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Live Free or Die Hard

Above: Bruce Willis Reprises his role as John McClane in "Live Free or Die Hard."

While sequels such as Oceans 13 and Spider-Man 3 can think of nothing better than slapping a new number on the end of the titles for each successive film, the Die Hard series has at least had some fun with their titles offering up Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance and now Live Free or Die Hard (opening June 29 throughout San Diego). Bruce Willis returns for his fourth outing as maverick cop John McClane.

The Die Hard films, which kicked off in 1988, operate on the simple theory that you cant keep a good man down. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York City cop who always seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in an office building when a terrorist took it over; had his wife on a plane that mercenaries wanted to crash; and ended up driving all over New York City to play a mad bomber's sick game. Now he's asked to perform the simple task of picking up Matt Farrell (Justin Long), a hacker that the FBI needs to question, and bringing him in. Only problem is someone wants the hacker and of course McClane dead and is willing to do anything to achieve that end -- that includes blowing them up, chasing them with a helicopter and even arranging for a fighter jet shoot McClane down. Talk about overkill.

But this time out McClane has to save more than an office building or a plane. As the title implies its about saving the free world or at least America as we know it. The terrorists this time are a bunch of computer geeks who have figured out a way to bring the computer dependent U.S. to its knees. The plan has been masterminded by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and his lethal assistant Mai Lihn (Maggie Q). McClane's wife (previously played by Bonnie Bedelia) isn't in jeopardy this time but his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is.

I have to confess that I went into this with low expectations. I thought this was just another attempt to milk a franchise for one more lame sequel. But I have to admit I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. Live Free or Die Hard delivers the action goods and has a helluva good time doing it. Id call it a guilty pleasure only I don't feel any guilt about having enjoyed it so much. Its a big dumb lug of a film but it has no pretenses about being anything else. It's like a punch drunk fighter who keeps plugging away because he doesn't know what else to do, and you gotta love him for being so determined in his enterprise.

Live Free or Die Hard is essentially a big budgeted B movie that harkens back to the 80s action films that Hot Fuzz paid loving tribute to just a couple months back. Live Free or Die Hard has some badly mismatched edits, what looks like lame rear screen projection and a plot thats so outlandish you cant imagine anyone seriously pitching it. But it's almost refreshing in its shameless mindlessness. Like its main character, the film just keeps plugging ahead with relentless determination to get the job done. Director Len Wiseman (who went from doing props on Godzilla to directing a pair of Underworld films starring his wife Kate Beckinsale) gets the job done with a maximum amount of destruction and mayhem. He blows a lot of crap up and he does so with the utmost noise. Bodies and vehicles pile up so fast that you lost count. Everything's so over the top that you end up gleefully suspending your disbelief just to see how far the filmmakers will go. And they're willing to go pretty far as they keep throwing obstacles and opponents in McClane's way.

Now this is the first of the Die Hard films to be rated PG-13 (the others were all R) and I thought that might mean a softer, less gritty film. But to be honest, the concessions for the lower rating don't seem to have hurt the film. McClane still gets to say his signature line of "Yippee ki yay, motherfr," and the action doesn't feel toned down. The action does lack the finesse and style of Asian action films but it makes up for that deficit with some massive stunts/effects involving cars, helicopters, jets and semi-trunks. Stuntman/actor Cyril Raffaelli (who engaged in the dynamic parkour stunts of District B13 and the martial arts work of Kiss of the Dragon ) gets to show off a little of his skill but he could have been put to better use.

At one point young Matt derides McClane for his taste in music and for playing Credence Clearwater Revival. McClane says lay off. He points out that CCR is classic rock and he likes it and that's it. When Matt continues to complain, McClane simply pumps up the volume. That pretty much sums up the filmits unabashedly old school and it just pumps up the decibel level so you cant hear anyone complaining. If Wiseman were more of a stylist or a more seasoned veteran, Id might chalk up some of the low end, old school-looking elements -- like bad interior car shots and shots where what the actors words aren't in sync with his lips to deliberate choices a la Grindhouse meant to evoke an era. But I think that would be giving Wiseman more credit than he deserves. Let's just say that the film's crudeness ends up adding to its gruff charms.

Willis returns yet again as McClane and its a role he's well settled into. He could do this role in his sleep, tossing out tough guy one-liners to annoy the bad guys. But I half expected him to use Danny Glovers mantra from Lethal Weapon Im getting too old for this st. Yet the 52-year-old action star still manages to convince us that he's got what it takes to stand up to anyone. Willis McClane is a comic book character who manages to survive leaping out of a speeding car, jumping onto a jet and falling from great heights with little more than a few cuts and bruises. As his spunky daughter Lucy, Winstead proves as tough as daddy and she lets us see an edge that her previous cute roles never tapped into. As Matt, Long proves a good sparring partner for Willis. Long is both funny and appealing. Kevin Smith makes a cameo appearance as a tech geek named Warlock, and its a clever bit of casting that taps into Smiths fan base. Theres also a nice racial mix in the supporting roles. Bonnie Bedelia, however, doesn't return as McClane's ex. We see a brief photo of her but maybe action hero spouses who hit their fifties are not considered good for the franchise any more.

Live Free also continues with the Die Hard tradition of setting up a nasty nemesis that you can't wait to see taken down. Timothy Olyphant (of Deadwood ) has a cold, steely stare and a cold, greedy heart to match. He's just the kind of arrogant prick that you love to see get his due, and the way McClane takes him out is quite good. Olyphant follows in the footsteps of Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons who both delivered delicious villains in previous Die Hard films. Maggie Q provides the female baddie. She does some impressive ass kicking but then McClane throws political correctness out the window to give her her just desserts.

Live Free or Die Hard (rated PG-13 for language and action violence) is the perfect summer popcorn movie -- big, dumb, noisy and highly destructive. What more can you ask for in a summer action flick? As a self-confessed action junkie, Live Free or Die Hard provided a great fix. Aside from Hot Fuzz , this is probably the summer flick Id most want to see again. Check your brain at the door and fasten your seat belts for a wild ride.

Companion viewing: Die Hard, Hot Fuzz, Point Break, District B13

If you need to refresh your memory about McClane's adventures up until now, check out this funny Die Hard music video

(contains profanity).

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