12 ways to fix the Die Hard franchise

Feature Simon Brew 15 Feb 2013 - 05:52

As A Good Day To Die Hard opens to mediocre reviews, we come up with a dozen things on our Die Hard 6 wishlist...

WARNING: The following contains light spoilers for A Good Day To Die Hard

By now, quite a few of you are likely to have seen the latest Die Hard movie. Chances are, many liked it a lot more than we did. However, with Die Hard 6 all but already confirmed, we've got a bit of a wishlist of things we'd like the franchise to sort out. So without further ado...

1. Enough of this 12A/PG-13 nonsense

We may as well start with one of the key areas of complaint, and get it out the way. Few people have any quarrel when a movie organically arrives at a 12A/PG-13 rating, because that's appropriate for the material, and for telling the story properly. Where the issue hits is in when a film is curtailed specifically to hit a family friendly audience, even when it doesn't feel appropriate for one. In the case of Die Hard, the US survived this one this time around, as A Good Day To Die Hard is uncut, and R rated. As you more than likely know, the same fate did not befall the film in the UK. We've said a lot about this issue this week though, so we'll move onto issues that seem equally, if not more pressing...

2. Remember it's not just an action movie

A Good Day To Die Hard is an ongoing carnival of pretty mindless, expensive action. Its dedication to lots of practical work is admirable, and you feel as though Fox has listened to some of the criticisms of the CG-heavy Die Hard 4.0.

However, go back to the original Die Hard. Let's pick one scene: remember when John McClane first encounters, face to face, Hans Gruber, and Gruber pretended to be Bill Clay? The tension was incredible in that scene, and it was testament to the fact that the original Die Hard was as much a thriller as it was an action movie. Furthermore, even up to the fourth film, there was a degree of detective work involved, in between the action set pieces.

Certainly, Die Hard movies need their action. But that's just one ingredient, and should never be the sole dish on the menu. At the very least, Die Hard 6 is crying back for elements of the thriller genre, that are non-existent in the latest film.

3. Be consistent with your characters

It makes sense, to be fair, that given the time that's passed since the first film, that John's offspring, Jack and Lucy McClane, are brought into the main narrative. Die Hard 4.0 thus covers the estranged relationship between Lucy and her father, while the fifth film does the same with Jack.

However, even appreciating the reconciliation at the end of Die Hard 4.0, the transformation of Lucy into the simpering daughter we get at the start of A Good Day To Die Hard feels like a cheat. That all the conflict was drained out of a feisty character by her father's heroic actions at the end of the last film. That's not to say their relationship won't have improved dramatically - he did save her life - but does it really mean that all the sparks between father and daughter are gone? Because it felt like it, and Lucy became a far less interesting, boring character as a consequence. She was estranged for the best part of two decades: surely that still has to matter?

4. It's not just about John McClane

Appreciating that he shares the lead with Jai Courtney in the new movie, Bruce Willis has inevitably felt like the dominant star of the Die Hard franchise. That's all good and fair, too. But that doesn't mean that the film should be the John McClane show. Even the derided Die Hard 4.0 introduced someone new, in the shape of Justin Long.

But then, go back to the two Die Hard films that effectively defined the series: the first two movies. They were bursting with other characters. that added massively to the end result. Thornburg remains a slimy hack, Ellis is a legend, Al kept McClane's insecurities at bay in the first film (less so in the second), while John and Holly's relationship seemed of massive importance too. None of these were the main driver of the narrative, but they enriched it enormously, and each has memorable moments. Throw in Zeus from Die Hard With A Vengeance too. At least one or two of these it'd be good to catch up with, and it'd feel as though there's more going on in the film's world outside of its central character.

5. It might be time to call back the Grubers

Bruce Willis is reportedly resistant to overplaying the nostalgia card when it comes to the Die Hard movies, and is apparently not happy with the films just retreading old ground. It's hard to argue too much with that. However, there's no getting away from it: the three Die Hard films with villains who weren't Grubers lacked, to varying degrees, a strong antagonist (and we love Timothy Olyphant usually). It might have been cheating to call for Simon Gruber in Die Hard With A Vengeance, but it worked, and it gave John McClane a tangible, interesting foe to pit his wits against.

Die Hard 6, if not a Gruber, needs a villain who leaves you convinced, if only for a few minutes, that he or she could genuinely win. That they could do damage to McClane, and that given the chance, they actually would. Rather than doing a little dance when they had the chance to shoot him, which is where we've seemed to end up.

6. Come home

Going to Russia didn't work. It reminded me of television sitcoms that used to go abroad for their Christmas specials, removing much of the context for the characters in the process. Die Hard, to work, needs to be on more familiar shores. There are other ways to portray McClane outside of his comfort zone - if he ever really is in Russia - than simple geography. That the whole film ended up in Chernobyl feels utterly alien to what Die Hard films do best.

7. Remember John McClane is a cop

In the first three Die Hard movies, John McClane had a clear and obvious line of command, that he was not at the top of. He had bosses of sorts, who told him what to do, and who were also generally a lot more wrong than right. Isn't that important for the character of McClane? To contextualise him as a flawed cop, rather than the Rambo-a-like machine gun toting action hero he's become? Because first and foremost, he's a detective, and that immediately gives him parameters. Sure, he goes over said parameters, but that's made clear, and part of the appeal. By Die Hard 5, he saunters around a foreign country shooting people, with barely a cop in sight. In fact, save for one scene at the beginning of the film, if you came to the franchise cold with A Good Day To Die Hard, there's a good chance you wouldn't actually know what McClane did for a living.

