The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
“You’re the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Story of my life.”
It’s that time of year when studios package up their hit franchises in interesting ways, usually boosting their holiday wish list value with oddities like the flask that comes with “Justified: The Complete Series,” or the eye-catching box for the just-released “Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza Collection,” which comes complete with a towering replica of the titular location from “Die Hard.” Show off your love for John McClane by letting his franchise take up a lot of space on your shelf. It’s one of the ways that collectors indicate their fandom—I like this movie enough to put a plastic tower on my DVD shelf.
Of course, a release like “Nakatomi Plaza Collection” also allows for a bit of reassessment and appreciation. Have the “Die Hard” films held up? Is the set worth picking up for the films alone or is it more of a collector’s item for a franchise that doesn’t deserve it? I went back through the five films in the “Die Hard” series, surprised a few times by my response to them in 2015, and sat through the bonus disc “documentary” (it’s really a series of featurettes strung together in Play All fashion) “Decoding Die Hard.” Let’s get to it.
I’ve long attested that “Die Hard” isn’t just one of the most effective action movies of all time, it’s one of the most influential. In an era dominated by muscle men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the star of TV’s “Moonlighting” was a refreshing change of pace. It helped usher in the era of the everyman action hero, the guy who finds himself in a dangerous situation and responds accordingly, in ways we like to hope we would. Few of us grew up honestly thinking we could be John Rambo, but the appeal of John McClane was that if we weren’t quite as clever and brave as he was, we know somebody who was. Part of that was due to Jeb Stuart’s grounding of the character in family. McClane had marriage problems. He wasn’t perfect. He simply did what needed to be done under pressure. And, of course, one needn’t list the number of films that followed “Die Hard”’s gloriously simplistic structure from “Speed” (“Die Hard” on a bus) to “White House Down” (“Die Hard” in the White House).
What most people don’t know about “Die Hard” is how many elements had to click into place for it to even happen. Stuart’s script came about when he was asked to adapt Roderick Thorp’s novel “Nothing Lasts Forever,” which was a sequel to “The Detective,” which had been turned into a 1968 film starring Frank Sinatra. This means that Sinatra, believe it or not, according to Joel Silver, had to be offered “Die Hard” first. He turned it down. The studio then wanted Richard Gere for the lead role, but he hesitated. Even John McTiernan, whose grounded direction would define the franchise, balked at first. It felt like just another action movie. And when the studio heard that Cybill Shepherd’s pregnancy was delaying shooting on “Moonlighting” and Silver wanted a TV star named Bruce Willis for the lead—well, no one had high expectations. It’s one of those great movies that almost never happened.
Thank God it did. To say that “Die Hard” has held up better than most action films from the late ‘80s would be a massive understatement. It’s still a perfect action movie, driven by its tactile, relatable approach to the genre. Willis, McTiernan, Bonnie Bedelia and Alan Rickman establish the ridiculousness of their narrative in something so broadly and widely appealing. “Die Hard” is one of those rare action films that transcends demographics, appealing to both young and old people, men and women. It is proof that character, performance, and visual language matter as much as stunt work—a fact that is still too often forgotten. Action directors should be forced to watch “Die Hard” before production starts. The genre would be greatly improved.
“Die Hard 2: Die Harder”
Renny Harlin’s follow-up is undeniably fun, but plays almost more like a parody of the franchise, even more so than it did in 1990. Harlin, Willis and Silver knew that they couldn’t give John McClane another “very bad day” without acknowledging the ridiculousness of it all. And that element of “Die Harder,” while overplayed a bit, is forgivable. What’s less satisfying is Harlin’s '80s aesthetic, right down to the villain played by William Sadler being introduced naked, spinning and turning off a TV as the sound design produces a gunshot sound with the click. He’s a bad guy straight out of “Rambo” casting, and one of several elements that almost make “Die Harder” feel like a product of the era that “Die Hard” ushered out the back door.
