by Thom Yee
You and I need to talk about Die Hard.
You either like the Die Hard movies or you’re an idiot. Or, perversely, you haven’t seen them. The thing about Die Hard, though, is that you also have to be an idiot to love them. They’re all over the place, at times sublimely rendered, at other times unexpectedly dull and soul-less, even despite all the guns and swearing.
What began as a Bruce Willis-starring vehicle in the ‘80s would grow into a franchise [technically] spanning more than three decades, along the way inspiring an entire subgenre of action movies. Speed was Die Hard on a bus. Under Siege was Die Hard on a boat. The Matrix was Die Hard in a virtual world with an overinflated sense of self-importance that tricked people into thinking it was a thought-provoking movie with more depth than the surface would suggest (it wasn’t).
There’s a stage that boys in the ‘80s and ‘90s went through called “the gun phase”. Basically, they see some violent movies, idolize the hero(es), and start saying stupid things like their hands should be registered as lethal weapons, thinking stupid things like throat ripping is a palatable way of dispatching an enemy, and believing stupid things like cops are allowed to start firing immediately without actually giving their “perp” the chance to surrender. I know. I was there. We’d build military fortifications out of pillows, chairs and tables in the basement, accidentally hurt each other during recess, knowing that we’ve got better things to do tonight than die, and fight invisible enemies with realistic-looking weapons filled with caps, water or lasers, and eventually BBs, pellets or paintballs. They were the times of our lives; the moments that made us great. And they pointed out just how stupid we were.
The thing about ‘80s action movie heroes that many forget and most of us boys didn’t notice is that characters like Die Hard’s John McClane, Big Trouble in Little China’s Jack Burton, and Indiana Jones, many now seen as vanguards of the unstoppable forces that all men know themselves to be if only they were ever called upon, started out as very fallible characters. And not just fallible, some were downright morons. Watching something like John McClane, in later films, taking down a helicopter by shooting a car at it makes it easy to forget that this is a man who once almost died from falling down some stairs. Sure, ‘80s action movies, like in any other genre, always raise the stakes and challenge our heroes through their journey, but back then it took a certain amount of forthrightness to create a hero you could imagine being beaten by nothing more than a lucky punch (those ’80s action movies also usually had one unnecessary topless scene).
It’s realism and humanity that allows a character like John McClane to endure through generations. He’s not invincible — he’s not even supposed to be the best one for the job. He’s a likable guy, even if he would probably be terrible to spend a great deal of time around. After all the spectacle, McClane is just one guy who gives everything for the greater good, even as he drives away those who are important to him in his personal life.
So with the fifth Die Hard movie just under a week away and the revelation that this may be far from the last, let’s take a step back and remember just what it was that got us here. Our journey begins in 1988. It was a tumultuous time for our nation. Acid-washed jeans gave us all a reason to live. Michael Jackson sang about the whores in his life after telling us whose butt was whose. And the domestication of the dog continued unabated.
I can’t talk about Die Hard without first talking about my mom. Is that weird?
If you know anything about me, you probably know that my parents didn’t play much of a role in my life. And even if you didn’t know that, I’m pretty sure most people, after having a conversation with me, think to themselves, “Yeah, that guy probably grew up in a series of foster homes.” But the one thing I love about my mom is that she never once thought it was worth her time or my time to shield me from things. If I wanted to watch violent movies with questionable language and content when I was seven, I sure damn, hell, ass was going to watch violent movies with questionable language and content when I was seven. I still remember waking up and opening my gifts from Mom on Christmas morning, circa 1992, and finding Die Hard and Tango & Cash under the tree. Over the rest of the break, I must’ve watched those movies five or six times each, and it was weird to me when I got back to school and my friends were surprised that my parents let me watch them. I can’t say for sure why my parents let me watch whatever I wanted, though I suspect a general lack of overall concern had something to do with it. But I’d just like to take this moment to give a big shout out to my parents: Thanks for not caring, Mom and Dad!
