Live Free or Die Hard

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Oh, John McClane. How we have missed you! America has changed since 1995, when we last saw you. We have been attacked by terrorists. We have turned Internet geekery into a viable career option. And most of all, we have become overly concerned about cutting down on the swear words so that we can earn a PG-13 rating and thus open ourselves up to the more lucrative teen moviegoer market. We need you in times like these, John McClane!

McClane is back in “Live Free or Die Hard,” a walloping action flick with a silly title, lots of smarmy tough-guy jokes, and a series of outrageously improbable stunt sequences — exactly what you want in a “Die Hard” movie, in other words. (People who complain about this entry’s ridiculous title should remember that the last one was called “Die Hard: With a Vengeance.”)

Played once again with the perfect combination of bravado and snarkiness by Bruce Willis, McClane is a gruff, by-the-book NYPD detective who, through no fault of his own, winds up in the middle of plot hatched by cyber-terrorists to throw the nation’s computerized systems — which is to say, pretty much everything — into chaos.

Congratulations are in order to the filmmakers for making such a dull-sounding crisis into something genuinely exciting. The bad guy is Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a well-groomed, clean-cut man whose motives, at least for the first two-thirds of the film, are not entirely clear. He has a team of hackers, henchmen, and assassins to aid him in his quest for whatever-he’s-doing, and he executes his plans with ruthless efficiency.

McClane has in his custody an expert hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long), a harmless kid who didn’t know he was a pawn in Gabriel’s master plan. He’s also not used to the mayhem that attends John McClane everywhere he goes, which McClane himself seems grimly resigned to, even bemused by. When Matt says he’s tired of people trying to kill him, McClane says, “You get used to it.”

He has plenty of opportunities to do so, as the film is mostly a series of action scenes, punctuated here and there by scenes in which Matt uses his mad computer skillz to thwart evildoers. McClane’s world of fighting and killing and shooting and driving cars backwards at high speeds and launching SUVs into elevator shafts is completely foreign to Matt, while Matt’s connection to the brave new world of technology and cyber-terrorism is baffling to McClane. In the 21st century, you can’t save the day with guns alone. Now you need guns and a DSL connection.

John McTiernan, director of the first and third “Die Hard” movies, is onboard as a producer this time. The directorial duties are handed off to Len Wiseman, whose two lousy “Underworld” films barely hinted at the talent for staging impressive stunt sequences that he exhibits here. Helicopters, police cars, and fighter jets are all involved, as well as a lot of good old-fashioned hand-to-hand butt-kicking. It’s been a while since we’ve had something as enjoyably bombastic and explosive as this. It feels like a summer blockbuster: A little dumb, a little smart, and a lot loud.

It’s pretty funny, too, thanks to Willis and Long, two actors from different generations whose wise-cracking sensibilities mesh surprisingly well. Willis has that deadpan smirk; Long has his Gen-Y straight-faced irony; as a team, they can express their frustrations with succinct, cutting sarcasm. I like that McClane doesn’t just kill a bad guy’s assassin girlfriend; he has to then taunt the bad guy with that fact every time he talks to him. McClane is a bastard — a patriotic, get-the-job-done bastard. You wouldn’t want to mess with him, but you would want to eat pizza and watch football with him.

The film, with a screenplay by Mark Bomback (“Godsend”), stretches credulity almost to the breaking point by dragging McClane’s daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) into things, a transparent attempt to fulfill the action-movie requirement that all heroes have a personal connection to the proceedings. I’m a little bothered by the endless collateral damage, too, with what must be dozens of fatal or near-fatal car accidents and other mishaps occurring regularly. The unstated message is always, “Don’t worry! The characters whose names we know are all OK!”

Then there’s the rating. It’s PG-13, which means there’s no end to the violence, but we hardly see any blood or corpses. So, you know, it’s OK for kids, as long as their Parents Are Strongly Cautioned. They clearly had an R rating in mind when they shot the film, though, because there are many instances where the words you hear do not match what the actors lips would indicate. There are several more places where they’ve intentionally used shots where we can’t see the actors’ mouths at all, apparently to hide the fact that their dialogue was dubbed in later. It doesn’t diminish the film’s entertainment value, but it does mean it loses some technical points. Plus, it’s a glaring reminder that movies like this, as fun as they are, aren’t made JUST for fun. They’re commercial properties, too.

In John McClane’s day, they made movies packed with violence and profanity, movies that were proud of their R ratings! John McClane would never watch a watered-down PG-13 “Die Hard” movie! John McClane eats movies like that for breakfast. We need you, John McClane, now more than ever.

B (2 hrs., 10 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, a ceaseless parade of violence.)

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