Toward the end of one of many chase scenes in Live Free or Die Hard, detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) responds to the stunned observation, "you just killed a helicopter with a car," with deadpan humor, "I was out of bullets." The fourth film in a series, this one directed by Len Wiseman, that dates back to the original Die Hard (1988) and the first since Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), finds McClane at the center of a techno-terrorist plot to shut down the government and control the financial markets of the United States. The film, which lacks the freshness and wit of previous entries, wisely focuses on the character and cleverness of McClane as hard-luck underdog detective who finds himself in the wrong place at the right time and thus does what no one else could or would do.
This time, McClane is called in the middle of the night, where he is checking on his mildly estranged daughter at Rutgers University, to Camden to escort a young techno-geek, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), to D.C. for questioning about hacking crimes. Reaching Farrell's apartment, McClane soon finds himself in a shootout to protect the hacker from professional assassins. Eventually arriving in D.C., they are quickly swept up in what Farrell identifies as a "fire sale," the attempt to shut down and control everything from the nation's power and safety infrastructure to its financial data system.
The ability to invade, shut down, or control communication is powerfully brought out in the scene where the terrorists, controlling every TV station, broadcast an image of the U.S. Capital with superimposed scripts asking, "What is this is just the beginning? What if you call 911 and no one answers?" The next image is of the entire United States Congress imploding. McClane runs through the streets of D.C. to get a view of the actual U.S. Capitol and realizes the TV broadcast was staged.
Here the bad guy is not a foreigner, but a homegrown terrorist, someone formerly employed by the government to work on national-security issues. He's an officious, arrogant dweeb and the personal confrontation between him and McClane is set up early and brought to a crescendo in the film's final scenes. As in the last Die Hard film, where McClane collaborated with Samuel Jackson's character, so too here, he has a sidekick, the likeable computer-wise guy, Farrell.
Some of the best lines in the film come in exchanges between youth and experience, as they banter about the reliability of the news and the value of classic rock — Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" is Willis's theme song in this film. (Nothing here approaches the first film's most memorable scene of taunting humor, in which the outnumbered and under-armed McClane adorns the dead body of a bad guy with a Santa cap, dresses him in a sweatshirt, and writes on it, "Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho.") About continuing in their quest to find the perpetrators, Farrell confesses, "I'm not sure I can handle guys trying to kill me." To which McClane matter-of-factly replies, "You get used to it." At one point, Farrell, whose talents were used by the terrorists without his knowing their aims, admits that he used to think the idea of a "fire sale" was pretty cool, as it would afford him the opportunity to watch the system being dismantled. McClane bristles at these naïve abstractions: "It's not a system; it's a country. There are people out there terrified, suffering."
Amid all the chase scenes, special effects, and massive explosions, McClane's jaded yet not-quite-cynical commitment to protecting the innocent bestows a degree of humanity on the film. The scene, mentioned above, in which McClane turns a car into a projectile aimed at an attacking helicopter is sandwiched between the opening shoot-out in an apartment and the obligatory final chase scene, in which McClane manages to abandon a huge truck on a collapsing elevated highway only to land safely on the wing of an approaching fighter jet. Now, that's summer entertainment.
Beginning with an L.A. office building then an airport, a city, a now an entire nation, the arena for Willis's hard luck underdog battle against terrorists keeps enlarging. What's next? Intergalactic detective McClane takes on aliens from the dark side. Even the first film had its preposterous moments and the summer blockbuster is no place for a thinking man's plot. The problem for the Die Hard franchise is that the expanded scope of the battle and the increased level of destructive mayhem threaten to dwarf the ordinary working-class heroism of McClane. There are scenes here where Bruce Willis all but winks at the camera as if to say, "We know I'm going to get battered, bruised, even end up with a few bullet holes, but we also know that there is no chance anything or anyone can kill me."
The seeming invulnerability almost cancels audience sympathy for the main character. Of course, everything in this sort of summer blockbuster hinges on the "almost"; in the midst of all the improbabilities, Willis manages, as usual, to carry the day and the film. That's likely enough for audiences to echo Willis's trademark "Yippee-ki-yay" — perhaps not the strong, rebellious enthusiasm of the R-rated version of that saying from the original, but the PG-13 version that McClane utters in this more family-friendly film.