Monday, June 25, 2007

Review - Die Hard 4.0

In 1988's Die Hard wisecracking cop John McClane defeated an army of terrorists in a single tower block. In the sequel two years later he had to do the same in an airport, and in 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance McClane was on hand to save a whole city from a mad bomber. The stakes keep getting raised in the Die Hard series, but the films themselves have been getting progressively weaker, and that pattern doesn't seem to bode well for Die Hard 4.0, the latest instalment in a series which we last encountered 12 years ago. Once again this picture sees the action occurring on a bigger stage for McClane - after a skyscraper, and airport and a city, this time the whole of the United States is under threat - but thankfully Die Hard 4.0 bucks the trend as far as the series' declining quality goes.

It has been almost twenty years since Die Hard took a beautifully straightforward premise and turned it into the defining action film of the modern era, and the world has changed a lot since then. Recognising this, Die Hard 4.0 is all about bringing John McClane (played by Bruce Willis, naturally) into the 21st century. The plot hinges on technology, with America's infrastructure, defence systems and financial foundations being threatened by a group of 'virtual terrorists' who have hacked into every major government system. This plan is the brainchild Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), whose motives will become clearer - without ever really crystallising - over the course of the picture. But how does our man McClane fit into all of this? Well, he's just finishing up his shift when a favour gets called in: the FBI want every known hacker to be rounded up immediately as they investigate the breaches to their security, and McClane is the nearest man to Matt Farrell's (Justin Long) place of residence.

It seems like a simple pick-up job, but of course it isn't. McClane arrives at Farrell's home at the exact moment a group of hitmen turn up to wipe the computer nerd out. They have been sent by Gabriel to clear up any loose ends from the operation (we've already seen one hacker meet his end earlier in the picture), and after a ferocious and explosive gun battle McClane and Farrell escape by the skin of their teeth. The job still isn't done though, and McClane soon finds himself on the run with Farrell, taking the fight to an increasingly exasperated Gabriel; a fight which becomes personal when the villain of the piece takes McClane's daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hostage.
Die Hard 4.0 pitches itself as a battle between the old and the new, with McClane being described as "an analogue fly in the digital ointment", and that description could easily be applied to the film itself. Director Len Wiseman (whose work here is a quantum leap forward in terms of clarity and coherence compared to his Underworld movies) has tried to give Die Hard 4.0 an old-school edge in order to distinguish it from the CGI-heavy competition, and that means a reliance on breathtaking stunt work and carefully choreographed action sequences which have a sense of real weight and consequence. Sure, much of the action on show here is utterly preposterous - watch Bruce Willis leap from a truck to the roof of a passing jet! - but the buzz in seeing these scenes played out in such an expert fashion is undeniable. The film is also brilliantly paced, moving smoothly from one set-piece to another without ever letting the plot drag. In comparison with the bloated Spider-Man 3 or Michael Bay's exhaustingly bombastic Transformers movie, it's a pleasure to see a film which delivers continual thrills with such a sense of wit and inventiveness.

The eclectic cast is also a huge factor in the film's success. Willis is once again in his element as McClane, the character he seems to have been born to play, and his natural air of charisma and authority instantly gives the film a rock-solid centre to build upon. His partnership with Justin Long is a lot of fun too; the young actor initially comes off as a whiney and annoying sidekick, but he grows on you over the course of the film much as he grows on McClane, and his gradual maturation is well handled. Timothy Olyphant's decision to underplay his role as McClane's latest nemesis is a great one, his Thomas Gabriel is a sly and intelligent creation; and two of the more pivotal supporting roles are capably filled by Kevin Smith, in a surprisingly effective cameo, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose feisty turn as Lucy McClane is a welcome change from the usual daughter-in-peril performance.

Admittedly, there are plenty of flaws to be found in Die Hard 4.0 if you care to look. Mark Bomback's screenplay is witty, efficient and replete with fun touches (I particularly liked the US Presidents montage), but it does suffer from narrative holes and scenes which stretch plausibility to the limit. I suppose that's par for the course for this kind of picture though, and as long as the film makes enough sense to keep us engaged between explosions I'm not sure many viewers will mind. However, there is also the far more basic problem of the film's frequently dreadful audio looping, with the dialogue being noticeably out of sync in a handful of scenes. This slackness is all the more surprising when the film is so technically proficient in every other area.

I am loathe to point up the lesser aspects of Die Hard 4.0 though, because the movie is such a blast; an adrenalin rush of a picture which is one of the most purely enjoyable films I've experienced this year. While it was never likely to match the peerless original, I'd say this is the best of the three sequels and by some distance the best of this year's blockbuster offerings. Above all, it's a pleasure to see Bruce Willis - one of the most severely underrated leading men in American cinema - bring the great John McClane back to the big screen. Like Rocky Balboa earlier this year, Die Hard 4.0 trades on our affection for a classic character, and Willis' revival of his signature role is a joy. In the two decades since Die Hard no action hero has quite managed the blend of indomitable spirit, no-nonsense attitude and sardonic wit which the actor has brought to these movies. To steal a line from Die Hard 4.0 - it's what makes him that guy.