Friday, February 15, 2013

The Best and Worst of the Die Hard Franchise

Posted By on Fri, Feb 15, 2013 at 9:00 AM

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A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth entry in the erratic Bruce Willis action-franchise, opens this weekend, so naturally I rewatched all four previous movies in anticipation to see if the original and its sequels are really as good—or as bad—as I remember.

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Die Hard (1988) received good notices upon its original release, but it's now regarded as something of a flawless pop classic—a perfectly crafted, mass-appeal genre movie like Back to the Future or Raiders of the Lost Ark. While the original film is very good, and notable for all manner of ways "they" neglect to make "them" like that these days—a slow rollout with ample character development; clean, easy-to-follow, but still tense action sequences that flow through the story rather than showy set pieces that screech it to a halt—I'm not sure if it quite deserves its rep. If you revel in clichés, you can probably get past or even love the way Paul Gleason's deputy chief of police character functions as the proverbial crusty old dean at every turn: he exists only to provide bluster and antagonism, and to be absolutely wrong about everything (this was a focal point of Roger Ebert's too-harsh but vaguely understandable thumbs-down review back in 88). For a lean, efficient action movie, Die Hard has a lot of superfluous and underwritten characters that no one really considers when fondly recalling Bruce Willis becoming a movie star, Alan Rickman playing his first great bad guy role, and the dad from Family Matters buddying up with McClane over the walkie-talkie. Die Hard served as a template for future action movies, but while it still plays great after 25 years, it also feels of a template itself, while fellow pure-pleasure classics like Back to the Future have the additional energy of originality. Still, the movie is great fun, very rewatchable, and fascinating as a document of Willis's transition from actor to movie star, paralleling McClane's stepping up from fish-out-of-water cop to action hero.

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Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) makes reference to McClane "joining the 90s," regarding his series-long distrust and dislike of technology, but it's an 80s sequel in spirit, self-consciously replaying the events of the first movie at a different location. Unlike John McTiernan's tauter original, Renny Harlin's sequel doesn't take great advantage of its "Die Hard in an airport" pitch; it turns out an airport, at least as realized here, is basically just a series of hangars and warehouses. More disappointing: while McClane ostensibly gets involved in a generic airport-takeover plot out of concern for his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), stuck circling above in a commercial airplane that might run out of fuel or crash because of terrorists, Holly's peril is only tangentially related to McClane's killing-machine business, which means, for some reason, that the screenplay gives her a ridiculous subplot providing a coincidental re-comeuppance for William Atherton's reporter character from the first film. It's a bizarre interpretation of what audiences want out of a Die Hard sequel, showing slavish devotion not just to the original's obvious strengths, but its forgotten weak spots, too. (Atherton's character is pretty pointless in both iterations.) Still, it's worth noting that early-90s action hacks like Harlin employed a level of craftsmanship that today's B-team action directors don't; as a series of knock-down drag-out McClane-versus-terrorists action sequences, Die Hard 2 is pretty satisfying. Some trivia: though it's all over posters, trailers, box art, etc., the movie itself does not include the "Die Harder" subtitle. Additional trivia: Die Hard 2 came out in 1990 along with Predator 2, which means that John McTiernan had two of his signature hits sequelized without him within six months of each other. (48 Hours was Walter Hill, the other lionized 80s action director, but it still feels appropriate that Another 48 Hours was also a 1990 release.)

