Bosco’s Franchise Collection: The Die Hard Quadrilogy
Die Hard (1988)
Many have tried to imitate it, both successfully and unsuccessfully. It launched the career of one of the world’s most popular action stars. It has been referenced in almost every action movie to be released in the past twenty years. It may not be perfect, but at the time of its release, there was nothing quite like Die Hard.
Directed by John McTiernan, Die Hard tells the story of John McClane, a New York cop who flies to LA for Christmas to spend the holidays with his ex wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), and kids. Planning to surprise her at her office Christmas party, which is being held in the internationally regarded Nakatomi building, a multinational corporation led by Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta). But after arriving to the building and talking to Holly in one of the nearby offices, John hears gunshots outside where all of the guests are. Armed with his revolver, John is thrust into a fight for survival from an international group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).
With his witty one liners and stealthy tactics John shoots his way through floor after floor of armed men. Making occasional contact with Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), a desk jockey who was on his way home when he heard John’s initial radio transmition, McClane hopes to decipher the real reason behind the hostage situation. Gruber states that his motives are mostly political, but McClane isn’t in any position to believe him and suspects that there’s something more to his plan than he’s letting on.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, Die Hard is considered to be a classic film and one of the best action films ever made. It was the role that launched Bruce Willis’ career and, after a decade of terrible action films, marked the beginning of a new era. In its most basic form, Die Hard is a well-written, well-directed, high-tech action thriller with a classic setting that has inspired almost every action movie to come after it.
But looking at it now, there’s a lot to be said about the character of John McClane and how he almost doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film, but in a good way. Throughout the film he’s referred to as a cowboy and even goes as far as calling himself Roy Rogers, a famous cowboy played by Leonard Slye throughout the 40s and 50s. But beyond that, Die Hard is structured as a modern day western. Trade out the troubled town for modern day LA; the mysterious gunslinger for the smooth talking, out-of-town copper; and the merry band of misfits for a group of international terrorists looking for a big payday.
The reason McClane seems out of place with the rest of the film is that he seems to be in on the joke. He embraces this cowboy notion that everyone seems to pass on to him. While everyone else takes their job very seriously, McClane proceeds to treat the entire ordeal like he’s having a great time, which gives the character this great balance of feeling both invincible but vulnerable. McClane is never given superhuman powers or even an advantage over Gruber and his men. In fact, he takes quite a beating throughout the duration of the film. But he has something none of the villains in this film have: a heart and a will to survive stronger than any of his opponents.
Where the original Die Hard fails to entertain at the level of its successors is that it hasn’t aged as well as any of the sequels have. A young man watching Die Hard for the first time in 2013 wouldn’t necessarily have the same reaction to it that a young man who saw it for the first time in 1988 would have, something that doesn’t apply to any of the sequels, especially the 2nd and 3rd installments. While it can’t be denied that Die Hard paved the way for many films after it, the number of times that it has been ripped off and referenced has almost disparaged its originality.
Thankfully, what has remained intact still works excellently. Bruce Willis’ performance is as engaging as ever and early roles like this one and more recent performances in films like Moonrise Kingdom and Looper reinforce his capabilities as an actor, which have always been hidden under a rainstorm of gunfire and explosions. Hans Gruber is never too far from a Best Villains list and although I think he’s a very good one, he’s not as deserving of the title as other, better villains, even in the Die Hard franchise. He may have been the first, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the best.
And that’s kind of the philosophy that I’ve applied to Die Hard as a film. While it introduced the character of John McClane and really was a revolutionary cinematic experience, Bruce Willis’ portrayal of John McClane wasn’t utilized fully until Die Harder and Die Hard with a Vengeance. I’ll never call it a perfect film, but Die Hard was the beginning, and for that it’ll always be considered a classic.
