When I first heard that Bruce Willis was going to revive John McClane and the moribund 'Die Hard' franchise with 'Live Free or Die Hard,' I laughed. I just couldn't see the character being remotely relevant to modern audiences. After all, it's been twenty years since the first 'Die Hard,' and neither of its two follow-ups (1990's 'Die Hard 2' and 1995's 'Die Hard with a Vengeance') did much to develop the character beyond a smirking, one-dimensional quipster with a gun. What possible point could there be to making a fourth film in the series, other than as a cynical, last-grab effort by Willis to have one last blockbuster before being sent off to the retirement home for has-been action movie stars?
So what a surprise 'Live Free or Die Hard' turned out to be. It has all the plot elements of a classic 'Die Hard' flick that will be instantly familiar to any fan of the series, yet somehow is able to craft a surprisingly emotional story arc for the McClane character that's arguably the best since the original. That it's also a rollicking action flick with top-notch stunt sequences is only icing on the cake.
As 'Live Free or Die Hard' begins, it's the Fourth of July weekend, and America is under attack. An unknown criminal masterminded has just orchestrated a "fire sale" (i.e., everything must go) siege on the nation's computer systems, with no clear motive. Even more mysteriously, a cadre of gunmen has been out eliminating the country's leading hackers, and now only one is left, Mike Farrell (Justin Long), who soon realizes he inadvertently aided the villain's nefarious plot.
Enter the FBI's "Cyber Crimes Division," which drafts McClane, who's still with the NYPD. In classic 'Die Hard' fashion, he's assigned to protect Farrell, who is of course a wisecracking little weasel who can't hold a gun without wetting his shorts (voila -- instant sidekick!). Thanks to McClane's seemingly psychic ability to constantly elude the gunmen out to murder Farrell, they stay alive long enough to uncover the identity of the man behind the plot. He's Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), the latest in the assembly line of action-movie loonies on a moral mission to redeem all of mankind. In a topical, post-9/11 touch, Gabriel is actually a devout patriot, who through a complex (if psychotic) moral justification, is planning on saving America by leaving it teetering on the brink of technological collapse.
Of course, it wouldn't be a 'Die Hard' movie if McClane didn't have domestic problems, too. Though his ex-wife (a sorely missed Bonnie Bedelia) has been long gone since sequel two, McClane has a daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who like her mother wants nothing to do with him. What better way to get back in his daughter's good graces then by saving the world from Bill Gates' evil twin? Throw in McClane's constant meddling in Lucy's love life and the geeky but cute Farrell's unattached status and it's not too hard to guess how this is all gonna play out.
'Live Free or Die Hard' works very well as the story of an aging man who may be past his prime, but doesn't wallow in self-pity or lose sight of what made the franchise's formula so successful in the past. The script is sly with its affectionate digs at McClane as an aging relic of a bygone era, but still lets him be the potent, take-no-prisoners ass-kicker that can get the job done when all other options fail. The message seems to be that for all of our world's newfangled gadgets and cutting-edge technology, when the chips are down we still need a retro guy like McClane to ride in on his white horse, toss off a few quips and get the job done. The retro-modern tone is perfect -- 'Live Free or Die Hard' will appeal just as well to today's action-deficient generation as the legions of fans that grew up on the earlier flicks.
'Live Free or Die Hard' was directed by Len Wiseman ('Underworld'), who brings the same old school sensibility to the film's wall-to-wall action. Largely eschewing CGI and fast-cut editing, it's refreshing how so many of the stunts and effects in 'Live Free or Die Hard' are practical -- these are real stunts with real cars and real explosions. The cumulative effect left me in breathless state of nail-biting suspense. It also helps that Willis did many of his own stunts, further enhancing the live-without-a-net sense of derring-do. 'Live Free or Die Hard' returns a genuine sense of danger to its action moviemaking, one sorely missed in today's era of play-it-safe, over-CGI'd monstrosities (take that, 'Transformers'!)
Given how surprised I am by the vitality of 'Live Free or Die Hard,' it's unfortunate that I can't rate the movie even more highly as it makes its Blu-ray debut. That's because Fox -- citing "production deadlines" -- has opted to not include the Unrated version of the film in high-def, even though they *are* featuring it on the standard DVD edition of the film that's hitting stores day-and-date. Although there are no real missing scenes or other major excisions in this PG-13 cut, the film has been considerably watered-down to help boost its chances at the summer box office. The ploy certainly worked (the film was a huge worldwide hit), but as we learn on this disc's supplements, it was originally conceived as a "hard R" picture, meaning that major retinkering had to be done in post to curb the violence and foul language.
