Die Hard 6 and the Prequel Problem

Die Hard: Year One is the latest project that's set to dig into the early years of a screen character. But why?

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

You didn’t need to click on this article to know that the plans for a sixth Die Hard film have not been met very kindly. Director Len Wiseman – who helmed Die Hard 4.0 – has engaged Bruce Willis on the project, and the idea is a mix of prequel and sequel. Don’t be surprised if production begins before the end of the year.

Notwithstanding the screen poison that A Good Day To Die Hard ended up being, it’s the prequel bit of the story that’s got people grumbling. And, as an avid Die Hard fan, I confess to being one of the grumblers.

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Origins

The idea of digging into the origins of the character of John McClane is one that I’ve never heard any fan of the Die Hard series being up. I’ve never once been curious as to how John met Holly, how he ended up being a cop, and what happened to leave them estranged when we first meet them at the beginning of the first movie. Nor have I pondered how Al got addicted to Twinkies.

In fact, the first 10 minutes or so of Die Hard is a masterclass in economy of storytelling. It tells us the bits we need to know, and doesn’t then bathe us in details that are of little relevance or interest to the story.

The problem, though, is that franchises dominate cinema, and studios use them more and more mitigate risk. You know this. When you’re spending nine figures to make and market a movie, you want as many chips in your pocket as you can get, and a recognisable brand name is one of them.

Die Hard 5, as I still struggle to recognise it as, attracted the most hostile reviews of the series, and yet still pulled in over $300 million worldwide, tripling its production budget. Throw in the disc sales, the on demand stuff, the assorted other ways that films make cash, and it made a tidy profit for 20th Century Fox. The kind of profit that Bruce Willis’ more recent brand of action movies simply have not (more and more, they struggle to get a notable cinema release at all).

A Good Day To Die Hard, then, moved the story of one man fighting off terrorists in a building to one man self-defeating radiation and saving the entire planet. Once you’ve done that, where can you go? The stakes can’t go much higher unless you blast McClane off to space to try and avert the course of an incoming asteroid.

Year One

Thus, Die Hard: Year One has come about. As Len Wiseman described it to Collider, “we’ve never seen the actual love story. We know its demise, but we’ve never seen what it was like when he met Holly, or when he was a beat cop in ’78 in New York when there was no chance of him making detective. It’s always been something I’ve been thinking about, and now we’re doing it. And it ties in.”

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Die Hard: Year One already exists, though. It’s an eight part comic book series (one that’s not guaranteed necessarily to inform the new movie) that dates back to 2009 and 2010. In it, we see a rookie John McClane in 1976, and then again during the blackout in New York of 1977. It’s in 1977 that he meets Holly.

Even reading that sentence, I must admit I feel like I’m getting superfluous details there, as if I’m reading the working of someone’s maths homework, rather than the answer itself. And that is part of the continual challenge in the ongoing Hollywood obsession with prequel stories.

Let me generalize. For a film to have a prequel, then it’s a fair bet that it’s at least had one sequel. For it to have one sequel, something must have gone right with the first film.

Part of the challenge of a first film is to establish the world, the characters and the internal logic of a story, given the details necessary to get things moving. Writers work really, really, really hard at that.

Take a look at the first 20 minutes of Inside Out, for instance. How seamlessly is the world set up? Can you begin to imagine how much interrogating of a story and screenplay that took? It gave us every detail we needed, and not one more. Yet how did the world of Inside Out come about in the first place? I couldn’t give two hoots.

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Answers

Prequels are answering questions that nobody seems to be answering. How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? It never crossed my mind to ask. Hannibal Lecter: what was he like growing up? Sully and Mike: how did they get on at university? And hey, where did the Minions actually come from?

Still, occasionally, things go right.

X-Men: First Class works, for me at least, because its joins to the films that follow are light and far from crucial. It’s a good, interesting story in its own right, that only in recent chapters has become more complex as it tries to join things up. Likewise Casino Royale, a film that felt like it was just telling a different chapter of James Bond’s life in a different way, and rebooting the style and tone of the series as it did so. Star Trek, too.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, meanwhile, just happened to tell a story that was set before Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I’d argue most who watched the film never really twigged, or were concerned that it was. It was just like turning to an earlier chapter in a book and enjoying something that happened to be set before.

Prequels can work, then, at least when there’s clear narrative reason for their existence.

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But Die Hard: Year One feels like it’s about commerce. The heavily-maligned Star Wars prequel felt the same.

There are plans now to go to the beginning of The Hunger Games, but again, I don’t feel there’s anything there that I need to know. I’m happy to be proven wrong. As I am with the thought of three more Prometheus movies, which will then glue the series to the start of the first Alien film. In total, four films to answer the question ‘where did the Alien come from’? Not for nothing am I more interested in Neill Blomkamp’s proposed Alien 5.

Han Solo

Perhaps the most interesting upcoming “prequel” story is the young Han Solo tale that Christopher Miller and Phil Lord are putting together for the Star Wars universe.

I love where we met Solo in A New Hope, in the middle of something going wrong and from that point on going from scrape to scrape by the skin of his teeth. Which direction the young Solo story goes will be interesting: is it designed to fill in more character details, or will it take us on a fresh adventure?

It’s tricky. After all, not telling us things is as potent a storytelling device as telling us things sometimes. Likewise, putting together a prequel movie where – even before a spoiler-y trailer has popped along – you know that certain characters will survive in tact because you’ve got the box set makes things tougher. How do you raise the stakes? How do you get an audience interested when they already know a large part of the answer to the questions your film is going to pose?

Perhaps that’s why Die Hard: Year One is going to be a sequel and a prequel. That it’ll at least keep something back. I’d be surprised if it was John McClane sat in his armchair telling stories to his children who don’t like him very much, after all.

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Vests

But still: there’s a reason why people approach origins films and prequels with caution. They start from a position of disadvantage for the audience and the filmmakers, with inevitably lower stakes, and a need to work twice as hard to get a good, gripping story spat out the other end. The ones who really win? That’d be the movie studios, of course, looking forward to another payday.

With Die Hard in particular, the attempts to strangle and bludgeon a golden goose are set to continue. Maybe this one will have some vestige of the original’s magic about it? I can but hope…