Die Harder (1990)
Two years after the original phenomenon that was Die Hard, audiences were ready to see what kind of trouble John McClane could find for himself again. Director John McTiernan was replaced by Renny Harlin and the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles was traded out for Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC. But like its title suggest, Die Harder is bigger and badder than its predecessor in all the right ways.
Considered a national hero after the Nakatomi Hostage Crisis, John McClane is hoping to continue a peaceful life with Holly and his two kids, Lucy and John Jr. After spending the week with his in-laws, John goes to the Dulles International Airport to await the arrival of his wife, who is coming to Washington DC on a later flight from LA. Now a Lieutenant for the LAPD, there are some allusions to McClane’s status as a “hero cop”, including a reference to a spread in People Magazine. Coincidentally, McClane’s skills will be put to use once again after a group of international terrorists take control of the airport and attempt to hijack a 747 cargo plane in order to transport General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a drug lord who is being extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges.
Led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), Esperanza’s men take over a nearby church and set it up as their base. They proceed to shut off the runway lights, take control over the air traffic control systems, and completely cut off all the communication between the towers and the planes, forcing the two dozen planes ready to land at Dulles to circle around the airport until further instruction. One of those planes happens to Holly McClane on board, and with too little fuel to be redirected to another airport, McClane must secure a runway and get rid of the terrorists before it’s too late.
Embracing the sillier elements of the first Die Hard film, Die Harder is definitely a different kind of action film than its predecessor. Boasting a series of absurd, high-octane action scenes under the graceful direction of Renny Harlin, Die Harder proves to not only be a bigger film, but a better one. Comfortable in the character of John McClane, Bruce Willis gives another great performance as the tough-talking cop who can outsmart just about any international terrorist on the block.
While the film is similar to Die Hard in some respects, there’s a flailing and uncontrolled lunacy to this film that is a lot of fun to watch. It embraces the shortcomings of its genre and everything from the outlandish one liners to the ludicrous title (I mean, come on, Die Harder? Really?) signifies an even more obvious wink to the audience. While the first Die Hard only let Bruce Willis in on the joke, Die Harder allows everyone to chew up the scenery and perform a series of physically impossible stunts that make Die Hard seem tame in comparison.
Coupled with the campy violence is some surprisingly artful direction from Renny Harlin, whose career really took the wrong turn after this film. The film takes place entirely during a blizzard, and there are some really breathtaking shots and gorgeous cinematography by Oliver Wood that conveys this feeling of dread and a dark abyss that really adds a layer of suspense to the film’s extended action sequences.
But what really sets Die Harder apart from the rest of the films is how over-the-top these action sequences are willing to go. McClane ejects himself out of a cockpit as twelve grenades explode beneath him, launching him even further into the sky. While being attacked with a knife, McClane proceeds to take an icicle and jam it through a man’s head. McClane barrel rolls numerous times while dodging bullets that are being fired by automatic weapons. The list goes on forever but no the point is that no matter how outlandish these scenes are, the payoff is guaranteed because of how McClane, who is otherwise an average guy, reacts to them.
The film definitely recognizes how silly it is. “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” McClane asks himself at one poin in the film. But through all of its silliness there’s genuine intrigue and a much tighter and better paced narrative than the one given in the original Die Hard. Just about everyone who considers themselves a fan of this franchise will tell you that Die Hard is one of the best action movies of all time. I disagree, and while Die Harder isn’t either, it’s pretty damn close.
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
By the mid 90s, Bruce Willis had become a major action star and the character of John McClane reached a legendary status as one of the most important action film protagonists of the past decade. Coming off the success of 1994′s Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson once again for the third installment in the Die Hard series. With director John McTiernan returning to helm the series once again, fans of the original film were hopeful after most were disappointed with Die Harder.
Many times throughout the series McClane references his origins in New York. Ironically enough, no Die Hard film had ever taken place or even shown New York City. Now, in Die Hard with a Vengeance, McClane returns to his roots as a lieutenant in the NYPD. Divorced from Holly and slowly become an estranged father to his two children, McClane has picked up a nasty habit for drinking and is currently serving a one month suspension.
