Let’s Talk Die Hard

Die Hard 1988 movie poster
The poster for Die Hard –
at the time Willis didn’t warrant
having his whole face on the poster

Way back in the mid-80’s Bruce Wills was a new television star on a popular television detective show. The show’s big hook was when or if the lead characters of Willis’ David Addison and Cybil Shepard’s Maddie Hayes would ever hook up. Eventually they did and with that consummation it was the beginning of the end for Moonlighting.

By 1988 the show seemed to be on life support and simply going through the motions. The magic it once had that kept audiences tuning back to it had disappeared. Willis had already tried to make the leap to the big screen. Starring in 1987’s Blake Edwards comedy Blind Date had yielded a modest success, but nothing spectacular. Immediately Willis returned in Edwards next film Sunset as Tom Mix and it was ignored and forgotten pretty quickly.

There was no way of seeing where Willis’s career was headed. As it became clear with each new episode of Moonlighting, the show wouldn’t last too much longer. Maybe he would continue kicking around in run of the mill films for a few years trying to find his niche and hoping for a hit. Or maybe try to continue his success on television with a new series being cast in a role to suit his charms that made him so popular on Moonlighting. Or maybe screw the acting gigs altogether and focus on his blues-singing alter ego Bruno and put out a few more albums, along with making some money on the side continuing to do those wine cooler commercials.

John McClane making
undershirts cool

In July 1988 with the release of Die Hard, Willis immediately became a movie star and it launched him on the road of being one of the most popular film stars in recent times. It’s kind of funny now to think of all the candidates that were considered for the role of John McClane: Richard Gere, Don Johnson, Richard Dean Anderson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Tom Berenger, Mel Gibson. Robert DeNiro. Pretty much any actor that was working at the time, but now it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone but Bruce Willis playing John McClane.

Despite Willis not being the first choice for the role or being considered a bankable star, (the studio wasn’t even willing to put his whole face on the movie poster, eclipsing it with the office building which they thought was the real star) the film was a success both critically and commercially.

Willis’ John McClane helped usher in a new wave of working-class action heroes. The New York cop who is taking an unwanted trip to California is a departure from the macho cop heroes we’ve seen before. One of first shots in the film we see him gripping the armrest of his airplane seat nervously. When McClane would get in a fight he would carry the physical effects of it throughout the rest of the film.

This was much different than the typical action hero who would get in a scrape and then get a costume change immediately afterwards. McClane wouldn’t get a chance to rest as he worked his way to try to save his wife Holly, played by the very adorable Bonnie Bedelia and the rest of the hostages. By the end McClane looked like hell and seeing him still on his feet made you want to cheer.

The film also created the whole action sub-genre of the ‘Die Hard On A…’ films. Die Hard on a bus. Die Hard on a train. Die Hard in a hockey rink. The title has since become part of film lexicon and the confusion as to why it’s named after a car battery has vanished. While some of the imitators have been entertaining, none have been as good as the original or made their hero as popular as John McClane.

filming on the set of Die Hard 1988
Director John McTiernan directing Alan Rickman
and Willis on set

After seeing countless 80’s cop hero films with the same shoot outs and car chases, watching this story unfold in one office building on Christmas Eve made John McTiernan’s film feel new and fresh. The intelligent, charming villain played by Alan Rickman, the spectacular and inventive action set pieces, a grab bag group of terrorists, the funny one liners or the flawed but stubborn regular guy hero who’s scared and in way over his head but just won’t give up. It has easily become one of the most beloved action films of all time and a lot of that credit has to go to Bruce’s performance. His “Yippie Kay Yay….” signature line became an instant classic.

Naturally there were sequels. Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2 in 1990 picked up the story of John McClane who had now reunited with his wife Holly and is awaiting her arrival at Dulles Airport and once again a bunch of terrorists spoil McClane’s Christmas Eve.

Willis and Dennis Farina in
Die Hard 2

I always enjoyed the second film in the series. The airport setting was different enough, but still kept with the one location format the original started with. The blizzard conditions with runways, tunnels and nearby locations offered many more settings to stage action scenes and they’re all used pretty effectively and put together well.

The return of some of the original characters is fun to see and the quick references to the original film are pretty smirk worthy too. It makes sense that McClane would have become something of a media star after his last Christmas Eve adventure. I always would have loved to have seen that interview he gave to Nightline that is mentioned.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2
McClane taking a breather between killing terrorists

Of course it’s not as good as the original. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is a tough villain to top and while the bad guys look tough this time they feel much more clichéd Despite the irony of having our flying-phobic hero at an airport surrounded by planes, some of the stunts are pushing the limit of believability in the Die Hard world. Forget getting bloodied, this adventure should leave McClane nearly dead.

I’ve never been a prude when it comes to gore or cursing, but at times the film seems to pile them in just for the sake of it when they’re really not needed. That probably was attributed to the time in which the film was made. But despite its flaws it was still a plenty exciting and entertaining summer film and a worthwhile follow-up to the first film. And as always Willis is as cool as can be.

Director McTiernan returned to the series with 1995’s Die Hard with Vengeance. I guess the idea of calling it Die Hard 3 was dropped, maybe to avoid making it look like another tired entry in an action series suffering from ‘Sequel-itis’. This time out we finally get to see McClane in New York City.

McClane partners up with
Jackson’s Zeus

Taking place seven years after the original film, McClane is once again estranged from Holly and out on a bender when he gets targeted to play a deadly ‘Simon says’ game. He’s forced to run around the city solving riddles and stopping bombs with Samuel L. Jackson tagging along. While there are once again some tense action scenes, I still didn’t like it as much as the two previous films.

