Bruce Willis as John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard movieWhen a movie form achieves lasting popularity, it eventually becomes rather baroque, pursuing increasingly bizarre concepts and events in order to bring a little orignality to the overworked format. That has happened with action movies in recent years, as filmmakers have moved into grotesquely weird comic-book concepts and ludicrously impossible action sequences.

In such a situation, a little classicism can be a very good thing, as it distinguishes a film by differing it from its increasingly mannered competition, and also foregrounds what people really liked about the genre in the first place.

Live Free or Die Hard is a great example of that process, and a superb representative of the action melodrama form.

Bruce Willis is the centerpiece of the film, of course, as NYC police Detective Lt. John McClane, who finds himself in Washington, D.C. sheperding a person wanted for questioning by the FBI, when the nation’s entire communications, transportation, and power grids shut down in the wake of an attack by terrorists (or so it would seem….).

The action sequences take the form to a new level of absurdity and spectacular grandeur, which is something one would have thought impossible after the most recent James Bond films. But Live Free or Die Hard manages to top them all, as McClane launches an automobile off of a makeshift ramp to crash into a flying helicopter and destroy it, finds himself on the back of a fighter jet that is about to crash, plummets to the ground off of said jet and survives by sliding down a ramp made by a destroyed section of elevated highway, and so on.

The sequences are silly but fun, and they serve the same purpose as the song sequences in a musical, advancing the story while providing an interlude of aesthetically pleasing unreality.

If you’ve ever wanted to see a film version of the TV program 24, Live Free or Die Hard is just what you’re looking for. The vast and elaborate (and thoroughly implausible) conspiracy at the center of the story, the bizarre and impossible action scenes, and Bruce Willis’s indomitable John McClane all evoke what is best about the Fox action TV series.

Of course, Willis’s McClane character is the most direct historical model for Jack Bauer, an indestructible hero whose greatest virtue is his ability to endure a huge amount of pain and physical damage and still find a way to keep going. The modern hero is a suffering savior, and John McClane is one of the archetypal instances of the character.

The film also has a powerful underlying theme: how our dependence on technology makes each of us vulnerable to its potential loss, and how easy it would be for any of us to be destroyed by the smple removal of our identity and assets from the computer networks that increasingly organize our lives.

(The same theme is strong in the pilot episode of the new USA Network TV series Burn Notice, which premiered last night and will be repeated several times including tomorrow at 5:30 EDT.)

That’s a powerful theme, which the movie handles in a surprisingly sophisticated way. It recognizes that such dependence on technology creates a vulnerability so profound that few if any of us can be said to be truly free. It also notes, however, that the technologies that can enslave us also enrich us, lengthen our lives, and give us freedoms to pursue our natures, for better worse, to a degree never before possible in human history.

That’s a sophisticated treatment of a complex subject, and it makes Live Free or Die Hard
 more than just a great action film. In fact, its contemplation of these issues may be even better than the action. And that’s saying a lot.