Die Hard came towards the end of a decade that was characterised, at least within the action genre, by one-man-machine films. Rambo, Commando, Predator, Cobra, DTV entries from Dolph Lundgren and the burgeoning attempts of Seagal and Van Damme, all vied for our attention. Then along came Die Hard.
Its director, John McTiernan, had already visited the genre to considerable success and acclaim with Arnie’s none-more-eighties Predator, but this was something else entirely. So familiar has the skyscraper-high concept become (one man, stuck with a load of terrorists, fighting for his life etc) that one can forget that this is where it began. Passenger 57 was Die Hard on a plane, Cliffhanger was Die Hard in the mountains, Under Siege was Die Hard on a boat, Jan De Bont (director of photography on Die Hard) borrowed heavily for his break-out debut Speed. Project Shadowchaser was Die Hard in, erm, a high rise building. And so on.
Working from Roderick Thorp’s novel “Nothing Lasts Forever”, McTiernan managed to craft something of incomparable tension, excitement and claustrophobia. Bruce Willis, up until then the wise-cracker from Moonlighting and unfortunate brunt of Blind Date’s chaos, would have been no-one’s idea of a one-man army, yet his relatively modest physique and blue-collar credentials of his John McClane made him an ideal foil for the more sophisticated intellectual posturings of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber (“benefits of a classical education”). Rickman would turn the volume up to 11 for his barmy Sheriff of Nottingham for Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, but this is far and away a better piece of work. By turns ruthless, menacing, flippant and calculating, he very much set the pattern for malicious Euro-baddies as the Soviet bloc collapsed and made Commies less common a villain.
Aside from the spot-on casting (Willis and Rickman have been covered already, but mention must also go to Reginald VelJohnson’s Sgt Powell, Hart Bochner as the sleazy Ellis and William Atherton as the fiercely focussed reporter Thornburg who loses a couple of teeth to Holly’s right hook at the finale) there is so much to enjoy, even across multiple viewings. Brutal fist-fights, knee-shredding gun battles, wince-inducing broken glass crawling, building-shuddering explosions and all with a coherent sense of geography and narrative. Too often these days we are given visual spectacle without any context. The events could be happening anywhere, in any order and the end result of the film would be unaffected. Here, it matters what happens to who, where and when and the actions progresses the story rather than being incidental or tangential to it. Witty one liners and speeches with emotional resonance (Sgt Powell’s explanation of why he took a desk job, McClane’s message for his wife when he starts to fear he may not make it) abound, yet feel realistic and organic rather than being thought up with the focus on producing an eye-catching trailer. Even the best part of quarter of a century on this holds up as the finest action film ever made and it looks unlikely to be de-throned any time soon.
After so high a bench-mark, Renny Harlin was always going to struggle with the sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Working this time from a novel called 58 Minutes and adapted to fit the existing characters, what we have is a fairly standard actioner, struggling to emerge from the shadow of its illustrious forebear. Opening up the physical arena from one building to an entire airport was not a problem in and of itself – lift shafts and ventilation ducts gave plenty of scope for nods to the original – but the loss of the dimension of the hero being trapped with his enemies was a key one. Harlin is an excellent action director and so the film keeps zipping along with engaging set pieces, but the emotional beats of the first film are noticeably absent and William Sadler’s Colonel Stuart is far to bland and one-dimensional a villain to properly draw us in. Still, the pacing is excellent, there are some good one liners and William Atherton’s slimy Richard Thornburg makes a welcome (and not too contrived) return.
For most people’s money (mine included), Die Hard: With a Vengeance would have made for a far better sequel than Die Hard, opening up the action as it did to the whole of New York City and teaming McClane up with a companion who is far more than a mere sidekick. Its path to cinemas was a fiddly one. Originally Die Hard 3 was going to be set on a cruise that is taken over by terrorists, with a return to the contained dynamism of the first film. The unexpected success of Under Siege put paid to that, leaving the script to be retooled as the shambolic Speed 2: Cruise Control. Instead, a script known as Simon Says, which had been knocking around for a while was dusted off and retooled as a Die Hard franchise entry, with commendable results.