Still, through all of its Harlin-esque excess, there are things that work about “Die Harder,” including Willis’s fun performance, strong supporting work by character actors like Dennis Franz and Fred Thompon, and some great stunt work. It’s ridiculous, but in a fun way, and that won’t be the last time someone says that about a “Die Hard” movie.
“Die Hard with a Vengeance”
When a script called “Simon Says” was quickly turned into a “Die Hard” sequel, many people rolled their eyes. A third “bad day”? This can’t work. However, “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is the most underrated “Die Hard” film by some stretch, and a movie that has held up shockingly well. The main reason for that is McTiernan returning to the franchise, pulling back on the parody throttle from Harlin’s film and demonstrating his action movie skill again. “Vengeance,” in which the entirety of New York City basically replaces Nakatomi Plaza, is a non-stop action flick, propelled by Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons’ commitment to the glorious insanity of it all. It’s a real NYC movie that often doesn’t come up in the conversation about flicks set in the Big Apple.
One of many reasons that “Vengeance” works, and something that other action movie producers could look at, is that McTiernan and writer Jonathan Hensleigh never betray how seriously they take their larger-than-life narrative. Sure, there are plot holes in Simon Gruber’s silly plan, but they also get the details of the Federal Reserve Bank vault so right that the government called Hensleigh during production to find out how he knew so much. That’s an oft-forgotten key to great action—we will forgive ludicrous plotlines if we believe the details—both in character and location.
“Live Free or Die Hard”
Ludicrous is a good word for Len Wiseman’s 2007 reboot of the thought-dead franchise, but I have to admit that I was a bit harder on it when it came out than I am today. Perhaps it’s something that works best in a box set like this one, as we’re more able to see how it plays off the three films that came before it. Wiseman is still too flashy a director for this franchise, but his love for the character comes through, and some of the action set pieces—especially the tunnel sequence that ends with a vehicle basically being thrown at a helicopter—are phenomenally staged.
Once again, a script that had been floating around (with the
horrible title of “WW3.com”) was reconfigured to be a “Die Hard” movie. One of
the biggest problems with “Live Free or Die Hard” is it often doesn’t feel like a John
McClane movie. In structure, it’s the least “Die Hard”-esque film, really
discarding the whole singular location thing (which one could argue “Vengeance”
did but McTiernan used NYC so well it didn’t matter). One can tell this didn’t
start life as a “Die Hard” flick, and that can be frustrating. However, Willis,
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Timothy Olyphant are having fun, and it can be
What to say about this film from 2013, the fifth in the franchise? It’s one of the worst films of the last several years, a movie that fails on absolutely every level, especially when compared to the rest of the series. It’s an unqualified disaster, a flick in which Willis looks bored by his own iconic character. In the “Decoding Die Hard” feature, we hear from Wiseman about how much Willis felt nervous about “Live Free” because he was the “keeper” of this character. I said out loud, “What happened with five?!?!?” The action is lazy. The characters are non-existent. The dialogue is horrendous. “Decoding Die Hard” doesn’t even recognize its existence (it was produced before). You’d be wise to do the same.
“Decoding Die Hard”
The set isn’t just pretty to look at. It also includes a
booklet of trivia, some character cards, and a bonus disc with the film’s
trailers and a series of featurettes. They’re filled with interviews with
almost all of the major players, although, believe it or not, Bruce Willis isn’t
one of them. They got Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, all three directors of the
first four films, all of the writers, even Kevin Smith—but no Bruce. That’s a
tragic problem as it’s his face that people think of when they hear the words “Die
Hard.” There are still some great interviews here—McTiernan, Rickman, Harlin,
Sadler—but you feel Willis’ absence every time his name comes up.
Another “Die Hard” movie might be on the way. Maybe even a prequel. Maybe when that comes out, those behind "Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza Collection" will release another “Die Hard” set (a replica of the airport from the second movie perhaps?) and someone can get Bruce Willis to talk about the franchise that made him a star. Watching the movies in 2015, it’s not hard to believe we’ll still be talking about them in a few years.