Terrorists initiate a plot to bring down the U.S. in a cyber attack, taking out transportation, telecommunications, financial and power networks with systematic hacking. Luckily, New York cop John McClane (Willis) wanders into their orbit, an analogue hero for a digital dilemma.
It’s reassuring to see that The Bruce is still fighting fit when civilisation as we know it is under threat. Eighteen years after Die Hard set a new benchmark for action movies, twelve years since Die Hard: With A Vengeance and a long spell since Willis had any super-sized hit, this undertaking smacked of desperation. But those approaching Die Hard 4.0 with low expectations are in for a surprise, because it’s not the franchise embarrassment that we feared.
Die Hard contemporised the Western for the skyscraper, and 4.0 honours that trusty formula while taking a fresh line of attack. The appealing essence is still Willis’ resilient, wisecracking, extraordinarily tough ‘ordinary guy’. If his pecs aren’t as showily on display nowadays, his relish for a cat-and-mouse engagement is undiminished. Again he faces a well-groomed, highly intelligent criminal mastermind, and there are other necessaries of the franchise, from the catchphrase to the elevator shaft of death.
The story, though, was inspired by a 1997 article in Wired, “A Farewell To Arms”, by John Carlin, former Washington correspondent for The Independent. Carlin described a genuine U.S. Department of Defence war game called The Day After, in which the alphabet people (CIA, FBI, NSA et al) explore hypothetical scenarios for the inevitable digital war. A script by David Marconi (Enemy of the State), buried after 9-11, was resurrected and re-written for McClane to cowboy up once more.
Nefarious computer geeks and free-running French assassins led by mystery man Gabriel (Olyphant) and his lieutenant/squeeze Mai (Maggie Q) have been assembling insidious bits of code and logarithms from unwitting lone hackers, who are then disposed of in a swift, simultaneous operation. This doesn’t go entirely unnoticed by floundering federal types, anxious to question a hacker of interest who is accidentally not dead yet. Since McClane is in the neighbourhood, spying on his estranged college student daughter, he is asked to pick up the kid. This smartaleck (Long) grasps the benefits of being in custody when killers arrive (that’s one apartment that’s going to need some serious re-decorating), sending the duo on the run together so that the muscle has a computer-literate sidekick to do techno exposition and cue McClane’s manly quips. (“You killed a helicopter with a car!”; “I was out of bullets.”)
Wiseman delivers fantastic stunts and vehicular mayhem, like McClane driving an SUV down that elevator shaft or doggedly wheeling a big rig under missile attack. Coo-uhl. Needless to say McClane, however bashed up and bloodied, remains as unflappably indestructible as the Roadrunner (although we should spare a thought for Willis’s stunt double, Larry Rippenkroeger, seriously injured taking a fall).
The result of Wiseman’s efforts twins ludicrously stupendous popcorn movie action with a smartly chilling concept, anticipating the kind of devastation that can be wrought by Virtual Terrorism, the panic that must ensue when traffic signals and trains go wrong, broadcast media and phones are hijacked, bank accounts evaporate and the lights go out. It could have worked fine as a straight-faced, dark thriller. It’s just more stupidly entertaining when it’s played preposterously fun, with the Die Hard patented brand of flippant humour. One inspired in-joke has filmmaker Kevin Smith as the ultimate comic book guy über-hacker called The Wizard, who calls his mother’s basement his ‘control centre’. Smith, twice the size we remember, is so that guy who spends his life on-line.
Best of all, Willis makes his younger heirs presumptive in the action stakes look like pantywaists. When it comes to John McClane versus a fighter jet, we all know who to bet on.
Yippee-ki-yay! Willis still has the goods. Credit to Wiseman, who keeps the thrills coming, and pass the popcorn.