GREG'S GRADE: B-
In 2007, 12 years after we last saw John McClane (Bruce Willis) in "Die Hard with a Vengeance," a new peril threatens him: becoming roadkill on the information superhighway. In "Live Free or Die Hard," cyberterrorist Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) sneers as he tells McClane, "You're a Timex watch in a digital age." Maybe so, but he shows no signs of winding down.
The world changed considerably in the time McClane was away from the big screen. Back in the '90s, the terrorists had to break a sweat to get their big payday. Now, all they need are a few keystrokes and the aid of programmer/hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long), who unwittingly helps them pull off a "fire sale," a three-step process to cripple the nation's transportation infrastructure, financial centers and utilities.
Authorities quickly round all known hackers, with McClane sent to pick up Matt in Camden, N.J., and bring him to Washington, D.C., for questioning. Of course, this is "Die Hard," so we know it won't be that easy. Sure enough, before they even leave Matt's apartment, Gabriel's goons come calling.
The movie is essentially one elaborate action set piece after another -- director Len Wiseman never came close to matching this adrenaline level in his "Underworld" movies. The stunts are spectacular even as they defy all laws of physics. We get a good barometer of how far we'll have to go to suspend our disbelief early on when McClane propels a car into the air to take out an enemy helicopter. For McClane, it's just another day at the office. "You just killed a helicopter with a car!" Matt blurts out in shock. McClane replies with a smile: "I was out of bullets."
The old wisecracking McClane rears his head in many instances, but the years have not been kind to him. Divorced, with a daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who refuses to speak to him, he wants to be the hero even less than he did before. But he continues to play the role because, as he tells Matt, no one else will.
Willis slides easily back into the iconic role. The PG-13 rating (an unrated version is available on DVD) means someone has washed McClane's mouth out with soap, and he looks different with his slick leather jacket and bald head. He no longer smokes and makes no mention of hangovers. But underneath, even though he's a little less average Joe and more superhero Jack Bauer-type, he's the same character we knew and rooted for in the first three "Die Hards."
"Live Free or Die Hard" has two noticeable weak points. One is Long, who never ceases to annoy. I guess we shouldn't expect much from the guy best known as Mac from the Apple computer commercials. Aside from that, McClane functions better as a character without a sidekick. Even Samuel L. Jackson held him back in "Die Hard with a Vengeance." A lot of what made the original "Die Hard" the classic it is were those scenes of McClane holed up inside the Nakatomi Tower, wounded, weary and alone, baring his soul to Reginald VelJohnson's Sgt. Al Powell, his only friend on the outside.
The other problem is the villain. Following Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber ("Die Hard"), William Sadler's Col. Stuart ("Die Hard 2") and Jeremy Irons' Simon Gruber ("Die Hard with a Vengeance"), Olyphant has big shoes to fill. No matter how hard he tries, it's hard for him to appear threatening sitting in front of a computer. Maggie Q is intriguing as Gabriel's top henchwoman, but she doesn't last long enough to make a real impact. On the plus side, Winstead is strong as Lucy, who truly is her father's daughter.
The movie's biggest asset, though, is Willis, who at times carries the entire production by himself. As long as he can be John McClane -- even the more PC John McClane we get here -- we're in good hands.
No surprise -- “Live Free or Die Hard” is the highest-grossing film in the series, with about $134.5 million at the domestic box office. Adjusted for inflation, however, it ranks fourth.
Overall, given the long interval between films, "Live Free or Die Hard" is a pleasant surprise. This may be a "digital age," but "Die Hard" is a series that keeps on ticking.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation. 128 minutes.