutting off all power and communications on the Fourth of July, the screen suddenly went black, and two simultaneously activated overhead lights went on to keep the audience from being plunged into total darkness. A half-dozen illuminated cellphones popped up among scattered audience members as they tried to find out what was going on outside, if anything. After a while, it became clear even to ever-hopeful me that the picture wasn’t going to come back on again that day. I learned much later that the overhead lights were battery-powered for just such an emergency, and that the rest of the neighborhood, at least, was blacked out, too.
With the temperature outside approaching 90, and all the air-conditioners in the city going full blast, I was not surprised. But I couldn’t help thinking for a moment that the villains in Bruce Willis’ movie had struck again. After all, some of the gang’s underlings at least looked and sounded like Islamic terrorists. Gradually, I got the whole story from passing cellphoners while we were all trying to dodge cars at intersections amid the nonfunctioning of traffic lights. I was living through the famous or infamous 48-minute blackout of upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Still, I wondered why so few of the panic-stricken extras in the movie were seen using cellphones, inasmuch as the story is set either in the present or in the very-near future.
Anyway, the ushers at the theater gave us all free passes, one of which I used the next morning to see the rest of the adventures of Mr. Willis. My own brush with a public mini-panic certainly made me a more thoughtful viewer, though I must confess that the first viewing before the blackout had me figuratively sitting on the edge of my seat, to coin a phrase. Over all, the picture was well done by its director, its writers, and, above all, its special-effects wizards and stuntmen. But I warn you that you may not choose to believe that Mr. Willis’ N.Y.P.D. Detective John McClane could possibly survive all the perils he endures during the course of his virtually nonstop boom-boom travels into the heart of darkness.
The action begins quietly enough in the Washington, D.C., offices of the F.B.I., where an apparent hacker’s prank causes a security breach that drives the agency’s chief, Bowman (Cliff Curtis), to order a roundup of all the mischievously inclined hackers in the country and have them brought to his office for questioning. So there is Detective McClane minding his own business, more or less, as a concerned parent when popping up at a lovers’ lane where his estranged daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), has done all she can to fend off the improperly breastward advances of a loutish date. The car door swings open and there is Daddy McClane with all his paternal fury, but Lucy is angrier with her father than she is with the by-now-confused boy. Poor John, like most contemporary lawmen, has made a mess of his marriage and alienated his children. Lucy storms up to her apartment alone, and her derailed date drives off after being glared at by the girl’s father—as only Mr. Willis can glare. McClane gets into his own car, preparing to call it a day, when he gets a call from his chief asking him as a favor to one of the chief’s friendly contacts at the F.B.I. to pick up a hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) in Camden, New Jersey, and take him in for questioning. After protesting that this is a job for the New Jersey police, McClane drives off to what he thinks will be a routine assignment. Little does he know that Farrell has become the latest target of extinction by a malignant group of cyberterrorists led by a delicate-looking, smooth-talking and as yet unidentified megalomaniac (Timothy Olyphant). His assistant is a sinister Asian beauty (Maggie Q). The computer-illiterate McClane quickly finds himself dodging with Farrell a seemingly inexhaustible succession of assassins all the way from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., and from there all across the East as a series of cyber-9/11’s rock the country.
In all this action, Mr. Wiseman and his collaborators take us as far over the edge of a cliff as any filmmakers have in memory without dropping us into the abyss. Only in his early 50’s, Mr. Willis seems to have been dodging death forever even though this is only his fourth Die Hard in a 20-year and more-than-30-film career of wildly varying moods, qualities and challenges that followed his dazzling television debut in the 80’s as witty detective David Addison Jr. opposite winsome Cybill Shepherd. I liked and admired him then, and have admired him ever since for his genuine versatility, as he’s given underappreciated performances in Robert Benton’s Billy Bathgate (1991); Alan Rudolph’s Mortal Thoughts (1991), in which Mr. Willis didn’t shirk at being hateful; Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool (1994); Robert Altman’s The Player (1992); Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994); M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999); Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) and more cameos and voice-overs than a less accomplished actor could manage comfortably. Indeed, he has never been less than creditable in even such spectacular flops as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and Hudson Hawk (1991).
Hence, Mr. Willis should not be the victim of facile stereotyping. He brings more heart and humor to apocalyptic pulp fiction than any other actor I can think of offhand. By the end, he has generated considerable warmth in his belated rapprochement with his daughter, and in his comically reluctant appreciation of the loyalty and resourcefulness of his unlikely comrade-in-arms, the former hacker, Farrell, who enables McClane to cross the digital divide separating his computer-illiterate generation from Farrell’s Brave New World of cybernetic adventurers.