So far the ‘Die Hard’ series has offered scenes of civil aviation hijack, skyscraper attack (with falling bodies) and a New York besieged by explosions. Nothing unusual then: in the years before 9/11, grand-scale civilian terror was a staple Hollywood pleasure; ‘Die Hard With A Vengeance’ (1995) even showed Manhattan office workers munching popcorn as they survey the carnage below. In the event, of course, people took terrorist attack rather more personally than that, both in the moment and in dealing with the fall-out. Inspired by a WIRED article about the threat to homeland security from systems hacking, ‘Die Hard 4.0’ happily exploits the dire potential consequences of such ‘soft strike’ tactics, yet proposes the decidedly September 10 solution of an individual hero – and banks on its audience reaching for the popcorn, like in the good old days.
Once again, NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is in the wrong place at the wrong time – in this case, Washington, DC, on Independence Day, just as forces unseen conspire to shut down the security and transport systems of the city and its neighbours. Chaos ensues and McClane girds himself to save the day with blood ’n’ grit, assisted by unworldly but tech-savvy hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long, who played similar roles in ‘Galaxy Quest’ and ‘Dodgeball’). In the other corner are high-kickin’ Maggie Q, clench-jawed, bug-eyed Timothy Olyphant and some French blokes who know parkour (bien sûr). McClane’s teenage daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is also running around.
As in the other ‘Die Hard’ movies, a hero who once declared that ‘progress peaked with frozen pizza’ is pitched against complex systems being abused by nut-jobs with delusions of grandeur, though McClane is now harder to accept than ever as an everyman figure: once bleeding and battling alone, he is now effectively a superhuman with a sidekick whose theatre has expanded from the confines of an office block to the entire eastern seaboard. McClane’s yen for remote communication with his foes now benefits from video conferencing and the series’ long-standing soft spot for pornographic explosions is ratcheted up a few notches too – as is the scale of the action sequences. If the collapse of the US capital’s social and civic infrastructure doesn’t pack enough of a punch, you also get a fighter jet facing off against a juggernaut.
Len Wiseman (who directed the gothic fantasy actioner ‘Underworld’ and its sequel) handles many of the set-pieces with flair and tension: a mass pile-up in an underpass is especially effective, and there’s a real sense of panic to the city’s realisation that it’s under attack. But if the film acknowledges the increased plausibility of such violence, it’s only to exploit the audience’s anxieties. If the series’ reactionary spite is indulged here more than even, so is its sappy sentimentality: national meltdown, it insists, is a mere trifle next to a father’s violent love for his daughter.