Die Hard Retrospective

Die Never: A Good Day for a Die Hard Retrospective

He’s finally back. Almost six years since he stormed the summer box office to the surprise of everyone, John McClane is showing up this Valentine’s Day with a bouquet of bullets at a cinema near you. Like the fly in the ointment and the monkey in the wrench, it seems villains and audiences alike can’t keep Bruce Willis’s signature action icon down (but if you think taking your lady Geek to see him tonight is a good idea, he may just do so for you). After 25 years and five films, only one real question remains. Why won’t this yippying mofo just die?

We at Den of Geek aim to explore just that and other thoughts about the previous four films that led us to this weekend’s bulletproof monster. So please join us as we load up and smell the kerosene and gunpowder.

A Man for All Seasons…and Action Movies

One of the most definable aspects about John McClane and the entire Die Hard series may help explain why he’s so enduring. He’s the everyman. While other brands rise and fall with the trends as dictated by Hollywood’s Movie Gods, there is something universal and effervescent about this character’s conceit. Unlike the rest of the action icons of the 1980s, John McClane is not ripped like a mythological god. No, McClane is a regular workingman who is often on vacation or off the clock when the crap hits the fan. In none of the Die Hard films yet released has McClane been on duty or sent in as an expert when the film begins. He’s just usually the wrong guy there at the wrong time.

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This lack of remarkableness is what made Willis’s performance in the original Die Hard (1988) so engaging. He is even more of a smartass than the pun-dispenser that is Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he sounds like he’s just as much trying to convince himself as the Euro terrorists who outnumber him 12-to-1. He doesn’t talk so much like a superhero as that guy running his mouth at the other commuters in rush hour traffic. He doesn’t know what he was doing and that sheer underdog quality, along with its isolated premise of the hero being overwhelmed in a contained setting, is what all the pretenders like Speed (1994) and The Rock (1996) tried to copy over the next decade. However, this basic universality he had from the word “go” was intentional. It had to be, because McClane was not the original hero of Die Hard.

As mentioned in our Die Hard Lookback/Review (which you can read HERE), Die Hard is based on Roderick Thorp’s novel, Nothing Lasts Forever. In that book, aging and retired NYPD gumshoe Joe Leland stumbles upon a corrupt Klaxon Oil Corporation’s Christmas Eve party to have an intervention with his grown daughter. She’s been ignoring him and falling into the clutches of evil West Coast executives who have taught her how to screw over South America while snorting cocaine. He fails to save her life even though he stops the Cold War terrorists. While much of the action and plotting is the same as the 1988 blockbuster, it was thematically a different animal written with Frank Sinatra in mind. Ol’ Blue Eyes had played Leland already in an adaptation of Thorp’s earlier 1966 novel, The Detective and Thorp intended for Frankie to play him again. Fortunately, even Sinatra’s ego knew that nobody wanted to see him shooting terrorists at over 70 years old. 

Thus the part was rewritten and everyman John McClane was born. Seriously though, who would notice that McClane was not the original character in the story? There is something so simple and lovable about the blue-collar knucklehead. He could literally fit like a glove into almost any story. In fact, he has, four times now.

Every Die Hard film released prior to this latest 2013 entry has its origins in a story that wasn’t John McClane’s. Die Hard 2 (1990) was originally a 1987 novel called 58 Minutes. In that book, written by Walter Wagner, divorced NYPD cop Frank Malone spends Christmas Eve at JFK International Airport waiting for his young daughter’s plane. Unfortunately, mysterious terrorists hijack the control tower equipment and turn off all the runway lights. With a blizzard on its way, the planes in the air are held hostage until the terrorists’ demands are met. Malone has only 58 minutes to stop them before his daughter’s plane runs out of fuel and crashes. Hardly the most original concept (one wonders if Thorp considered suing), but you can’t blame Fox for not gambling on a remake of Die Hard when they could simply make a sequel. One brief rewrite later and you got John McClane trying to rescue an endangered Holly (again) at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995) is based on a screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh originally titled “Simon Says.” The initial script was written to be a Brandon Lee action film and after his death, it was considered to be the story for Lethal Weapon 4. Yet ultimately, it was very easy to turn an actioner about a terrorist in New York into another tale for John McClane to fit smoothly into. Even Live Free or Die Hard (2007) is, if you can believe it, based on an in depth News Feature for Wired magazine about a potential cyber Armageddon.

