Okay, picture this: you're one of the nation's most elite hackers...l33t h@x0rs, I mean. You're sitting in your dark, dank dungeon of a bedroom, surrounded by meticulously sculpted, hyperfragile action figures and up to your ankles in empty cans of Red Bull. You're chatting up some she-male on MySpace, hacking into Reverend Run's Blackberry...doesn't matter...when the display on your PC starts jittering. Just as you press the 'Delete' button on your keyboard -- 'cause, y'know, when the image on my monitor shakes and sputters, my kneejerk reaction is to mash 'DEL' -- boom! Crash! Whiz! Bang! 8 lbs. of C4, lovingly screwed into your computer by a team of heavily-armed Belgians reeking of gun oil and Roquefort, goes kaboom.
In the space of just a couple of days, nearly all of America's l33t have been reduced to smoldering, fist-sized chunks. Damn near the only one who's still alive and hackin' is Matthew Farrell (Justin Long), although he's just a keystroke away from becoming a red smear on the floor himself. But hey, don't fret, Matt. John McClane (Bruce Willis, as if you really needed me to spell that out) happens to be in the neighborhood. After a, uh, not altogether welcomed visit with his estranged daughter Lucy (the always lovely Mary Elizabeth Winstead) at Rutgers, John gets a call to grab Matt and escort him down to DC for a sitdown with the feds. So, yeah, cue a wave of heavily armed thugs and the first of many, many megaton explosions.
So anyway, as Matt and McClane head down to the capital, the nation's technical infrastructure is in tatters. Traffic is at a gridlock from one end of the country to the other. Cell phones have been bricked. Power grids are being knocked out. It's cyberterrorism, kids, led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a 12th level genius who's supported by a foxy half-Asian kung-fu expert (Maggie Q) and a small army of hackers who can redirect all of the national gas pipelines on the Eastern seaboard by just clacking on their keyboards for a few seconds. So, yeah. The feds are caught with their pants down. John McClane, a vacuum tube in this ravaged digital world, does what he does best -- gets the shit beaten out of him as he plows his way through a couple dozen henchmen, cracks a bunch of jokes, takes down a jet fighter and a helicopter with whatever he has handy...you know the drill. Only this time he has Matt shadowing him, reminding John how cool everything he does is in case he missed the memo.
Yeah, I know I came off as kinda snarky in that whole thing, but it's all in good fun. I dug Live Free or Die Hard. It doesn't live up to the original Die Hard, but...hey, what does? Live Free or Die Hard is a big, loud, kinda dumb action flick in the finest Big, Loud, Kinda Dumb Action Flick tradition, capturing more of the fun and spirit of the first Die Hard than any of its other sequels.
Live Free... picks up more than a decade after the equally awkwardly titled Die Hard with a Vengeance stormed into theaters, guns blazing. A few things have changed for John -- no booze, no cigs, no wife, no hair, and the F-bombs have been dialed back to score a PG-13 rating. (You do get your "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker", natch. Kinda.) This is unmistakably a flick with Die Hard somewhere in the title, tho'. Live Free or Die Hard takes a good bit of inspiration from some of the earlier flicks. It has a similar sidekick dynamic and elaborate, sinister scheme that's not exactly what it looks like on paper as Die Hard with a Vengeance. It has...um, a bunch of awesomely over-the-top stuff with planes and helicopters like Die Harder, plus a similarly dull badnik in Timothy Olyphant. I'm normally a fan of Olyphant's, but he's better suited to playing a smarmy jackass or barely-contained combustible rage. Here, he's a pretentious ass who spends most of the flick telling his hacker henchmen to type things. Okay. When you're pitted against someone with the bloodied and bruised charisma of Bruce Goddamn Willis, lobbing out threats over a webcam or barking out orders doesn't really stack up. Olyphant's not bad, exactly, but he's pretty well outclassed.
