Judge Dennis Prince says he prefers to live hard, another tell-tale sign of his advancing years and hopefulness that little blue pills can extend his longevity.
Our review of Live Free Or Die Hard: Two-Disc Special Edition, published November 19th, 2007, is also available.
"You just killed a helicopter with a car!"
Perhaps the most rock-solid, square-jawed offering in the 2007 summer blockbuster season came by way of a long overdue fourth installment in the venerable Die Hard franchise. It had been a dozen years since the embattled John McClane went up against vengeful bomber Simon Gruber, a fanatic who took great pains to include a personal vendetta within his terrorist plot. McClane saved the day but has since gone silent in the ensuing years, oddly absent when America was under siege. Perhaps in another move to ensure "the terrorists don't win," McClane is finally back, only this time he finds the enemy rests within the American borders, disgruntled and disenfranchised at the gossamer-thin shield called Homeland Security. In a time when heroes are most needed, McClane digs deep within his near-empty tank to pull one off for the good guys.
Facts of the Case
John McClane (Bruce Willis, The Siege) seems to struggle to catch his breath these days. He's still one of New York's finest, an undercover detective determined to bring the lawless to justice, yet his take-no-prisoners approach rarely gains him the NYPD's approval and often leaves him wondering why he perpetually lives in the limbo between the cops and the criminals. No time to sort that out, though, because McClane's just been called upon to secure a known computer hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long, Accepted), who may have crucial information regarding a breach in the FBI security systems, conducted by a ruthless band of cyber-terrorists. But when the terrorists have Farrell targeted for liquidation, McClane finds himself hip deep in another high-stakes game of cat and mouse…again! Now, the nation is reliant upon McClane's muscle and Farrell's high-tech talents to thwart the terrorists before the entire American security system is shut down and the nation is left utterly halted and completely vulnerable. Happy 4th of July, America.
Simply put, Live Free or Die Hard gives the "action picture" genre exactly what it needed—old-school execution that results in high-powered entertainment. With recent films having become so heavily reliant upon computer-generated trickery, audiences have unknowingly been pushed further and further away from the on-screen excitement, that which lacks organic origin and, therefore, fails to properly engage the viewer. While CGI technique has gotten significantly better in recent years (see Transformers), there's still an obviousness of the method that distracts us into paying more attention to how well the live actors interact with characters or constructs that are mere green poles during the filming process. Most of the talent can deliver relatively convincing interactions, yet, even so, the sense of realism has been severely diminished. Thank God this film's director, Len Wiseman (Underworld), is a fan of practical stunts and effects, most actually occurring around the live actors and captured in camera. Without question, the result is far more satisfying than digital designs that come close to convincing us but never quite achieve the ultimate goal. Here, though, when you see cars tumbling mid-air or helicopters exploding from incredible collisions, it's the real deal—and it looks it!
The point here isn't to lambaste CGI effects since many provide us with cinematic visions that could otherwise never be achieved. The matter is that too many films and filmmakers have forsaken the art of practical stunt "gags" to such an extent that audiences can easily pick them apart, often shattering any chance of being truly perplexed over whether an amazing feat actually took place in front of their eyes. This isn't to say that practical effects always succeed, nor does it attempt to mask the fact that such gags are nevertheless helped along with a bit of CGI dressing. Indeed, Live Free or Die Hard makes significant use of green screen technique and computer-enhanced touchups, but the fact that more than half of each effect's composition is captured in camera makes for a thrilling experience that leaves us pleasantly reeling. For this reason, the film is to be lauded, especially director Wiseman and stunt coordinator Brad Martin.
Execution aside, how does all this practical effort succeed within the context of the film itself. At its core, the film is highly effective in the way it mercilessly plays upon our fears that our government is woefully unprepared for an assault of this sort. While we've endured many years of post-911 uncertainty amid Administration assurances, this film strikes a raw nerve that exploits the doubts many harbor over our national security and assault deterrence capabilities. This serves as a perfect for John McClane to enter the fray, the only man willing to dispense with bureaucratic BS to thwart an imminent threat. McClane, always the reluctant hero, does what he does with overflowing bravado because no one else will ("I'm too old to be jumping out of cars."). Here's where the film's most poignant message comes across: as McClane is clearly aging, who will step up to fill his shoes when the time comes he can't muster the needed physicality to save the day? The film takes a liberal poke at the new generation coming into its own, the tech-savvy contingent that lacks physical endurance to counter such an assault (and where Long's ad-lib, "Uh, I scraped my knee and my asthma's acting up" is wickedly biting). Whether spindly and undersized or overweight to the point of being incapable (see Kevin Smith in his role as "Warlock"), our future rests in the hands of an inferior bunch who have plenty of keyboard smarts but nothing in the way of hand-to-hand skills. Who, indeed, will save us now?
