"Live Free or Die Hard" – the fourth "Die Hard" movie, and the first in a decade – is easily the best in the series since the first one. Although it has its fair share of computer-generated effects, an alarming number of the stunts and explosions seem real, and the entire enterprise is character-driven rather than machine-tooled.
Bruce Willis's New York City detective, John McClane, is cynical and divorced, with a college-age daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who barely speaks to him. He's handed the routine assignment of transporting a young hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), to Washington, D.C., for questioning by Federal authorities. It's not long before McClane is once again in his element: Bullets spray, SUVs do back flips on the highway, helicopters zoom in for the kill.
The perpetrator of the fun and games is Washington renegade Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who aims to shut down the entire digital infrastructure of America by engineering what in geekspeak is known as a "fire sale" – everything must go. As the plan rolls out and panic ensues, McClane, with Farrell in tow, hustles to stay ahead of the terror.
As opposed to most smash-and-burn sequels, this one actually has a good idea going for it: McClane represents the old-school analog world, Gabriel stands for the digital. Most thrillers now are so high-tech that it's almost mandatory for the protagonists to be computer geniuses, and so there's something inherently funny about a modern action movie hero who doesn't know beans about computers. McClane must rely on Farrell to survive, but the opposite is also true. "Live Free or Die Hard" is a celebration of analog brawniness over digital finesse.
Director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback keep the action coming almost nonstop, and yet the movie is never tiring because the set pieces are all different from one another. Even the fighting plays out the analog versus digital theme: In the best of the fighting scenes, brawler McClane and a sleek kung fu bad girl (Maggie Q) practically embody yin and yang.
In a movie with so much destruction set over the the 4th of July weekend in New York and Washington, D.C. – at one point the White House appears to have been detonated – it's unavoidable that 9/11 references abound. The filmmakers haven't quite solved the problem – no one has yet – of how to make a popcorn political thriller about domestic terrorism without putting out bad vibes. Although he quotes from Lenin, Gabriel is ultimately just a bland-faced bad guy in the James Bond villain mold, and yet the film summons up imagery and fears that are all too real.
But at least for the running time of the movie, we have nothing to worry about; John McClane can take anybody down. Grade: A–
• Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language, and a brief sexual situation.