Everyone else in the cast, though...? Pretty much perfect. Bruce Willis may have spent most of the past decade in less physically demanding roles, but he doesn't miss a beat stepping into John McClane's shoes once again. Even though this clearly isn't the thirtysomething McClane from decades past, Live Free or Die Hard sure as hell doesn't take it easy on the guy; there's none of that "I'm too old for this shit" routine -- even as out of his element as he is in this tech-heavy flick -- or him passing the baton to another generation of Yippee-ki-yayers. What really grabbed me is how Willis conveys everything John's suffered through over the years without any rambling bits of exposition or eight page monologues. I get the impression that as John's playing the reluctant hero this time around, it's almost out of habit. After being left by his wife and dismissed by his daughter, John really doesn't have anything to lose. Old habits dying hard and all, why not bound onto a low-flying jet or dive out of a car doing 60?
Justin Long nails the whole sidekick thing. He and Willis play off each other really well, and even if Matt's there a lot of the time to handle the digital heavy lifting that McClane can't so much, he rises above the usual exposition factory or lightweight comic relief that sidekicks are usually saddled with. He still has a great sense of humor, snagging about as many laughs (and intentionally, to boot) as McClane, and Matt takes more than his share of abuse throughout the flick too. Pretty much from word one, I could buy Mary Elizabeth Winstead as John's shit-kicking daughter. Her college-aged Lucy doesn't get all that much screentime, but she still manages to leave an impression, played more like a Junior Miss McClane and wholly disinterested in being a weepy plot device. She's a damsel, but in distress...? Not exactly. I guess Lucy's seen the other Die Hard flicks and knows that even though she's being held at gunpoint by the bad guy as a bargaining chip, rescue's just an hour or whatever away. I also liked Maggie Q's borderline-indestructable kung fox Mai, who probably would've made for a better overall villain than Timmy Olyphant did.
I hafta admit to kind of expecting the worst from Live Free or Die Hard. The original Die Hard ranks up there with Predator as my favorite action flick of all time, and having a relative novice like Len Wiseman who'd only helmed a couple of vampiric guilty pleasures step behind the camera left me kinda leery. I dug the hell out of Live Free or Die Hard, though. The action's ree-diculously over the top, but in just about the best possible way. You've got John McClane in a big rig, squaring off against an F-35 jet fighter that's blowing the holy hell out of a freeway. John hightailing it in a car, dragging some putz along on a metal fence and flinging him 20 feet. A couple quadraseptazillion pounds of natural gas going boom. Pulling a heavily-armed thug through a wall. A battle royale that builds up to an SUV plowing through some office space, and the fact that it's dangling down a massive elevator shaft doesn't put much of a damper on the punching and kicking. Taking out a gunman by sideswiping a fire hydrant and blasting him out of a helicopter. Hell, you've seen the trailer, so you know there's a lot more I could've rattled off here. Matt belts out a wide-eyed "did you see that?" several times throughout the movie, and I had kinda the same reaction -- it's really impressive stuff.
The story stringing all of that together is decent enough too. I mean, dweeby computer types like myself will probably wince at the clunky hacker stuff where a desktop PC is practically a genie in a metal case that's summoned by clacking violently at a keyboard for 8 seconds, and I think I actually laughed out loud at some of the conveniently helpful interfaces, like the dialogue box asking something like "Disabling 95% of the power on the Eastern seaboard. Proceed? Yes / No", but it's an action movie, so...suspension of disbelief and all that.
Nah, Live Free or Die Hard isn't in quite the same league as the original, but it doesn't have to be. This is a popcorn flick, carrying over the unrelenting action and the hell of a sense of humor from the earlier movies, tossing in one spectacularly staged setpiece after another for two hours straight. Live Free or Die Hard is one of the best action movies I've seen in quite a long time, ranking up there with the Mission Impossible flicks and the original Die Hard as the best the genre has to offer on Blu-ray right now.
