By Scott Mendelson
For the last two months, the story around Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard IV) has been Fox's decision to rework the film for the sake of getting a PG-13 rating. Of course, the original three Die Hard films were hard-R, with graphic violence, pervasive profanity, and a general rough-and-tumble quality that were (along with the Lethal Weapon films) the standard bearers of adult action entertainment for about a decade. Having now seen the film, I now ask Fox what exactly it was thinking, but not for the reason you think.
The film is still brutally violent, with an on screen body count that nearly exceeds the combined totals of parts 1 and 3 (part 2, with its two passenger airplane crashes, is still the
record holder). There are point-blank executions galore, and many vicious fight scenes, gruesome explosions, and fatal car wrecks. Point being, fans of the series should know that this is still a rough, profane, and violent adult action film. On the other hand, it's a sorry state for the MPAA when this is considered more appropriate for children than the previous entries just because there is less blood and no one says the 'f' word (the way they work in McClane's catchphrase within these confines is surprisingly effective).
However, for those who are old enough to attend middle school or drive a car, this is a surprisingly effective large-scale adventure picture. The plot involves Timothy Olyphant as a rogue ex-government agent attempting to shut down the country by hacking into our electrical systems. Ironically, the story progression in the first act often resembles Willis's terrific 16 Blocks from last year, albeit with emotional heft traded in for elaborate shootouts and fights. The action scenes are set-up in a way to mirror the claustrophobia and vulnerability of the original film. With the exception of a third act True Lies rip-off, the action bits are relatively creative and the filmmakers were smart to fill the villain roster with notable sidekicks and thugs. Maggie Q does king-fu and District B-13's Cyril Raffaelli does his 'parkour' wall-bouncing thing, alas all too briefly.
As for our star, a bald Bruce Willis slides back into his signature role with a minimum of fuss. The main qualms come with the heavy-handed treatment of the generation gap between McClane and the villain, as well as Willis's accidental sidekick (Justin Long plays a computer geek who's apparently too young to have heard of the classic song 'Fortunate Son'). Also, the screenplay goes a little overboard in re-establishing McClane as a bitter pill who only reluctantly saves the day (the opening scene is also a little creepy as McClane is shown basically stalking his college-aged daughter). Justin Long comes off better than expected, thanks to a subplot that deals with his guilt for having inadvertently helped cause the chaos that unfolds. For most of the film, he is not hip or cool, but scared and slightly ashamed.
Speaking of that college-aged daughter, the third act stumbles by allowing Lucy McClane to be abducted by the villains, which is unfortunate, as the character has been kidnapped in at least two Die Hard video games. Since the conflict between McClane and the evil Gabriel is established and Long spends much of the film in mortal peril, there is no reason to pull out this most tired of clichés.
Regardless of past whiffs (the Underworld films), director Len Wiseman proves capable of pulling together a solid, crowd-pleasing action vehicle that showcases authentic top-notch stunt work and quality fight choreography. As a bonus, the supporting cast is filled with reliable character actors. Cliff Curtis is solid as the head government agent dealing with the mess, although Zeljko Ivanek is so wasted that I was sure he was going to be revealed as a traitor in the third act.
I still question Fox's decision to dub out the f-words in order to get that PG-13 (the bad dubbing is pretty funny at times), since they've now created a film that is still inappropriate for younger
children but whose rating may scare off or offend hard-action junkies. And, if Fox wants the family audience, why are they opening this against Pixar's Ratatouille?
Studio politics aside, Live Free Or Die Hard is a fun, well-crafted adult action film. So far, with this and Rocky Balboa, we're 2 for 2 in 80s nostalgia revamps. This gives me hope for Rambo IV (which will be a hard-R), to say nothing of the much anticipated (and somewhat feared) fourth Indiana Jones film. It's not a patch on the original, or the underrated Die Hard 2: Die Harder, but it is about as good as Die Hard With A Vengeance. It doesn't "Die Hardest", but it doesn't "Die Hardly" either.