I’m pretty sure the basic plot of Die Hard has permeated our culture to the point where I don’t have to tell you what it’s about. But I will anyway. New York cop gets trapped in high-rise tower taken over by terrorists (or are they?) while at his estranged wife’s office Christmas party. The trapped part of that is the most important as the aforementioned equivalencies of Speed and Under Siege are fundamentally informed by this setup.
In my opinion, the first Die Hard is a perfect movie. A great hero, an even greater villain (oh, Alan Rickman; you were just poured into that suit), great and memorable supporting characters, an action story where the characters could experience growth, incredibly tense situations, occasionally amazing direction, a phenomenal score. It’s all. Right. There. I try to watch it every Christmas and I explicitly avoid it all year until Christmas, the delayed payoff, therefore, being that much sweeter. I can recite large parts of the movie, and I clearly remember all the little things like the SWAT team guy pricking his hand on a thorn as he tries to sneak into Nakatomi Plaza and the brand of suit Joseph Takagi wears (John Phillips, London).
I recently heard someone say that there are no more great movies after Star Wars (though I’m not sure if they were including Star Wars in that argument as I was too busy pummelling them into submission). To people who say things like that, to those people who don’t know what great films are, I give you Die Hard. Top-to-bottom, left-to-right, and covering all the angles… perfect.
On a side note, one time I was playing movie charades and I got Die Hard, so I took off my shoes and pretended to fire a machine gun. Everybody got it right away.
Die Hard Final Score: 10
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
And then there’s Die Hard 2. Which, for a long time, I hated. I watched it again this past Christmas though and… it’s okay.
So this time, John McClane, having reconciled with his wife and moved to L.A., finds himself in a Washington, D.C. airport, involved in a sinister plot to … uh… something… airplanes crashing… drug lord extradition… naked bad guy?
I can say with a fair degree of certainty that Die Hard 2: Die Harder is not a great movie. But it’s not horrible. After giving it a chance, it’s so almost-bad and almost-good at the same time that it’s kind of a wonder of filmic creation. If I had to say one way or the other, I’d be forced to say it’s good, but only barely. There’s too much going on, not in a losing-track-of-the-plot way, but in a why-is-this-happening?-why-is-that-happening?-who-cares?-how-much-time-is-left?- way.
But, crucially, it’s still a Die Hard movie and it still feels like a Die Hard movie. It’s convoluted, it’s boring in parts, and it doesn’t know it should’ve ended 20 minutes earlier, but it’s also got the same sense of direction, the same basic score, and it’s true to its returning characters. It’s exactly what the words “Die Hard sequel” connote. Just don’t expect miracles.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder Final Score: 7
Die Hard with a Vengeance
So here’s a fun little factoid. What would become Die Hard with a Vengeance (DHWV) began as a script called Simon Says by Jonathan Hensleigh. That means that all three of the original Die Hard movies are adaptations from works that originally had nothing to do with John McClane. Nineteen-seventy-nine’s Nothing Lasts Forever begat Die Hard, 1987’s 58 Minutes begat Die Hard 2, and Hensleigh’s spec script was seen by John McTiernan and adapted for the third movie in the series. When asked about the million dollars he received for Simon Says, Henseigh replied “It’s nice, but there comes a point, and a lot of people in Hollywood will tell you, that it’s not really about money.” Which proves he’s not a real writer. Any real writer would say “I got paid a million dollars to write a script, so I immediately stopped writing and spent the next month planning out ways to stretch a million dollars to cover me for the rest of my life if my lifestyle primarily revolves around lying in bed all day, avoiding writing so that I can never find out that there is no great novel inside of me.”
My fractured recollection of DHWV led me to believe that this was my second favourite in the series. I was wrong.
