The Series Project: Die Hard (Part 1)

Professor Witney Seibold gets his 'splosion on with the first three Die Hard movies.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

As regular readers of The Series Project can attest, I have a set of frequently-unabided rules that I try to follow when it comes to selecting what series I will cover. When I first conceived of the idea, I decided to limit my selection of long-running film series to any sequence of films that totaled five or more. True, I have written about one three-film series (that'd be Basket Case) and one four-film series (that'd be 3 Ninjas, which I still think someone owes me for), but I typically like to stick to five. I did this for two reasons.

One was that I felt a film series was really in the thick of things by the time it got to part V; by the fifth film, we'll have strayed so far from the original premise, that we might have to contend with something new, adding an odd epic element to an otherwise interesting film series. The second reason was to avoid the spate of fraudulent Part IVs that had sprung up a few years ago. Like a film series was content with three parts, but decided to tack on a fourth chapter years after the fact in what always felt like a cynical cash-grab. Think of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Think of Rambo. Think of Die Hard. Closed at three, re-opened under new management at four. In short, I made up my five-part rule specifically to avoid doing a series like Die Hard

Of course, Die Hard, in a twist I never could have expected, bucked my expectations by stretching into a fifth. There are even rumors of a sixth in the mill. This means it's ripe for the Series Project plucking, and it's high time I turn my critical eye on another deserving series that will be, next week, opening its fifth and final (?) chapter. What's more, the first film will be celebrating its 25th annivarsary this year, and a retrospective Blu-ray set has been released to commemorate the event. I have managed to get my greasy critical mitts on a copy of said the Die Hard 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Collection, and all my reviews will be taken directly from my Blu-ray experience. 

Before I begin in earnest, let me explain my relationship with Die Hard. The first Die Hard film came out in 1988, just weeks before my tenth birthday. It was a huge hit, and even though they were young, all of my peers managed to see it. I think cable TV might have a lot to do with that. Die Hard was praised endlessly by my friends as the most awesomest film ever (right next to Predator), fulla 'splosions an' fights an' blood an' swears, and the really cool scene were the bad guy falls off a tall building.

From a cultural standpoint, this film came out right when I was the right age. But, being the typical pop-culture oddball I was, I didn't see it until I was 30 years old. I saw a few scenes of Die Hard with a Vengeance on TV in college, I guess, but never saw a frame of the original for many years. Yes, like many other so-called action classics of the 1980s, I did not watch it in its heyday. Ditto on flicks like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Commando, Aliens, Star Wars, and several others. Where was I? I dunno, really. Playing Nintendo, watching Mel Brooks movies, watching cartoons, watching "Star Trek" reruns, and running around outside, I guess.

Unlike many of my peers, I seemed to have little drive toward action and car chases. To my credit, I have by now seen all of those films I listed. I think this is what happens when a) you don't have cable TV in your house, and b) you watch weird-ass cult movies like Eraserhead at too early an age. My love for films has always skewed toward the weird as a result of my local video store's “cult” section. Mainstream action blockbusters were a tertiary concern.

Discovering Die Hard, however, was a wonderful experience for me. I have since fallen in love with Die Hard, and have seen it several times since, including on the big screen on a nice, new 35mm print which I projected myself. I love every explosion, fight and nuance of the original. Die Hard is not a fake action movie. It's the real deal.

The premise of the series is this: in each film, resilient and wise-cracking New York cop John McClane, played by Bruce Willis in all of the films, discovers a huge plot involving terrorists of some stripe. He is often thrust unexpectedly into the middle of a crime, and must use his resourcefulness to get himself out. McClane is a brutal guy who is not above having fistfights or shooting bad guys or using explosives. He is untrusted by his superiors. He has a tempestuous marriage that will eventually end, as well as two children. There is no other arc to John McClane's life. He is un-nuanced. He's just a fun action star.

Let's get this helicopter exploding with my coverage of the 1988 original. I will be brief, because I know you know it.

Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988)

What can I say about Die Hard? It's a perfect movie. Seriously, the film is impeccable. It's long without dragging. It's explosive without being indulgent. It's funny without being goofy. Every clever premise is just clever enough. It's not ponderous or deep, and contains no “big” ideas. It's just the single most efficient and spectacular action film since, gosh, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I'm not just blowing smoke here either. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, two very funny, and very successful Hollywood screenwriters (and erstwhile members of "The State"), have written a book on the basic mechanics of Hollywood screenwriting, giving nothing but practical advice on how to operate within the system. One of their central pieces of advice was to watch Die Hard. A lot.

In terms of screenwriting, Die Hard is pretty much flawless. Every single detail that is introduced early in the film comes directly into play later in the film. The characters are all in the right places, and they all move in relation to each other. No action feels extraneous or padded. No shootout is gratuitous. Even little things stand out; early in the movie, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), McClane's estranged wife, casually turns down a picture frame for a very definite reason.

Much later in the film, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the villain, turns the picture up after having had to deal with McClane and his explosive shenanigans for hours. The moment cements the fact that the villain finally knows who the hero is, and the action is ratcheted up all the more. It's just a little detail, but it's the kind of detail that enriches a Hollywood screenplay, and turns it from an action flick into a great action flick. Die Hard is full of little moments like that. Seriously, if you're thinking of writing a successful action movie that will sell and be celebrated, watch Die Hard. A lot.

The story is familiar to everyone: New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to try to patch up his marriage with Holly, who has been living alone in L.A. with their kids and her maiden name. They meet at a Christmas Eve party (Die Hard is most definitely a Christmas film) that is being held in her state-of-the-art office building.

The office workers are the only ones left in the building for the holiday. Just when John and Holly are on the cusp of patching things up, Hans Gruber breaks into the building and takes all the people hostage. John manages to escape notice, and flees into the building with no shoes (!) and a gun. Eventually John manages to do battle with Gruber's various thugs, acquiring weapons and small scraps of information as to what Gruber is really up to. The good guy and the bad guy banter over walkie-talkies, but never meet until much later in the film. McClane must not only discover Gruber's plan and do battle with increasingly pissed-off gun-toting thugs, but get the attention of the cops for backup, in the form of Al (Reginald VelJohnson from "Family Matters").

Also, there's an eventual media circus and FBI involvement. Paul Gleason plays a clueless cop, William Atherton plays a jerky ambitious reporter, Robert Davi appears as a murderous FBI guy, there's a cokehead yuppie (Hart Bochner), and a brave owner of the building (James Shigeta). De'voreaux White plays a sassy limo driver named Argyle who is unwittingly locked in the basement. The screenplay puts all these pieces on the board, and never loses track as to where each of them is at any given moment.

Die Hard is long at 131 minutes, but it earns its length. It ratchets up the action to a delirious degree, and does go over the top, but it's that rare action film that earns its dramatic upticks. Often an action film will pile on a huge finale just for the sake of it; there'll be a big fight, but it will feel compulsory. Die Hard hits a lot of familiar action movie beats, but it never feels clichéd. It's always fun and awesome.

Indeed, Die Hard was such a success (it was nominated for four tech Oscars), it came to be a new Hollywood mold for action pictures. I feel like something was born with Die Hard. For over a decade, the new action film ideal had to involve clever terrorists and resourceful, hard-working lawmen facing off in concrete-steel jungles.

They were definitely an adjunct of Badass Cinema, these Die Hard imitators, but they were less about muscular might (à la Commando) than they were about a new level of slick spectacle. Die Hard had some wit, and bigger explosions than ever before. In the late '80s and early '90s, you would see many movie posters that proudly declared “IT'S LIKE 'DIE HARD' ON A _____________!” Indeed, the Die-Hard-on-a-bus film from 1994, Jan de Bont's Speed, is another action classic of a similar caliber, if not a different vintage. De Bont, not incidentally, was the DP on Die Hard. Eventually that type of hype came full-circle, though. I think I saw someone tout their action flick as “Speed in a building!” Or was that a joke I heard?