You might've noticed that PG-13 rating in tiny text near the top of the page, and that's the only real bad news about this Blu-ray disc. The standard definition crowd gets to pick from the theatrical PG-13 cut and an unrated version, but Blu-ray's saddled with just what the MPAA gave the thumbs-up to this past summer. To be fair, the difference by all accounts is pretty marginal -- just a bit of some blood and some language that was really clumsily replaced in this watered-down version. It's a drag that Fox wouldn't or couldn't put out the unrated cut on Blu-ray, but the differences do sound pretty minor, and I enjoyed the theatrical version more than enough to stick with that Highly Recommended rating.
Video: In a word...? Reference quality. Okay, that's two words, but that still saves me the trouble of having to write some long, rambling write-up of Live Free or Die Hard's spectacular AVC-encoded scope visuals. This Blu-ray disc is on the brink of perfection: fine object detail is often startling, with the image boasting that sort of three-dimensional pop that most gearheads crave. Its stylized colors -- heavy on sunbaked golds and cold, steely blues -- are particularly eye-catching as well. I haven't been quite as floored with some of Fox's most recent Blu-ray releases as a lot of people have, but I can't muster much of anything to complain about this time around. Five stars all the way.
Audio: Same goes for the Blu-ray disc's DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack too, and that's even taking into consideration that, like 99.5% of Blu-ray users out there as I write this, I'm listening to its 1.5 Mbps core rather than the full lossless audio. It kinda goes without saying that the sound design is remarkably aggressive, filling every speaker with sound for just about the entirety of the flick's two hours and change runtime. Effects whir convincingly from channel to channel, making for a particularly immersive experience. Live Free or Die Hard also summons a hellish amount of bass from the subwoofer...deep, punishing bass that feels like a slug in the gut, from the tight, punchy streams of machine guns fresh off the Eastern bloc to the massive, resonating low frequency waves that bolster its titanic explosions. Again, this is reference quality all the way and a truly exceptional effort from Fox.
Traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are offered in English, French, and Spanish, and the long list of subtitles includes streams in English, Spanish, Korean, and Cantonese. Live Free or Die Hard also supports D-Box for the...y'know, nine of you out there who own one of those rigs.
Extras: It's a bit of a drag that a flagship release like Live Free or Die Hard didn't get much in the way of high-definition extras. A couple of trailers and the intro to a Blu-ray-exclusive game are it, with everything else presented in standard def. Also, a lot of the usual extras -- a gag reel and deleted scenes, in particular -- didn't make the cut for the DVDs or this initial Blu-ray disc, and maybe Fox is saving some of those for a re-release down the road. Still, what's here is pretty good, so it's kinda hard to complain.
I'll admit to kind of wincing in the first few minutes of the audio commentary with Bruce Willis, director Len Wiseman, and editor Nicolas De Toth. There's a heckuva lot of dead air for most of the first reel, and I think I actually audibly groaned having to suffer through such a quiet commentary for two hours and change. It livens up once things get rolling, though, with quite a bit of discussion about the uncertainty of Live Free or Die Hard's rating during filming and everything that goes into scoring a PG-13, how the movie evolved over its many different drafts, and how collaborative the production really was. There's some great stuff in here -- Kevin Smith coming up with The Warlock's expository rant in one fell swoop, a "whoa" reaction to a gunman being flung off a dragged-along fence being Willis', not McClane's, mulling over how to sell the fact that these two main characters have been awake for 36 hours straight, and even Wiseman's mom scouring through VHS tapes in her garage to find the backyard remake of Die Hard that Len had shot when he was a kid. Give it time -- it's a solid track.