8. Let McClane be a hero

There's surely little point now in ignoring the fact that John McClane has almost single headedly foiled numerous terrorists, a national disaster, and now thermonuclear war (Matthew Broderick managed the latter with a game of tic-tac-toe of course). If Die Hard 6 is looking to build on the character, why not acknowledge that? Why not make McClane arguably the thing he's least comfortable being: a hero? After Die Hard 2, what McClane has done in his working life has been all but ignored, save for a few lines here and there. Couldn't the fact that McClane is a national, even global here, give him far more conflict than a trip to Russia could ever generate?

9. Remember John McClane is screwed up

Aside from an argument or two with his son, there's little sign of the angst and problems that have plagued John McClane's life in A Good Day To Die Hard. In his migration to superhero, his use of booze and painkillers has gone, and there's barely an acknowledgement of his divorce. Part of the thing that always made the character one to root for was the he was a bit of a fuck-up, though. He felt like a real man, who made real mistakes, and is having to live with them. By the end of the most recent film, not only is McClane not coming across like that, he doesn't even feel very likeable any more. He was a flawed, down to earth man once upon a time, who wore the scars of life. That makes him far, far more interesting as a leading character, and isn't something that the next movie should shy away from at all. Which brings us too...

10. Make it relatable

Just because a film is going bigger in scale, that doesn't instantly translate into being a very bad thing. Realistically, if Die Hard films were just Bruce Willis running around a different building, it's unlikely they've had got this far. However, there still needs to be something tangible to them that the audience can buy into. Again, even Die Hard 4.0 had that, as at least the hacking plot was something different to what the franchise had tried before, but at least still interesting (to a point). Die Hard 3? There was a school to be saved. The first two Die Hards, no matter how different the scale was, were basically about one man trying to save his wife. No matter how big and strange the surroundings were, that's something instantly that buys some degree of audience buy-in.

So: whilst I'd prefer the scale of the story to be reined in somewhat, it's the tightness of the characters, their motivations, and the way that relate to each other that needs the most pressing surgery. Because we need to relate, in some way, to what they're doing. Else what happens on screen becomes very hard to get invested in.

11. Perhaps we need to lighten up a bit

Having written many words despairing of what hasn't been the best week in the world of Die Hard, I do accept that audience expectations may not be helping. We'd criticise all concerned for simply retracing previous steps, and there is, for all the ire being aimed at the new film, at least some intention of shaking things up.

The thing is, Die Hard is Die Hard. It's a one-off action thriller that's rarely going to be beaten by any movie at all in the genre, let alone a new Die Hard one. Personally, I'd take a further sequel that sat at the level of Die Hard 2 or Die Hard With A Vengeance tomorrow if I could. Expecting anything more than that is inevitably going to lead to disappointment. I don't buy that the audience is the key problem here, but it's nonetheless been over 20 years since the last Die Hard film that fits the look and feel fans of the franchise remember. Anything that gets even close to it now might just be a bonus.

12. Choose a challenging director

This might just be the big one.

Bruce Willis is, to all intents and purposes, in charge of the Die Hard franchise now. Die Hard 3 didn't happen until 1995 because he rejected some of the ideas that were being developed for it. And when Willis is ready to make a new Die Hard film, everyone else jumps. He holds the keys, and if you read the tales recounted by Kevin Smith on the Die Hard 4.0 set, he knows it do.

Willis is a man we admire greatly for supporting some fantastic directing talent, when other star names weren't. Evidence? Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction. M Night Shyamalan with The Sixth Sense. Rian Johnson with Looper. He's willing to take a risk, and willing to hook up with really interesting directors, at a point where other actors of his stature wouldn't.

So why won't he do it with Die Hard? Appreciating that someone like Spielberg is never going to do a Die Hard movie, I'm still staggered that John Moore managed to get the job. I've nothing personally against Moore - I didn't mind Behind Enemy Lines, I hated Max Payne - but I saw little evidence in the films of his I've watched that he should even have made the longlist for Die Hard 5. The same argument could be levelled at Len Wiseman, although I think he made a decent fist of Die Hard 4.0 in the end.

However, Die Hard 6 needs a strong director. It needs a director who will push Bruce Willis, who can make a stamp on the franchise, and who doesn't feel like they're just going through the motions of making a film that's basically been pre-approved by somebody else.

There's an argument that a bold, interesting director wouldn't want to take on the fifth movie in an action franchise, but I call bullshit on that. The 23rd James Bond film has just attracted Sam Mendes to direct, and the results are there for all to see. Why can't the Die Hard franchise be similarly ambitious in its choice of director?

It's at the point, I'd argue, where Willis either has to direct the next film himself, or choose someone else to be in charge. I'll be forever grateful to the man for a bunch of films that would never have been made without his clout and involvement. But I do fear that the problem with the declining ambition of the Die Hard movies might just be the man at the heart of them.

In summary, in spite of the new film, Die Hard is far from a dead franchise, and it's utterly salvageable. It's just the time has come to take a bona fide risk, and at least remember - even if it can't be fully recaptured - what made Die Hard so special in the first place.

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