The theme music to Die Hard was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which now has me thinking of this film and A Clockwork Orange simultaneously.

I'm glad I eventually saw Die Hard, even though it took me about 20 years. I'm happy to watch it anytime. I know people who watch it every Christmas. It's pretty universally loved. If you have any beefs with the film (or its fans; I know unending praise for a film from peers can be obnoxious), let me know. I'm not going to fight you, or even hold you up as a bizarre example of the single outlier (as a critic, I've been in that position way too many times to throw any stones), but I would like to hear what flaws the film has. Even if you love it, point them out to me, because, honestly, I can't find any. It's that solid.

Oh wait. I did think of one flaw. It comes in the form of…

Die Hard 2 (dir. Renny Harlin, 1990)

a.k.a. Die Hard 2: Die Harder

I guess the sequel was inevitable. It's a pity it had to be this one. I did just call Die Hard a perfect action movie, so I suppose if one were to compare any action film to it, it would only pale in comparison. So any sequel to Die Hard would have to be a disappointment. Like any film series that bursts out of the gate with a well-known classic as its first chapter, follow-ups can only ever be disappointments. Think The Exorcist. Think Rocky. Think Dirty Harry.

As such, Die Hard 2 (whose sometimes-used subtitle of Die Harder only baffles me) plays like a vague, high-octane action film that could be the sequel to any ol’ action flick. Indeed, you will learn in the credits that this film was based on a Walter Wager novel called 58 Minutes, which did not feature John McClane or any of the Die Hard characters. The novel was, from what I understand, adapted into a screenplay, and was then repurposed at the last minute to be a Die Hard sequel. Despite all the common characters the resulting film shared with the original Die Hard, Die Hard 2 feels like it was repurposed. There’s nothing about the action that warrants the return of John McClane. I feel like Die Hard 2 would have worked better had it just been a proper Die Hard ripoff.

To be fair, Die Hard 2 is not awful. It's just kind of a mess that leaves you distinctly unsatisfied. It's a jumble of action sequences that lack the taut closed-in atmosphere of the first. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is no longer confined to a small, easy-to-read space like a single locked-up building, making for the first film’s ever-appealing geographical efficiency. Now he's running willy-nilly all over Dulles International Airport, often with an unclear goal in mind, trying to stop a bad guy with unclear goals, an ever-growing roster of cronies, and who is not nearly as interesting as Alan Rickman, even though he's played by Italian exploitation deity Franco Nero.

Nero plays a South American drug lord named General Esperanza who has recently been apprehended by international police, and who is to be extradited to Washington DC through Dulles International Airport on Christmas Eve. John McClane happens to be at that same airport on that same day. John has patched things up with Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who is in a plane, about to meet him on the ground.

At the same time, we see a slick muscular thug named Stuart (the awesome William Sadler) lurking about in a black outfit, taking over an abandoned church just outside of town so that he may set up a remote techno-lab. The first time we see Sadler’s character, he’s practicing tai chi in a motel room in the nude. I love it when the first shot of a movie’s villain is a nude tai chi scene, which is, oddly, a conceit I’ve encountered several times. It won’t take you long to figure out that Sadler has found a way to override the Dulles air traffic control towers, and force planes to crash. That he also wants to rescue Esperanza from the cops shouldn’t come as a surprise either.

The notion of plane crashes and stolen air traffic control was actually somewhat topical in 1990. I don’t know how many people remember this, but Ronald Reagan once notoriously fired a great many air traffic controllers when they went on strike in 1981. The following years saw a huge amount of near-misses at airports, as less qualified people had to take the reins. Okay, maybe by 1990 it wasn’t so topical, but it was something I thought of. However, in this era of the TSA and removed shoes, a 1990 flick about air travel will seem chaotic and quaint.

Some other familiar faces are back for Die Hard 2. Holly, for instance, finds herself on a plane with William Atherton’s Richard Thornburg, the jerky ambitious reporter from the first Die Hard. The two of them spend the entirety of Die Hard 2 on a plane that is circling Dulles, waiting for clearance to land, threatening to run out of fuel. Thornburg spends the bulk of the film using radio transmitters to listen in on the terrorists, and attempting to relay the news back to his network.

