Read more from Slate’s Summer Movies.
Midway through Live Free or Die Hard (20th Century Fox), someone tells Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.” It’s a nearly identical line to one uttered in Ocean’s Thirteen to George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and like that movie, the fourth installment of Die Hard is a nostalgic tribute to an earlier age of Hollywood filmmaking. But whereas Ocean’s Thirteen stylishly saluted the Vegas heist picture, Live Free or Die Hard dispenses with the style: It brings back ‘80s action filmmaking through sheer muscle. This is a movie that believes in doing things the old-fashioned way, hurling real cars at real helicopters and dangling real SUVs down real elevator shafts. Sure, there’s computer-generated enhancement, but only as much as necessary to keep those hurtling vehicles from killing the equally real (and certifiable) stuntmen and women who agree to climb behind their wheels.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Bruce Willis appeared as John McClane in the original Die Hard, and 12 years since the third installment, Die Hard With a Vengeance, in which he saved New York from Jeremy Irons. In the first chapter of the franchise since 9/11—hell, the first chapter since Clinton’s first term in office—the stakes are considerably higher. The requisite evildoer, computer genius Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) wants to shut down the entire country’s telecommunications, utilities, and financial infrastructure in a three-part digital attack known as a “fire sale” (because “everything must go”). Gabriel’s motives—do you really need to know? There’s anti-government paranoia involved (Lenin is quoted at one point) and of course billions of dollars to be moved into Gabriel’s bank account from, well, everyone else’s, but essentially, the guy is just an asshole. To make sure his scheme is bug-proof, Gabriel hires a bunch of freelance hackers—basically, nerds in basements—and once they’ve served his purpose, picks them off with extreme prejudice.
On a routine errand to pick up one of the suspected hackers, a New Jersey kid named Matt Farrell (Justin Long), McClane finds the boy, and himself, targeted by a pair of French assassins who appear to be practitioners of parkour. Thus begins a jolly chase in which McClane and Matt, pursued by international villains, airborne cars, and at one point, a Harrier jet, make their way toward the top-secret NSA facility that’s become Gabriel’s command center.
There’s so much violence, noise, and mayhem in Live Free or Die Hard that the overall effect is strangely Zen (just as the din in Times Square can be so deafening sometimes that it resolves into a gentle hum). Though the movie’s at least 20 minutes too long, it’s deeply satisfying, full of old-school buddy banter and the kind of action sequences that make you burst out laughing at their sheer audacity. In the Die Hard world, the human body—particularly Bruce Willis’ all-too-human, 55-year-old body—is not so much flesh and bone as a vulcanized rubber projectile. Ignoring the current trend toward hyperrealist gore, director Len Wiseman (Underworld) never shows us the real-life results of, say, being thrown from a fast-moving vehicle: There are no severed limbs, no faces ground to hamburger. Instead, the combatants ignore their manly, well-placed lacerations and brush themselves off for the next round.
I suppose this approach is mind-corroding in its own way, minimizing the effects of violence and so on, but it’s a relief to get through two hours without any exploding heads or flying organs. Live Free or Die Hard is like the pretend play of a child banging Matchbox cars together, imagining the physics of midair collision for the sheer glee of it. One bravura chase sequence inside a tunnel garnered a round of applause at the screening I attended. An even more absurd scene, in which McClane leaps from a collapsing highway onto the back of a fighter jet in midflight, recalled the ending of Dr. Strangelove—if Slim Pickens had survived his bronco ride on the missile.
The Die Hard movies belong so completely to Bruce Willis, his indestructible physique and world-weary way with a one-liner, that it seems almost spurious to mention the rest of the cast. But Justin Long, who looks like a smarter Keanu Reeves, is endearing as the slacker sidekick who carries his messenger bag even into the jaws of doom. Timothy Olyphant, as the sneering supervillain, projects a somewhat generic malice, but the kung-fu star Maggie Q, as his ice-queen girlfriend, dies almost as hard as McClane and looks fabulous doing it. Director Kevin Smith does a funny eleventh-hour cameo as a chubby computer whiz called the Warlock.
Live Free or Die Hard lacks any single wisecrack as deathless as McClane’s trademark “yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” (which he tosses off here at one point, the offending F-word cut off by a gunshot to preserve the PG-13 rating). But it has enough mind-blowing stunts to leave audience members walking out and inventing obscenity-laced catchphrases of their own.
On that topic … it’s been nearly a year since the last SlateMovies contest, in which more than 700 readers contributed fake movie titles inspired by Snakes on a Plane, with brilliant results. In honor of the Summer Movies issue, I hereby propose a contest for the best fake action-movie one-liner (required reading: Eric Lichtenfeld’s well-considered analysis of the Die Hard catchphrase). Your entry needn’t be profanity-laced (though it can be)—just make it snappy and memorable, the kind of thing you’d love to say right before blowing a bad guy away. Send me your contributions by the evening of Monday, July 2, and I’ll post the results late next week.