A lot of people probably remember DHWV as the one with Samuel L. Jackson. And while he played his part well (his part being a Samuel L. Jackson-type character), DHWV set the dangerous precedent that John McClane needed a partner. Not just a beat cop over the radio that he never meets until the end as in the first. Not just a radio technician who was almost useful but ultimately not in the second. But a full-blown, there-through-the-entire-movie partner.
Five years after the Washington Dulles International Airport and seven years after Nakatomi Plaza, John McClane is a full-on burnout, having returned to the New York Police Department (but on suspension) and fully separated from his wife and kids. When a terrorist named Simon (as in “Simon says…”) demands John McClane perform tasks all over New York City, including wearing an “I hate n*ggers” sign in the middle of Harlem and doing trick math questions to deactivate chemical bombs… highjinks ensue? I don’t know. It’s a fairly straightforward plot with fairly straightforward action with a star who’s really looking too old for this sh*t, and a tangential and unnecesssary connection to the original film.
It’s an okay movie and not necessarily a waste of your time. But it’s not a Die Hard movie. It’s got a Die Hard character, a distracting partner, and, like the second, has too much going on and outstays its welcome by 20–30 minutes. Watching it again, I realized that, to be a Die Hard movie, John McClane needs to be physically caught somewhere. And as much of a logical stretch as trapping him in four separate and successive movies would be, it’s a necessary component for how the character works. When you open up the Die Hard world, be it over a single city or (symbolically) an entire country as in the following movie, you lose something important in the formula. It just doesn’t work.
Die Hard with a Vengeance Final Score: 6.5
Live Free or Die Hard
Do you ever get the feeling your computer’s not doing what you’re telling it to? Like when you turn your back or switch to another app after starting a video encode or long download, that it only really starts the next time you check on its progress? Like it’s doing something else entirely while you’re not watching? This and other questions, like “How big of a box office drag is Justin Long in a leading role?” and “Why is it so difficult to work the term motherf*cker into normal conversation?”, are asked by this, the film that poses dying hard and living free as polar opposites.
I think at its heart Live Free or Die Hard (LFDH) is supposed to be a patriotic movie. It’s also got computer stuff. And shooting. And a bunch of shout-outs to the original film, including an elevator shaft scene, falling down stairs, extensive use of CB radios, another Agent Johnson, and a final showdown remarkably similar to the setup of the original. And it’s got Kevin Smith, who, my trusted sources tell me, actually hates Bruce Willis.
So this time, Thomas Gabriel, our villain played by the underrated Timothy Olyphant, threatens the entire [American] nation through cyberterrorism, a threat he once warned against as a former U.S. Defense Department analyst. Like I said, at its heart LFDH is supposed to be patriotic as it posits questions about freedom and statehood in an age where we’ve become so reliant on technology to oversee the shambling masses of nothingness that are our lives. There’s a problem though — LFDH really has no heart.
LFDH is an okay action movie, though less okay than its immediate predecessor. Chalk that up to action directors from the ‘00s relative to the ‘90s. Its plot is more heady than any previous installment, but still not all that intriguing, at least by the standards of 2007, the year of its release. On the one hand, you’ve got John McClane and his daughter Lucy in a familial set up that’s structurally similar to the original Die Hard, and that’s okay. On the other, you’ve got Justin Long as a hacker and some plot that’s too expansive to feel like Die Hard. Or to feel like anything other than an overextended sequel of a movie whose heydays were from 19 years ago.
And. That. Is. Not. Okay.
Live Free or Die Hard Final Score: 5.5
So in the end, what we have in the Die Hard series is one perfect movie followed by three largely mediocre sequels peppered over almost twenty years. It starts with a 10 and, thus far, ends on a 5.5. As a series it averages a 7.3, buoyed entirely by the perfection of the first (and yes, even though I’m supposed to be a writer, I can do math; I’m still Chinese).
It’s somewhat disheartening to see what the radiant perfection of a film as singularly amazing as Die Hard has led to, but as we look forward to the fifth film in the series and potentially many more thereafter, let’s all take a moment to remember what really matters: guns and swearing.
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