The audience’s introduction to Bruce Willis’ iconic character John McClane in Die Hard is modest but telling: After a long cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles, McClane looks wrung-out and peaked, having wrestled for hours with his fear of flying. The passenger next to him takes notice and offers a strange tip for easing anxiety: He suggests McClane take off his shoes and socks, walk on carpet, and “make fists with your toes.” Later, after taking the man’s advice, McClane ends up battling a gang of heavily armed thieves while barefoot, which leads to a sequence where the thieves deliberately shoot up an office’s glass partitions to litter the floor with shards. On both fronts—the fear of flying and the broken glass that shreds the bottom of his feet—Die Hard immediately emphasizes McClane’s vulnerability. Here’s a man with the courage, ingenuity, and grit to take on an army of Euro-thugs, but he’s also just a man. He gets scared. He bleeds.
If there’s any arc to the Die Hard franchise, it’s the evolution (or devolution) of John McClane from human being to superhero—and as John McClane went, so went the action genre. Though he performs amazing feats of derring-do in all four films—and soaks his undershirts with sweat and blood—there’s a difference between the McClane who wriggles through air ducts and climbs through elevator shafts in Die Hard and the McClane who leaps out of a moving car at high speed in Live Free Or Die Hard, under the absurd calculation that the car will then ramp off a toll booth and take down a low-flying helicopter.
Some of that has to do with the sequel’s demands. Die Hard is a pretty big movie—an operation to steal $640 million in bearer bonds, the arsenal of machine guns and C4 explosives, two FBI guys—but any follow-ups have to be bigger, which is consequently going to make McClane’s role smaller, unless he can do things ordinary humans can’t imagine. But some of it also has to do with changes in the action genre, which moved out of the realm of the possible when digital effects made the impossible look feasible. When McClane dangles from a fire hose atop Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, disbelief must be suspended, but the physics of it are key to the tension—if he can’t improvise his way back into the building, gravity will do its work. The car-meets-helicopter sequence in Live Free Or Die Hard has more to do with graphic perfection: The pleasure comes from the fantastical becoming real. It might as well be a Star Wars movie.
If anything, Die Hard looks even better now than it did in 1988, partly because McClane and his criminal counterpart Hans Gruber (enunciated deliciously by Alan Rickman) have grown into cultural icons, and partly because the many sequels and knock-offs have made its skillfulness all the more apparent. Like many action movies that followed, it’s a big machine with many moving parts—there are at least four memorable villains beyond Gruber, just for starters—but director John McTiernan and his screenwriters, Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, are remarkably fleet in setting up the situation and hitting each new plot point in stride. The sequels all look winded in the ramp-up time.
Keeping the action (mostly) confined to the single setting of the Nakatomi building and keeping the focus (mostly) on how McClane goes about thwarting a siege by Eurotrash crooks, the film works within strong narrative guardrails. An NYPD cop visiting Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia), McClane becomes the loose cannon in a hostage situation when Gruber and his men settle in for a carefully orchestrated heist. As the situation escalates, a full-blown carnival breaks out in the plaza below, with asshole LAPD brass warring with asshole FBI guys, an unctuous TV reporter (the always-wonderful William Atherton) chasing a big scoop, and a Twinkie-loving beat cop (Reginald VelJohnson) serving as McClane’s chief ally on the ground.
McTiernan does all the grunt work a good suspense filmmaker should do: Whenever possible, he establishes and reestablishes where McClane and Gruber’s men are in relation to each other, and makes their cat-and-mouse game the heart of the film. The walkie-talkie exchanges between hero and villain pop because both men, at all times, are confident they have the drop on each other—Gruber the meticulous planner, prepared for any contingency; McClane the “fly in the ointment,” playing the role of Western hero. Worthy adversaries aren’t easy to find—usually black hats are more compelling than white hats, because they act without moral restraint—and Die Hard sets them loose on a shimmering playground of glass and steel.
The tagline of Die Hard 2, “Die Harder,” says everything that needs to be said about the sequel, which vows to deliver what the first one did, only much, much more. All the weight the first film shouldered so gracefully can be felt in Die Hard 2 like an undigested spaghetti dinner. Introduced two years after Die Hard, entering the chaos of holiday travel at Dulles airport in Washington D.C., McClane is confronted by a series of threats that are much harder to sort out: Something about a grand, absurdly conspicuous plot to intercept a Central American general/drug lord while he’s being extradited to the United States. (Save pulling the roof off the White House, it’s hard to imagine a D.C. rescue mission with a higher degree of difficulty.) With an unfinished annex serving as his Nakatomi, McClane squares off against a rogue mercenary unit (led by William Sadler, who’s introduced doing naked tai chi in his hotel room), a U.S. Special Forces squad, a skeptical-against-all-reason airport police chief (Dennis Franz), and Atherton’s mischief-making TV reporter.
