"Is Die Hard 4 good enough to become a member of the 'Die Hard' club?"
"Would it have been better if it were rated R?"
The answer to both questions is: Yes.
Purists (Is there such a thing as a Die Hard purist?) may be disappointed by the trimming required to bring Live Free or Die Hard down to a PG-13 rating, but I'm here to tell you that the movie still works despite that.
Would it have benefited from the additions that would have made it rated R? Most definitely, and that does detract from the Die Hard vibe a little bit - but just a little. An R-rated version would probably have bumped my rating from 4 to 4 1/2, but I'll get to that later.
The film opens with a scene that almost immediately tells us that John McClane is back, and watching Willis portray the character on-screen is almost like putting on an old, favorite leather jacket that you haven't worn in a very long time. Right away he just makes it feel like we're right back in his world once again. It looks like he's back to being a regular old police detective and no, his wife Holly does not appear in the film as they were finally divorced at some point. We do meet his daughter Lucy (played very well by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), from whom he is estranged.
Someone has hacked into the government agency responsible for monitoring cyber-terrorism and the leader of the agency (played by Cliff Curtis) wants all known "black hat" computer programmers rounded up immediately for questioning due to the seriousness of the offense. One of these programmers is Matt Farrell (played by Justin Long, who you'll recognize from those Apple commercials). A number of black hatters have been killed and Farrell is on the hit list as well. McClane has been assigned to bring him in to the Feds for questioning, and of course as soon as he arrives at Farrell's apartment, all hell breaks loose and we are catapulted into the movie at full speed.
It turns out that a fellow by the name of Thomas Gabriel (played by Timothy Olyphant) is the man behind all the computer-related chaos that is wreaking havoc on the infrastructure of the country. Of course the Feds (one of whom makes a brief appearance with the name "Johnson" as a nod to previous films) are shown to be slightly behind the curve, if not completely inept and it's up to our hero and his trusty 20-something demographic attractor to catch the bad guys.
I have to admit that I went into the theater with some trepidation, but hopeful that the movie would turn out to be good. It actually exceeded my expectations, and I found myself being surprised by that as I sat there watching the film. It's almost all there: the humor, the fight scenes, the action sequences that are almost over the top but acceptable within the context of the film (well, except for the sequence with the jet - come on now!). I have to say "almost" because there were moments where you could just "feel" that it should have been a bit rougher in fight scene or shootout and that McClane should have been dropping an F-bomb. I know, that's wierd coming from me, but it just fits the established character. And the way they handled masking the famous "Yippe-kay-yay" line was, I'm sorry... just weak. Just leave the bloody thing out completely if you can't put it in full-on.
What else worked? I thought most of the performances were pretty good: Willis, Winstead, and even Olyphant each did a good job, although Olyphant was a little too "clean", I thought. Except for the action sequence with Willis and the jet (oh, and the car impossibly getting airborne and taking out a helicopter from below), the rest were pretty much trademark Die Hard bits with the proper balance of suspense and "holy cow!" factor without going too much over the line.
What didn't work? At first having anyone, no matter how slick hack into the cyber-terrorism command center had me rolling my eyes, but thankfully later on they give an explanation that helps make a bit more sense of that. Also, whose idea was it to put Kevin Smith in this movie as a Star Wars/computer geek? Puh-lease, give me a break. The guy's almost 40, and yeah, sure that could be the joke: He's still living in his mother's basement. Ha ha... cough. Pulled me right out of the film. Also although the main villain was a WASP, he employed German henchmen. German bad guys in a Die Hard film... I think that's as much a staple of the series as the Yippi-kay-yay line.
In the end, though Live Free or Die Hard is a worthy addition to the series. If they put an R-rated version on the DVD release I would actually rank it right behind the original in terms of where it fits in with the rest. A lot of fun, we get to know John McClane a little bit better and a great roller-coaster ride that'll leave you feeling like your money was well spent.