A mysterious phone call from a stammering explosives expert who refers to himself as Simon (Jeremy Irons) demands to speak with John McClane. Engaging him in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, McClane must solve a series of riddles and puzzles in order to defuse liquid bombs that have been scattered throughout the city. With the help of a Harlem locksmith named Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), McClane must bring down the most sinister criminal mastermind he’s ever faced in order to save New York from imminent destruction.
Like most action franchises, Die Hard sequels have a reputation for trumping their predecessors and Die Hard with a Vengeance is no exception. Instead of a building or an airport, the third entry in the series gives John McClane an entire city to save. But by raising the stakes to an insanely high level, the film enters a realm of predictability. No action film, no matter how audacious or inventive, will conclude with the destruction of the most important city of the world, especially if it hopes to maintain a level of realism throughout.
Reprising his role for the third time, Bruce Willis slips back into the character of John McClane easily. Saddled with even more family problems and a growing case of alcoholism, the performance, among all the chaos, is what really carries the film. McClane isn’t as inventive or as smooth as he used to be and he needs the help of Zeus to successfully thwart Simon’s plans. For the first time McClane is given a true sidekick. Not a man on the outside like Al Powell in Die Hard or Leslie Barnes in Die Harder. Zeus, who is played perfectly by Samuel L. Jackson, is an honest-to-God sidekick who engages in all the gun battles and car chases with John McClane instead of just standing off to the side and giving advice as to what he should do.
But giving John McClane a sidekick for the first time here has led to an audience expectation for him to have sidekicks in the fourth and fifth installments of the series. With time and age, it makes sense that McClane would need someone to help him along the way, but it also defeats the purpose of the character and the original premise of Die Hard which was a lone man going on a suicide mission that may or may not end with his demise. Adding help just lifts the tension and renders the entire story a little flat.
With that being said, Die Hard with a Vengeance manages to entertain due to the character of Simon. Quite possibly the most menacing and ingenious villain John McClane has ever faced, what sets Simon apart from other Die Hard villains is how maniacally sadistic he is. Forcing McClane and Zeus to run around the city diffusing bombs using clever riddles and secret codes is really what saves this film from falling flat on its face. An undeniable influence on recently popular films like The Dark Knight, Simon is never really mentioned on the list of great villains and why that is remains a mystery to me.
Above all of that, though, what makes Die Hard with a Vengeance a lesser installment in a fairly consistent series is that it’s such an obvious cash-in on Pulp Fiction. Fresh off the acclaim he got as Butch, McClane is paired up with Samuel L. Jackson, who played Jules in the film, and, already attached to an established franchise, was able to rake in an insane amount of money. There’s no arguing that Die Hard with a Vengeance exists almost entirely because of Pulp Fiction. At one point in the film John McClane says, “Smokin’ cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo and all that.” I mean, come on. It doesn’t get much more obvious than that.
But even if it is a cash-in, it’s one of the better Pulp Fiction cash-ins that spawned from the 90s and attempts to create an identity of its own. The Die Hard films have always been lunatic displays of incessant violence but Die Hard with a Vengeance particularly displays a pre-9/11 carelessness that just would not, and does not, fly with 99% of action movies made today. Its fearlessness is what makes it fun to watch but at a certain point it’s almost as if the mirrors shattered and the smoke machine short circuited for just a few minutes.
Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
In his two decades on the big screen, John McClane has endured many feats of aerodynamic and logical improbability. In fact, that he’s made it through four movies has rendered him an unstoppable superhuman of both mental and physical strength. Back for a fourth adventure, entitled Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane teams up with a young hacker to fight an unfamiliar battle. It’s one that takes place not through fist fights and car chases, but governmental weakness and technological advancements, two things McClane isn’t exactly familiar with.