John McClane is the singular distillation of American culture’s love for the little guy. He is the action equivalent of football, beer and going to the movies. There is hardly an audience member in this country who cannot relate to him. This basic simplicity is why Willis’ creation can be bent and contorted to fit into almost any action scenario and why audiences are always willing to see him, even in the era when Rambo and The Terminator went out of fashion. That’s why none of the other posers from the ‘90s lasted. McClane is too conceptually perfect to be ripped off. Not only can he fit in any movie; he most likely will work better than the hero in yours. He is so indestructible that when Willis says he will do another Die Hard after this week’s release that I can already confirm it’s happening. Box office returns be damned! Take any action screenplay sitting around Tinseltown right this second. Dust it off and add Die Hard to its title. Done.

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Trying Too (Die) Hard

It’s true McClane’s universality means he could sell in any situation. Hence, it probably surprised no one when Fox announced Die Hard 2, with the infamously desperate tagline, “Die Harder.” Released in 1990, Die Hard 2 has all the makings of a sequel to a wildly popular crowd pleaser. Gone is the director of the original (John McTiernan opted out to do The Hunt for Red October) and in is a reliable gun for hire. Director Renny Harlin’s filmography is littered with on budget studio committee driven projects; A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988); the would-be CGI Jaws, Deep Blue Sea (1999); Exorcist: The Beginning (2004); and so on. He even would remake Die Hard again with 1993’s Cliffhanger. But oh boy, had he already done it once with the official sequel.

Everything about Die Hard 2 reminds you that it’s a sequel to a much better movie. It’s Christmas Eve again and John McClane only wants to spend time with the family. But this time, he’s in a D.C. airport. With the kids already safely at home with the in-laws, he’s waiting for his wife’s plane from LA (he too is now a West Coaster and part of the LAPD). Alas, terrorists ruin it all again. This time, the baddies are led by the dour and stonefaced Colonel Stuart (William Sadler). The former U.S. Special Forces commander is a mercenary intent on freeing South American drug lord General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero) from an incoming U.S. transport. Apparently, in a flight of American fancy, the “War on Drugs” has been so effective that a cartel leader is being brought to D.C. to stand trial. With Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) in danger of crashing in a plane that’s running out of fuel, John takes it on himself to stop these scumbags.

John McClane may work in any setting, but logic does not. The chances of a near identical scenario happening to the same guy twice makes for a pill just too big to swallow. Screenwriters Steven de Souza and Doug Richardson attempt to self-mock this absurdity in the film. But McClane whining, “How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice,” does not make it clever. Everything about Die Hard 2 is a repackaging of Die Hard.

Harlin, like seemingly all Northern European filmmakers, wants to make up for this by drowning the film in darkness and cynicism. Indeed, Die Hard 2 set the trend for future cash-in retreads to only muddy the tone of the original’s plot (ahem-Home Alone and The Hangover-ahem), but it never feels right. Instead of John failing to save Ellis, he fails to save an entire 747 filled with hundreds of innocent passengers. Instead of the inept LAPD and FBI being comedic punching bags, the Feds and Airport security come off as dangerously incompetent antagonists who cost lives. And unlike Hans Gruber, Col. Stuart is just no fun. A smarmy intellectual, confidently humming “Ode to Joy” is a lot more entertaining than a military man whose only character development is he practices naked Pilates every morning….Yeah. 

Also, the movie suffers from the existential crisis of us asking why John McClane is involved. In the first film, John is trapped in a building full of terrorists. In the sequel, he just assumes that the local authorities are too stupid to get the job done themselves. This being a movie, he’s of course proven right. Yet, he still comes off as a crazy person who is taking the law into his own hands. More Rambo than an average Joe caught in a bad situation. The only funny moment in the film is when he calls LA for some brief help from Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). It’s a shameless callback to the first film and serves no purpose other than to remind us of the better time we had with this story in the first go-round. And it’s still the highlight.

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McClane may be impossible to kill, but the series needed to drastically change directions if it wanted to survive.

Summertime in the City

Die Hard With A Vengeance, the third in the series, was a breath of fresh air because it didn’t follow the Die Hard formula (at least for most of its runningtime), thanks in large part to it being originally written as a standalone. While the rest of Hollywood would continue remaking the original flick, McTiernan and Willis came back in 1995 with something to prove in a unique concept. For the director, it meant redeeming his last film: Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero, which is a legendary box office bomb that marked the end of the traditional 1980s action movie. Willis had also seen a series of career missteps, including Hudson Hawk (1991) and Color of Night (1994). He may have been part of Pulp Fiction’s game-changing ensemble in the year before, but he needed to prove he was still a movie star. This “Die Hard 3” was a chance for both of them to go back to the well and clear their names for past mistakes.

The movie opens with a hyperkinetic sequence that intercuts a steamy morning in the Big Apple to Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summertime in the City.” The editing is hypnotic in the way it chronicles the hustle and bustle of rush hour in the center of the world…before setting a bomb off on 59th Street while the song’s still playing. Die Hard is hungry again and will slap the audience out of its comfort zone. The rest of the movie is equally frantic in its love for every nook and cranny of Manhattan, as well as its desire to blow sh*t up. 

This one is about washing the taste of Die Hard 2 out of audiences’ mouths. I even wonder if McTiernan is retconning Die Hard 2 out of existence, because McClane is again with the NYPD and his excursion to the City of Angels’ police force is never even mentioned. Also, the lovey-dovey perfection of John and Holly from the sequel is gone. Hell, Holly is likewise kicked to the curb. John has officially lost his wife and his job. Instead of Christmas with the terrorists, the film finds him at the bottom of a bottle during the dog days of summer. He isn’t about to stumble upon terrorists or anything beyond a bottle of Jameson. Nope, the terrorists come looking for him.

Simon (Jeremy Irons) is a mysterious German terrorist who has laid bombs all over the city, including in a school. To find those bombs, he specifically asks the NYPD to scrounge up John McClane so that he can play Batman to his Riddler. He makes John haul his hung-over butt all across the island to solve riddles and play games. One of the worst is when he forces John to walk around Harlem in his underwear with a sign that says, “I Hate N***ers.” The only thing that saves him from being beaten to death 15 minutes into the film is fellow Pulp Fiction alum, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s Zeus is a small businessman who doesn’t want to see a white cop murdered in Harlem (thereby meaning hundreds of more white cops) and his small act of kindness conveniently gives John a sidekick for the rest of the film. Together they run from one explosion at Wall Street to the next in the Long Island Sound. 

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Die Hard With A Vengeance paved the way for the rest of the series. Willis’s smirk only needed to show up. Add a few “Yippie-ki-yays” in and you got a Die Hard movie. But the character and franchise feel rejuvenated here as we see John in his natural concrete habitat. Honestly, the first half of the movie is the best part. Irons’s awesomely malevolent voice taunting McClane from one set piece to the next in on-location shoots throughout the city makes for a tense nail-biter. Even the supporting characters aren’t idiots this time. Both the NYPD and FBI are treated as local heroes and consummate professionals trying to find a bomb in a school. Maybe McTiernan just really hates the LAPD and West Coast Feds?

It’s in the second half of the film, where they try to go back to the original, when things somewhat fall apart. It turns out Simon is Hans Gruber’s brother. And like Hans, his terrorist scheme is just a ploy. While the NYPD is searching every school in the city for a fake bomb, they have left an exploded Wall Street unintended. Since there are no schools in that part of town, he and his “terrorist” minions simply stroll into a hole in the subway tunnels next to the Federal Reserve and walk out with hundreds of billions in gold bullion. Auric Goldfinger eat your heart out! If Hans got a building musical motif of “Ode to Joy,” then Simon will get his own of “The Ants Go Marching.” Like the third film itself, it’s not nearly as epic or amusing as the original, but it certainly gives a meticulous drone-like purpose to Simon’s machinations. Plus, it continues McTiernan’s obsessive need to homage Kubrick. If Hans’s theme is meant to evoke A Clockwork Orange (1971), then dammit if Simon’s won’t smirk back to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). I’m sure many a film student patted themselves on the back in theaters circa 1995. 

Of course, John figures it out and stops him, but that stuff is the boring part. The original ending to the movie, which you can find on YouTube, is far more intriguing. In the alternate conclusion, Simon gets away with the gold and the FBI ends up scapegoating McClane. Having lost his job for good, McClane hunts Simon down to a small European town where he actually gets his titular vengeance by playing a game of “John Says” before murdering Simon in cold blood. It was changed for an ending with explosions and helicopter chases that saw McClane go from everyman to Superman, but hey it worked. Willis proved his bones again and he knew that if he ever wanted, the paycheck was there waiting.


Digital Terror

Willis waited until 2007 to cash it in again. In Live Free or Die Hard (originally titled Die Hard 4.0), John McClane comes back to the silver screen for the first time in 12 years. The film had actually been ruminating much longer than that. Based on an article by John Carlin, “Farewell to Arms,” the movie meant to exploit the apparent weaknesses in U.S. security to cyber-terrorism. The article, written in 1997, was being drafted into a standalone action film as early as 2000 until a truly terrifying attack happened on September 11, 2001. The movie was put on the shelf and it would be a long road back to the screen as it waited for some McClane to save it.

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Once it was announced “Farwell to Arms” would become the fourth Die Hard, things fell into place very quickly. However, much had changed since John McClane last appeared in multiplexes. First, audiences didn’t want to be too heavily reminded of real world terrorism in their action stories. The blockbusters of the 2000s had mostly been, to that point, CGI spectacles about guys who could swing from webs or cast spells with wands. Fox hiring Len Wiseman, director of the vampire vs. werewolf opus Underworld (2003) and its sequel, more or less confirmed this. Wiseman insisted that he wanted to keep things grounded…compared to Transformers. If you’re using the Michael Bay movie about cars turning into talking robots as your yardstick…let’s just say your reading of “realism” is going to come off as skewed. Even Willis himself had changed into an openly bald, middle-aged man. Could his McClane play in the same theaters as Optimus Prime?

In the film, an over-the-hill McClane is still busting it for the NYPD when he’s not chastising his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) for the men she’s dating. Early one dawn, he’s asked by the FBI to pick up Matt Farrell (Justin Long), a computer hacker who has been fishing around government databases. Much to McClane and Farrell’s surprise, the kid is nearly assassinated by a group of evil terrorists led by Mai Linh (Maggie Q). She is the lover and subordinate of Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who is a former government spook who got fired for pointing out weaknesses in cyberspace. Now, with an army of computer Geeks, Thomas plans to execute a “fire sale” on the U.S. Everything connected to the Internet must go in a coordinated three-wave attack, including our country’s transportation, telecommunications, financial and utilities infrastructure systems. With a new Geek-friendly sidekick, only McClane can save the U.S. economy and, eventually, his kidnapped daughter.

Compared to Transformers, this is very Die Hard. However, for the hardcore fans of the series, that isn’t saying a whole lot. Live Free or Die Hard marks the first time a Die Hard film was released with a PG-13 rating. Sure, there was an R-rated DVD to pick up months later, but old timey fans did not want to go to theaters and see a McClane who had to mutter his famous “Yippie-ki-yay motherf**ker” line. There was hardly even any blood!

I would contend the real problem is how little of the everyman working stiff is left of McClane by the end credits. This is the first Die Hard movie where McClane is more or less invincible. He survives a falling car in an elevator shaft. He drives a semi-truck off a collapsing highway before jumping on and off an exploding F-22. He’s as digitally enhanced as Tobey Maguire in certain scenes. It really isn’t surprising that when you have so many adventures with one guy the concept of plausibility would continue to diminish. But seriously…an F-22?!

Judged on its own, Live Free or Die Hard is a pretty entertaining flick. It’s certainly less dull and repetitive than Die Hard 2. Also, Olyphant follows in Rickman and Irons’ footsteps well enough. However, while McClane as an archetype is unkillable, the verisimilitude of the franchise is not. There’s plenty of fan service in this 4.0, including a cameo from Geek-gasming Kevin Smith, but it is all in worship of Willis and his onscreen alter-ego. For once, McClane doesn’t seem like the underdog. Gabriel has a battalion of faceless assassins and the ability to blow up half of West Virginia (which he does), but McClane always feels in charge. He even has time to teach Justin Long a thing or two about being a superhero so that Long can put the moves on McClane’s redhead daughter. It all feels a bit generic. And there’s more to come.

John McClane Wants to Be Your Valentine

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Today is shaping up to be A Good Day to Die Hard (read our review HERE). The fifth installment in the Die Hard franchise promises to be the biggest and most bombastic one yet. In the trailer, all nostalgically underscored by “Ode to Joy,” we can see that John McClane for some unknown reason is in Russia just when a Russian gangster/terrorist/bad guy enacts his plan to steal Uranium. It is going to be up to McClane and his grown son, Jack (Jai Courtney), to save the world from a potential nuclear apocalypse. Also, his son is now a CIA secret agent. Remember when it was just about a vacationing cop fighting 12 armed thieves with his shoes off?

Hopefully this Valentine’s Day, or some other point in the next week, will be A Good Day to Die Hard for all of us! Everything considered, Live Free or Die Hard was a pretty enjoyable action flick if you accept that McClane is closer to Commando these days than his original inception. Yet, I can’t help but shake my head when McClane laughs at his son in the trailer, “The 007 of Plainfield, New Jersey.” Unfortunately, John has become that himself. But hey, there are some explosions and supermodels undressing in slow motion. I’m sure it will be a hit.

John McClane will never die because he’s an action hero for all seasons, even if he is now well into his winter.