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Bruce Willis still has plenty of yippee-ki-yay

‘Live Free or Die Hard,’ the first since 1995’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” is the sort of generally welcome surprise that “Rocky Balboa” turned out to be, a reacquaintance with an old friend you didn’t think you would like anymore, but do.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Live Free or Die Hard” is the sort of movie you approach like last year’s “Basic Instinct 2” or “Rocky Balboa.”

You go in expecting the worst and figure you’ll at least get some laughs out of seeing an aging protagonist embarrassingly trying to reclaim old glory.

Luckily for Bruce Willis and the audience, his die-hard cop still has a lot of yippee-ki-yay in him, nearly 20 years after the first “Die Hard.”

This fourth installment in the franchise, the first since 1995’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” is the sort of generally welcome surprise that “Rocky Balboa” turned out to be, a reacquaintance with an old friend you didn’t think you would like anymore, but do.

Let’s be clear. “Live Free or Die Hard” is silly, outlandish and painfully implausible, and it grows more so as director Len Wiseman revs up the climactic action sequences to preposterous extremes.

Yet for a pure summer power trip, it’s a decent throwback to the pure-brawn heyday of Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, an agreeable respite from today’s cartoonlike ballets of computer-generated action.

This time out, Willis’ John McClane still wisecracks, but he’s much more a stoic hard case than the yammering clown of earlier years. Divorced and disillusioned, McClane still takes his job as a New York City detective seriously, and he does it well.

One night, while staking out his college-age daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), to make sure her date keeps his hands to himself, McClane is dispatched to pick up a computer hacker and deliver him to the FBI in Washington for questioning.

Computer geek Matt Farrell (Justin Long) is one of many digital wizards the feds want to question after the bureau’s cyber-security division is hacked.

Moments after McClane shows up at Matt’s door, assassins bombard the apartment with gunfire, setting off a long July Fourth weekend for the cop and the hacker as they chase around trying to stay ahead of the bad guys and figure out who’s behind a computer incursion that cripples the nation.

Traffic signals go berserk, financial markets crash, airplanes are grounded, electricity is cut and federal buildings are evacuated because of false anthrax alarms.

With all their equipment and digital know-how, the feds, led by FBI guy Bowman (Cliff Curtis), are virtually hapless in tracking down the mastermind, bitter security expert Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant).

So of course, it’s left to McClane, an analog dinosaur who barely grasps the concept of cell phones, to hunt the man down, aided by sidekick Farrell.

Ridiculous as the action scenes are, the early ones are a clever, thrilling blend of digital imagery and old-fashioned muscle. The first two-thirds of the movie builds up enough good will that viewers may play along when director Wiseman (the “Underworld” movies) goes off the deep end with some insanely excessive stunts in the final act.

Among the highlights is a death-match between bruiser McClane and Gabriel’s lover and accomplice (Maggie Q), a lethal martial-arts fighter.

With McClane taking blows that should leave him for dead, their duel accentuates the impossible levels to which the filmmakers take their die-hard notion. McClane is less a human than an unstoppable, “Terminator”-style cyborg, continually bouncing back with another punch and a new joke.

Willis shows nothing he hasn’t shown a dozen times before, but he does it all well, delivering steely stares, writhing in pain and complaining in muttered soliloquy about his lot in life.

He and Long develop a nice father-son camaraderie through their adventures, while Winstead fills in for the absent Bonnie Bedelia, McClane’s wife from the first two movies, playing the spunky damsel inevitably drawn into the peril.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith adds an amusing bit part as a distrustful computer nerd holed up in a “command center” in his mom’s basement.

While Olyphant is adequate as the ruthless, calculating Gabriel, he suffers a similar fate as William Sadler and Jeremy Irons, the villains of the second and third “Die Hard” flicks: Namely, that no one seems like a truly worthy opponent for McClane after the deliciously flamboyant performance of bad guy Alan Rickman in the original “Die Hard.”