Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free Or Die Hard) Review

Fellow John McClane fans, I know you don't want to read a long-winded introduction to this review. You just want to know one thing - have they ruined Die Hard? The answer I'm delighted to report is no, they haven't. Despite the PG-13 rating, despite the CGI, despite the geeky-sounding "cyber-terrorism" plotline, Die Hard 4.0 brings more than enough suspense, attitude and hard-edged violence to the party to earn its place in the nineteen-year-old franchise.

Not a place close to John McTiernan's original 1988 masterpiece. Not a place alongside Renny Harlin's tense, under-rated 1990 sequel either. However, Die Hard 4.0 (titled "Live Free Or Die Hard" in the US) comfortably escapes the "worst in the series" title. It's a significant step up from 1995's Die Hard With A Vengeance, which delivered a good first hour but then lapsed into an incoherent mess. While this one has its faults, it's a well-written, well-crafted piece of work from start to finish.

Writer Mark Bomback's cyber-terrorism plot, which is what tempted Bruce Willis back into the vest, isn't quite as silly as it sounds. Villain Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) is simply hacking into the systems that manage America's infrastructure and using them to bring the country crashing to a halt - just like Colonel Stuart took over the air traffic control centre in Die Hard 2. Cars collide as traffic lights go green. Trains stop. Planes are grounded. The stock market goes into freefall. Americans, fearing their country is under terrorist attack, start to panic.

In Washington, supervising FBI agent Bowman (Cliff Curtis) orders all the known hackers who could possibly have pulled this off to be brought in for questioning. The New York police are assigned to bring in a rebellious, young genius called Matt Farrell (Justin Long). It just so happens that Farrell did assist Thomas Gabriel, albeit unknowingly and in a minor way. That's reason enough for Gabriel to want the young man dead and so he dispatches a team of assassins to his apartment. It's lucky for Farrell that the NYPD cop who's been sent to arrest him knows a little something about dealing with assholes with machine guns - he's Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis).

For New York's best cop, it's the beginning of another very bad day. For us, it's the start of a tough, old school action-thriller that makes a refreshing change from kiddie-pleasing fantasies about superheroes and pirates. PG-13 or no PG-13, this is one brutal movie, loaded with blood and pain and killing. Die Hard 4.0 thoroughly deserves the 15 rating slapped on it in Britain by the less lenient BBFC. The only obvious concession to the US rating is the lack of F-words. It's regrettable that the film was edited but it shouldn't spoil your entertainment too much - I assure you John McClane slaughters terrorists with as much wisecracking relish as ever.

It's worth mentioning that this is the first major action movie made since 9/11 to feature terrorists as its villains. Of course they're politically correct terrorists - western mercenaries motivated by money rather than fanaticism - but then so were the bad guys in the earlier Die Hards and most of their imitators.

As its title suggests, Die Hard 4.0 does move the series into the 21st century, taking on board developments in the action genre since John McClane last had a bad day in 1995. Obvious influences are the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible movies and the TV show "24": note the breathless pacing, the high-tech gadgetry, the unraveling political conspiracy and the fast, vicious choreography in the fight scenes. These films and shows owe a large debt to Die Hard's groundbreaking melding of hard action and suspense ("24" is practically Die Hard: The Series), so stealing back from them is fair game.

Predictably, the scale of the action scenes has gotten bigger, to compete with today's mega-budget spectacles. As you know from the trailers, McClane is now bringing down helicopters by crashing police cars into them (in context, this sequence doesn't look as daft as you'd expect). The action isn't relentless though, as it is in many contemporary blockbusters. There are only four big set-pieces in a two-hour movie, the best of which involves a lift shaft and a 4x4.

The film-makers do go too far in a climactic duel between a truck and a jet-fighter, which is well done but seems better suited to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (True Lies). Aside from being over the top, it's irrelevent to the plot. It's as if the director stops the movie just to show off some CGI work. The effects are impressive but Transformers is just around the corner - we don't need this from a Die Hard film. The climax as a whole is a bit of a weak point - it drags on for far too long, maybe half an hour, and the film's fast pace is allowed to slacken.

That's my biggest criticism of Die Hard 4.0. My second biggest would be that the villains aren't up to the standards of previous Die Hard bad guys. Timothy Olyphant's snotty computer nerd is such a poor match for Bruce Willis, I half expected the star to put him over his knee and spank him rather than waste a bullet on him. As the main henchwoman, martial arts star Maggie Q is impressive in her fight scenes but her character has no personality at all. That's also true of acrobatic hitman Yorgo Constantine.

Thankfully the good guys are much more fun to watch. Bruce Willis is on rare form, driving the movie with the sheer force of his personality. He's obviously enjoying the opportunity to reprise his most popular character and to show today's young pretenders what a real action star looks like. Justin Long makes a good sidekick for Willis, their different brands of comedy complimenting each other very nicely. Kevin Smith, playing another hacker, also fits into the film surprisingly snugly.

Surprise sums up my reaction to Die Hard 4.0 - the movie's a happy surprise. Director Len Wiseman has delivered on his pledge to make a proper Die Hard film. Wiseman has his detractors but I'm not one of them. I enjoyed his Underworld films and I think with this, he's proved himself an extremely capable action director. There are some real thrills here - that fight in the lift shaft is a knockout.

After the terrific Casino Royale and the excellent Rocky Balboa, it was almost too much to believe that we'd get a good Die Hard as well but here it is. It’s a good time to be a thirty-something action movie buff. Sorry youngsters, our old school he-men with guns and boxing gloves are wiping the floor with your superheroes in lycra and your pirates of the Caribbean.

Overall

8

out of 10

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