It’s been a good couple of years for restarting movie franchises. 2005 gave us Batman Begins and 2006 begat Casino Royale. It also gave us Superman Returns, so no trend is bulletproof. However, it did continue in 2007 with a fourth installment in the Die Hard series, which was easily the most consistently entertaining of the sequels. The original is, of course, still miles ahead, even from this one, but that’s to be expected.
John McClane (Bruce Willis) is back in New York. He’s divorced and his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hates him, When a computer security breach occurs in Washington, D.C., he’s tasked to bring in one of the usual suspects, Matthew Farrell, a computer hacker played by Justin Long (that guy from the “I’m a Mac” TV ads) from his apartment in Camden, NJ, to the FBI. Instead, he arrives just in time to save the guy from a hit team sent to whack him. By the time McClane gets him out of there, Farrell can pretty much kiss his security deposit good-bye.
In the meantime, the security problems in Washington escape as transportation and others system begin crashing, bringing the city to a standstill. McClane and Farrell are forced to walk the last mile to FBI headquarters, which is operating out of its own parking lot because of a fake anthrax scare. However, the bad guys are not finished with trying to kill Farrell and, when McClane is told to take him over to Homeland Security, they get a bead of their target again. Unfortunately, the guy assigned to drive them is an FBI agent named Johnson. Fans of the first movie will know that these guys are the Die Hard version of Red Shirts.
It turns out that Farrell has to be silenced because he unwittingly designed a computer program being used by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a massively disgruntled government computer expert, to bring down the nation’s entire information infrastructure. Naturally, McClane winds up as the chief fly in Gabriel’s ointment (“The monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass.”). It seems our hero’s aversion to technology means that he’s at least partially immune to Gabriel’s efforts to cripple the rest of the country.
Uninteresting villains have been a weak spot for the first two Die Hard sequels and Timothy Olyphant’s character hasn’t gotten a lot of love from the series’ fans since this movie came out. While it’s tough when you’re playing in the same sandbox as Hans Gruber, I found Thomas Gabriel to be a satisfyingly complex bad guy. He’s emotionally no match for McClane while having considerable physical and technical means to hurt him, none of which seem to work. He even manages to be increasingly intimidated by Lucy McClane when he takes her hostage.
Maggie Q is also memorable as Gabriel’s second-in-command, a shapely hacker with mad martial arts skills. She easily makes the biggest impression of any Die Hard henchperson since Alexander Godunov in the first movie. Of course, I will concede that she is a hot woman in skintight clothes and I am, well, a guy, so that might have something to do with it.
For her part, Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes for a respectable substitute for Bonnie Bedelia, to whom she bears a slight resemblance. She’s credible as a young woman who, even though she hates daddy, is very much her father’s daughter. Actually, she also shows traces of her mother, making her someone no to be messed with.
Justin Long’s character is somewhat annoying, but that’s deliberate, and the filmmakers do not overplay his wiseass, paranoid slacker cards. His reaction to McClane is realistically antagonistic but he never fails to appreciate that this guy is constantly saving his life, either. He’s not an equal to McClane like Samuel L. Jackson in the last movie, but he’s not completely overshadowed by Bruce Willis either.
Speaking of Willis, he wears the part of McClane like a comfortable old wife-beater T-shirt. The character has been allowed to grow, possessing a world-weary fatalism not present in the first couple of movies. It may be hard to believe that one guy keeps getting caught up in these situations, but he can’t believe it either. He never acts like being chased through Washington D.C. by machine gun-toting bad guys in a helicopter is routine.
And speaking of that helicopter, you mean to tell me they could find a fighter plane to shoot up a truck at the end of the movie, but at the beginning they couldn’t find one to deal with a helicopter flying over our nation’s capital, full of men armed with automatic weapons? Hello! How did that escape everyone’s notice in this post-9/11 world? While the movie’s technical details may never withstand close scrutiny, fortunately brain dead moments like that are not the norm.
The movie has recently been released on both DVD and Blu-ray in a plethora of versions. You have the usual widescreen and full screen versions on standard-definition DVD. (Of course, the full screen DVD does not exist in my world. It is dead to me. Dead!). The widescreen version also comes in a two-disc “collector’s” edition. What’s the difference between a “collector’s edition” and a “special edition?” Beats the shit out of me.
Both the collector’s edition and the regular one-disc edition contain both the original PG-13 theatrical version and a new unrated cut, which would be rated R if they had bothered to submit it to the MPAA. Of course, “Unrated” sound so much cooler than “R-rated,” so there’s no longer any commercial reason to bother with the MPAA in cases like these.
The differences between the theatrical version and the unrated DVD cut are pretty minor. They obviously used different takes of certain scenes, in which characters drop the F-bomb instead of their original lines. Of course, this means that John McClane gets to utter his trademark “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker” line without it being cut off by a gunshot. Some of the violence has also been enhanced with CGI blood spatter but, in that respect, this movie is still pretty tame for a Die Hard movie.
However, the laws of nature dictate that a Die Hard movie is supposed to be R-rated, meaning that the uncut DVD version is, to me, now the “official” cut of Live Free or Die Hard. The theatrical version, like the colorized Casablanca, also does not exist as far I’m concerned.
Unfortunately, if you have forked over the bucks for a Blu-ray player, the only high-def format on which this movie is available, you are stuck with the theatrical cut only. If there is a universe in which this makes sense, I’m glad I don’t live there.