At last, some good news: the first of the summer's sequels to do the job expected of it. In the grand scheme of things, Die Hard 4.0 falls some way short of the middling Die Hard 2 (and may even be less entertaining than last year's Bruce Willis warm-up 16 Blocks). But it does feature a man propelling his car into an airborne helicopter, and if that prospect doesn't put a smile on your face, then you might as well go sit in the park with a book for the rest of the season.
It's certainly possible to have doubts about this latest instalment going in. It's always the last refuge of desperate franchise to pair the established hero with a younger sidekick: a tactic that didn't work for TV's 24, when Jack Bauer was teamed with the Justin Timberlake lookalike Chase, so why should it work here? Fortunately, Willis's permanently fatigued cop John McClane is here well-matched with Justin Long, amiable star of Dodgeball, Jeepers Creepers and the teen comedy Accepted, as a computer hacker beset by low blood sugar and assassins who want him dead.
The other potential glitch is signalled in the title: the bad guys this time round are johnny-come-lately cyber-terrorists. The first two Die Hards were most reminiscent of sturdy, Andy McNab-type airport novels, but 4.0 is inspired by one of those hysterical articles that keep popping up in the press insisting we're all under attack from malevolent mouse-clickers and radical modems. Compared to the Gruber brothers (Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance), these are literally colourless villains: nerdy palefaces who taunt McClane by accessing his pension scheme and sneer "Get ready for the downloads". Ooh, I'm scared.
McClane could just pull these hackers' plugs, rather than punch their lights out; I was reminded, not entirely helpfully, of 2005's Hostage, which again suffered from the imbalance of pitting Bruce Willis against a set of snivelling kids. Die Hard 4.0 has a hang-up on the hip and hi-tech: there's much business with PDAs, "e-bombs" and in-car recognition systems, and the script has to give McClane a big speech in an alleyway when the dust clears to help us grasp the grave threat cyber-terrorism poses to us all.
What the film has in its favour is old-fashioned stuntwork, and lots of it. Director Len Wiseman, of those hideous Underworld films, proves overly fond of the blue-green filters that have signified "modern" and "techno-savvy" ever since their deployment in the Matrix movies, but his set-pieces are pleasingly analogue: cars plunging into liftshafts, free runners leaping between buildings, McClane clinging onto the roofs of trucks and the wings of jumpjets.
You miss the wit that distinguished the earlier Die Hards - as the Gothy self-absorption of his breakthrough films demonstrated, Wiseman is a director with no obvious sense of humour - and there's something slightly sad in its wannabe trendiness; appeals to the MySpace generation include endless shots of monitors and a minor role for Kevin Smith as a hacker whose "command centre" the hero debunks as a common-or-garden basement. Not least as it changes the configuration of the central character: McClane, who's kicked both the swearing and smoking and kills without blood in a busted attempt to land a 12A/PG-13 certificate, is less the indomitable hero in Die Hard 4.0 than a befuddled dad who has to have the concept of email explained to him.
Accordingly, the film is at its most fun when it shies away from its idea of the cutting edge to run once more through the tropes and cliches of the late 80s/early 90s actioner. Familiar pleasures include: a wisecrack after every death; an FBI agent being informed, in no uncertain terms, that certain info is beyond his paygrade; a bit-part player who gets one line - "you can't go in there, this is a restricted area" - before being shot square between the eyes; and - a personal favourite - the police car that comes careening around a corner at high speed, causing an extra carrying a briefcase to stop dead in his tracks.
Die Hard 4.0 is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. A further sequel, A Good Day to Die Hard, opens in cinemas this Thursday.