Note: this is a revised edition of an article first published in 2011.
By the late Eighties the action movie was beginning to die a slow death. The indestructible, mountainous and mechanical Kings of the genre, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, were finding that even they could not defeat the apathy of an audience who had grown weary of monosyllabic monoliths with big guns and bad jokes. The decade of excess was losing its grip and so were its heroes.
Enter John McTiernan, fresh from his success with Predator starring, ironically, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and casting for his new movie Die Hard. Based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe, Die Hard was originally intended as a sequel to Schwarzenegger’s Commando, but the Austrian actor turned it down and, thankfully, Die Hard became a very different beast altogether.
The original novel had featured a much older protagonist, visiting his daughter rather than his wife, and this could have stayed the same had Charles Bronson got the role. However, McTiernan’s masterstroke was in ignoring all the more obvious candidates and giving the role to someone who, at the time, seemed an unlikely action hero.
Bruce Willis had found success on the small screen in the massive TV hit Moonlighting, but his previous two movie outings, Blind Date and Sunset, both under director Blake Edwards, had tanked and he was not considered a sure thing by any means. The idea of casting him as an action hero must have seemed insane to the studio, but McTiernan stuck to his guns and together actor and director managed to reinvigorate the action genre.
John McClane was a new kind of mainstream action hero. Gone was the rampaging super-soldier who wipes out entire armies before breakfast, without breaking a sweat or ripping their trousers. McClane was just a regular guy. He got hurt, he bled, he got scared, and he didn’t know martial arts. He could also string a sentence together and think semi-complex thoughts. If there is a character defining line in Die Hard, one which illustrates what made McClane different, it’s not “Yippee-ki-yay”.
It’s this one:
“Oh God, please don’t let me die.”
Can you imagine Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix or Stallone’s Rambo uttering this line?
Celluloid Zombie makes fists with his toes and looks over the five episodes in John McClane’s increasingly bizarre life.
New York cop John McClane flies to L.A. to spend Christmas with his estranged wife, Holly. Arriving at the Nakatomi Plaza, the plush offices of Holly’s Japanese employers, McClane finds himself the last line of defense against a group of international terrorists when they seize the building.
“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”
The movie which launched Bruce Willis into the A-list, changed the face of action movies forever and increased the sales of vests by about 600%. Die Hard is a text-book exercise in mixing action, performance and scripting to produce something which is more than the sum of its parts. Willis gives us a very human protagonist, who complements the wise-cracks with a dose of fear and a lot of pain. Care is also taken to make sure that even the peripheral characters have their moment to shine, with especially good turns from Paul Gleason as the inept Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson and Hart Bochner as the archetypal Eighties sleaze-in-a-suit, Ellis.
McTiernan, who still has yet to top this, carries the movie forward at a breathless pace. And although it sometimes defies logic (no-one hears those assault rifles firing on the rooftop early on?), the action scenes are gritty, brutal and believable. Die Hard remains one of the greatest action movies of all time. Much imitated, never bettered.
The Bad Guy: Suave, well-groomed and “exceptional” thief, Hans Gruber. Hans likes money, good suits, scale models and comedy accents. Bruce Willis wasn’t the only star created by Die Hard, with Alan Rickman’s turn as the dastardly German mastermind setting his own career on track. Rickman is both sinister and charming. You almost want to be on his side.
Rescued: One building, dozens of hostages and one wife.
Not rescued: One Japanese businessman, one yuppie and two FBI agents.
DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER
It’s Christmas time again and McClane is waiting at Washington Dulles Airport for his wife Holly, flying in from L.A. Unfortunately, also flying in is drug baron Ramon Esperanza, to stand trial in the U.S. When the airport and air traffic control is commandeered by former Army Colonel Stuart, who wishes to free Esperanza, McClane races against time to stop him.
“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”
The runaway success of the first movie meant a second was never going to be too far away. This time around the reins were handed to Finnish rent-a-hack Renny Harlin, and the story was based on another novel, 58 minutes by Walter Wager. Die Hard 2 clearly feels the need to be bigger and louder than its predecessor, and in many ways it is just that. However, in its determination to outdo the original, it forgets to build on the foundations which made Die Hard so strong. The script is weak, with far too many cheesy lines and knowing winks to the first movie, and recurring roles for some original characters that seem pointless and contrived.
Harlin does a workmanlike job with the action scenes, and Willis is reliable, but on the whole Die Hard 2 feels like a movie rushed into production to ride the success of the previous outing.
The Bad Guy: Serious, ruthless and slightly insane Colonel Stuart. The Colonel likes drug dealers, crashing aircraft and prancing around naked. William Sadler may not have much to work with, inheriting a rather colorless villain in contrast to Rickman’s Gruber, but he does what is required of him. It doesn’t hurt that he looks like he was chiseled out of granite.
Rescued: An airport, several airplanes, a few hundred passengers and one wife (again).
Not rescued: One SWAT team, one old man and one airplane full of posh-sounding Brits.
