The makers of Die Hard 4 didn’t originally know they were making a PG-13 rated movie – and there were ramifications to the plan.

It wasn’t really until Deadpool came along in 2016 that modern Hollywood finally worked out not every expensive movie had to come with the broadest possible rating. It’d been a piece of logic that had sat in place for a good decade or so to this point, with director contracts for blockbuster movies usually mandating that a PG-13 cut of a film be provided, to allow for the biggest possible cinema audience.

In America, of course, a PG-13 rating pretty much allows anyone to be admitted to a cinema, and here in the UK the 12A certificate has become that equivalent (albeit with the requirement that an adult accompanies patrons under 12 to the film in question). And it became so written in Hollywood lore that it was the only commercially-viable rating that even franchises who had traded off R-rated violence found themselves having to play by this particular set of roles.

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Some films were better at pushing at the boundaries of PG-13 than others, with Christopher Nolan’s 2008 sequel The Dark Knight virtually pressing its face up at the glass of an R-rating. Yet even in the midst of this kind of blockbuster culture, eyebrows were still heavily raised when it was revealed the fourth movie in the Die Hard series was going for a family-friendly rating.

This was a decision taken by 20th Century Fox, who figured – simply – that more money was there to be made if Die Hard could be softened a little.

For those unfamiliar with the series to that point, it’d featured three films. The 1988 original was rated 18 in the UK for years, and remains an R in the US. The 1990 sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder was a 15 thanks to a cut moment involving an icicle going through an eye (that upgraded the widescreen video release over here to an 18. The film’s always been an R in America). 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance meanwhile added Samuel L Jackson to the mix, and the chances of Willis and Jackson saying ‘oh bloody hell, that looks dangerous’ when faced with peril were on the slim side. Again, 15 certificate here, R in the States.

Even appreciating that the standards of PG-13 and 12A had softened somewhere by the time the Die Hard 4.0 announcement came around in 2007, it was still something of a shock to the series’ fanbase. Entitled Live Free Or Die Hard in the US, at first it was rumours springing up online that Fox was investigating the idea of PG-13. This was news to director Len Wiseman, who’d signed on the dotted line with the absolute intent of making a traditional Die Hard film in terms of its cussing and in terms of its action.

But by the time the movie was heading into post-production, executives at Fox had run the numbers, and the decision was made. In America, the film was indeed going out with a PG-13 rating.

The reaction was not positive, not least when it was revealed that work was being done in post-production to achieve the studio’s goal. The film was edited down after filming was complete, and less sweary dialogue was substituted for the more potty-mouthed stuff. Willis’ John McClane wasn’t even allowed to utter his signature catchphrase ‘yippee ki yay motherfucker’ (yep, you can get away with is on the internet) without an explosion muffling the ‘ucker’ bit of it. I still remember the tut in the cinema when that happened.

Inevitably, the cutting down of the movie became a large part of the film’s junket interviews. Willis and Wiseman were pushed onto the back foot, with the former telling Vanity Fair for instance that he wasn’t best pleased with the decision, but that the movie still worked. Furthermore, the physicality of the stuntwork was played up, and Willis at one stage claimed it was better than the first movie.

He was wrong, of course. Nonetheless, I should state at this point: I quite like the film. It goes daft in the last half hour, but I’ve always found it quite entertaining to that point. Not necessarily as a Die Hard film, rather as a fun action flick. I can’t say definitively either whether I’d have noticed the cuts if I hadn’t known about them beforehand, but my sneaking suspicion is at least one or two of them were really rather obvious.

The problem for us movie fans though was, from Fox’s point of view, the move to soften the rating worked. Of course we’ll never know what would have happened if the movie hadn’t been tampered with, but in the form it was sent out into the world, it became the highest grossing entry in the series. Albeit about the worst received of the four to that point.

In the UK, the film conversely went out with a 15 certificate, but a trend would kick in over the years that followed that Fox UK would start sending out cut back action movies to get a 12A. It did it with the UK release of the Taken sequels most notably, leading to my erstwhile colleague Ryan Lambie describing a post-production cut to one of those: ‘there’s now a moment where it looks like Liam Neeson just hugs someone to death’.

But at what cost did all this come?

In the days of DVD’s popularity, the trade off was we’d get some kind of ‘unrated’ edition with the home release. ‘The version you couldn’t see in cinemas’, was the usual billing, as opposed to the more honest ‘The version you should have been able to see in cinemas’. It was something of an irony for those of us who grew up with home releases cut for release on video in the early 90s to see that it was now from the comfort of our living room we were allowed all the cussing and harder edged violence. None of that nonsense in the cinema.

By the time Willis decided to make a fifth film in the franchise, the risible A Good Day To Die Hard, it was all change again. In the US, Fox figured it may as well take a punt on an R release, so stung it’d been by the response to the cut fourth movie. That, and I’d imagine the sneaking suspicion that a fifth Die Hard wasn’t going to do Iron Man numbers.

In the UK? Well, we still got a restricted version, as the studio cut its losses and went for a 12A (authorising cuts to ensure it got that certificate). The sad irony to all of this – and the movie is piss poor in either cut – is that the UK was one of the only territories in the world where A Good Day To Die Hard hit its commercial target. Most of us have long tried to scrub the 2013 movie from our brains, however.

Still, as disliked as the decisions Fox made to cut the films for a softer certificate were, the returns justified the decision at boardroom level at least. But it goes to the short-termism that was around Hollywood. I’d argue that the softening of the Die Hard franchise did it hidden damage that it never really recovered from. I remember how enthused I was at the idea of a fourth film when I first heard about it. Come the idea of the fifth, I distinctly remember many of us simply asking are they going to cut off its edges again. The franchise had lost our trust, and – appreciating the quality had dropped anyway – it’s never really re-earned it.

A planned sixth film, Die Hard: Year One, would have told the origin story of John McClane for some reason, but that turned out to be a casualty of Fox’s acquisition by Disney a few years ago. It’s likely we’ve seen the end of John McClane’s big screen adventures.

The coda to this is that Fox, ironically, would be one of the key studios eventually breaking down the R wall with the success of two films it distributed: 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2016’s aforementioned Deadpool. The fruit-filled Fifty Shades Of Grey did big business in 2015 as well for Universal. Now, in 2021, the latest annual report from the British Board Of Film Classification tells us that 15 was the most awarded certificate in the UK last year, and films are heading more and more to streaming with little worry about ratings.

When it comes to big blockbusters though, the 12A/PG-13 rulebook is still in play. And it seems that Die Hard 4.0 did little in Hollywood to nullify it. Quite the opposite for a while…

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