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The first two Die Hard pictures came only two years apart; in between, Willis only did the drama In Country and voiceover work for Look Who's Talking (Look Who's Talking Too: another 1990 sequel extravaganza!). But much more happened between the second film and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). Willis appeared in a stunning parade of flops (Bonfire of the Vanities; Hudson Hawk; Billy Bathgate; North; Color of Night) while also shoring up his acting cred with terrific performances in Death Becomes Her, Pulp Fiction, and Nobody's Fool. Meanwhile, on the franchise front, other filmmakers basically took it upon themselves to make their own Die Hard sequels, relocating the steely last-hope cop to a boat (Under Siege), a plane (Passenger 57), and, most successfully, a bus (Speed, directed by Die Hard cinematographer Jan de Bont). Rather than placing McClane in competition with Reeves, Snipes, etc., the third movie goes bigger. Die Hard with a Vengeance, in which McClane rushes all around New York City with Sam Jackson at the behest of mad bomber Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), brother of Rickman's Hans, feels both like a less formulaic sequel to the original (perhaps because McTiernan jumped back aboard for this go-round) and a natural progression from the increased scale of its immediate predecessor. The relatively confined spaces of the first two movies are swapped out for a city so vast, half the movie's challenges involve McClane racing from one end of town to another. It's a clever readjustment of the series parameters, and McTiernan keeps it all humming, even when it devolves into Jackson/Willis shouting and sloppy big-action plotting. It's the best of the sequels.

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In keeping with the series' erratic yet somewhat logical progression, Live Free or Die Hard (2007) would be barely recognizable as a follow-up to the original Die Hard, but does feel like a follow-up to the third movie: like that one, it pairs Willis with a reluctant buddy (Justin Long instead of Sam Jackson) and takes the franchise even further out on the road (up and down I-95, rather than in and around NYC). Willis returned to McClane after a 12-year gap, the series' longest-ever (and perhaps not coincidentally, covering both a period of many Willis hits like The Fifth Element, Armageddon, The Sixth Sense, The Whole Nine Yards, and Unbreakable and then a fallow cop-and-war-movie section of his career featuring the unremarkable likes of Hart's War, Tears of the Sun, Hostage, and 16 Blocks), and while it's fun to see him riff on an even-older version of his character, pitted directly against the tech that mystified him in previous films, there are touches of laziness and hostility. Per the former, McClane's signature thinning hair gets shaved off, making the character resemble, well, every other Bruce Willis mediocre thriller character of the mid-aughts (perhaps a Latter-Day Bruce Willis Hair Theory is in the offing: his default chrome-dome signals his going through the motions, while his best recent performances, in Moonrise Kingdom and Looper, called upon him to sport at least some kind of hair). As for the hostility: McClane has always traded in a working-class prickliness, but when he dispatches a kung-fu superhenchwoman (Maggie Q) and then taunts her boyfriend/boss (Timothy Olyphant, disappointingly low key) about it, well, I get that McClane is just trying to mess with the bad guy in a customarily coarse manner, but it's still pretty ugly stuff. Ironically, the actual violence of the movie is muted (or at least rendered less bloody) by its franchise-first PG-13 rating. A Die Hard movie doesn't necessarily need a lot of gore (though the earlier movies are all more violent than I remembered), but I was surprised by how much I missed the swearing, the absence of which may explain the nastiness of McClane's taunts.

Still, Live Free or Die Hard is better than its middling geek-rep suggests. Len Wiseman gets knocked around for his Underworld roots, but he's not a bad action director—call him our new Renny Harlin, perhaps?—and the large-scale set pieces in the fourth movie work more often than not. It's a bit sleeker than Die Hard 2, and even a half-energy Olyphant has more personality than the faceless bad guys of the second movie. If it feels less like a Die Hard movie, it also feels less like a ripoff of a Die Hard movie.

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This brings us to A Good Day to Die Hard, from Fox's in-house action director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Phoenix, The Omen, Max Payne—movies you haven't seen, basically) and their in-house screenplay hack Skip Woods (Hitman, The A-Team, that first Wolverine movie). I understand that these movies are always made by journeymen, but as I noted a few weeks ago, it's too bad that old-hand action directors like Walter Hill don't get a shot, especially since they'll probably hit no matter who's in charge. Still, if this rewatch taught me anything, it's that the bar for a decent Die Hard movie isn't all that high, and if this Russia-set sequel refits McClane again as a sort of working-class James Bond ("the 007 of Plainview, New Jersey," he says of his CIA agent son in the trailer), well, we'll see how it goes, and I'll probably still come back for Die Hard 6 sometime in the next four to 17 years.

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