For one thing, I always liked seeing McClane out on his own battling the villains and the incompetence of the good guys. He never got help from anyone and had to get through the adventure solo. Sure he got a little assistance from Al, but basically he was out on that tight rope by himself and couldn’t count on anyone.

With the inclusion of Jackson as his ally it kind of defuses that element to it. Jackson’s Zeus character starts out as just a regular guy shop owner who doesn’t want to be part of any of this, but by the end he’s in full blown action mode and it’s not a real convincing transformation. He simply becomes Sam Jackson in a Die Hard movie. The suspension of disbelief is really stretched as the film tries to keep Willis and Jackson together for the story. I have to roll my eyes during the scene of McClane getting squirted out a water pipe just as Zeus is driving past.

Jeremy Irons in
Vengence

Another pet peeve I have is the old ‘this time it’s his brother’ villain. Just making Jeffrey Irons be the brother of Hans Gruber feels like a lazy add on and doesn’t make his character anymore interesting to me than if he was just some random bad guy.

I understand that it’s supposed to be a personal thing between Simon and McClane which is the reason he’s targeted, but it just feels like a weak way to reference the original villain. And the ending that feels rushed and is nowhere near as exciting as it should of been (even the original ending that was shot isn’t very good). It’s still fun to see the McClane character back and trying to save the day. There are some exciting setpieces, but I’ve never been that crazy about the film.

I really thought that would be the last we would see of McClane, but in 2007 Live Free Or Die Hard was released. Taking place twelve years after Vengeance, McClane is this time faced with stopping a group of cyber terrorists in Washington D.C.

Hacker Justin Long and McClane

Once again he’s saddled with a sidekick, a computer hacker played by Justin Long. I remember when I first got wind of this and thinking ‘Oh boy, a feeble attempt to lure the young demographic into the theater’. But I was surprised that he didn’t seem to get in the way that much and wasn’t too annoying.

The first half of the film is pretty good. There are some fun shoot-outs, cool car chases and a well-staged scene in a darkened tunnel. After getting used to seeing sci-fi characters and superheroes defeating evil on the big screen in recent years, it was a breathe of fresh air to see a real world action hero back.

Unfortunately, the film focuses too much on the over the top action and doesn’t leave much time with the characters, who most of them are dull anyway. Thanks to some effective action and Willis doing his thing he does really well, director Len Wiseman just barely manages to make an entertaining Die Hard film.

The villain this time out played by Timothy Olyphant, is the most boring and forgettable of the bunch McClane has faced. Maybe it would have been better if they had Maggie Q as the lead villain and not just a henchwoman. The supporting characters are pretty one-dimensional and don’t offer much more than just supplying information to move the story along. By the time McClane is hanging on an Air Force jet and surviving a collapsing concrete bridge he appears to be more of an invulnerable-type of action hero than the regular-guy one we first met years ago.

Again the final confrontation between him and the villain is rushed and not nearly as climactic as it should have been. With the close of that film this time I thought – I REALLY thought – that was John McClane’s final bow. Just a random and unexpected last visit to movie screens that McClane would make and Willis would be ready to put the character to bed.

So I was very surprised to hear about rumblings about a fifth entry to the series. Of course the studio would want to continue with the films. They’ve become a name brand and continue to make money. What was most surprising was reading that Willis was willing to return to the role.

McClane

I’ve been a fan of the series from the beginning and although I’m not that enthusiastic for some of the entries, there is enough in even the weakest films that I find them worthwhile to watch. Today movie audiences don’t really have many real ‘old school’ action heroes anymore. Despite the advances of technology that can make any actor look like they’re a lethal weapon (I mean, come on….Drew Barrymore Action Hero??? Did anyone buy that?) they never seem as tough as the old heroes who would get a reprimand from their boss, stare him down, mutter a one-liner and singlehandedly take out the bad guys with some help from old fashioned stuntmen and explosive experts.

While currently costumed and fantasy adventures have taken over cinema screens, the old school action heroes set in the real world with actors who could convince us they could save the day with their hard edged tenacity has faded. They didn’t need a costume, gadgets or a backup army to take down the bad guys. Just give them a gun and a car and let them go at it. They’ve mainly been relegated to B-movies and direct to video outings and their presence in movie theaters have all but vanished.

Do we even have actors who could pull off these kinds of roles anymore? Maybe a few, but they haven’t left anywhere near the impression the crop of action heroes that came out of the 80’s have done. Which is one of the reasons why Sylvester Stallone’s all-star film The Expendables will be interesting to see. Hopefully it won’t be a disappointment.

Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard
McClane in a DC traffic jam

So I say bring on Die Hard 5! I’d be up to seeing Bruce crawl around more elevator shafts and take on some more terrorists. Bruce Willis has proven that his talents are not limited to the action genre. He’s done various roles in all different types of films and has proven he’s quite a capable actor. So it doesn’t look like he’s being forced back to the Die Hard well to maintain his popularity. He could easily leave Die Hard behind him and his career would continue to go on, but as long as the films can maintain a level of quality and audiences want to see them, why not continue the adventures of John McClane?

After using the settings of California, DC and New York, the rumors look like a fifth film might take McClane overseas. I think audiences are more than willing to go along with the idea of McClane once again being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s part of the fun of the films and the character. We all know the scenario is ridiculous, but if we let ourselves swallow it they can still be fun action films. I just hope if a fifth film happens they keep the element of McClane being an ordinary guy and not a Superman. That’s what distinguishes him from just a run of the mill action hero.

And don’t forget the battle damage!

 

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