Yippee Ki-Yay Melon Farmers, It’s a Look Back At The Die Hard Series
Once again, it is time to revisit a long running franchise. This time I am writing some brief thoughts that cover the Die Hard franchise, starring Bruce Willis as Detective John McClane, who always finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Die Hard has long been one of my favorite action franchises and even as they continue to move away from what the basic concept of the original film was, I can’t say that I am not excited every time I learn that McClane is going to have to tackle some new, monumental threat. Now, my friend Brandon Peters has been writing some more involved retrospective essays over at Mendelson’s Memos, so be sure to check those out, but I am happy with providing some quick thoughts on each film, as we are soon to be met with the release of the latest film in the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard, which arrives in theaters on this upcoming Valentine’s Day. I will also toss out a quick tease that an upcoming podcast episode will be very Die Hard specific, but for now, come out to the coast, read this blog post, and have a few laughs.
John McClane: Welcome to the party, pal.
It can be tough to start out with a seminal film such as Die Hard, because I honestly do not know what else is left to say. Die Hard is a highly influential, high concept, action film that paved the way for tons of action films that tried to follow in its footsteps. The basic setup is quite simple: John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York cop who has come to Los Angeles for Christmas, so he can visit his family. He has separated from his wife, Holly (Bonny Bedelia), but hopes to patch things up during this visit. He meets her at the building she works at, Nakatomi Tower. Unfortunately, this was the worst day possible to visit, as a group of international criminals, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), take the entire building hostage. McClane manages to stay out of sight and becomes the one man inside who can hopefully stop these bad guys, since they are very well-prepared and not at all slowed down by the efforts of the LAPD and FBI agents that are trying to figure out a plan from the outside.
For me, just as with many others that want to have escapist fun, Die Hard clicks on every level. It is a great piece of action filmmaking, thanks to the direction of John McTiernan, the cinematography by Jan de Bont (who would go on to direct one of the best action films of the 90s, Speed), the screenplay by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, and the key performances by both Willis and Rickman. The film is incredibly fun and thrilling to watch; it is frequently funny, given the memorable one-liners, banter, character moments, chemistry seen between all of the cast (“Hans, Bubby!”); and contains many elaborate and well-staged action sequences. All of this AND Die Hard is also one of, if not THE best Christmas film of all time. There is little left to say only because practically everyone knows Die Hard and those who don’t should just stop reading this and go watch it right away.
Additional Note: Ellis is one of my favorite characters, ever.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder: 3 ½ out of 5
John McClane: Just once, I'd like a regular, normal Christmas. Eggnog, a fuckin' Christmas tree, a little turkey. But, no. I gotta crawl around in this motherfuckin' tin can.
Despite a small minority, which includes Roger Ebert, that believes the second entry in the Die Hard franchise to be spectacular, most will agree that Die Harder is among the weaker entries, bringing strength to the reverse Star Trek theory, in which the even-numbered Die Hard films are the weakest, thus making my anticipation for A Good Day to Die Hard grow! Regardless, while I do think Die Harder is the second weakest entry in the series, I still do find it to be an enjoyable action feature overall, despite many of its glaring problems.
The film’s setup is, once again, pretty simple, namely because it follows the sequel logic of being basically the same, but bigger. Die Harder takes place two years after the events of the first film, on Christmas, again, with John McClane trying to meet up with his wife, again. This time they all plan to meet up in Washington DC for a trip to the in-laws, but McClane has arrived at Dulles International Airport separately, waiting for Holly to arrive. Things get complicated once again, as a group of mercenaries hijack the air traffic control system, making it impossible for all the planes in the area to land. McClane once again finds himself right in the middle of the situation, with his cop instincts leading him hopefully take down the ruthless bad guys, which includes a naked William Sadler, Franco Nero, a pre-T-1000 Robert Patrick, and a hilariously evil John Amos. It is a race against time, as McClane needs to stop these guys, before Holly’s plane runs out of fuel and crashes.
The concept of remaking the first film in its sequel is not unheard of and truth-be-told, Die Harder is a film that does it fairly successfully. Yes, the film plays up the coincidence angle, brings back almost everyone from the first film, and lacks in a number of areas, but the stakes are still considerably high and the film still knows how to entertain. Part of this is due to Willis, who may not be as heavily invested in being John McClane this time around, but still brings his everyman quality to even the most ridiculous of scenes (Ejection Seat Explosion Escape!). Renny Harlin may not be as effective at directing this sort of film as McTiernan was, but his film does fly by due to its frantic pacing and good sense of humor in the midst of some really violent situations. Overall, the film boils down to being just “Die Hard in an airport”, but the added bonus that it actually involved John McClane makes it worth it overall.
Additional Note: The TV-edit of this film is the stuff of legend.
Die Hard with a Vengeance: 5 out of 5
Inspector Cobb: We'll be back to pick you up in fifteen minutes.
John McClane: Take your time. I expect to be dead in four.
I easily recognize Die Hard as the Best film in this franchise, but that won’t stop me from acknowledging Die Hard with a Vengeance as my Favorite film in this franchise. I have watched this films more times than most of my favorite movies and consider it to be one of the best action films of the 90s. It brings the spirit of a Die Hard film back, McTiernan style and all, but also pushes the franchise to new limits by having McClane be able to fight the bad guys through a whole city, with a partner no less. It could be considered ridiculous in some instances, but even the first film stretches the realms of believability at many times. ‘Vengeance’ simply ups the ante once again, but still comes off as an incredibly entertaining feature.
