John McTiernan, Renny Harlin, Len Wiseman
The first DIE HARD movie is an absolute classic. Given that star Bruce Willis is such a modern icon, it’s tough to remember that when he first took on the role of John McClane, Willis was far from an action star. He was the leading man on the TV series MOONLIGHTING, which was a kind of an eighties take on screwball comedies like HIS GIRL FRIDAY. His first few films, including BLIND DATE, played up that eighties wise guy image, but he was never an action star. People liked him because he was a regular guy.
It’s this quality that made him so effective in DIE HARD. In the eighties, muscle-bound heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger ruled the roost, but Willis was a step in another direction, where McClane was a mostly ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances. His brawn didn’t make him a hero- rather; it was his courage, his wit, and his resourcefulness.
DIE HARD is a perfect action movie. Before the carnage kicks in, we get a good half hour to know McClane, who’s a New York cop in L.A trying to reconcile with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia)- a prototypical eighties yuppie. Once Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his cronies invade Nakatomi Plaza, and all hell breaks loose, we already know and like McClane. And once the carnage starts- hold on!
Everything about DIE HARD is perfect, from the action set pieces (that dive off the roof with the fire hose is nuts) to the music (Michael Kamen), to the quieter moments, such as when McClane pulls glass out of his feet while talking to Al (Reginald VelJohnson). But, it’s the performances, specifically Willis and Rickman, who respectively make one of the best hero/villain combos in screen history that made DIE HARD an undisputed action classic.
Compared to the original, DIE HARD 2 is a bit disappointing. But, in its own right- it’s a pretty damn solid actioner. Once again, Willis is aces as McClane. While John McTiernan opted out of DIE HARD 2 to do HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (an awesome movie), Renny Harlin is a perfectly acceptable substitute. The action is even more savage than it was in the first film, with the classic “icicle in the eye” kill, a massive body count, and a shocking plane crash orchestrated by the baddies.
The biggest problem with DIE HARD 2 is that the villains are bland. William Sadler is a good actor, but his Colonel Stuart is no Hans Gruber. Franco Nero makes a good impression as General Esperanza- a kind of pseudo Noriega figure, but his screen time is limited. I also think setting DIE HARD 2 at Christmas is a mistake, as it stretches plausibility that McClane would once again get mixed up with terrorists on X-Mas eve. Still- it’s a pretty damn entertaining movie, and the action scenes are fantastic.
John McTiernan came back for DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, and made a bold move to shake up the franchise by ditching the claustrophobic setting of the first two films, and having it take place in a busy afternoon in NYC. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE is usually held up as the second best entry in the series, but to me it’s on par with DIE HARD 2, with one not being significantly better or worse than the other. It’s a great flick in its own right, with another great performance by Willis. Here, McClane’s fallen on hard times, having been left by his wife Holly, and once again working in NYC. In fact, when we first meet him, he’s on suspension, and working on a hangover- before being pressed into action.
Obviously, the WITH A VENGEANCE crew was hoping Jeremy Irons would be another iconic villain, and they even make him Hans Gruber’s brother. I never liked this twist, as it seems a bit cheap, but Irons is game and seems to be having fun, even if he’s no Rickman. What really makes WITH A VENGEANCE memorable is Samuel Jackson as Zeus Carver, a civilian who finds himself caught up in Gruber’s game of “Simon Says” with McClane. Jackson was just coming off PULP FICTION, and nails the part. Heck, a lot of us wish Jackson would return to the series…
And here’s where things started to go bad. To be fair to director Len Wiseman, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD isn’t a terrible film. Sure, it’s a mediocre one, but it’s not offensively bad. But- it’s not a DIE HARD film. What made the series so good was that McClane felt like a real guy. Here- he’s a superhero, jumping off jets and blowing up helicopters with his car. The action is too big, and too generic. Once again, Willis is game as McClane, who’s long divorced from Holly, and is trying to repair his relationship with daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
LIVE FREE has many problems. For one, the goofy comic sidekick, played by Justin Long, is totally unnecessary, and feels like a transparent ploy to bring in younger viewers (gee- kinda like McClane’s son in A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD). The villain, played by Timothy Olyphant is atrocious. Having McClane go up against a hacker? Olyphant makes a great laconic hero on JUSTIFIED, but he’s rubbish as LIVE FREE’s villain. The worst thing about LIVE FREE is the PG-13 rating, which was obviously a decision made after the movie was done, which makes the movie feel like R-rated movies used to feel when edited for TV. The R-rated cut on DVD (which is not included here) fixes some of these problems, but the movie is still bland.