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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 27, 2007

The first “Die Hard,” released in 1988, was a welcome change in a decade bloated with action movies in which impossibly chiseled heroes slew platoons of bad guys without breaking a sweat. John Rambo, John Matrix, and the like were cartoon characters, embodying the hypermasculinity of the Reagan years while either rewriting history by single-handedly ex post facto vanquishing the Viet Cong or taking care of those pesky Central American rebels once and for all. But it was another John, Detective John McClane of the NYPD, who reintroduced the Everyman action hero.

McClane repeatedly got the s**t kicked out of him as he tried to foil the Eurotrash takeover of the Nakatomi Building, losing his shoes, his shirt, and several pints of blood in the process. Bruce Willis wasn’t especially buff, and the male pattern baldness was really kicking into overdrive, but these were the qualities that made us cheer for him even more. Granted, his ultimate survival was never really in doubt, and his naked disgust at scantily clad women in public (the blonde at the airport), Argyle’s choice of Christmas music, and the idea that his wife would use her maiden name suggest another facet of the ‘80s male ideal personified by Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but we sympathized with the guy more than we did with those other Muscle Beach freaks.

Now, 12 years after the third installment in the “Die Hard” series (“With a Vengeance”), McClane is back. Little is said about the intervening years; we learn that the now-divorced McClane is still a detective with the NYPD, and his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a student at Rutgers (in a familiar insult to her estranged old man, she’s going by Lucy “Gennaro” now). Unfortunately for him, there’s barely enough time to intimidate his daughter’s boyfriend before plot intrudes.

McClane gets a call to pick up a suspected computer hacker for the FBI and escort him to Washington, DC. No sooner has he arrived to do this then a squad of machine gun-toting bad guys show up and get themselves mostly killed by our favorite cop. It seems the hacker, one Matt Farrell (Justin Long), was one of several computer whizzes unwittingly recruited to help the bad guy execute something called a “fire sale,” in which the entire country’s infrastructure is brought to its knees. Why the villain, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), wants to bring this about isn’t clear at first, but going by past “Die Hards,” we can hazard a guess.

First, the good: it’s f*****g “Die Hard.” John McClane is back and killing improbably large numbers of bad guys while causing extraordinary amounts of property damage. And with a few exceptions (the climactic semi truck vs. F-35B VTOL fighter jet transcends conventional cinematic lunacy), most of this is accomplished with the use of actual vehicles and explosions. Director Len Wiseman keeps the action clicking along, and while Gabriel’s “Pinky and the Brain”-esque scheme may seem far-fetched, it’s really no more ridiculous than those of the previous movies, merely larger in scope.

On the other hand, some of this s**t strains credibility, even for a Hollywood action movie. The bad guys are able to move about with impunity, even though the nation is in a state of virtual martial law, and I fear parkour is fast becoming this decade’s equivalent of ninja bad guys.

What about the PG-13 rating? Honestly, you barely notice. I agree that the idea of making a PG-13 “Die Hard” for “commercial reasons” is patently dishonest (the first three – R-rated – movies have grossed roughly $700 million worldwide). Worse, it does a disservice to our fine men and women in law enforcement. I’ve known my share of police officers, and the vast majority of them curse like a sailor with a particularly fiery case of the clap. If I wanted to see cops who talk like my grandmother, I’d stay home and watch reruns of “Dragnet.”

But the MPAA has never cared as much about violence rating-wise, and “Live Free or Die Harder” is a more violent movie that any of its predecessors (well, except for the one where they blew up an entire passenger plane full of people). Fine, there’s only one f-bomb (you shouldn’t have a problem figuring out where it happens), but there’s more than enough gunplay and catastrophic thoracic trauma to make up for it.

I’m less sold on the idea of McClane needing a sidekick. It worked somewhat in “With A Vengeance” because, well, it was Samuel L. Jackson. Otherwise, McClane only required a couple of helpers to assist him in “Die Hard 2” (Barnes the engineer and Marvin the janitor), and the closest thing he had to back-up in the first movie was Sgt. Al Powell, who only offered moral support via walkie talkie. Problem is, the set-up demands someone with considerable computer skills to help out, and Luddite McClane would rather lecture us on how out of touch with out humanity we’ve become. Besides, Long is (somewhat) less annoying than I thought he’d be. Kevin Smith, on the other hand, has a pretty unnecessary role, though apparently he still can’t resist taking shots at those basement-dwelling nerds.

Against my better judgment, I liked “Live Free or Die Hard.” Quite a bit, as it turns out. Does it herald a renaissance in the action genre? Not really, but it’s a welcome throwback to good old-fashioned, ‘80s-style lunkhead violence, and no one takes a punch, kick, elbow, or bullet quite like John McClane.

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