McClane is initially set a series of random physical and mental challenges across New York, with bombs threatened if he does not comply. John McTiernan returned to the helm and delivers excellent set pieces, an engaging and comprehensible sense of geography, witty banter between Willis and Samuel L Jackson (“relax, I know what I’m doing”, “not even God knows what you’re doing”), even if the finale feels a little disjointed and tacked-on. Due to various terrorist bombing attacks at the time, some of the proposed content of the finale was deemed a little indelicate and so had to be adjusted with relatively little warning.
Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly, so prominent a character in the first two films, is reduced to a voice on the end of the telephone for this entry, which plays out more like a mis-matched buddy action thriller than the one-man army heroics of the first two. In that respect is a slightly more derivative, less imaginative entry than the first, but to criticise a threequel for lacking creativity seems a little redundant. Jeremy Irons brings the ham to his role as the seemingly vengeful brother of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, with plenty of sneering, posturing and a general sense of intellectual superiority all present and correct. He is a far better written and played villain than William Sadler’s Colonel Stuart and the whole film just feels better thought through and put together. Aside from the slightly grating finale, a welcome return to form for the franchise, even if not quite up to the stratospheric standards of the first entry.
Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard in the US) is a curious film, more polarising than previous entries and in many ways more formulaic. After a 12 year hiatus, McClane is back, but not really in a dirty vest, going for a long-sleeved number this time. As with the previous two films, the action is opened up from a single confined location, with McClane teaming up with a snarky hacker who has unwittingly played a part in helping Timothy Olyphant’s cyber-terrorist take control of America’s computer systems. The idea of McClane being an anachronism, an analogue cop in a digital world, is a clever one, with his ignorance never being used to make fun of him, or turning his character into a punchline. Justin Long plays the geeky but amusing Matt Farrell pretty well, though it is a fairly obvious and one-dimensional character. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes for a feisty Lucy McClane, though Olyphant’s Thomas Gabriel remains under-developed and frustratingly lacking in genuine menace.
The action in general and set-pieces in particular are well helmed by Len Wiseman (two Underworld entries and this year’s Total Recall reboot), especially McClane’s initial visit to and rescue of Farrell. The assault on his apartment and the ensuing punchy violence recall the crowded action of the first film, even if later set pieces become a lot more far-fetched (“you killed a helicopter with a car”). Not quite a satire on its franchise (in the way that, for example, Terminator 3 was) but at times quite arch and knowing, Die Hard 4.0 is tonally at odds with the other franchise entries, playing much more like an action comedy than previous films and feels like it lacks the balls to stick to its guns. Joining the 21st century’s obsession with “bigger, louder, more” when it should be going back to its roots, it will be interesting to see whether A Good Day To Die Hard amps things up even more, or takes things down a key instead.
Die Hard [Rating:5/5]
Die Hard 2: Die Harder [Rating:3/5]
Die Hard: With a Vengeance [Rating:4/5]
Die Hard 4.0 [Rating:3.5/5]
Extras/BD Transfer: Only parts 1, 2 and 4 were available for review, but the HD transfers were crisp throughout, without any massive improvement. Extras-wise these are no different from what has long been available on DVD. You have director’s commentaries for the first two, trailers and TV spots and on the first film, a nifty little editing feature where you can have a go at piecing together a few short scenes from a number of different available camera shots. It just goes to show that editing is not that easy. Goodness only knows what extras there are for With A Vengeance. For 4.0 we get the existing DVD extras – a Making Of, Trailer, Music Video and interesting chat about the franchise between Kevin Smith (who co-stars as cyber-guru Warlock) and Bruce Willis. Given this franchise’s place and significance in the action genre, it is disappointing and frustrating that nothing new has been added. To be honest, if you already have the film’s on DVD, the HD polish isn’t worth making the upgrade alone. If you don’t already own them (or, for shame Jon Lyus, if you’ve never seen them) then this box set would be a worthwhile purchase. You can grab the boxset here – it is out now.