The third entry of the series starts off with a literal bang, as a bomb goes off in New York City, followed by the bomber calling John McClane to be a part of a sadistic game he has set up. McClane is at a low point in his life, as he’s been divorced and suspended from the force at this point, plus, on top of all that, he spends the entire day with a hangover. Regardless, McClane complies with the bidding of the bomber who we later find out is Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), Hans Gruber’s brother and he is seemingly out for revenge. During the first of McClane’s Simon-instructed tasks, a good samaritan in the form of a radical Harlem shop owner, Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), manages to save McClane’s life, which leads him to becoming involved with McClane’s activities for the rest of the day. Together, the two encounter numerous deadly situations that involve subway bombs, school bombs, the aqueduct, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. McClane and Zeus will be racing around the city to hopefully keep themselves and many innocents alive, while Simon goes through with his elaborately constructed plan.
As I’ve said, I love to watch this movie and have seen it dozens of time. It is one of the movies I grew up with and I continue to find it immensely entertaining, in the same way that I love other 90s Willis action extravaganzas like The Last Boy Scout and The Fifth Element. Die Hard with a Vengeance is a film that delivers in so many ways in terms of action, excitement, and comedy. The on-screen chemistry between Willis and Jackson is classic stuff, with so many great bits of banter. Jeremy Iron may still not rise to the greatness of Alan Rickman, but he is certainly much more of a villainous presence than the ass of William Sadler. The film in general does a great job of feeling like another Die Hard picture, while still greatly expanding its scope to an entire city as the main location. McTiernan being back behind the director’s chair is certainly a welcome aspect, given that the action has a great feel to it, which is larger in scale, but feels incredibly real for the most part. Cabs blazing through Central Park, subway explosions, rain-soaked freeway car chases, even cement truck surfing! This movie is a ton of fun to watch and one that I could easily pick up anytime of the year and get into.
Additional Note: I love watching Willis and Jackson banter over directions.
Live Free or Die Hard: 3 out of 5
Matt Farrell: You just killed a helicopter with a car!
John McClane: I was out of bullets.
Admittedly, I am much harder on this film when I talk or write about it, as opposed to when I actually watch it. For the most part, Live Free or Die Hard is a fun action picture that may not feel like a Die Hard film, per se, but at least delivers plenty of excitement for the most part, as well as a totally game Bruce Willis. People can say what they will about the wackiness that is Die Harder, but at least that film has the feel, the language, and the violence of a Die Hard film. Live Free or Die Hard can’t even be called a film that is “Die Hard in a ___”.
This time, we find our hero, John McClane, involving himself in the world of high tech terrorism, as a group of evil hackers plan to reset all of America’s systems. McClane is involved after being tasked to transfer Matt Farrell (Justin Long), a computer hacker, from New York to Washington D.C. Farrell was inadvertently involved in helping the cyber-terrorist leader, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), build a portion of the code that is ruining America’s computer systems. McClane soon finds himself in another dangerous situation, as people want Matt dead, which leads to McClane doing his all to protect him, only to lead him to working his hardest to stop Gabriel. Things become even more complicated when McClane’s daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is taken hostage.
One of the best things I can say about Live Free or Die Hard is that it is Len Wiseman’s best film. Wiseman clearly loves the first Die Hard film, as this film is littered with callbacks, subtle or not, throughout and seems to wish, more than anything, that he pays respect to the fans. The problem is that the script does not feel very Die Hard. It feels like a story of any action film, which just happens to involve John McClane. Now to be fair, all of the Die Hard films were constructed in a similar way, but there are other things. We are taking on multiple days and states this time around, the PG-13 nature takes a bit away from the type of content we are used to seeing for this franchise (though it is still quite violent), and McClane really does come off as a superhero in a few instances, rather than a guy who happens to be caught up in the middle of something by chance.
With all of that said, I can’t help but want to root for McClane. His character is tested in this film and I do like his weary attitude, upon reflecting on his life and estranged family. Willis feels very committed to playing up the human side of a character that still manages to hang from harriers and avoid crazy car collisions. I also enjoyed Justin Long in the film, as he had the right kind of smart ass attitude for McClane to bounce off of. Olyphant is fine as the villain, but I really wish I could have gotten more of the Olyphant from Go or even The Girl Next Door, a true wild man with a hint of self-consciousness. The action is of course a big factor in all of this and for the most part, Wiseman does well by really utilizing a lot of practical effects and stunt work. It is only in the third act where I had a tough time really wanting to enjoy the film, with the idea to go big becomes a bit too much. It’s a film I want to enjoy, but have a love/hate relationship with, because of how ‘Die Hard’ I want it to be vs. how much of a generic action film it actually ends up seeming like.
Additional Note: Hearing and reading about the fallout from Kevin Smith working with his hero, Bruce Willis, is quite sad.
Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia
So that’s it for now. I will soon be seeing the latest that this franchise has to offer with the R-rated, 97-minute? A Good Day to Die Hard, in which John McClane and his son Jack (Jai Courtney) take on Russia, under the direction of John Moore, who, if I had to guess, will probably deliver his best film yet, given that he’s yet to really impress me with anything else (Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Pheonix, Max freaking Payne?). I am not going to hold my breath for a Reginald Veljohnson cameo, but I at least hope to have some good ol’ fashion Christmas fun, this coming Valentine’s Day.