Die Hard 2’s bigger-is-better credo has its box-of-rocks appeals, and Renny Harlin, a capable technician, has such a devil-may-care attitude about the script’s honking implausibilities that they’re easy to accept at face value. This extends to one-liners that sound clever but are actually completely nonsensical, like, “What sets off the metal detectors first: The lead in your ass, or the shit in your brains?” (Answer to this rhetorical question: Almost certainly the former.) With lead in ass and shit for brains, Die Hard 2 works as a grotesque echo of Die Hard, reverberating with the excesses that defined the genre from the ’90s onward, when countless blockbusters tried to do the same thing bigger—and often less skillfully.
The second sequel, 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance, heralds McTiernan’s return to the director’s chair and the shoehorned-in presence of Hans Gruber’s brother Simon (Jeremy Irons), but it’s less of a back-to-basics affair than a case of the franchise eating its own tail. Repurposed from a script called Simon Says, the film is a third-hand Die Hard movie, closely (albeit inadvertently) resembling Speed, the Die Hard-on-a-bus hit from 1994. It catches McClane as a humbled shell of a man—divorced, hung over, and thrust into one long, terrible day against his will. The first half of Vengeance has him jumping through hoops as Irons threatens terrorist action if McClane doesn’t do exactly as he’s told, from wearing a racist sandwich board in the middle of Harlem to dashing across New York City on foot to answer a pay phone or solve a riddle. Samuel L. Jackson adds a buddy dynamic as a Harlem shopkeep who unwillingly partners with McClane as the second mouse in Irons’ cat-and-mouse game.
In spite of the awkward gait that comes with being a Franken-movie—and having the silliest ending of the franchise, albeit still less silly than the alternate ending—Die Hard With A Vengeance is marginally the strongest of the sequels. The buddy chemistry with Jackson shakes Willis out of his smug stupor, and McTiernan is able to capture a larger fraction of the original magic, with Irons merrily slithering through his lines in Hans Gruber fashion and a mega-heist plot that takes advantage of some cleverly plotted (though again, flagrantly ridiculous) misdirection. Keenly aware that they can’t bring McClane back into a building, McTiernan and screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh try to orchestrate a coherent thriller over the city sprawl, and they mostly succeed. While they can’t entirely restore McClane’s humanity, at least the plotting doesn’t crowd him out of his own movie like it does in Die Hard 2.
It took 12 years for McClane to come back for 2007’s Live Free Or Die Hard, and by then, the genre had left him far behind. To the filmmakers’ credit, they recognize this reality completely and make it central to the story, which pits an analog man against a digital world. Facing a team of cyber-terrorists, led by better-than-average villain Timothy Olyphant, McClane and a weakling super-hacker (Justin Long) have to fight through a virtual smokescreen to get to the chaos agents intent on bringing the country to its knees. There’s also a half-assed attempt to bring McClane’s family back into the picture by making his estranged daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) into a damsel in distress, but the bulk of the film is devoted to the action-comedy of making McClane a cross between Andy Rooney and The Rock.
Director Len Wiseman, the culprit responsible for the Underworld movies and the Total Recall remake, vowed to use as many practical effects as possible for Live Free Or Die Hard, but the sequences that aren’t digitally touched-up are still too slick by half. Nearly 20 years after the original Die Hard, McClane has grown older yet somehow less vulnerable, in spite of his grumbly protests to the contrary. He may win the battle against the cyber-terrorists onscreen, but he’s lost the war to the programmers offscreen. He’s about as credible an everyman as the Terminator.
Key features: The 25th Anniversary Collection is loaded with extras on every disc—commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes, the works—except they’re all ported over from a previous Die Hard Blu-ray set released in late 2007. The only real addition here is a fifth disc called “Decoding Die Hard” that offers a battery of featurettes, none longer than 20 minutes, about the action genre, McClane as a modern icon, the various sidekicks and villains in the series, the fight sequences, and more surface-scratching endeavors. And it’ll all be obsolete when A Good Day To Die Hard and the proposed sixth entry find their way into future anniversary editions.
Die Hard: A;
Die Hard 2: B-;
Die Hard With A Vengeance: B;
Live Free Or Die Hard: C+