It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
I'm not the sort of film critic who jots down ecstatic remarks during a screening. But about an hour into "Live Free or Die Hard," I scrawled in my notebook: "Ah, American movies!"
This might have been after a sequence in which New York City Police Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), driving through Washington, D.C., with a nerdy hacker named Matt (Justin Long) in custody, evades the bad guys' pursuing helicopter by crashing into a fire hydrant so that the force of the vertical spray knocks the chopper out of its flight pattern ... then gets trapped in a tunnel full of cars speeding both ways and one car tumbling through the air directly at them, and they miss being killed because just as the car is to land on them, two other vehicles drive on either side of the guys and the hurtling car lands smack on top of the other two ... and then McClane jumps in another car, speeds it up a makeshift ramp at the end of the tunnel and jumps out just in time to see it hit and demolish the low-flying chopper. "Jesus," says Matt, "you killed a helicopter with a car!" McClane: "I ran out of bullets."
It's been said by our friends, and by our foes: Movies plus cars equals America. Well, car stunts plus a star like Bruce Willis equals a good action movie. A scene like the one in "Live Free or Die Hard" lets crazy-gifted stunt drivers bend the laws of physics, geometry and adrenaline to create a moviegoer's contact high. And since it seems to be achieved with a minimum of computer legerdemain and a maximum of ingenious skill, the scene triggers the satisfyingly old-fashioned vibe audiences used to get from action-movie entertainment they believed people had risked their lives to provide. (Or maybe the digital people have got so good at their job, it just looks handmade.)
There are also some potent, graceful physical stunts, with baddies swinging lithely over railings and through the cogs of menacing machinery. (Parkour, the streetwise athletic discipline that got its first big showcase in the French film "District 13" and was appropriated for several snazzy scenes in "Casino Royale" (2007), gets another handsome workout here.) The impact of these stunts, and the gritty, industrial look favored by director Len Wiseman, will make you think that somebody got dirty making this movie. Actually, a Willis stunt double, Larry Rippenkroeger, got pretty banged up after a 25-ft. fall from a scaffold to the pavement: he sustained two broken arms, a skull fracture, fractured ribs and a punctured lung. Rippenkroeger, happily, is now back at work. Stunt guys can bounce back from almost anything.