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE
New York City is under attack by a mysterious terrorist called Simon, who seems to have a vendetta against McClane. Forced to carry out a series of tasks by Simon, McClane reluctantly teams up with shopkeeper Zeus to find Simon before he can set off a series of bombs around the city. However, Simon has a secret agenda.
“I know what I’m doing!”
“Not even God knows what you’re doing!”
McTiernan returns to the fray for the third of McClane’s romps. This time the action is not restricted to a single building, but an entire city, with McClane running around like a headless chicken as he attempts to foil the plans of the latest member of the Gruber clan to screw up his life. Die Hard with a Vengeance marks a welcome return to the fun which seemed to go missing from the second movie. The addition of Samuel L. Jackson as the perma-angry Zeus is inspired and the banter between Zeus and McClane is magical.
Unfortunately, Die Hard with a Vengeance suffers from a rather saggy mid-section (I can sympathize) and gets far too bogged down with events away from the central characters, to the point where the movie almost feels like it has an intermission. The furious pacing of the first hour is then lost and the movie never quite recovers from it. Still, this is a vast improvement on Die Hard 2.
The Bad Guy: Revolutionary, greedy, Aryan poster-boy Simon Gruber, brother of Hans. Simon likes riddles, trendy sunglasses, painkillers and rough sex. Jeremy Irons, perhaps tired of constantly hanging out on more serious projects, hits the gym for his role as the vengeful Simon. Aside from the occasionally dodgy accent, Irons is always entertaining and is clearly having a ball.
Rescued: Several New York locations, one subway train (sort of) and countless people.
Not rescued: One department store, one cop and several security guards at the Federal Reserve Bank.
LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD
When someone hacks into the FBI’s Cyber Crime Division and begins killing all the known hackers the FBI decide to question, McClane goes on the run with surviving hacker Matt Farrell. The mysterious cyber-terrorist then attacks all the country’s major computer systems, throwing the US into chaos. McClane must stop them and rescue his daughter, Lucy.
“You just killed a helicopter with a car!”
“I was out of bullets.”
He’s back, he’s bad and he’s bald. McClane finally succumbs to the rigors of hair loss (I can sympathize) and takes on the terrorists sans mane. This time around the story is based on a magazine article, A Farewell to Arms by John Carlin. Underworld director Len Wiseman comes aboard for the fourth of McClane’s pictures and does a great job. Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0 outside the US) divided fans of the franchise, but for my part it is the best of the Die Hard sequels to date.
The script sparkles with the same brand of wise-ass dialogue that punctuated the first and third movies, and the interplay between the ageing McClane and the young Farrell (Justin Long) is wholly entertaining. Wiseman orchestrates some of the finest action scenes of the franchise, be they sometimes a little over-the-top, and Willis easily slips back into the character, ten years on. Ignore the naysayers, this is a more than worthy addition to the franchise.
The Bad Guy: Arrogant, maniacal, geek Thomas Gabriel. Thomas likes computers, dressing in black, Maggie Q and killing other geeks. Timothy Olyphant has some big shoes to fill, and while he does a nice line in exasperated-with-everyone-who-isn’t-me looks (I can sympathize), his character just isn’t grand enough to stand up to the Grubers of this world.
Rescued: The whole Goddamn country, that’s who. And one daughter.
Not rescued: Dozens of computer geeks and various security guards (they never fare well in the Die Hard franchise).
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
McClane travels to Russia after learning that his estranged son, Jack, is in trouble. Once there he finds that, not only does his son work for the CIA, but they are now both charged with helping a fugitive and his daughter escape the country. Not everything is as it seems, however.
“Need a hug?”
“We’re not a hugging family.”
Having introduced the all-grown-up daughter in the previous installment, part five decides to give the all-grown-up son a spotlight. Unfortunately, his sister got the better vehicle by far. A Good Day to Die Hard is the weakest of all the Die Hard movies, which might be why there hasn’t been another since.
Taking the action out of the USA seems like a fresh step on paper, but it turns out to be the first of several aspects that remove this episode so far from established franchise beats as to make it unrecognizable. The script contains none of the sparkling dialogue that graced previous outings, relying instead on cheesy one-liners (one in particular suffers from over-repetition). In fact, the writing manages to edge McClane over the line from likable rogue to simply unlikable, coming off like a cliche of bad American tourism.
The action scenes are decent enough, including a Moscow car chase that seems to go on forever. But without that signature Die Hard humanity the action becomes tiresome very quickly. Overall, A Good Day to Die Hard leaves you feeling it’s a good day to call it a day.
The Bad Guy: Russian oligarch turned whistle-blower Yuri Komarov. Having played both McClane Jr. and the Russian government, Komarov and his daughter reveal their true dastardly scheme involving Chernobyl and uranium, or something. Colorless and drab, Komarov’s reveal is too much of a yawn-fest to even care when he takes a Gruber-lite plunge to his sticky end.
Rescued: Good question. Two McClanes, pretty much.
Not rescued: Dozens of Russian security guards (yep, them again) at the courthouse, probably a bunch of people involved in a motorway pile-up, and some CIA agents.