Live Free or Die Hard sports one other feature-length extra: the 97 minute Analog Hero in a Digital World, which can be viewed as one massive documentary or divided into ten chunks. Just about everyone on both sides of the camera is given a chance to chime in, alternating between a bunch of fly-on-the-wall footage during production along with in-depth interviews. The PG-13 rating comes up several times, from toning down the sound of gunshots to Justin Long quipping how Live Free or Die Hard was kind of like seeing Die Hard for the first time on cable, with all of the swearing and blood gutted out. The topics include adding another installment to an action franchise with this sort of legacy, casting, how many of the action sequences were achieved practically and how little CGI was really used in comparison to most other summer tentpoles, the extensive stuntwork that took a couple hundred people to pull off, and the approach to production design around the real world after coming off a couple hyperstylized vampire flicks. What really impressed me is how much attention was lavished on post-production. These pieces usually focus almost entirely on filming and digital effects work, but Analog Hero... spends about as much time on, say, producing a digital intermediate as the entire length of some making-of pieces I've seen. Editing, the sound design, and the writing and recording of the score are delved into similarly impressive detail as well. Making-of pieces are usually lightweight and promotional, but Analog Hero in a Digital World tosses that aside completely to give a decidedly strong impression what goes into putting together a movie of this scale. One of the best of its kind.
Kevin Smith spends a little over twenty minutes casually chatting up Bruce Willis in "Yippee Ki Yay". It's not a puff piece, and pretty much everything you'd want to ask yourself is covered here: why make a fourth movie? With the script changing so frequently and not exceptionally clearly defined when Willis got on-board, did he feel confident in the project from word one? They cover a lot of ground: Willis admitting to not being all that happy with the middle two flicks in the Die Hard series, initially passing on the original because of his commitment to Moonlighting up until a well-timed pregnancy for his co-star, making a transition from a TV star to an action hero that some naysayers were hoping would be a disaster, feeling so hot on Live Free... that he started posting on Ain't It Cool News' forums (and has the iChat to prove it!), and was sopping with a bit of his own blood at one point during filming. A very welcomed change of pace from the usual featherweight interviews on these sorts of discs.
"Die Hard: The Legacy" (6 min.) is a promotional piece with Tom Rothman that was produced for the Fox Movie Channel, briefly running through Bruce Willis' at-the-time unlikely status as an action star and Fox Plaza standing in for the first flick's Nakatomi Plaza before plugging this latest revival of the long-dormant franchise. The music video for Guyz Nite's pop-punk homage to the series -- titled "Die Hard" 'cause...that's what it's about -- is on here too, but honestly, I'd rather watch it on YouTube; the version on this disc is plagued with such awful combing that it's borderline-unwatchable. Much cleaner is a jokey 6 minute piece hanging out with the band as they quip about their beer-swilling, nacho-chomping man-music and talk a bit about their most iconic, enduring song.
There are high-def trailers for Live Free or Die Hard, The Simpsons Movie, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Trailers for the other three Die Hard flicks along with The Siege are on here too, but only in standard definition.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray disc is "Black Hat Intercept!", a game that gives the player 15 minutes to shut down a virus, plowing through four floors of heavily-armed security guards and electrified floors. Levels range from a low-rent Flash version of Splinter Cell where you knock out guards and drag them into a hidden room to collecting a bunch of keys in the old NES tradition. As a game, it's alright -- the variety from level to level is certainly appreciated -- but it's pretty simplistic, playing more like one of those $10 handheld Tiger Electronics numbers on the toy aisle at Walgreen's than a shiny, bleeding-edge disc in a pricey Blu-ray deck. Kevin Smith, still in character...although it's kinda hard to tell, chimes in with a quick introduction.
Conclusion: Live Free or Die Hard is my favorite of the sequels to one of the best action flicks of all-time, backed up on Blu-ray by a pretty solid set of extras and a reference quality presentation. Viewers expecting a more decked out, unrated special edition may want to stick with a rental for now instead of picking up this PG-13 cut of the film, but I dug the movie enough that this Blu-ray disc still comes Highly Recommended.
Other Reviews: Daniel Hirshleifer has written a review of the Die Hard Collection, if you're curious how the entire tetralogy turned out on Blu-ray or want a second opinion on Live Free or Die Hard.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.