I have a particular soft spot for Die Hard. It was the first R rated movie I saw without my parents. I saw it three times in the theater. John McClane was awesome as the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a believable action hero. Over the years, I’d watch Die Hard and think to myself where it was exactly that I’d end up getting killed if I were John McClane. I’m pretty sure that bit where he falling down that air ventilation shaft and manages to catch himself would have done me in.
This week I decided to revisit the Die Hard franchise in preparation for seeing A Good Day To Die Hard opening night. If all you care about is what I thought of the last one, feel free to scroll down. Otherwise, join me as I go over the death of John McClane.
The original Die Hard is a masterpiece of action filmmaking. It was exactly the shot in the arm the genre needed. It’s easy to forget because of what came after Die Hard, but John McClane spends a good portion of the movie running away from the bad guys and trying to get help from the outside. These are things that typical action movie heroes simply don’t do. When McClane is injured, it’s more than just some fake blood on his face. He hobbles. He winces. He looks like he’s actually going to die. Bruce Willis plays McClane in a way that is a sharp contrast to every character guys like Swarzenegger have ever played.
Die Hard is also helped by Alan Rickman playing Hans Gruber. As bad guys go, he’s one of the best. He has a clear objective and a plan for achieving that objective right up until John McClane gets in his way. And once that happens, it’s not until very late in the game that he starts to get genuinely concerned that McClane might actually defeat him.
The original Die Hard also happened to have some great people behind the camera as well. Director John McTiernan crafted a film that slowly builds and then barely lets you catch a breath once it gets going. Michael Kamen turns in one of his best scores in a career full of great music.
I’ve probably seen Die Hard fifty times and I never get tired of watching it.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Both Die Hard and Die Hard 2 are based on novels. They’re written by different authors and in the case of Die Hard 2, it strays so far from the source material that it’s almost unrecognizable. This is due in large part to the filmmakers’ doing everything humanly possible to make Die Hard again.
It’s Christmas Eve again. They put his wife in jeopardy again. They put him at odds with the authorities again. They give him one main bad guy with a large group of henchmen again. They even manage to squeeze in the LA cop McClane was buddies with and the slimy reporter from the original Die Hard. I have to assume that the guy who play Argyile the limo driver was busy or something.
Instead of terrorists taking over a building, this time they take over an airport. Like any sequel, the danger is amplified. About midway through the take over, the terrorists crash a plane full of people just to show they mean business. In the original, there were 30 hostages. In this one they kill 230 people on a plane just for the hell of it.
Die Hard 2 isn’t necessarily a bad movie. And it does stay true to the characters. However, when McClane says, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” it turns out there really is no answer for that.
Renny Harlin directs this one. He’s an average director and he makes an average Die Hard movie. It’s the sort of movie you might watch if it were on cable, but unless you were doing a Die Hard marathon, you wouldn’t put it in the DVD player.
Die Hard With A Vengeance
With the first movie taking place in LA and the second movie taking place in DC, it’s only natural that the third installment would be in New York City. After all, John McClane is a New York cop. Or at least he was in the original movie. In Die Hard 2 they mention he’s moved out to LA, apparently to be closer to his wife and kids. Now he’s back in New York with no wife or kids.
John McTiernan returns to the director’s chair. Yet again he shows that he can create great action sequences. While there are a couple of nods to the original movie in Die Hard With A Vengeance, there is no mention whatsoever of anything that happened in Die Hard 2. It seems that McTiernan is ignoring that particular episode.
Die Hard With A Vengeance also adds a buddy to the mix with Samuel L. Jackson playing black militant, Zeus. The two have a good chemistry together, but it also ends up watering down one of McClane’s most enduring qualities: that it’s all up to just him.
Jeremy Irons plays a serviceable villain who is out for revenge because it turns out he’s the brother of Hans Gruber, but it turns out to be an elaborate distraction so that he can pull off a giant heist. While the movie takes place all over New York City rather than confined to an airport or a building, it’s still a variation on the plot from the original movie.
In terms of quality, this movie fall far short of the original and isn’t even as good as Die Hard 2 really as some of the action set pieces are outright absurd.
