Latest ‘Die Hard’ delivers the goods

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In the history of American action films, few characters are as iconic as John McClane, the reluctant hero first introduced to audiences in 1988’s classic Die Hard. Now, after 12 years away from the big screen, McClane makes a much-anticipated return, once again finding himself inadvertently thrust into the midst of an insidious terrorist plot. However, while fans of the series are accustomed to extreme violence and explicit language, Live Free or Die Hard offers a toned-down version of McClane’s escapades.

Upon announcement that the film would be rated PG-13 rather than the R rating the previous three films received, fans were decidedly skeptical that the result wouldn’t do the series justice. And while Live Free or Die Hard is certainly less violent than its predecessors, the film is stuffed with impressive set pieces and a strong supporting cast.

Bruce Willis returns to his signature role for the first time since 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, and while his character seems more comfortable with the chaos around him, this attitude seems befitting when one considers that McClane has dealt with this kind of situation in the past.

This time around, the post-9/11 plot involves a technological affront – one that wreaks havoc through cyberspace. And naturally, a computer-illiterate McClane is compelled to quell this menace, with the assistance of hacker Matthew Farrell (Justin Long, best known for his character in Dodgeball and a series of Macintosh commercials). Long’s character essentially serves as a comic foil to McClane, and while he’s sometimes a bit irritating, the film knows better than to devote too much screen time to a secondary character. After all, what draws audiences to any Die Hard film is McClane’s inevitable showdown with a horde of bad guys.

And Live Free or Die Hard offers more than its share of hateful baddies for McClane to systematically annihilate. As the architect of the cyber-scheme, McClane must thwart Timothy Olyphant – (HBO’s Deadwood, this fall’s video-game adaptation Hitman) plays the steely-eyed Thomas Gabriel – who is bent on crippling America’s financial system. A disgruntled former government employee, Gabriel is a more modern threat than the original’s European thieves and is clearly the filmmakers’ stab at bringing the series into the digital age. As Gabriel’s girlfriend/henchwoman, the gorgeous Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible III) is underused, but she does have an epic battle with McClane, which makes up for much of her wasted screen time.

In addition to its focus on society’s reliance on technology, the personal aspect of the plot is also shifted. Whereas earlier entries focused on McClane’s rocky relationship with his wife, Live Free or Die Hard instead places his daughter Lucy (Death Proof’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in jeopardy. Winstead’s part is limited primarily to that of a damsel in distress, but she does well with the material and certainly makes the most of the paltry screen time she’s given.

Writer/director/actor Kevin Smith has a small role in the film as well. While his shtick may be hilarious in his own films, his scenes here feel contrived and out of place, wedged in between action sequences. In fact, his appearance brings the film’s breakneck pace to a screeching halt, albeit briefly.

Director Len Wiseman, whose previous credits include the two Underworld films, structures the film as a typical action thriller, not the triumphant re-emergence of a cinematic icon. However, his skill in crafting an action sequence is evident, and Live Free or Die Hard is loaded with breathtaking scenes, including a wild confrontation with a fighter jet and a riveting skirmish inside a tunnel.

With solid performances all around and a bevy of edge-of-your-seat action sequences, McClane’s latest adventure is a welcome shot of adrenaline in a summer movie season sadly bereft of quality entertainment.

Although the writing breaks no new ground, Live Free or Die Hard more than fulfills the action-thriller quota of explosions, bloody bodies and one-liners. The film may not be the modern masterpiece that hardcore Die Hard fans were hoping for, but it’s certainly a fun night out at the movies.

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