I am a huge fan of the original Die Hard movie starring Bruce Willis, which came out while I was at university and with which I was pretty obsessed at the time as it was a whole new, different type of action movie. None of the inevitable sequels have matched up to the original of course: I tended to like the second one (Die Hard 2: Die Harder) better than most people did and the third (Die Hard With A Vengeance) slightly less, but that just closed the gap between them rather than actually changed their respective rankings.
Nonetheless, I was still very disappointed to see just how abjectly poor the reviews of the latest instalment (the inanely-titled A Good Day To Die Hard) have been, in which practically all the hallmarks of the series have apparently been stripped away and forgotten. And one of the damning reviews of the new film especially caught my eye with its extra sideways swipe against the previous film in the franchise with its comment that as poor as the new film was, “it’s better than 4.0” – which gave me pause. I remembered liking that film; again, no match for the original film and still the last among sequels until the 2013 instalment, but in my mind’s eye I still thought of it as a decent action film and a solid franchise entry that hadn’t done too much harm to the John McClane character.
Had I been wrong? Only a couple of hours with the DVD would be able to tell…
Second time around and I still enjoyed watching Die Hard 4.0. No classic, true, but perfectly entertaining and with enough reminders and echoes of the original film to make it feel like an authentic Die Hard outing, from long-distance banter between the hero and villain, to the distinctive Marco Beltrami music cues and on to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s eerie evocation of the original film’s lead actress Bonnie Bedelia with her performance as that character’s daughter.
The film has only a few moments of quiet before NYPD detective McClane is dispatched on scut work on behalf of the FBI to pick up and transport computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) – only to walk in on a paramilitary group attempting to take out said geek with extreme prejudice. This provides McClane with his comedy sidekick for the film as the two banter and quibble endearingly while ending up firmly in the sights of master cyberterrorist Thomas Gabriel (underplayed very effectively by Timothy Olyphant) and his gang – which includes Maggie Q as Mai and Jonathan Sadowski as evil hacker Trey – after which mayhem ensues with only the minimum of connective narrative tissue required.
It’s all done perfectly well and looks good too, with Underworld’s Len Wiseman doing a perfectly decent job of directing. Apparently the film was criticised at the time for too much CGI work, but on the small screen at least it appears well done and unobtrusive; whereas even as big a fan as I has to admit that the magnificent original Die Hard had more than a few poor quality pre-CGI photographic effects to make you wince.
The latest 2013 film has been criticised for converting the magnificently ordinary every-guy blue collar cop hero of Die Hard into a superhero capable of walking through explosions without a scratch. Die Hard 4.0 doesn’t do that, at least not for 110 minutes: McClane is beaten up right from the start and ends up having to actually shoot himself to get the bad guy; even at the start of the film, McClane looks depressed and dejected by everything he’s been through in life, yet he not only keeps on going but is inspiring enough to make the initially cowardly Farrell evolve into a hero for the day, a small echo of how McClane himself became “that guy” simply by being an unwilling bystander in Nakatomi Plaza at the wrong time in 1988 who nonetheless took a stand and became the requisite fly in the ointment.
It’s only in the last 20 minutes, in a sequence involving a fighter jet, that the film goes badly wrong – and in the process probably lays the seeds of the subsequent 2013 film’s downfall. It’s the moment that the film leaves credibility and realism far behind: McClane is no longer merely an ordinary guy but does the sort of things that even James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger would have baulked at. Plus, it’s entirely silly and fatuous from any sort of plot point of view as no trained fighter pilot in any army in the world would ever do what this one does here. It’s simply insane. If this entire sequence had been deleted I suspect the film would have had a much better reception among fans and critics at the time – and maybe the makers of the 2013 film might have not been pointed in entirely the wrong direction.
On the whole, if you ignore that one bad misstep sequence then Die Hard 4.0 (I refuse to use its state motto-inspired US title Live Free or Die Hard) is still as entertaining as I thought it was at the time – a three-star effort for sure, whereas the first film will forever be five stars and the first two sequels average in at four stars. Watching 4.0 again almost made me think that I might rather like to see the the new film after all, but a quick second glance at more reviews of A Good Day To Die Hard reminded me of why this was emphatically not a good idea.
From what’s been said (and I know it’s not a great idea to levy criticism of anything without having actually personally seen the subject!) it seems that the new film is simply disconnected from its past: an all-action, big-explosions movie with no time for luxuries such as character, humour or plot – all of which were so important to the earlier Die Hard movies but are superfluous to modern day action films. There’s also been much criticism of the film studio, Fox, for making cuts to the movie and toning it down in pursuit of an inoffensive 12A rating for commercial reasons, a far cry from the original’s very grown-up 18.
Bruce Willis is present of course (you literally couldn’t make the movie without him, after all – he is the franchise) but in all the clips I’ve seen he just seems weary and a little sad about it all; Winstead is back in a brief cameo as daughter Lucy, but it’s her brother Jack who is dad’s sidekick this time around. By all accounts Jai Courtney comes out of the film well in this role, but he’s a super pumped-up CIA agent locked in an alpha-male battle for domination with his dad that just means the whole set-up ends up soaked in 80s-style testosterone – just the sort of scenario that the original Die Hard so deftly overturned with its ‘Joe Schmo in a skyscraper’ concept that thumbed its nose up at the Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, Lundgren and Seagal cadre.
Sadly, with A Good Day To Die Hard, it appears that the franchise has ended up joining that dark side after all. It’s almost as dispiriting as having a twist at the end of the original Die Hard in which McClane turns out to be Hans Gruber’s evil partner-in-crime all along. How crap would that have been? Only slightly less worse than the whole of the 2013 film, it seems.
I was watching the ‘Ultimate Action Edition’ of 4.0, an ‘unrated’ cut of the film which meant that it has a little more blood, guts and swearing than the theatrical release that was released on DVD separately. Only the latter version had a star/director audio commentary, and it was also this tamer version that was released in high definition on Blu-Ray and is now contained in the various Die Hard boxsets on sale.