The last time we saw John McClane (Bruce Willis) he was ... who can remember? It's been 12 years since "Die Hard with a Vengeance," and while the first "Die Hard" is now properly thought of as an action-movie classic, nobody's been sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the return of New York's toughest, most put-upon detective. Would anyone care that he was back? The good news is, "Live Free or Die Hard" makes you care. Of all the overproduced sequels promising mindless summer fun, this one actually delivers.
I looked up my review of the 1990 "Die Hard 2" and what I wrote then still applies: "The 'Die Hard' movies have many of the same virtues as the James Bond movies: first-rate production values, an endless supply of escalating cliffhangers and a fine sense of their own preposterousness." "Live Free or Die Harder" may pretend to take place in the real world of terrorist threats, but any movie in which the hero brings down a chopper by catapulting a speeding car into the air--one of the more spectacular stunts in a movie full of them--is not going to qualify as gritty realism. Director Len Wiseman's movie, from a Mark Bomback screenplay, defies logic, gravity and frequently common sense, but I defy any lover of popcorn movies to resist it.
As sardonic as ever, and considerably more weather-beaten, Willis couldn't be more perfect for the part. His McClane presents himself as "the last action hero" (it could have been this movie's title), a still-standing dinosaur in a world of high-tech malevolence. The movie, its eye sharply focused on the key demographic market, partners him with a young computer hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), all geeky brain to McClane's pistol-packing brawn. What they are up against is a maniacally brilliant computer genius, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who, on the 4th of July, breaches the security of the entire country's computerized infrastructure, effectively bringing the nation to its knees. (I won't reveal what his ultimate goal is, but once revealed, it doesn't bear serious scrutiny.)
In addition to crippling the country, the villain is systematically assassinating the nation's elite underground hackers: the only people who might be able to figure out what he is technologically up to. That means that Farrell, who McClane has to protect, is high on their hit list. Adding to the multigenerational mix is McClane's estranged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is barely on speaking terms with her dad. But if you know your "Die Hard" lore, you can be sure she'll end up in major jeopardy.
Wiseman, who directed "Underworld" and comes from a background of commercials and music videos, has a real flair for action and keeps an admirably straight face as McClane's hair-breath escapes from death get ever more baroque. But ultimately it's Willis who makes this loopy action movie so endearing. Totally comfortable in his iconic, blood-stained skin, his grouchy stoicism an unstated rebuke to the Tobey Maguires and Johnny Depps who reign at the summer box office, he resurrects a stylish macho masochism that had been given up for dead. Nobody dies it better.