Live Free Or Die Hard
No one expected there would be a Die Hard 4. Made over a decade after Die Hard 3, it was assumed that the Die Hard movies were over with. My DVD set of the first three movies even says, ‘Ultimate Collection’ on it. Even the movie studio thought they were done. And perhaps they should have been.
Previously terrorists had taken over a building to steal a bunch of money, taken a sky full of planes hostage to rescue a political prisoner, and planted bombs all over New York City to rob the Federal Reserve. So in Live Free or Die Hard they upped the ante a bit by having the terrorists steal ‘all the wealth in the United States’. This premise is every bit as over the top and crazy as the rest of the movie.
By the fourth movie in the series, John McClane has lost all vulnerabilities. He now kills people without a second thought and causes collateral damage on a level that would impress most sociopaths. This is due at least marginally by director Len Wiseman who is used to directing immortal vampire warriors in his Underworld series.
In contrast to the other Die Hard movies, this one bares little resemblance to any of them. McClane isn’t trapped anywhere. While he is occasionally one his own, he spends most of the movie with a sidekick who is significantly less effective than Zeus and the only time the authorities aren’t helping him is when he can’t get in touch with them.
Timothy Olyphant plays a reasonable bad guy, but he isn’t really given much to work with in terms of character. He is there so that McClane has someone to kill at the end of the movie.
In the one and only attempt to tie this movie to the others, they have McClane’s grown up estranged daughter show up as a hostage.
A Good Day To Die Hard
Having spent the last four days watching Die Hard movies, I knew going in that the only real expectation for this movie was that Bruce Willis would likely be shooting bad guys. I also knew not to expect something spectacular. Director John Moore had done a few average movies but wasn’t exactly known for great films. Writer Skip Woods gave us the near franchise-killing movie Wolverine: Origins.
In the fifth Die Hard movie, McClane has gone to Russia to rescue his grown up estranged son. There’s a quick scene to establish that McClane is still somehow a New York cop and somehow a fellow cop has managed to pull the arrest sheet from Russia on McClane’s son who he apparently only just decided to have interest in.
McClane is in Russia roughly ten minutes before things start exploding. The resulting car chase is one of the most absurd car chases I’ve ever seen. Not since Bad Boys II have I seen a movie where the ‘heroes’ care less about human life. Dozens of occupied cars are destroyed during the chase. The man who once freaked out and gave away his position when Mr. Takagi was killed in Nakatomi Tower is now happy to drive a truck through any car in his way regardless of who might be inside. And in what is my least favorite scene in the entire Die Hard franchise, John McClane punches out a motorist who yells at him after the motorist hit him with the car because McClane was standing in the middle of the street. McClane then steals his car and makes a comment about the motorist not speaking English apparently forgetting the part where he’s in Russia.
The previous four movies had only a few things in common: A main bad guy, a central heist of some sort, and McClane as the antagonist. Apparently, the filmmaker’s of A Good Day To Die Hard decided they needed to fix that. Here we get a guy who seems to be the main bad guy until he isn’t. This actually happens a couple of times. Similarly, the heist is one thing, then it’s another. In more capable hands these might make for clever plot twists, but in this case, it just feels like needless bait and switch. This is because the movie spends no time building any of the bad guy characters on any level unless you count one of them mentioning he wanted to be a dancer. The result is that one Russian thug is just as good as another so who really cares which one is the real bad guy?
There is a small attempt to have some sort of storyline between McClane and his son, who it turns out has become some sort of Jason Bourne-like secret agent, but with none of the skills.
I think what bothers me the most about A Good Day To Die Hard is this. If it had a different title and the two heroes weren’t named McClane, I wouldn’t have said, “That should have been a Die Hard movie” after seeing it. There are a couple of sad attempts to echo the first Die Hard, but they feel more like a rip off than an homage.
John McClane started out as the everyman action hero. He was you or me in a set of bad circumstances. Since then he has actually become the very invincible action hero that the first Die Hard was the antidote to. The John McClane from the first Die Hard sadly died a long time ago. And that’s too bad because I’d love to see a movie with that character again.
- Jack Cameron