Yippie-ki-yay, action fans

Live Free or Die Hard is the kind of action flick we love to remember: a smirking tough guy surrounded by destruction.

Published June 27, 2007

The opening minutes of Live Free or Die Hard are worrisome, with fingers frantically typing on computer keyboards and screens glowing with exposition.

Please, not another movie relying upon cyber-guff for tension.

A bit later, something amazing happens: high-octane action that is mainly the product of stunt men and honest-to-Nobel munitions, not computer-generated doodles. The wreckage is real, as is the danger of piling it up. Even more impressive, the action rarely subsides for two hours. Live Free or Die Hard, which opens today, is old-school destruction with a throwback hero.

Meet the new boss avenger -- Bruce Willis as Detective John McClane -- and he's the same as the old boss who built the Die Hard franchise two decades ago. As McClane smirks when he isn't blasting and bashing bad guys: "Yippie-ki-yay."

Live Free or Die Hard is the summer's most surprising adventure so far, and proof that a movie being loud and dumb isn't always a bad thing.

While director Len Wiseman jettisons most action shortcuts, Mark Bomback's screenplay makes the necessary concessions to McClane's world post-9/11.

The chief villain, Thomas Gabriel Timothy Olyphant, isn't Eurotrash or a religious fanatic but a homegrown threat. The former national security adviser was ridiculed when he proposed that our banking, transportation and military systems had loopholes. Now he wants revenge and a hefty ransom for proving it.

McClane doesn't understand computers, but the hacker he's escorting to FBI headquarters for interrogation does. Matt Farrell (Justin Long) unwittingly aided the plot, one of many hackers Gabriel hired for dirty work. Now Gabriel is killing off employees who could testify later. Most of the action springs from McClane preventing that from happening.

Meanwhile, McClane's estranged daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is kidnapped by Gabriel's goons with a life swap in mind. Now it's personal, and nobody takes such matters to heart as violently as McClane.

Nobody else could drop a helicopter with a catapulted car, or ride a jet fighter's wing, or survive another vehicle free-falling in an elevator shaft. Hand-to-hand, he's a wrecking machine. Face-to-face, he's as imposing to his daughter's suitors as the terrorists. Willis and Long are a solid odd coupling, a geek and a bully more scared than they'll admit. This is a movie in which a rising body count is considered comic relief.

Not every stunt is "real." But enough are to make Live Free or Die Hard a visceral delight, as if our minds intuitively grasp the inherent danger if a fly wire breaks or dynamite detonates a moment too soon. This time it really is personal, and a bona fide blast.

Steve Persall can be reached at p ersall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365.

REVIEW: Live Free or Die Hard
Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cliff Curtis, Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, based on the magazine article "A Farewell to Arms" by John Carlin
Rating: PG-13; strong violence, intense action, profanity
Running time: 128 min.