That he causes a panic shouldn’t come as a surprise. Also back is Reginald VelJohnson, who has a good-natured phone conversation with John McClane. McClane, it should be clarified at this point, is an old-fashioned type of guy who is suspicious of new trends, and hateful of new technologies. Fax machines weird him out, and he prefers to use guns and fists and old-fashioned footwork to solve crimes. There’s an integrity to that, although by the fourth Die Hard film, as we’ll discover next week, the Luddite shtick will wear thin.

John McClane has an unexpected shoot-out with some thugs, which leads him to discover that bad guys are lurking around the airport, which, in turn, leads him to intuit the bad guy’s plan. The rest of the film is pretty much McClane shouting things like “Why won’t you listen to me! They’re up to something!” The moral of the story is: always listen to John McClane. There are a lot more twists and turns, and plenty of other characters (Fred Dalton Thompson is an air traffic controller, Dennis Franz is a snippy cop, and there’s a functionally retarded janitor who lives under the airport, and who helps McClane), but the story feels like a hastily-assembled mess.

There’s a twist late in the film, for instance, that reveals how many people are really working for Esperanza, and it’s a plot twist that doesn’t hold up to any logical scrutiny. There are some cool set-pieces, I guess; there’s a scene where McClane, in order to escape a landed plane with grenades in it, must eject himself out the top, and that’s pretty cool.

But many of the set-pieces are clunky and kind of dumb; the way McClane dispatches the bad guy’s fleeing airplane at the end of the film is pretty ridiculous, as it involves a living flashfire that can somehow travel faster than a plane and leap through the air, into a fuel tank, and blow up an entire plane, all in moments. There’s also not one but two fights on the wing of a moving plane, only one of which ends in a guy being fed into a jet engine.

I wasn’t very fond of director Renny Harlin to begin with (I suppose A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 is pretty good, and I like The Long Kiss Goodnight a lot, but he has Driven, an Exorcist prequel, an Andrew “Dice” Clay vehicle and Cutthroat Island working against him), and Die Hard 2 isn’t helping his case. Again, not awful or incompetent, but most certainly disappointing when compared to the taut perfection of the original.

Y’know who'd make an awesome Die Hard sequel?

Die Hard with a Vengeance (dir. John McTiernan, 1995)

Despite its pretty stultifying title (how does one die with a vengeance? is that worse than dying hard with a vengeance?), Die Hard with a Vengeance kicks huge amounts of ass. The original director is back, and he seems to know exactly what to do with the material, i.e. ratchet it up to amazingly spectacular levels, making sure to stay just barely below the overkill line. I recall when the film was released in 1995, it was often lambasted for… I dunno really. I just seem to recall critcs and Die Hard fans giving the flick a bum rap. I don’t know why. The film is awesome.

True, it feels like three or four movies crammed into one, but this seemed to come from a time when single action films felt the need to give more bang for the buck. Die Hard with a Vengeance is not trim or sleek like its 1988 predecessor. It only has some of the plot efficiency that made the original such a well-loved classic. Indeed, it’s rather bloated and enormous. But in a really, really enjoyable way. Dang, the film is entertaining.

The story boils down to essentially a scavenger hunt, a subgenre I happen to be very fond of. We’re in New York now, John McClane’s home turf, and the movie is very much a New York movie, largely about the geography of the city, traveling on subways, and, most of all, dealing with brusque New Yorkers. The local color of pre-Giuliani NYC seems to be right on the money. McClane (Bruce Willis) is now separated from Holly again (Bonnie Bedelia does not appear in the film), and is teetering on the brink of alcoholism.

