John McClane is back, after a twelve-year hiatus, and he's as good as ever in "Live Free or Die Hard," the fourth installment of this immensely popular series, now available on video. As the constantly embattled NYPD detective, Bruce Willis is the franchise here. At 52, he's looking a bit long in the tooth, but the film's makers play off their star's age to comic effect, making his character out to be an analog dinosaur trying to cope with a digital world. They give the older action hero for a comic sidekick a young actor best known for his Apple ads (Justin Long) and an ubergeek archvillain (Timothy Olyphant) for a nemesis. And the damsel in distress this time is not McClane's wife but his college student daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
All of the principals generate the action drama's usual high octane plot. (McClane's most recurrent line is "Hang on!") It begins with Dad's pulling a guy trying to make out with his daughter out of a car; it ends with a parallel action, though a substantially more violent one. Along the way, McClane goes through his characteristic harried, angry, obstinate paces, bashing up cars, punching out and/or shooting bad guys, and generally wreaking havoc as he defies his superiors.
However, instead of heavies armed with bazookas, this time the threat to the nation's security comes from that scariest of all weapons: the computer. Disaffected and embittered, former government security expert Thomas Gabriel (Olyphant) has enlisted a bunch of other geeks, a battalion of thugs, and one sleek martial arts-savvy girlfriend (Maggie Q). The idea is to have a "Fire Sale," code for crashing the entire Establishment system"”including its finances. Though Gabriel claims that he is a patriot trying to show how vulnerable the country is to terrorists hacking into various crucial bases, McClane probably has it right when he emphatically claims, "It's always about the money."
There's not much point in rehearsing the particulars of the action: it would spoil the fun, and you probably know them anyway. What's more engaging and original is the inter-generational interplay between McClane and Matt Farrell (Long), the hacker whom he is initially sent to pick up and deliver to the feds. Director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback keep the pace snappy, the zingers sharp, the banter trenchant. (At one point, Farrell gasps, "You just killed a helicopter with a car!", to which the bloodied but definitely unbowed McClane calmly ripostes, "I was out of bullets.") The grizzled police tec is given low-tech weapons"”fists, guns, and, yes, cars"”but he needs the cyber-savvy of his young techie ally, who sees himself as anything but heroic. In turn, he enlists the aid of an even-bigger nerd, The Warlock (Kevin Smith), who runs his "Command Center" out of his mother's basement.
Cinematographer Simon Duggan and film editor Nicolas DeToth put together a slick example of the genre, and Marco Beltrami's original score adequately underpins the action. But Willis and, to a surprising extent, Long are the main attractions here: their scenes together constitute most of the fun. This is the first of the series to be rated "PG-13," mostly for violence and language, and that seems about right. Adult fans of the series will like this one, an exception to Don't Push the Series Past #2 Rule that I have recently come to embrace. Rent and enjoy.