Now, as regular readers of this site are well aware, I'm no fan of gratuitous vulgarity just to sell tickets, but editing out John McClane's use of the F-word in a 'Die Hard' flick is the equivalent of making a slasher movie with no bloody breasts. Violent aggression and a potty mouth is what this character is, and what fans have come to love and expect from him. The intensity of the action in 'Live Free or Die Hard' certainly suggests an R rating, and when the film cuts away (or dubs in tamer dialogue for Willis) it does feel sanitized. Make no mistake -- I still thoroughly enjoyed 'Live Free or Die Hard' even in its PG-13 form, but the lack of the Unrated cut here is a major omission. I can only hope that someday Fox will revisit 'Live Free or Die Hard' on Blu-ray and finally present the film the way it was originally intended. John McClane deserves it.
'Live Free or Die Hard' is one of the most highly-anticipated next-gen titles of the year, and I'm happy to report that when it comes to picture quality, Fox has delivered in spades. This is a largely excellent transfer, and one that boasts enough reference-quality moments that it has definitely earned a place on my short list of demo discs this holiday season.
Fox presents 'Live Free or Die Hard' in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, framed at its riginal theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The film is far from generic in its visual design, making bold use of hard-edged hues (I haven't seen such steely blues since 'Terminator 2') and harsh contrast through much of its runtime. Conversely, the on-location Washington DC scenes are intentionally desaturated. But it is to this transfer's great credit that it doesn't overdo these contrasts, with the image both stylized yet retaining a striking depth and realism. Blacks are incredibly deep with superior shadow delineation, so that even minor details remain clearly visible throughout. Though fleshtones are slightly skewed given the heavy use of blue, I was impressed by how fantastic close-ups in particular look -- I could make out every last pore on Bruce Willis' skin. The presentation is also razor-sharp, yet not edge-enhanced into oblivion, which further increases the 3-D effect.
Although 'Live Free or Die Hard' is full of five-star moments, there are several inconsistencies that lead me to knock its overall video rating down a half-star. First off, there are a handful of scenes that break down under noticeable noise. Colors can also edge towards oversaturation in these moments, which adds further fuzziness to the proceedings. Finally, black crush can at times become too steep. Still, none of these issues are fatal, and for most of its runtime, 'Live Free or Die Hard' looks downright terrific.
If you've been looking for an action-loaded soundtrack to blow out your speakers, you've found it in 'Live Free or Die Hard.' I hate to sound cheesy, but this DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit) delivered such intense moments of bombast that it truly rocked the house.
Okay, the film's sound design is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. But that's exactly what any Blu-ray fan wants out of a disc like this. The intensity of the discrete effects and the sheer aggressiveness of the surrounds is truly enveloping. Directionality is all over the place, with sounds zipping about the soundfield with excellent transparency. I was also impressed with how atmospheric sounds were so well-dispersed that they're often hard to localize -- always a sign of well-done mix.
Dynamics are also pounding. 'Live Free or Die Hard' delivers some of the deepest and most forceful low bass I've heard in my eighteen months of reviewing next-gen titles. The sheer crunch and realism of the entire frequency spectrum is just as impressive. And I was absolutely shocked that I had no dialogue balance problems -- I expected that I'd be constantly twiddling the volume knob to compensate, but no need to have such worries. This Blu-ray edition of 'Live Free or Die Hard' offers up an absolutely first-rate, five-star audio presentation.
'Live Free or Die Hard' was one of Fox's biggest hits of the summer, so it's not surprising that they've put together a strong supplement package for the film's Blu-ray release. This disc ports over all of the extras from the concurrently-released standard-def DVD, and all that keeps the Blu-ray from earning even higher marks from me is that, for whatever reason, the studio has opted to not upgrade the video, leaving all of the film-specific video material here presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 only.
John McClane may not have not changed one iota in the nearly two decades between 'Die Hard' and his latest adventure, but the very familiarity of the character is what gives 'Live Free or Die Hard' such a nostalgic kick. That the film also works for modern audiences is the icing on the cake. This Blu-ray is also sure to please, with great video, even better audio, and a strong enough batch of extras that fans shouldn't go away disappointed. Unfortunately, as good as this disc is, the fact that Fox has neglected to include an unrated cut of the movie (as they have on standard-def) is a real disappointment that seems likely to lead some fans to wait on a purchase until Fox gets around to re-issuing the film with all the F-words where they belong.