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Yippe-ki-yay, movie-lovers

The action, the humor, the limp are all back ... but slightly muted

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In “Live Free or Die Hard,” John McClane is the Energizer Bunny, Chuck Wepner and Batman rolled into one. 

Like the battery-powered bunny, he just keeps going and going. 

Like Wepner, the heavyweight punching bag known as the “Bayonne Bleeder” who was pummeled for 15 rounds by Muhammad Ali and served as the inspiration for Rocky Balboa, he will be bloodied and battered but he will not go down. 

And like Batman, he is a world-weary and very mortal man who can shake off the demons and tackle evil head-on when he needs to save the world. 

Nearly two decades after creating one of the three most iconic antihero cops in modern action-movie history (the other two being Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan and Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs), a lean and now bullet-headed Bruce Willis is in classic, wisecracking, “Why me?” form as NYPD Det. John McClane, who is once again thrust into a cataclysmic emergency in which he faces insurmountable odds. 

Insurmountable unless you’re John McClane, that is. 

For some reason, virtually all the best action-movie franchises from the 1980s kick off in an R-rated, gritty world that has at least some connection to reality — but as we get into the third and fourth installments, the noir elements recede, the nudity disappears, the language gets cleaned up and the heroes get just a little bit ... nicer.  It happened with “48 Hours,” it happened with “Beverly Hills Cop,” it happened on a deadly level with “Lethal Weapon” — and it happens to some degree here as well. 

There’s a lot more action and elaborate stunt work and more humor in the fourth “Die Hard” than in the original, but it’s all done at the PG-13 level.  (That means the violence factor is ratcheted up but the language is toned down.)  When McClane serves up his most famous comeback, it has to be truncated; after all, you can’t say the whole “Yippee-ki-yay” line in a PG-13 movie any more than you can print it in a newspaper review. 

“Live Free or Die Hard” shows McClane in the state you’d expect him to be in 2007: He’s an analog guy in a digital world.  Now divorced from Holly (who was always a bit of a drag anyway), he’s trying to salvage his relationship with daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is so disillusioned with her father that she’s taken her mother’s maiden name — just as Mom was doing back in the late 1980s.  (This is one of at least a half-dozen fun inside-joke references to the original film.) 

When the FBI’s computer system is dented by a security leak, the understaffed agency enlists the help of local law enforcement agencies to round up the country’s best and most mischievous young hackers.  McClane is assigned to bring in the 20ish Matt Farrell, one of those kids who can handle a laptop keyboard the way Thelonious Monk used to work the piano.  (Farrell is played by Justin Long, the go-to guy these days to play cynical, ultra-smart geeks.  He does a nice job of keeping up with Willis’ staccato verbal offerings.)  At first Matt has little respect for McClane’s tough-guy authority-figure attitude, but when the professional killers with their color-coordinated Eurotrash assassin outfits and their hi-tech weaponry show up and start with all the shooting, Matt quickly learns he’s with the one guy who might be able to get him to Washington in one piece. 

The first shootout at Matt’s apartment is a spectacular and spectacularly loud sequence — and yet it’s a mere appetizer for an increasingly ambitious menu of action scenes featuring elaborate car chases on freeways and tunnels, exploding helicopters, massive power outages, giant exploding fireballs and McClane at the controls of a semi truck engaged in a duel with an F-35 military strike fighter.  (He escapes that encounter with some moves that are beyond the repertoire of the Silver Surfer.) 

In fact, McClane survives at least a half-dozen fights, shootouts and explosions that would put any human being in a coma if not in the ground.  Sure, he’s covered in grime and blood, he’s limping and wincing, but we’ve lost some of the sense of genuine jeopardy we felt when the barefoot McClane was roaming about the Nakatomi Building in ’88.  By going bigger with all the action sequences, director Len Wiseman often turns McClane into little more than a stunt double.  Even as we admire the special effects and the pyrotechnics, we’re anxious for noise to settle so we can hear McClane crack another joke and announce to the bad guy that he’s coming to kill him.  (He does so via walkie-talkie, just as he did to Hans Gruber in “DH-1.”) 

The chief villain in “Live Free or Die Hard” is Thomas Gabriel, a computer genius who engineers a “fire sale” to demonstrate how vulnerable the U.S. is to a techno-terrorist attack.  (He also aims to get filthy rich, of course.)  Over the Fourth of July holiday, Gabriel and his team of nefarious nerds and tattooed gunmen are shutting down the nation’s transportation, financial and power systems, putting the country on the edge of chaos.  It’ll be up to Matt to shut down the computer madness, but it’ll be up to John McClane to shut down Thomas Gabriel. 

Gabriel is played by Timothy Olyphant of “Deadwood.”  I like Olyphant, and he’s OK here, but he’s not in the same league as previous “Die Hard” villains such as Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons.  More intriguing is his girlfriend/enforcer Mai Lihn, played by the gorgeous Maggie Q.  I would have liked to see this ice-cold killing machine as the lead villain.  (Though she does have a great, extended fight with McClane.) 

“Live Free or Die Hard” is two hours of pure adrenaline.  We barely get to know McClane’s daughter, and there’s not much of an update on his own life.  But the post-9/11 techno-terrorist stuff works, the fights are creative and funny, and Willis is in top form in his career-defining role. 

Live Free or Die Hard


Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Long and Timothy Olyphant

Director: Len Wiseman

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation

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