Spoilers may follow.
I saw one fan review with the complaint that the movie doesn't get started fast enough, what with the opening credits sequence and all--I don't completely agree. I think the story gets started very quickly--in fact, McClane's introduction feels rushed, but more on that later--the problem is that there are opening credits at all. This movie would have been just fine had the opening played exactly the same, except with the Die Hard title smashing onto the screen minus all the names.
Speaking of the credits, we didn't need the goofy letters changing and disappearing conceit, which plays into the hacker movie cliche that is the movie's biggest weak spot. When they first announced that Die Hard 4 would be about hackers breaking the country's infrastructure, the immediate thought was, Great, a bunch of scenes of people typing fast intercut with complex animated windows and scrolling green code on black background, with the occasional message box spelling everything out. And Live Free or Die Hard absolutely is that, only with a decent action movie somehow stuck in between. Basically Justin Long gets all the big typing scenes, and McClane's job is to fight their way to places where Justin Long can type, then keep fighting while he's typing. Pretty good strategy as far as hacker movies go--at least we're not counting on the typing scenes to generate excitement. But still, those computer screens and their phony interfaces do kind of take you out of it, constantly reminding you that this is a world that could only exist in movies.
And then there are the settings, like the United States Cyber-Security office, which has walled lined with flat-screen monitors and steel railings and cement and glass walls, just like every other high powered government agency in movies. If there even is such a department, you know in reality it's a bunch of cubicles in a very boring building somewhere.
The action itself takes place in a series of industrial areas or top secret facilities, which means a lot more cement walls and nondescript piping and metal walkways, which I think hurts it a little. One of the great pleasures of Die Hard with a Vengeance (whose sprawling scope makes it the most comparable entry in the franchise) was the New York atmosphere, which, to a non-New-Yorker like me at least, felt relatively authentic. The random industrial/top-secret passageways, with their blue and green tint, are as action-movie generic as the computer screens. Location is important in the Die Hard films, and this one fails to generate a strong sense of place.
Back to McClane's intro: I would have liked to glimpse a bit more of his life before the mission begins, or at least why he's come to visit his daughter when she's out on a date, or how he found her, or something. His entrance here is weird and it's not clear why he's there at all. Also, "Rutgers" is clearly USC, and you could feel the LA audience scoffing when she goes to her dorm in the library building.
Kevin Smith has a cameo as a hacker, and he is not as painful as I would have thought. Some reviews have complained that without his cursing as a crutch, he is nothing special. That is true, but watching him use that crutch has lost all its allure for me, so I'm fine with watching him rant clean. He actually does just fine with what's demanded of him. Considering how bad his acting used to be, it appears he's at least grown more as an actor than he has as a writer or a director, and I would not be upset if he decided to just be a mediocre character actor rather than an overrated auteur. Smith's character, however, lives in a hacker palace with a split-level floor and high ceilings, filled with screens and vintage arcade games. McClane laughs off this "command center" as a mere basement, but it really is more like a command center. Per hacky hacker stereotype, he still lives with his mother, but who can blame him, since her basement is the size of an underground parking garage?
Die Hard with a Vengeance eventually escalated to a point where McClane was surviving all manner of impossible falls and punishment. This movie gets to that impossible level a lot sooner and does a lot more of it, leading to the impression that this everyman character has become something of a superman. Personally, I don't mind that as much as I mind the movie-ness of all the rest of it.
McClane's daughter is unexpectedly great, to the point where you wish she had a bit more to do. Plus she actually looks like Bonnie Bedelia, which makes the character resonate that much more. Maggie Q is awesome, and is hot whether she's beating up McClane or getting punched in the face. Timothy Olyphant gives a strong performance but his character is unfortunately too generic to make much of an impression. His relationship with Maggie Q, and his reaction to her fate is understated and powerful. Not the part where he throws stuff off his desk, but just the look in his eyes. I wish they'd done more with that.
Also! One of the parkour guys from the amazing District B13 pops up. At first his acrobatics feel bizarrely out of place. Once I realized who it was, it made sense, but his big scene at the end is over all too quickly.
McClane's big catchphrase moment finale is actually fairly small, but also awesomely cool. It does bug me, though, the way he delivers the Yippee-Ki-Yay. This Slate piece does a great job of analyzing what made the first Die Hard's Yippee-Ki-Yay moment so inspiring:
When terrorist-slash-exceptional thief Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) taunts hero John McClane (Bruce Willis), "Who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child?" and asks this "Mr. Cowboy" if he really thinks he stands a chance, McClane's answer—"Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker"—marks the moment that McClane, an everyman, assumes the mantle of America's archetypal heroes: Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Gunsmoke's Marshall Dillon, and others who have been so vital to American boyhood. Unlike the many action-movie one-liners that are rooted in the hero's narcissism, McClane's stems from our collective wish-fulfillment. He is not referring to himself, not suggesting an "I" or a "me" but an us. And considering the European Gruber's appreciation of fashion, finance, and the classics, McClane's comeback acquires an additional subtext: Our pop culture can beat up your high culture.
In John McClane's stance, there lies a bravado that bridges two American traditions. "Yippee-ki-yay" summons America's mythic, gunfighter past, while "motherfucker" belongs to the modern action movie. Seen in this light, the line also recalls the macho cinema of the 1970s, when Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Don Siegel helped create the action genre while continuing to trade in Westerns.
...That Willis does not employ the same deftness in the sequels is a pity. The phrase is most effective not as a buildup to some hammer punch, but as one seamless unit of defiance.
In Live Free or Die Hard, the line is used not only as a "buildup to some hammer punch," but as a self-referential quote. McClane delivers it with a self-awareness that "Yes, this is my defining catchphrase." Only in real life, no one has one of those. By this point McClane is treating himself like the iconic character that he is, but he shouldn't be so aware of it. Like the production design, it's another touch that makes the world of LF/DH (there, Zack, I used it) a little too movie-world.
Vegas Vacation is another fourth sequel, one that followed long after everyone thought the series was over. And besides not being written by John Hughes and not being funny, one of its missteps was to spend the third act telling us what made the Griswolds a great family. It got self-conscious, as though the new shepards of the franchise had tried really hard to analyze what made the previous movies tick, and were so thrilled with what they discovered that they just had to share it with us. Except that the old movies never bothered to tell us why they were good, they were just good in that way, and that was enough.
Similarly, LF/DH labors too much to tell us about what makes McClane who he is. Why he's a hero, the sacrifices he's made, what it's cost him. He's the guy who acts when there's nobody else there to do it. Well, duh. We know that. That's why we're here. Enough with the self-aware analysis of the Die Hard mythos. That's the job of critics and bloggers. Your job is to enact it, not to spell it out so that we know you know.
Also! The plot, particularly the bad guys' plan, is dumb and/or unbelievable in ways that Steve sums up well, but I guess my expectations were low in that department.
So that's Live Free or Die Hard. The title is perfect, the action is cool, Bruce Willis is badass and so is Maggie Q, Justin Long is funny and the daughter is well-cast. This was the sequel I was most excited about this summer (though guardedly so) and overall it did not disappoint. I had feared worse. It could have been better, but it's not bad and overall more enjoyable than Die Hard 2.