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Willis can still Die Hard after all these years

by Glen Baity

Even if you didn’t have a spare $600 to drop on an iPhone last week, you might understand why people went B-A-N-A-N-A-S over the small, shiny device. It rolls up every non-negotiable piece of technology from the last 15 years – e-mail, cell phone, mp3 player, internet browser and, with it, YouTube – into a single package that fits in your pocket. Even if it’s not perfect at launch, its mere existence heralds an attractive future in which all our computerized time-wasters will be condensed into a package small enough to be conveniently misplaced when we don’t want to be bothered. When we’re so close to that utopia, what could be scarier than the idea of the whole grid crashing? For the satellites to go down, internet-accessible bank accounts to be drained and anything computerized to be dismantled and shot back to the Stone Age, or its modern equivalent, the mid-1980s? It’s the perfect cultural moment for a movie like Live Free or Die Hard. Why? Because its protagonist, the unkillable John McClane (Bruce Willis) represents that little voice in all our heads who doesn’t own a computer. He doesn’t have an e-mail account, and he doesn’t want one, thanks, having apparently entered a deep-freeze after 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance. No, John McClane gets what he wants the old-fashioned way: he beats the crap out of terrorists. Yippie-Ki-Yay. In Live Free, the square-jawed New York cop is sucked into a plot by former Homeland Security official Thomas Gabriel (“Deadwood”‘s Timothy Olyphant) to shut down anything in America tied to an internet connection. These days, it turns out, that’s basically everything. McClane has to stop Gabriel with the help of smart-aleck hacker Matthew Ferrell (Justin Long, AKA the Mac from those “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads) and a whole lot of gunpowder. After being pummeled with overlong, excessively ponderous sequels for the past three months or so, I confess to being unexcited about Live Free or Die Hard. You might be put off as well, but please, take my word for it: You won’t have more fun at any movie all summer. No joke. This is exactly what a blockbuster should be. It’s big, mostly ridiculous, fast-paced and exciting. Even the better sequels this summer, like 28 Weeks Later, have been weighty to the point of exhaustion; at their worst, like Shrek the Third and the second Fantastic Four, they’ve been bland cash-ins sold to a summer audience desperate for something to watch now that “Heroes” is over. None of them, at least so far, have really scratched the itch. Until now. Live Free or Die Hard starts fast, picks up speed, and barrels onward for two solid hours. Director Len Wiseman (last seen at the helm of the atrocious Underworld: Evolution) atones for his past sins by staging some of the best action sequences of the entire franchise. Sure, there are a few problems. The script is a little corny and replete with action movie clichés. The title has nothing to do with the actual movie, instead pointing out (in case you hadn’t noticed) that the film was released very close to the July 4th holiday weekend. And Olyphant, though I’m generally a fan of his, makes a poor evil genius (really, was Ian McShane unavailable?). But none of that matters. Willis gets his fire back in the role of McClane, strapping on that level-headed charm like an old side-arm. Though he’s in his 50s now, you’d never know it: whether dodging gunfire or taking a suicide leap off the back of a fighter jet, Willis in this film is every bit the action star he was in the 1980s and 90s. Long is a good foil, funny without being too cute, lending his affable delivery to the decent jokes. Despite the aforementioned corny aspects of the script, the film manages to convey our modern anxieties effectively enough. Ferrell, at one point, mocks McClane’s implied belief that the government has a handle on the increasingly dire situation. “It took FEMA five days to get water to the Superdome,” he says in an exchange I was surprised to find in an ostensibly brainless action flick. In fact, maybe it’s just the times we live in, but the overall plot signals an unexpected move toward relevance for a franchise that has always thrived on barely-plausible worst-case scenarios. The chaos wrought by computers in Live Free taps into a real fear many people have, that our technological strides have left us vulnerable, and it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down. It’s a popular theme these days, and Live Free or Die Hard is a sort of examination of what might happen if John Wayne entered The Matrix. Of course, the result is pure popcorn: McClane, with a little help from his lovable pet nerd, saves the world through superior firepower and true grit, proving once and for all that in this world of perfect gadgets, there’s still a place for the tough guy with a smart mouth. Whether you buy that or not, it undoubtedly makes for a great two hours at the movies.

Live free or send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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