It turns out Bruce Willis didn't need the money. He just wasn't happy with the middle two films in the "Die Hard" series. But, he says, "Sequels were a pretty new thing in those days."
Sitting on stairs within sight of the Fox Plaza building that was used as the Nakatomi tower in the very first "Die Hard" (1988), a shaven-headed Willis fidgets and looks this way and that while Kevin Smith asks him questions about the series. But it's clear that Willis is almost as happy with this final installment as he was with the first, because it's mindful of the "mythology" of maverick New York City cop John McLane.
Though he doesn't explain further, the series catch-phrase, "Yippee-ki-yay, mother f--er," says it all. The first film gave us a go-it-alone hero in the Western tradition, while the second got bogged down in déjà vu and too many scenes showing cardboard bad guys in a wholly unimaginative sequel. The third introduced a strong sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson) who held his own against Willis and therefore took away some of the focus. It became more of a fun action buddy flick in the "Lethal Weapon" mode. There were almost as many gags as there were stunts, so it wasn't as purely "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" as the first film.
"Live Free or Die Hard" (a goofy title that sounds like a Hollywoodized version of something Patrick Henry would say) goes back to the original formula of focusing primarily on McLane and toning down the humor in favor of pure action. And it ratchets up the action quite a bit. It's as if the filmmakers sat down over coffee one day and brainstormed to see how many wildly different ways they could incorporate cars and high-concept stunts. Oh! We could have a car take out a helicopter in mid-air! (high fives all around) and we could have a car crash through a parking garage wall into the office space and then DOWN the elevator shaft! (yeah, baby!). I'm only half-poking fun, you know. You have to give these guys credit for creativity, and the breakneck pacing only adds to the sense of runaway action.
But I have to disagree with Willis. "Live Free or Die Hard" may be a solid action film, but I thought that Samuel L. Jackson kept Willis honest, and I really enjoyed the touch of humor that I don't think diminished the sense of peril or took away from the action one bit. And the plot of "Live Free or Die Hard" isn't nearly as complex as "Die Hard with a Vengeance."
Here, it's a group of cyber-terrorists who methodically attack the infrastructure of the U.S., and we can see each phase of their "fire sale" logically executed. While we can't predict everything they do, the plot doesn't twist as much as it did in the third installment. After an opening sequence establishes that computer hackers are being systematically eliminated before the FBI can bring them in for questioning, another sequence establishes how the overprotective McLane is now estranged from his adult daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, "Sky High"). But the real action begins when McLane is asked to drive to New Jersey, pick up a hacker, and take him to the Feds in D.C. That simple assignment turns into a roller-coaster ride after baddies with automatic weapons try to kill them both in the kid's apartment. And so McLane drags young Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) off, trying to deliver him as promised. What follows is a series of shoot-'em-up, blow-'em-up encounters where it's not always clear who's doing the pursuing. Both, actually.
Long plays off Willis really well without upstaging him, as Jackson did in so many scenes that Willis probably wanted to bang ONE of their heads against the wall. And director Len Wiseman ("Underworld") does a good job of sustaining the tension and action while also giving us just enough of the bad guys doing their thing to understand why the good guys were doing what they needed to do.
Computer whiz Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and his asian girlfriend-henchwoman Mai Lihn (Maggie Q) aren't nearly as villainous as we see in most action films, but that's also a refreshing change. These are normal people with twisted ideas. Beware of lectures against hacking, though, which the filmmakers couldn't resist.
Once again, police are kept on the periphery as this is The John McLane Show, but Cliff Curtis manages to stay clear of clichés as he plays the guy in charge, while it's fun to see Kevin Smith in another small role--this time as "Warlock," a hacker who lives (where else?) in his mother's basement. The special effects are also fun. But as I said, the trajectory of this one is pretty straightforward, and that's a big negative. So is the fact that by the fourth go-round, so much of what McLane does is starting to feel predictable. And that's the last thing a loose cannon wants to hear.
The last thing fans of the unrated version want to hear is that only the PG-13-rated version is available on Blu-ray, either singly or in the "Diehard Collection."
"Live Free or Die Hard" looks great in 1080p, but be warned that there's a bluish cast to many of the scenes, and occasional slants of horizontal blue lines of light. I'm guessing this was in the original film (never saw it in theaters, sorry), because there's a pleasing amount of detail and sharp edges with no artifacts. The film was transferred to a 50GB dual-layered disc using AVC tecnhology (28mbps) and presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
The featured soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS Master Lossless Audio, and it brings to life every zinging bullet and crunching metal crash. There's excellent movement across the speakers to give a realistic sense of the FX, and a nice wide spread across the front speakers that helps fill the room with sound. Additional options are in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English (CC), Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean.
All of the bonus features from the DVD are here, plus a game that's exclusive to Blu-ray.
The commentary track featuring Wiseman, Willis, and editor Nicholas de Toth covers a lot of ground, ranging from locations and stunt work to the script and improv opportunities. It's a solid track. "Yippee Ki Yay, Motherf****" offers Willis and Smith chatting, while we see more of Willis in "Analog Hero in a Digital World," a making-of feature that's almost as long as the movie. It's pretty informative, and moves along at a brisk pace. I enjoy behind-the-scenes footage, and there's plenty of that here, along with discussions of all aspects of the filmmaking, including the production design, stunt work, FX, and cast. Then there's "Fox Legacy," which is basically a very short promo teaser that was aired on Fox Movie Channel, a music video by Guyz Nite (and a short look at them behind-the-scenes), and the theatrical trailer (in Hi-Def).
Exclusive to Blu-ray is a game, "Black Hat Intercept!, a four-level game that asks you to click on your enter button to thwart terrorists (alas, my Samsung player kept freezing, but it's the player, I'm certain).
"Live Free or Die Hard" is a solid action film that probably provides a blueprint for future cyber-terrorists. I think we'd better start recruiting all of these hackers to work for the government . . . NOW! Though this is the first "Die Hard" in the series not to pull down an "R" rating, there's still plenty of violence and, of course, that catch-phrase.
"Die Hard" fans wanting to go Blu should consider getting the "Die Hard Collection," which offers all four films on HD--with the fourth one the same R-rated version as on this single release.