John McClane doesn’t do subtlety, but that’s just part of his charm.
The blue-collar hero of the “Die Hard” franchise, an iconic relic who punctuates every knockout punch with a bruising wisecrack, still has what it takes in director Len Wiseman’s “Live Free or Die Hard.”
New York’s most resilient detective has never been older, balder or less profane, but he hasn’t gone soft. And after a 12-year layoff, a self-assured Bruce Willis steps into the role as comfortably as he would a pair of well-worn sneakers.
Wiseman (“Underworld”) wisely abandons his recent habit of shooting in dark, deliberately dreary tones and plays it safe. “Live Free or Die Hard” wastes little time before diving headlong into the thick of a plot that, like McClane, is to the point: Cyber-terrorists threaten to collapse America’s technological infrastructure, leading to chaos. They are led by Maggie Q, who, with her stern countenance and graceful yet menacing physical presence, is ideally cast, and Timothy Olyphant, who is not.
As the strong-willed sheriff on HBO’s “Deadwood,” Olyphant proved capable of holding his own against fierce rivals, but here he is asked to generate the fierceness himself. It’s an awkward fit. The “Die Hard” movies have always featured exceptional villains played by pitch-perfect character actors such as Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons and William Sadler; Olyphant isn’t at that level, yet.
No matter. “Live Free or Die Hard” quickly settles into a comfortably efficient groove, as McClane, charged with protecting a young hacker (Justin Long, star of those ubiquitous Mac commercials), races around the eastern seaboard trying to prevent a digital “fire-sale” that will cripple the U.S. economy.
He’s out to protect his family, too — his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), now a student at Rutgers, becomes an unwitting pawn in the game, and it’s up to McClane to devise a checkmate strategy.
“Live Free or Die Hard” isn’t terribly imaginative — it plays out like a greatest-hits package, and the stakes aren’t as high as they were in “Die Hard” or “Die Hard 2,” superior thrillers that created a sense of claustrophobic dread only sporadically evident here. But the action is furious and compelling, and McClane — a practical man whose patriotism is never overplayed and whose swagger is never cartoonish — is more engaging than Rambo or the Terminator because, unlike them, he seems human.
Live Free or Die Hard ***
Starring Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q, Cliff Curtis
Written by Mark Bomback
Directed by Len Wiseman
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes