A Die-Hard's Guide To 'Die Hard': 25 Years Of Sweat, Dirt And Blowing Stuff Up
Die Hard is one of my very favorite films. One of yours, too, I would certainly hope. Loosely based on a (still) little-known novel by the now-ironic name of Nothing Lasts Forever, its appearance in the summer of 1988 reinvented the action genre as a place where it was okay to cry as long as you still killed any member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who had the gall to walk into your movie and start preening around with their fancy contraction-free diction.
And what was it that made average-Joe New York City cop John McClane cry? If you think it was the glass shards embedded in his feet, you are an emotional cripple and I feel bad for you. No, it was the fear he'd be killed before he did what he'd flown cross-country to do: make things right with his estranged wife, Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia and her hair. The unusual amount of screen time the movie gives to their foundering marriage is one of the pegs that made it resonate widely beyond shoot-'em-up audiences.
The price of success is that Die Hard has outlived nearly all of the moldy action/suspense series to which it was once such a refreshing alternative. Like so many unintended franchise-starters before it — in chronological order, Planet of the Apes, Dirty Harry, Jaws, Rocky, First Blood, Lethal Weapon — Die Hard is a genuinely great movie whose reputation has been diluted by the gathering mediocrity of its follow-ups. The fifth installment, Live and Let Die Harderer: Ghost Protocol: 2 the Streetz A Good Day to Die Hard, comes out today. While I haven't been out to see it yet, I've seen the others so many times that writing this definitive guide to the series required almost no research* at all.
MOVIE: Die Hard
LITERARY SOURCE: Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp.
SETTING: Nakatomi Tower (actually the 20th Century Fox building), Los Angeles. Christmas Eve.
THE OPPOSITION: A band of 11 terrorists under the silver-tongued command of Hans Gruber — stage actor Alan Rickman, creating an iconic villain his very first time in front of a movie camera.** And ballet dancer Alexander Godunov as Karl.
BUT REALLY THEY'RE: Thieves.
THE PLAN: Steal $640 million in bearer bonds from the Nakatomi Corp.'s vault, blow up their hostages and fake their own deaths, recline "on a beach, earning 20 percent."
McCLANE's OBSTACLES: Marital discord, dislike of Los Angeles, discomfort flying on airplanes, distaste for limousines, disapproval of the coke-snorting corporate D-bag who keeps hitting on his wife — who has reclaimed her original last name. Fear of heights. Shoelessness. Vainglorious Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson. Bloodthirsty FBI Special Agents Johnson & Johnson (no relation). Scummy TV reporter Dick Thornberg. Shoelessness. No, really: You don't want to be doing this without shoes.
McCLANE'S ALLIES: Argyle, party-loving limo driver. Al Powell, Twinkie-loving LAPD sergeant.
KEEPING HIM THERE: His wife is one of the hostages.
CLASSICAL MUSIC: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
SHOOT FROM THE QUIP: "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like." "Yippie kai-yay, [and so forth]." (Duh.)
HOLY [COW] MOMENT: McClane ties a fire hose around his waist and leaps from the 40-story office tower's roof to escape an explosion that brings down an FBI helicopter. Then he has to shoot his way back into the building's 37th-ish floor, because while Rambo, John Wayne or Marshall Dillon could surely kick through industrial glass, John Q. Public McClane cannot. Not until he acquires franchise powers, anyway.
OVERLOOKED MARKETING OPPORTUNITY: It's the heel from Ghostbusters (William Atherton, playing a TV reporter here) and the jackass from The Breakfast Club (Paul Gleeson, playing the deputy chief of the LAPD). Two of the most lovably hateable film characters of the '80s in the same movie!
OTHER RELEVANT FACTS: 1988's Oscar nominees for Best Picture were Rain Man, which won, plus The Accidental Tourist, Working Girl, Mississippi Burning and Dangerous Liaisons. How many of those have you watched in the last 10 years? Be honest***.
ABSTRACT: We hold these truths to be self evident: Die Hard is the greatest action picture of the '80s and one of the best of all time. It became an oft-imitated template for the subsequent decade of action flicks, reviving a stale genre by casting a TV comedy star instead of an athlete and let him openly express fear and regret throughout the film. (Though to be fair, Lethal Weapon, which featured two crying, hugging action heroes, came out a year earlier.) Whether the layers in Bruce Willis's performance are intentional or not — he's a capable, versatile actor, but he's grown tremendously in the quarter-century since he made this movie — McClane's profane bravado registers very clearly here as a sort of verbal war-mask he puts on to try to manage his own abject terror.
VERDICT: While McClane couldn't stop Hans & Co. from murdering Mr. Takagi or Ellis the Smarmy Cokehead, he did foil their plan to murder all 30-odd hostages. After many dozens of viewings I still have no idea what McClane was thinking when he hurled that wad of C4 down the elevator shaft, but we'll give him a pass for that as all his other uses of lethal force count as self-defense. McClane is acquitted of any negligence or wrongdoing and hailed as a hero. Yippe kai yay, [and so forth]!
MARITAL STATUS: Reunited, and it feels so good. Holly even introduces herself to Sgt. Powell using McClane's last name at the end. So she's a.. third wave feminist, I guess?
MOVIE: Die Hard 2: Die Harder
LITERARY SOURCE: 58 Minutes by Walter Wager.
SETTING: Dulles International Airport (actually Stapleton International Airport in Denver, since demolished), Loudon County, Virgina (though the movie thinks it's in Washington). Christmas week.
THE OPPOSITION: Renegade U.S. Army soldiers-turned-mercenaries under the command of Col. Stuart — William Sadler. Um. He played Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey the following year.
BUT REALLY THEY'RE: Soldiers, actually. They seem to be getting paid, but this is still the only one of at least the first four supposedly terrorism-themed Die Hard movies to feature villains whose motivation is actually political.
THE PLAN: Remote-hijack Dulles' control tower. Rescue the deposed right-wing dictator of the fictitious South American nation of Val Verde, who is being extradited to the U.S. via Dulles to face drug charges. Fly him back out to a non-extradition-treaty country, get real paid.
McCLANE's OBSTACLES: Hapless! Incompetent! airport police under the command of the hapless! Arrogant! Carmine Lorenzo (a post-Hill Street, pre-NYPD Blue Dennis Franz). Snow. John Amos from Good Times, playing the commanding officer of "Blue Light," the Army unit brought in in to take out Col. Stuart in a totally unremarked-upon violation of Posse Comitatus. His own arrogance — I don't know if it was his Nightline appearance after saving the Nakatomi hostages or what, but McClane sure goes out of his way to be a total jerk to just about everyone in this movie except his wife.
McCLANE'S ALLIES: Marvin, airport maintenance guy. Barnes, airport tech-support guy. Trudeau, airport boss, played by Fred Thompson, four years before he became a Senator.
KEEPING HIM THERE: His wife Holly, with whom he has now reconciled, is aboard one of the planes circling overhead, which apparently can't be diverted elsewhere because terrorists at Dulles and ice at National have stymied both of the Mid-Atlantic region's many, many airports.
CLASSICAL MUSIC: Sibelius's "Finlandia." (Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin is from Finland.)
SHOOT FROM THE QUIP: "Just the fax, Ma'am." At one point McClane kills a bad guy by stabbing him in the brain via his eye socket — with an icicle! But instead of yelling "Brain freeze!" or whatever, he just turns his head and wretches. Which probably is what you would do, but still.
HOLY [COW] MOMENT: Trapped inside a grounded C-130 cargo plane that's quickly filling up with live grenades, McClane straps himself into the pilot's seat and pulls the emergency eject lever. In a bird's-eye-view shot, we see him hurl straight up into the air and then fall back to Earth again as the plane disintegrates into a fireball beneath him.
DO C-130s ACTUALLY HAVE EJECTOR SEATS?: Shut up.
OTHER RELEVANT FACTS: Um. Robert Patrick, who would achieve immortality as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day the following summer, has a small speaking role here as one of the mercenary henchmen.
ABSTRACT: This is a fun, well-shot action movie, but it has not aged nearly as well as the original Die Hard. The barrage of superfluous, unimaginatively-deployed F-bombs peg it to the late '80s/early '90s like a Hypercolor sweatshirt. Worse, McClane becomes an unlikeable character the movie still thinks is likeable, berating and bullying airport staff, cops, military commanders — basically anyone who has a reasonable claim to have a better idea about what's really going on than he does. And snowmobile chases are never, ever cool.
CONCLUSION: Uhhhh, come in, won't you? Have a seat. Close the door.
This is the most troubling entry in the series. At one point, Col. Stuart tries to scare McClane into ceasing his shoes-on but still DIY-style counterterrorism campaign by impersonating an air traffic controller and deliberately crashing a passenger jet with 200-plus souls on board. Unlike Hans Gruber, Col. Stuart's plan does not seem to be predicated upon killing dozens of non-combatants to cover his escape, sooooo... McClane could have just continued chain-smoking in the airport lounge (it was 1990) and left the guy alone, maybe? Which would have probably reduced the overall body count? By hundreds?
And let's talk about the big, "heroic" finale, wherein McClane blows up an entire planeload of bad guys as they're making their escape. Okay, yes, he manages this genocidal feat via a clever if ridiculous gag right out of a Road Runner cartoon, but it's still not so much like shooting a fleeing man in the back as it's like shooting dozens of fleeing men in the back. The movie tries to back away from this John McClane: Portrait of a Serial Killer turn by having the fire-trail McClane lit turn out to be the emergency landing light that finally allows all however many planes are still circling overhead in this Baltimore and Philadelphia-free fictional universe to land.
Hey, how 'bout that bit with the grenades and the ejector seat? Awesome, right?
MARITAL STATUS: Strong. John and Holly are driven away on a little airport courtesy cart at the end, hopefully to go enjoy that romantic night away from the kids that John suggested early in the movie.
MOVIE: Die Hard with a Vengeance
LITERARY SOURCE: Simon Says, an original screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, who managed to hold on to the job of retrofitting the script into a Die Hard movie.
SETTING: New York City, which largely plays itself. Late summer.
THE OPPOSITION: Hans Gruber's brother, played by the great Jeremy Irons. And his silent henchwoman played, ironically, by the great singer-songwriter Sam Phillips. And a bunch of German (?) mercenaries who speak American English with varying degrees of conviction.
BUT REALLY THEY'RE: Gotcha! Thieves again!
THE PLAN: Hoo boy. Okay: 1) Blow up a Bonwit Teller department store. 2) Summon the hungover, suspended-from-the-force McClane by name and force him to solve complicated riddles in order to locate & disarm bombs hidden throughout the city. 3) Threaten to blow up a public school, then, while all the cops are looking the other way, 4) Steal the gold out from the Federal Reserve Bank on Wall Street, 5) Destroy the gold, or 5a) Fool your more militant colleagues into thinking you've destroyed the gold, 6) Escape to Canada by driving dump trucks through a giant aquaduct. The Ocean's 11 gang refer to this classic heist as a "Vera Wang."****
McCLANE's OBSTACLES: His hangover. Brother-of-Hans Simon Gruber's personal vendetta against him. Samuel L. Jackson's distrust of cops and white people, of which McClane is both. Antilock brakes.
McCLANE's ALLIES: Zeus Carver, concerned citizen. His fellow cops, who are also allowed to be smart and do helpful stuff for once! An American history-loving dump truck driver who helps to unscramble a critical clue. And original Die Hard director John McTiernan, bringing his gift for suspense and crisp action back to the series following the well-publicized cratering of his prior movie, the Arnold Schwarzenegger meta-comedy Last Action Hero.
KEEPING HIM THERE: Simon Gruber asked for him personally. Or else he'll blow up more people.
CLASSICAL MUSIC: The Civil War folk song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
SHOOT FROM THE QUIP: (In re: McClane's torn, bloodied shirt.) "Laundry day." "Say hi to your brother for me."
HOLY [COW] MOMENT: Several, but the best one is when McClane finds himself trapped in an elevator car with four disguised bad guys and has to shoot his way out.
OVERLOOKED MARKETING OPPORTUNITY: It's Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson (as Zeus) in a movie together again, only seven months after Pulp Fiction upended the cinematic world. And this time they have scenes together! Lots!
ABSTRACT: Though the film ceases to make any kind of even movie-sense in its final third, this is still the best of the Die Hard sequels by a New York mile. Bruce and Sam mesh nearly as well as antagonistic crimefighters as Danny and Mel did in the Lethal Weapon flicks, the use of NYC locations is fun, and from the time McClane is forced to walk through Harlem wearing a racially inflammatory sandwich board (!!), the film is just so resoundingly weird that you can never really get ahead of it. I love that the other cops in this one are given stuff to do besides get in McClane's way, and I love that McClane is drunk and divorced (or at least he hasn't spoken to Holly in months). I mean, I want their marriage to work, but it's more important to me that McClane always be an underdog. He actually has to ask big-bad Simon for an aspirin in this movie. I love that.
CODA: The DVD features a much darker alternate ending, wherein Simon escapes and McClane is forced to resign under a cloud of suspicion that he was actually in cahoots with him. In this final scene, set months after the body of the film, McClane corners Simon in a cafe Somewhere in Europe and challenges him to a (rigged) game of Russian roulette — using a rocket launcher. On the commentary track, screenwriter Hensleigh says he prefers this downbeat finale. The fact that it was filmed at all tells you how confused everyone was about exactly how to return to the Die Hard well a third time. But at least McClane's participation is actually motivated, instead of being another random wrong-place, wrong-time occurrence.
MARITAL STATUS: Bad. We hear Holly's voice at one end of a pay phone John runs away from late in the movie, but they seem to be beyond reconciliation by this point.
THE MOVIE: Live Free or Die Hard
THE LITERARY SOURCE: None.
SETTING: All over the Eastern seaboard! But also partially D.C., unconvincingly impersonated by Baltimore and Los Angeles.
THE OPPOSITION: A disgruntled government cybersecurity expert (an unaccountably effete Timothy Olyphant). And Maggie Q. and Cyril Raffaelli, the French parkour guy from District B13.
THEY'RE: Terrorists. Okay, cyber terrorists. Yawn.
BUT REALLY THEY'RE: Uh, IT dorks. Except for the French parkour guy.
THE PLAN: 1) Neuter a beloved R-rated action franchise with a PG-13 rating and Justin Long. 2) Something something hack into the grid bring America to its knees blah blah gosh darn PG-13.
McCLANE's OBSTACLES: His weird technophobia. The movie seems to be set in its release-year of 2007, but McClane — who maybe doesn't have a LinkedIn account but is still an active-duty NYPD cop — seems baffled by ubiquitous things like cell phones and LoJack. The disapproval of now-college-aged Lucy McClane, last seen adorably answering a telephone at the McClane residence in 1988. Justin Long, three years post-Dodgeball but at the height of "I'm a Mac!", which kind of makes you wish they'd cast "I'm a PC" guy John Hodgman as the villain. Kevin Smith. That catchphrase-emasculating PG-13 rating, even though people born the year Die Hard came out would be old enough to get into this movie were it rated R.
McCLANE's ALLIES: Oh, wait. Justin Long and Kevin Smith are supposed to be his allies. Saints preserve us.
KEEPING HIM THERE: He's assigned to protect computer hacker Long, who played a minor role in the cyberattack but had no idea how bad these guys are. And then the bad guys abduct blossoming hottie Lucy McClane.
CLASSICAL MUSIC: Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son." But played on its own; not worked into the score, like in the real Die Hard movies.
SHOOT FROM THE QUIP: "You just killed a helicopter with a car!" "I was out of bullets."
"Yippie kai yay, Monday-to-Friday, mother-huggin', monster-flipper! Doggone it! Golly!"
HOLY [COW] MOMENT: ... I guess launching the car into that helicopter was sort of cool.
OVERLOOKED MARKETING OPPORTUNITY: Bruce Willis allowed himself to be naturally bald in this movie.
ABSTRACT: I don't... I mean, I can't even... Look, director Len Wiseman paints this whole movie in shades of tech-noir blue. It feels more like one of the Pierce Brosnan 007s than a Die Hard joint. Die Hard is supposed to be intimate, low-tech, close-quarters, sweaty. Justified star Timothy Olyphant — an actor whose powers of humor and masculinity are positively Bruce Willis-ian in their badass profundity — is never, ever scary or even funny. And Kevin Smith for comic relief? Were Kevin James and Rob Schneider and Jar-Jar Binks all unavailable?
VERDICT: They can't end the series like this.
MARITAL STATUS: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.
THE MOVIE: A Good Day to Die Hard
LITERARY SOURCE: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. No, I'm kidding. I have no idea.
SETTING: Moscow, Russia, Asia, Earth.
THE OPPOSITION: Russians?
THEY'RE: Arms dealers?
BUT REALLY THEY'RE: Orcs. Sex traffickers. I don't know.
THE PLAN: Mayhem!
McCLANE's OBSTACLES: This is where is a hackier writer would make a joke about incontinence or impotence or something. I am not that guy. Bruce looks pretty good for 57, no?
McCLANE's ALLIES: His boy, John Jr., now all growed up and some kind of CIA operative, just going by the spoileriffic trailer! He's played by Jai Courtney, who was actually pretty solid as a second-banana bad guy in Jack Reacher.
KEEPING HIM THERE: Paternity?
CLASSICAL MUSIC: Stravinsky would be good. There's lots of Russian talent available.
SHOOT FROM THE QUIP: "Need a hug?" "We're not really a hugging family." "Damn straight."
This is not progress. Murtaugh and Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series hugged each other all the time.
At least this Die Hard movie is Rated R. For "Russia.
THE VERDICT: It's hearsay, but so far? Brutal.
**He'd done some TV, but British TV, so whatever.
***I like Dangeous Liasions quite a lot. The play it's based on, Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is actually the show in which Die Hard's casting director spotted the then-unknown Alan Rickman.
**** I just made that up.
***** Les Liaisons Dangereuses is, of course, French for Die Hard with a Vengeance.