John McClane is back in another installment of the Die Hard franchise -- or is he? That's the question that faces moviegoers upon seeing Live Free or Die Hard, a techno-talky popcorn popper that has enough explosions to wake the dead, but very little to do with the esteemed film series by the time all of the terrorists are toast. So what went wrong? Is it the rating controversy that saw the film released as a very un-Die Hard PG-13? That has a bit to do with it, though the main gripe is that this really isn't a film about John McClane. Sure, there are a lion's share of stunts and one-liners, but the crux of the story has little to do with the cop from South Jersey who virtually reinvented the modern-day movie hero. Sadly, he's made to play second fiddle to Justin Long -- a young, sarcastic hacker whose part in the plot ends up nearly as substantial as McClane. Thus the movie essentially boils down to the two characters squabbling in an annoying "culture clash" fashion as they race from one destination to another, with lots of Long typing away at a keyboard and McClane only in tow to beat up the bad guys when they show up. Sound fun? Then maybe this is the flick for you. One thing is for sure though, this ain't your daddy's Die Hard.
To compare this sucker is to kill it. While it's never too easy to reboot an older franchise for modern audiences, Live Free does just enough to forget what came before it that it invites the critique. Bruce Willis has said that he despises the second film for giving too many nods to the original, but at least it acknowledged it. Here, the only thread of continuation has to do with McClane's family -- his estranged ex-wife and a daughter who gets annoyed by him, yet calls for daddy as soon as she gets stuck in an elevator! Does the government or the boring baddie (played with zero zest by Timothy Olyphant) even recognize that this is the same guy that thwarted three, count 'em, three terrorist attacks? No, not really. It's a point that thrusts the entire series into "lone wolf" territory, where McClane now has adventures that don't necessarily have to do anything that came before. As soon as this is understood, viewers can either tune out or just not give a hoot and enjoy the big pretty explosions. And to be sure, there are plenty of those.
In fact, take away any Die Hard references and this becomes a fairly forgettable summer excursion. The action is nice and at points, over-the-top, but never once is it gripping, just as the humor balances between light and cranky, but with techno-babble that is far too verbose. Casting is another problem, with memorable faces standing in for air-filled characters that the screenwriters didn't bother to invest time into. Additionally, director Len Wiseman does an admirable job of forgetting his Matrix rip-off roots, though his bland blue-hued color schemes and geographically challenged action still has a ways to go to compete with a heavyweight like John McTiernan. In the end, when all the gun shells are collected and freeways fixed, it's pretty obvious that Live Free was half-heartedly tailored to fit the franchise's mold, which is really too bad, because John McClane deserved better...and so do audiences.