Die Hard 6 and the Problem Facing John McClane

McClane, we learn, is the title of the new Die Hard film. But can it give the series the course correction it urgently needs?

How long has it been since the last good Die Hard movie? The purists will say it was in 1988, whereas more moderate fans will most likely defend 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance. Some might agree that Die Hard 4.0 was a fun action movie, if not necessarily a good sequel to Die Hard, and the less said about the most recent instalment, A Good Day To Die Hard, the better. So, what else is there for Bruce Willis to do as NYPD detective John McClane?

The sixth instalment has been in development for a long time, with Die Hard 4.0 director Len Wiseman attached to return for a prequel-cum-sequel, provisionally titled Die Hard: Year One. As many people have quite reasonably pointed out, Year One of the Die Hard franchise is pretty much Die Hard. Now, the long-gestating film has officially been named McClane, a title we’ve been involuntarily saying in Hans Gruber’s accent ever since the news broke.

McClane

As previously reported, the film supposedly takes on a similar structure to cinematic classics like The Godfather Part II and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, jumping in time between an early case for a 20-something McClane, just starting out as a cop in New York City, and the present-day fallout of these events for the 60-something Willis-shaped incarnation of the character. From the sounds of this latest news, the balance will be more equal in terms of screentime than was first reported, with Willis continuing to play a significant role.

With the series’ patchy track record in mind, there’s quite a bit to unpack here. It’s a testament to the quality of Die Hard that the original film remains so indestructibly great on its own, despite all the different extensions that have been added on in the last three decades. For those of us who feel burnt by the sequels, there might not be much reason to look forward to McClane, but to figure out where they’re going with this left field idea, let’s look at where they’ve been.

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Let’s start with an easy one – McClane will probably be R-rated. The first three films were all hard-R action movies with ever-quotable sweariness and plenty of action violence. It was Wiseman’s Die Hard 4.0 that bucked the trend, with the studio ordering alternate shots of the swearier and more violent scenes in order to get a PG-13 rating in the United States if they wished.

At the time, Wiseman claimed that he didn’t consider that the rating should affect his goal of making the best Die Hard movie he could. Meanwhile, in the course of selling the movie, Willis peddled some rather fabulous spin about it being the best of the series, while simultaneously expressing his disappointment with the studio’s decision.

“I really wanted this one to live up to the promise of the first one, which I always thought was the only really good one. That’s a studio decision that is becoming more and more common, because they’re trying to reach a broader audience. It seems almost a courageous move to give a picture an R rating these days. But we still made a pretty hardcore, smashmouth film.”

The backlash didn’t affect the box office too much, but it did at least ensure that A Good Day To Die Hard was R-rated. Except, that is, in UK cinemas, where like Taken 2 before it, it was cut for a 12A certificate and later released on DVD in an extended cut. As with the previous instalment, this seems like a move that was calculated purely to reach a broader audience.

Changing Times

Five years on, 20th Century Fox has been at the front of a return for commercially successful R-rated movies, spearheaded by X-Men spin-offs Logan (more on which shortly) and the Deadpool movies. The studio’s renewed faith in higher-rated movies is also being reflected in the upcoming release of Shane Black’s The Predator, which also promises the strong language and gory moments that typified the 1980s original. 

If you think the broader target audience was the source of the recent Die Hard sequels’ ills, you can probably rest assured that McClane will feature at least one unmuffled use of the title character’s catchphrase for old times’ sake. We just hope it’ll be in the present-day segment, rather than the origin story of how he decided to say “yippie-ki-yay” spontaneously that one time because Hans brought up Roy Rogers.

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“You can tell our intention by the fact that the title page we handed in says, McClane,” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura told Empire during an interview for the magazine’s 30th anniversary retrospective on the original film. In alluding to their intentions, he probably meant Logan, another Fox film that gave its title character the R-rated send-off that the fans had been yearning for. But as some of our own commenters have remarked, the surname-only approach conjures up more recent memories of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Whenever Star Wars prequels come up, we’re reminded of comedian Patton Oswalt’s rant about not caring where the things we love come from. It’s important to note that there’s no reason why you can’t do interesting things in the timeframe of a prequel, as we’ve seen in a variety of surprisingly superior horror movie prequels in recent years. However, the aggressive expansion of every property, irrespective of whether that expansion is forward- or backwards-moving, is an easily trackable problem in the current Hollywood climate.

Year One

During the time we’ve known about the Year One script, which was written by The Conjuring scribes Carey and Chad Hayes, we’ve gleaned a few different bits and bobs about what the story will be. Born out of his musings about McClane at the beginning of the original movie, Wiseman’s comments on the subject have not been encouraging. 

As the director told Collider, “that character comes in with so much baggage, emotionally, and experience. He’s already divorced, he’s bitter, his captain hates him and doesn’t want him back. So, what created that guy?”

He continued: “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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It once felt quite clever when McClane gasped “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” in the very first sequel. If nothing else, this establishes, canonically, that this shit only happened to him once before Die Hard 2, making the idea of a prequel where he does anything worth telling in a movie… well, shitty.

Rather more pressingly, the more recent entries in the series have seemingly been shepherded to the screen by Willis, in his self-appointed role of gatekeeper. It’s understandable that he’d be protective of his most iconic character, but the argument that he’s the best arbiter for the Die Hard movies falls down the second you actually watch the last two Die Hard movies he was in.

further reading: The Strange History of the Die Hard Movies

According to Kevin Smith, who played a small role in Wiseman’s sequel and wound up extensively rewriting his own scenes, Willis battled with the studio for his ideas to make it in. As Smith recalls, Willis ended one heated phone exchange with Fox executives by simply asking: “Who’s your second choice to play John McClane?”

The star has been saying since A Good Day To Die Hard out that he wants to play the character one more time and then retire him. But even if this does shape up as a Logan-style send-off, it’s designed to recast John McClane as a younger actor, just as Alden Ehrenreich is probably expected to play Han Solo again in whatever the next Star Wars spin-off winds up looking like.

But while Star Wars has a whole galaxy to play with, Die Hard the franchise has grown successively more misshapen as it has grown. In each of the last two films, McClane has wound up saving the world, travelling further from the everyman, the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, than he was originally supposed to be. Adding an origin story can’t redeem some of the sequels’ bad habits.

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The right path?

None of this is to say that Wiseman or Willis are setting out to make a bad film, or that they’re only making it for mercenary reasons. But where something like Steven Spielberg’s fifth Indiana Jones and the new James Cameron-produced Terminator could redeem the disappointing previous instalments, McClane already feels like it’s started off on the wrong foot. Even in the name of taking the character back to his roots and aiming squarely for an R rating, the pitch merely feels like an expansion of the franchise, rather than either a logical continuation or a necessary swansong. 

We do try really hard to be positive about these things, but McClane has a hell of an uphill battle in not only winning over those who were left cold by recent instalments but also apparently dramatising the unseen backstory of the perfect action movie.

It will be tough to engage with John and Holly’s love story when it hasn’t factored into the movies for more than 20 years. It will be harder to root for an Officer McClane who has no chance of becoming a detective when we know that he does. Most of all, it’s really difficult to get invested in a sequel that feels so remote from the unimpeachable original.

Personally speaking, I’d love for McClane to prove me wrong. In the words of the good people at Empire, we’d like to try to view every day as Christmas Eve when it comes to upcoming movies. But the Die Hard movies aren’t even set at Christmas any more and that’s only the least of the reasons to have just a little concern about this next one…