Die Hard 4.0 (aka Live Free Or Die Hard) first published by musicOMH
Back in 1988, a group of high-tech ‘terrorists’ held an entire skyscraper to ransom while in fact surreptitiously clearing out its vaults – and they would have got away with it, if disgruntled, wise-cracking police officer John McClane had not just happened to be trapped right there with them in the building.
And so Die Hard, one of the most seminal action films of the ’80s, was born, along with its iconic hero and one of the most pre-articulate catchphrases in cinematic history (“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!”). Two sequels followed, bringing the usual diminishing returns, and by 1995, Bruce Willis’ long-suffering cop appeared to have turned his back for good on outrageous stunt-driven mayhem.
Now, over a decade later, a group of high-tech terrorists is holding the whole of the US to ransom while in fact surreptitiously clearing out its vaults, and there is nothing that can stop them – apart from an older, balder, even more irascible John McClane, who just happens to have gate-crashed their party. It is almost as though he is reliving his first, painful adventure, except that, post-9/11, the world has moved on to bigger, nastier perils – and McClane will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new future.
Still, as Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and his team of cyber-terrorist begin to shut down North America’s entire infrastructure, threatening to send the nation “back into the stone age”, who better to have on your side than an unreconstructed dinosaur? And the much younger computer geek Matt Farrell (Justin Long) is at hand to guide McClane through the complexities of postmodern life before it can be permanently disintegrated.
Sequels aren’t supposed to be very good – and sequels whose protagonist has aged some 20 years since he first donned the heroic mantle ought to be doomed from the start (take note, makers of the latest Indiana Jones instalment!). Die Hard 4.0 (aka Live Free Or Die Hard), however, is different. It helps that Bruce Willis still looks gruff, buff and tough as old nails. It helps that he still quips like an unflappable stand-up. And it helps that the film directly addresses his increasing years, and the fact that his ‘little girl’ is now a college student.
But all this is missing the point – the truth is that writers Mark Bombeck and David Marconi have successfully updated the Die Hard legend to the internet age, all the while ensuring that its hero, already a craggy, curmudgeonly cynic in his very first outing, remains as resistant to change as his ruthless antagonists are keen on exploiting it. This is not just a nostalgia sequel – it is a veritable clash between the values of the Eighties and the Noughties.
After an introductory five minutes – the film’s weakest sequence – designed to establish McClane’s fraught relationship with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Die Hard 4.0 then takes off at full velocity, and over the next two or so hours of relentlesss big-screen fury, it will not stop even once to hover, let alone to land. Marrying punishing action set-pieces to an unnerving disaster movie scenario, the film grips the viewer with vice-like intensity, while never forgetting to revel in its own amiable absurdity.
Does McClane use a car to “kill a helicopter”? “I ran out of bullets”, he laconically insists. Does McClane fight to the death in an SUV that is hanging precariously down an elevator shaft? You betcha. Does he (painfully) survive massive firepower, concentrated gas explosions, and even a direct attack from an F35 fighter jet? Well, it’s all in a day’s work for this New York bobby. And does he get to say “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker”? Well, you’ll just have to wait till the end to see.
There can be no denying that John McClane is a reactionary old conservative, solving every problem that the world can throw at him with his jutting jaw and sheer brute force. Marked by severe technophobia, rugged individualism and, yes, unreconstructed misogyny, even racism – just witness the unusually ugly, aggressive (even by his own pounding standards) way that he deals with “Asian hooker bitch” Mai (Maggie Q) – McClane will always seem a throwback in our new global village; but his more unappealing characteristics are tempered by the presence of his polar opposite Farrell, playing brain to the McClane brawn. They might constantly bicker, they might come from totally different milieux and mindsets, but this odd couple makes a winning combination, in a tale of not one but two heroes triumphing over craven criminality.
Today’s world, the film suggests, might still occasionally have need to call on an old bruiser like McClane, but in turn McClane now needs the savvy of a geeky ‘new man’ to help him navigate any contemporary ‘web’ of intrigue. We still, you see, have something to learn from this hoary franchise, but only if it can, as here, come crashing right into the present day.
Die Hard 4.0 is better than the other Die Hard sequels, and nearly as good as the original, setting a very high bar for the whole action genre. Old habits, it seems, really do die hard.
© Anton Bitel