When a mad bomber nicknamed Simon (Jeremy Irons) begins blowing up small chunks of the city, he specifically asks that McClane be brought in to investigate. Simon gives bizarre instructions to McClane, threatening to blow up another bomb should he not comply. McClane must race to various payphones throughout the city, answering calls from Simon, and solving puzzles and math problems. One of the challenges is to go to Harlem wearing a sandwich board with a racial slur written on it. That sort of thing. The scavenger hunt approach is a grand way to tell an action story.

Along the way, McClane accumulates a friendly and fierce shop-owner named Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), and much of the film depends on the banter and chemistry between the grizzled white cop, and the no-nonsense black civilian. Maybe that’s why people objected to the film: John McClane, by 1995, was seen as an all-American lone wolf badass, and pairing him up with a mismatched “buddy,” in what is essentially an ancient movie trope, seemed to cheapen the character.

I didn’t mind, as their chemistry is great, their banter feels natural, and Zeus is an interesting character played by an intense actor. I kind of hate when any movie series starts buying its own hype anyway. Like when the drama in the film is predicated on how important the character is to the audience going in. Think of the Star Wars prequels. So much of those films were based on what audiences already knew about Star Wars beforehand, and, as a result, the films felt presumptuous.

I don’t want to assume anyone is a badass going in, even if I know who they are. James Bond should always have an opening action scene showing what he can do, even if we’ve seen it in twenty-some movies in the past. John McClane started to become too mythic for his own good. He moved from a hard-working cop into a bullet-proof badass. Keep in mind, when the first Die Hard came out in 1988, Bruce Willis hadn’t yet proven himself as a viable action star. Indeed, he was only known for comedic stuff like "Moonlighting." John McClane was not a badass. He was more of an everyman. He bled copiously, and got seriously injured (indeed, that’s a trope of these movies: McClane bleeds a lot).

By the sequels, though, his reputation has grown, and he was considered a badass in the minds of the audiences. People now expected him to actually become indestructible and tough, even though that wasn’t really the point the first time around. My guess is that many fans, ironically, objected to Die Hard with a Vengeance because of how much it did resemble the tone of the first. Here’s an everyman doing wild stuff that is within the purview of a regular cop who just happens to be enormously resilient and extraordinarily brave.

Okay, maybe McClane is something of a superhero, but I wouldn’t put the 1988 version of the character in the same camp as folks like John Rambo.

What else? The rock star Sam Phillips plays the butch mute assassin in this flick. Colleen Camp shows up as a cop. There’s a resilient bomb guy. The film blows up a subway train, a boat, and a helicopter. The villain’s ultimate plan is, of course, more than to just mess around with John McClane; it turns out he is using the bombings as a distraction to rob all the gold out of the Federal Reserve.

It’s also mentioned that Simon is actually Hans Gruber’s brother, which is a dumb plot development, and could have been cut from the film entirely without losing anything. Another thing I hate about some sequels: when the drama is predicated on the hero’s established history. Like in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The first film in that series was a story of an interesting character solving an interesting crime. The sequels, sadly, weren’t about her solving crimes anymore, it all became about skeletons in the character’s closet.

Die Hard with a Vengeance, what with the vengeful brother angle, begins to feel like John McClane is starting to eat his own tail. Luckily, the evil brother angle is not vital, and we can focus on the kick-ass action scenes, like when McClane and Zeus dangle a truck’s winch over the Brooklyn Bridge in order to hook a passing boat so that they may climb down the wire onto the boat. 1995 was a better time for special effects than today, as it involved more real explosions and real stunts. Check out the subway crash sequence. It’s amazing.

So, yes, I defend the third Die Hard film. It’s just an awesome thrill ride that feels like it’s going out of its way to entertain you. Like it’s not content to give you one finale, so it throws in three. It blows up way more than it needs to. The villain changes alliance several times. It’s like expecting to get off a rollercoaster, but the operator decides, at the last minute, to run you through again. I don’t seem to get that kind of devotion from any action directors anymore.

And that’s where we’ll leave it for the week, kiddos. Be sure to join me next week for my coverage of the years-after-the-fact Live Free or Die Hard, and my review of the brand new A Good Day to Die Hard. Settle into the saddle, and scream yippie-ki-yay.

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.