After being ordered to transport a high-level hacker after a series of viruses have left many others dead, McClane picks up Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) in the hopes that he can drop him off in Washington DC and just be done with him. But after a shootout in his apartment leaves them both wounded and with a lot of questions, McClane’s quick road trip to DC becomes something much more dangerous.
With the help of Matt’s computer skills, he and McClane discover that an Internet-based terrorist organization, led by a former US Defense Department operative by the name of Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), is systematically shutting down the United States through what is known as a Fire Sale. By cutting off all electronic communications, erasing all of the nation’s electronically stored file systems, and shutting down everything that operates with a button, Gabriel and his henchman could successfully send the US back to the stone age.
When action franchises extend beyond a trilogy, it’s usually a safe bet to say that any further installments won’t be very good. Recruiting director Len Wiseman, of Underworld fame, and writer Mark Bomback, whose only notable credit prior to this film was 2004′s Godsend, it’s safe to say that expectations were rather low. Imagine the surprise when Live Free or Die Hard turned out to be one of the most entertaining films to be released in 2007.
Through some miracle of movie magic, this preposterous and long overdue sequel, which could have easily been a cash-grab, is actually a competently directed, extremely well-choreographed, and relatively well-written sequel to a series that had already set the bar so high for not only its own franchise, but an entire genre. If the original trilogy of Die Hard films represented a pre-9/11 lunacy in which bombings in New York City were merely an entertaining plot device, Live Free or Die Hard illustrates a post-9/11 anxiety and paranoia that 99% of modern action movies fail to comprehend with some degree of intelligence.
What makes this film so interesting as a John McClane story is that he’s almost always had to face brawn instead of brains. Here, his villain is not only a genius hacker, he also used to work for the government and had a hand in designing many of the programs he successfully deactivates throughout the film. Timothy Olyphant is a memorable and intense villain; one whose performance balances campy and terrifying all too well.
As a team, never has John McClane had a more useful sidekick than Matthew Farrell. Justin Long is perfect in the role and his quick wit and charm makes him a perfect match for Willis’ excellent reprisal as McClane. For the first time ever in a Die Hard movie, John McClane truly needs someone else’s assistance to save the day. Sure, Zeus was great in Die Hard with a Vengeance and he definitely offered a helping hand on more than one occasion but subtract him from the equation and McClane may have still made it out alive.
In Live Free or Die Hard, McClane probably wouldn’t have made it more than 15 minutes without needing the help of a hacker with the level of experience that Matthew had and offers to McClane on numerous occasions. Of course, there’s some obligatory banter about McClane being old and crusty and Farrell being young and fresh, but watching these two talented actors go back and forth with each other brings a level of spontaneity to the proceedings that would have not been there otherwise.
Seeing that this is still a Len Wiseman production, there’s a lot of focus on the construction of the action sequences, of which there are not too many or too few. Surprisingly, Wiseman is able to find a wonderful balance between action and story, injecting enough of his own directorial flair into both aspects of the film. While the expository scenes are never boring, the action sequences are downright exhilarating. Never approaching plausibility in any way, shape, or form, Live Free or Die Hard seems to pride itself on how far it can take things and how long it can string audiences along until they scoff and shake their heads.
Without fail each and every action sequence in this film made me smile with satisfaction at least one time. There was something about the giddy fearlessness that’s almost reminiscent of the original Die Hard trilogy while still maintaining a modern and relevant tone that deals heavily with the ever-growing technology that had been invented after 9/11 and how it can, in the wrong hands, be easily used against us.
While it’s never as thought-provoking as it’d like to be, Live Free or Die Hard is one of the better installments in the franchise and one that embraces its silliness with open arms. Bruce Willis and Justin Long have an excellent chemistry and extended cameos by Kevin Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead keep things exciting when the guns stop firing. It never feels quite like a Die Hard film, but it’s compulsively watchable and a damn bit of fun. In that respect, the spirit of Die Hard is still intact.