While you ponder that last assertion, consider the prowess in this new Blu-ray edition of Live Free or Die Hard, an exclusive release to the high-definition format that studio ally Fox won't make available on the competing HD DVD. If you're Blu capable, however, you'll discover a disc that positively explodes in enhanced audio and video glory, adding even greater enjoyment to this action spectacle. It begins with the 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer, presented in the film's original 2.40:1 widescreen ratio. The image quality is top-notch, really, with incredible detail and spot-on color. Black levels are perfectly rendered to lend dimensional contrasts while also preserving terrific shadow detail. The source material, of course, is flawless. Among recent Blu-ray releases, this one rises to the top end of visual excellence. But if you think the video looks good, wait until you hear the audio. Offered in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Lossless track, this is unequivocally a reference quality presentation. The track has remarkable precision in the decoding and delivery of every sound element, from the perpetual directional effects to the bombastic low-end emissions to the preservation of clear dialog throughout. Certainly a sound designer's dream, this track is exquisite in its original assembly and is beautifully captured in this enhanced presentation.
Regarding extra features, this Blu-ray disc admirably includes all bonuses included in the day-and-date DVD releases, captured on just a single disc here thanks to the Blu-ray's 50GB dual-layer capacity. That said, you'll first enjoy one of the better audio commentaries to come along in some time, director Wiseman being joined by star Willis and the film's editor, Nicholas de Toth. For the entire duration, the three offer a non-stop flow of insight and anecdotes into the design, execution, and release of this much-awaited franchise entry. Without a doubt, Wiseman was the right choice for the job and Willis fully chimes in with his accolade of the director's work. After this, you'll find a lengthy documentary, the 97-minute "Analog Cop in a Digital World." This 10-part excursion into the world of Live Free or Die Hard gives you the insider's view of the production and, again, emerges as one of the better extras to be found of a recent release. "Yippie Ki Yay, Mother******," the 23-minute one-on-one interview between actor/director Kevin Smith and Willis, is equally compelling. The two sit on some Fox backlot steps, Smith asking intelligent questions of the typically subdued yet indulgent Willis. Then comes the film's original theatrical trailer, presented in full HD. From here, you'll find some more dispensable features including an excerpt from the Fox Legacy series, an installment that focuses its brief six minutes on the Die Hard franchise. After this comes a forgettable music video, "Die Hard," performed by Guyz Nite, followed by a brief behind-the-scenes peek at its making. A series of trailers follow, all nicely presented in full 1080p HD (the previous extras, save for the feature trailer, were rendered in 480p only), promoting Blu-ray releases of Die Hard, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and the yet-to-be-announced Blu-ray release, The Seige).
If you're looking for Blu-ray exclusive content, you'll find it here with a couple of esoteric yet entertaining inclusions. First up is the "Black Hat Intercept" game that utilizes the touted BD-java technology to allow you to act as the Warlock character and overcome challenges before a ticking time bomb's clock expires. Also, this disc includes a D-Box enhancement track that will shake you in your seat if you're viewing in an appropriately-enabled chair.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With so much well-deserved acclaim being offered here, it's only fair you're made aware of the few shortcomings that make this a less-than-perfect package. First up, you need to prepare yourself for a linguistically hamstrung John McClane here. A character celebrated for his liberal dropping of F-bombs throughout a feature, you'll not hear a single one in this installment. This became a major source of concern for longtime fans of the franchise, curious if there'd be a noticeable drop in energy and intensity from McClane should his "left one" be lopped off for this outing. Well, Willis pulls it off excellently and you'll still enjoy plenty of pulse-pounding action, but there is clearly something missing. The slick and cynical McClane is well served by his use of the vernacular and we miss that element, to a certain extent, here.
But if the language is such an important factor, why not just tune in to the unrated version of the film? Good point and, indeed, an unrated cut was released that preserves all the colorful colloquialisms plus a wee bit of extra bloodletting. Unfortunately, that option has been omitted from this Blu-ray disc, providing only the PG-13 edit while ignoring the potential to employ seamless branching to deliver either cut. Apparently, the folks at Fox indicated there simply wasn't time to include the unrated version on this Blu offering, but that seems a weak excuse. In a time where two high-definition formats are aggressively battling one another for the consumer's minds (and wallets), there's no sense in delivering anything less than a fully loaded release.
While this film is still highly entertaining in its theatrical release form, the absence of the unrated version serves as a major blunder on the part of Fox and causes early adopters to cast a cynical eye at a perceived double-dip, likely due out soon.
In the end, we must properly thank John McClane for saving the day, again. Not only has he rescued the nation from a cyber-terror disaster but he has also saved the action picture from forever slipping into the quagmire of CG-reliance. As far as the Blu-ray presentation, this one nearly gains a perfect score and, while not completely faultless, is nonetheless considered a sure inclusion in any respectable HD library.
Free to go, of course.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Len Wiseman and Bruce Willis
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