It's been 12 years since the last Die Hard entry, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and after myriad attempts by screenwriters and producers to figure what to do with NYC detective John McClane – plop him on a boat, on an island, whatever – somehow the planets lined up, and a perfect coda to the character's life was created.
Creatively inspired by John Carlin's article “A Farewell to Arms,” which addressed the concept of a Fire Sale – an anarchic 3-stage plan that breaks up the transportation system, flattens all communication links, and eradicates financial data so civilization can start anew – screenwriters Mark Bomback (Godsend) and David Marconi (Enemy of the State) have McClane assigned to drag a convicted hacker back to FBI headquarters for interrogation, while a team of nefarios constantly try to blow or shoot the pair into minced meat.
Director Len Wiseman (Underworld) maintains a tight pacing, and smartly integrates real stunt work with minimally flashy digital effects, although a preposterous jet assault on McClane in a semi truck pretty much reinforces the character as an action hero who manages to survive tall falls, concrete slams, and gunshots with astonishing resilience. Of course, by that point in the film's story – close to the final reel – we've seen the character go from a local cop and return to his roots as an old action hero slowly rediscovering the adrenaline rush that helped him thwart the greedy needs of fashionable super-terrorists.
McClane is wholly self-effacing, he knows absurdity lies at every turn, and he's prepared to face the end if a bullet manages to finally kill him, but part of his allure since the first film lies in his position as an Everyman who discovers an inner ability to pull off the impossible using ground-level instincts and be practical when it's politically incorrect, like beating the crap out of a female assassin (ice cold villainess Mai Lihn, played by Maggie Q) so he can finish saving the world's financial records; and an unwavering sense of humour when facing the worst kind of physical trauma, like a military fighter plane, gas explosions, or an assassin named Rand who keeps surviving the carnage McClane returns in kind like some live-action version of the Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoons.
The indestructible assassin is one of the film's funny motifs – whether falling from a building, or tumbling from a doomed helicopter - and the ploy sets up an inevitable battle between hero and killer in a giant coolant system. Played by Cyril Raffaelli (the acrobatic hero in Luc Besson's District 13 / Banlieue 13 and killer steroid monk in Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse / Les Rivières pourpres II - Les anges de l'apocalypse), he exists solely to torment McClane, and offers some low-flying, cartoon subtext.
Among the cast, probably the cleverest addition is Justin Long as the hacker, an actor best-known for the brilliant Mac ads that pit a personified PC - an intractable, bitter man - against Mac (Long), a relaxed, artsy dude who just wants to get along with everyone in the world. Also of note is an inflated Kevin Smith as uber-hacker Warlock, played with enough subtle gestures to elevate the character from a one-joke caricature.
Fox' DVD release contains the usual extras spread over two discs – a commentary track and the usual making-of featurettes totaling just over 90 mins. of production minutia – plus the PG-13 cut that played in theatres, shorn of the profanity that's always been part of the franchise's argot.
Dumbed-down to a PG-13 rating from an R, the ploy may have made it easier for youngins' to see the film in theatres, but it also had fans head-scratching, particularly when McClane's signature phrase “Yippee Kai Yay, Motherfucker” was obliterated by sound effects.
The verbally unedited version feels more natural and faithful to the lead character, but there are glaring points where potty words have been re-dubbed over non-profane mouth movements, and jarring cutaways to once-clean shots slapped with hasty R-rated ‘fucks' during post-production for the DVD release.
(Note: the upscale and pricey Blu-Ray edition of Live Free or Die Hard, like Ultraviolet and Basic Instinct 2, contains the tame theatrical version of the film – in this case, it's just the profanity-free PG-13 cut - whereas the standard DVD release has the unrated version.)
In the making-of featurette, Justin Long recounts seeing the prior Die Hard films on TV ‘edited for content,' and he states on set that Live Free is being shot with dialogue conformed to for PG-13 rating. The whole effort to stay verbally clean seems ridiculous, given most films make their money from DVD sales, and whether bought or rented, PG-13 audiences can easily see uncut versions at home on their DVD player, so why bother cleansing the film when the theatrical cut has built-in obsolescence? Besides, the mighty F-word also pops up in the making-of featurette, which kind of offsets any hope a family might have of watching a clean set of featurettes after viewing the PG-13 cut.
Quibbles aside, Fox' DVD is an otherwise satisfying package, and the aggressive sound design will definitely give the home system a good workout. A surprisingly fun, well-made sequel that manages to rise above the usual low expectations whenever studios attempt to revivify an old franchise.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan