When it comes to ranking the Die Hard films, the battle is really between Die Hards 2 and 3 for second place. But we start with something far less contentious. As you might have guessed, we’re going in reverse order…
5. A Good Day to Die Hard
Let’s get it over with.
I saw nothing in Die Hard 5 that made me think anyone involved with making the film cared even a smidge about the series as much as those of us on our side of the screen.
I’m loath to even call this a Die Hard movie to tell truth, as I think – and it’s a popular theory – that the series of five films breaks into a John McClane trilogy to start things off, then a couple of Bruce Willis action films after that. Fully appreciating that it’s become sport to slam Die Hard 5, I still can’t find a positive way around that. A Good Day To Die Hard is a bad film by the measure of any film franchise. Even Rush Hour. Even Taken.
For starters, Bruce Willis looks like he wants to be there even less than the audience do after 20 minutes of the film. He meanders through, mumbling, showing none of the wit and charm that helped us root for McClane in the first place. He gets out of a taxi without paying at one point, and I didn’t even get angry, because while I knew John McClane wouldn’t do that, it didn’t feel like it was him that I was watching.
Instead, Skip Woods’ script stayed with the idea of the junior McClanes, paired Willis up with Jai Courtney, and boring nonsense ensued. Never mind the logic gaps, the spray can cure for radiation, the warped geography, and a villain who, well, is not fit to lick the piss of Gruber. Never mind that the stakes had now escalated, for no good reason other than the clichéd belief that bigger is better, to saving the world. And never mind that it bears barely any relation to the original Die Hard.
No. The worst crime of the lot is this: A Good Day To Die Hard is really, really boring. And how is that right? Heck, Bruce Willis has put his heart and soul into movies that didn’t work in the past. Here? He barely turns up.
I sat in the waiting room at the press junket for this one. I wasn’t granted time with Willis himself, but the woman before me was. She came back from her interview, saying that he’d been utterly charming, and that he told her at the end to “ask your most difficult question,” allowing her extra time to do so. Her question? Something about what his favorite movie was. What would mine would have been? I think I’d have sincerely questioned why he didn’t care about Die Hard movies any more.
To be fair, John Moore will always be able to say he directed a film with Die Hard in its title. He just won’t be able to say he directed a Die Hard movie.
4. Live Free or Die Hard
What kind of idiot would go on the internet and defend Live Free or Die Hard?
That’d be me.
Accepting what I said before, that it’s more of a Bruce Willis action film than a Die Hard movie, what keeps me watching Live Free or Die Hard when it turns up on TV is that it’s an entertaining one. For the first half in particular, it’s a good, solid action film.
In terms of logic, it’s bollocks of course. Cyber-stuff that was looked up on Wikipedia is hastily bolted into a plot about a tech-averse cop in a tech-heavy world. And watching Bruce Willis beat Maggie Q in any kind of scrap isn’t quite at the level of Mel Gibson vs Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4, but it certainly invoked the memory. Plus to cast the excellent Timothy Olyphant and then allow him to be a rubbish villain is borderline criminal.
Still, that idea of the archaic cop in the midst of a techno-battle he doesn’t understand isn’t a bad one. And at least Willis looks interested here. That’s what makes him that guy, right?
Furthermore, the director Len Wiseman deserves more credit than he gets. I thought the first half of his generally not-great Total Recall reboot was actually quite interesting before it went into CG snoreland, but for a good hour, possibly more, of Live Free or Die Hard, he constructs quite a good movie. The action speeds along, it stays entertaining, and Wiseman puts one or two really quite good sequences together.
It starts to fall apart around the time Kevin Smith’s hacker, “Warlock”, enters the fray. That’s when the decision seems to be made to bring more ludicrous shit to the foreground, and we’re then on a firm path to meet a jet in a fight with a lorry. By that stage, credibility has long since popped off to the local cafe for a sarnie. It does not return.
There’s only the loosest link to the broader land of Die Hard here too, in that Mary Elizabeth Winstead took on the role of McClane’s daughter (you know, the one that Thornburg put on TV). Justin Long fared better though, as a computer hacker forced to pretend to type text into keyboards.
Still, when the sound of the sole “motherfucker” in the film gets muffled in the chase for a softer rating, you just know that nobody in that boardroom really wanted a new Die Hard film. They just wanted Bruce Willis in a decent blockbuster. Which is just what they got.
3. Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Places one, four, and five on this list were not tricky decisions. The mental wrestling came when deciding in what order to rank films two and three. I like them both, for different reasons, and I think Die Hard 2 is the only full-on actual sequel to the first film. But with a heavy heart, I’ve got to put it third.
Reasons? Well, there’s a nasty streak at times that feels a bit anti-Die Hard (the killing of a plane of British passengers piloted by Colm Meaney with an English accent, the iceberg in the eye), and in truth, William Sadler’s Colonel Stewart isn’t the most interesting villain (even if his naked backside looks far better than mine). It’s also, in formula at least, something of a retread. So it’s down to a reluctant third.
But in its defence, it does a lot of things that I really like. It’s the only sequel, for instance, to fully realise that a rich ensemble of supporting characters doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Bruce Willis is out of frame in the original Die Hard a reasonable amount, allowing others to develop their characters. By film three, it’s turned into a buddy movie, and by four and five it’s the Willis show. But here, there are delightful side sequences.
Take the time we spend on Holly’s plane, which gives Steven E. De Souza and Doug Richardson all the excuse they need to bring back William Atherton’s wonderfully sleazy Dick Thornburg (“that’s my gift, Mrs McClane”). He gets arguably the best moments of the film, in turn giving some decent screen time to the otherwise-relegated Bonnie Bedelia. Neither would be seen in a Die Hard film again.
The same for Reginald VelJohnson’s Al, in fact, who we only get a quick phone call with. We’d have to wait for the TV series Chuck to basically see him doing his thing again some 20 years later.
Also, some of the new characters are fun. Dennis Franz’s Captain Lorenzo – the man who has a SWAT team ready to be shot down – is good value, and arguably the standout.
Die Hard 2, though, also transitions Bruce Willis into an action movie lead. Wearing a comfortable jumper, he’s still McClane here, treating the good guys with respect and the authority figures with disdain. And whilst director Renny Harlin is no John McTiernan, he knows his way around an action sequence, and has clearly watched the first film and remembers to play Let It Snow at the end of the movie.
One final thing that’s always bugged me… It’s Christmas Eve. Would the McClanes really dump the kids with a babysitter, and check into a hotel as is suggested, to get some “room service”? What kind of parents abandon their kids on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? The kind that don’t mind their kids not liking them in future sequels? Or maybe the kind with kids who have seen said future sequels…
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance
Bruce Willis said around the time of Die Hard 3‘s release that he never thought he’d be back to play John McClane, but in 1995 – half a decade after saving Dulles Airport – he reunited with original director John McTiernan for a third and final proper Die Hard film.
If the first film was a thriller (and we’re coming to that), and the second was an action movie, then this is the mismatched buddy team-up film. In this case, it’s an off-the-force McClane who finds himself back on duty, and teamed up with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus.
Wisely, McTiernan keeps enough Die Hard flavoring to make it feel like a proper continuation. There’s no Al, and it’s not Christmas. But Holly gets talked about and at least gets a phone call, while McTiernan recruits a new Gruber. That’d be Simon Gruber, played by Jeremy Irons. You never know, there may be more Grubers out there too. The series could use them.
In this case, he’s a foe we hear for a long time before we see – and Die Hard With A Vengeance wastes little time getting going (thanks to a quick blast of “Summer In The City”) – as Gruber 2 spends the first and best half of the film sending Willis and Jackson off on a game of Simon Says. He eventually dresses in a vest, which shouldn’t be allowed unless Bruce Willis says so.
The Simon Says element is a lot of fun, even though you know if can only go on for so long. Irons becomes the second best lead villain in the world of Die Hard (although given that only 40% of the films have a decent one, it’s not too competitive), and then the verbal sparring between Jackson and Willis adds another dynamic as well. All good.
Plus the late, great Michael Kamen’s score is a belter. The extended CD release of it is not cheap, but it does reward an investment.
Back to the movie itself though. The second half of the film is where police detective work is required for the last time ever in a Die Hard boxed set. That’s when Gruber 2’s masterplan becomes clearer (after all, he’s got to choose which country to buy), the games stop, and the purer action movie starts. But McTiernan rarely lets the pace drop. It’s only at the end, as we reach a denouement that was written deep into the film’s production, that it doesn’t quite work. But to that point, Die Hard With A Vengeance has been a perfectly entertaining couple of hours, and a good Die Hard film as well.
And yet the quality jump to the inevitable top of the list is not small…
1. Die Hard
Die Hard is one of the very best American movies of the past 30 years. There, I said it.
Different people see the film in different ways, of course. To some, it’s a go-to Christmas movie. To others, an action film. To me, it’s an ensemble heist thriller, a category that even Netflix hasn’t started using yet. But each of those three words gives a clue as to why it all hangs together so well.
The ensemble, for a start. Die Hard is a film full of really great characters. Really great characters with three dimensions to them.
Take Holly. Here, she’s the breadwinner. If Die Hard 2 made her more someone waiting to be saved, here she’s fighting her own corner. In efficient time, we learn that she’s separated from her husband, using her maiden name, one of Nakatomi’s most important employees, and no fan of Harry Ellis.
Harry Ellis, of course, is the best supporting character of the lot. Actor Hart Bochner once told us that director John McTiernan was no fan of the way he approached the character at first, and the two nearly fell out over it. Only when McTiernan saw producers Joel Silver and Charles Gordon doubled up when watching Bochner’s work did the director relent.
And to go down the list: Argyle enjoying the comforts of a limo, super-slimey Thornburg putting the McClane children on TV, and Paul Gleason’s marvelously useless Dwayne T. Johnson. We get enough screen time with them all, and we’re never in much doubt where they’re coming from. Furthermore, they all feel real.
Then there’s Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. It’s no secret that this is the role that made Willis a star, and his willingness to be a strong part of a broader ensemble ensures his character feels a lot more real. For once, we’ve got Willis in an action-esque role where it feels like he’s under genuine threat.
A lot of that is down to Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, of course. We’ve counted down our favorite film roles of Alan Rickman before, and it won’t come as much surprise to see that Die Hard ranks highly. His Gruber is, to put it bluntly, brilliant. His exchange with Ellis is one of my favorite Die Hard moments (“I must have missed 60 Minutes”), but I also love his Bill Clay sequence. He’s a cunning, clever villain, with a strong plan. And he says “ho ho ho” better than any human being on Earth.
For me, Die Hard is far more thriller than action. John McTiernan stages some strong action moments, but it’s the tension he gets out of the claustrophobia of Nakatomi Plaza, and the stacking of odds against McClane. That we see developments from three different perspectives, effectively, only helps build that up.
Edited tightly, with barely a word wasted in the script (perhaps Al’s gun shooting moment is the only misstep, but by that point, who can begrudge Die Hard that), Die Hard remains rightly revered as a modern Hollywood classic. Before anyone else is ever allowed to make a Die Hard sequel, that should watch this one on a loop and understand just why it works so well.
One last thing. It would be remiss not to leave you without posting this spoiler-heavy song…
Or if that isn’t to your liking, we have every single curse word in the movie (of which there are plenty), in one handy place.