|Posted by Mavra on May 26, 2009 at 6:42 AM|
This is the story of a man who would not back down. A stubborn man. A man who faced overwhelming odds at every turn. A man who never gave up no matter how many people were against him and no matter how old he became.
No, I’m not talking about Evander Holyfield. I’m talking about John McClane, the world’s most obstinate copper.
As is becoming a theme with these epic reviews, this is a series that sank its hooks into me as a teenager. In terms of hero worship, Rocky will always be the king of fictional ass-kickers, but John McClane has earned himself a close second place. Although he never runs up any steps, John McClane deserves to be considered alongside Rocky Balboa because he is a man of singular stubbornness, a virtue I admire greatly.
Die Hard (1988)
“Who are you, then?”
“Just the fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.”
Die Hard is mint.
If I were a smarter man, I would end the review here, since the preceding paragraph is probably all that needs to be said. Die Hard is mint. You know it, I know it, and anyone who does not suffer from the rare condition of mint blindness knows it. But I’m not a smart man so here are some ramblings anyway.
It’s a simple story: New York copper arrives in Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife at her office, terrorists take control of the building and hold everyone hostage, New York copper crawls through various lift shafts and air ducts and his vest turns, inexplicably, from white to green. Along the way, he shoots people, blows shit up, jumps off a building with a fire hose tied around his waist, and swears a lot.
To my eternal shame, Die Hard is the only film of this series that I did not see at the cinema. Back when this film was released, I was already a Bruce Willis fan because of his charismatic turn on Moonlighting, but the idea of seeing David Addison in an action film seemed ridiculous and so I gave Die Hard a miss until it turned up on video. Action films were the territory of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bruce Willis was not an action star; he was the guy from Moonlighting whose only well-known film was Blind Date, in which he could not even contend with a drunk Kim Basinger. There was no way this guy was going to be able to contend with a building full of terrorists, none of whom appeared to be drunk at all.
Fuck me, was I wrong about that.
What makes this film work so well is precisely that Willis is NOT Stallone or Schwarzenegger. John McClane is not an over-muscled superhero, he’s a regular guy like you or I, and as I’ve matured (slightly) over the years I’ve found that that’s the quality I look for most in an action hero. The Steven Segalian approach to movie heroism – always look stoic, never appear to be in any danger, have people talk about what an accomplished badass you are – has never been interesting to me because it robs any story of tension. Of course that guy is going to save the day – he probably has various certificates in punching and shooting and once he got a special medal for Services To Hardness from the president. Fuck that guy. Give me the underdog who looks like he’s not going to save the day, because that’s someone I can enjoy rooting for.
And that’s exactly what you get with Willis’s McClane. Throughout the film, he seems constantly on the verge of failing in his bid to stop Hans Gruber’s nefarious plan. He might fall down that lift shaft, he might get shot as he crawls under that table, that fire hose might give way, and he might get beaten to a bloody pulp by Alexander Godunov. Like Indiana Jones, John McClane is a distinctly human hero, a man who’s not afraid to look the audience in the eye and say: “Shit, things are going really badly right now, and there is a very good chance that I am about to die horribly.”
That is a guy I can get behind.
But a great hero is not enough. If you want to make it to the top of the action tree, you need another vital element: a great villain, and that you get in the form of Hans Gruber, as brilliantly portrayed by Alan Rickman. Do we want to see Muhammad Ali fight some nobody? No way. We want to see him square off against Joe Frazier to bring out the best in him. And Hans Gruber is the man to bring out the best in John McClane.
What’s fascinating about the McClane/Gruber rivalry is it forms a kind of yin and yang dynamic that is key to the success of Die Hard. Gruber is meticulous, educated, unflappable, upper class, European, and impeccably attired; while McClane is impulsive, panicked, working class, every inch the American, and the poor bugger doesn’t even have any shoes on. The contrast in nationalities is especially important since Die Hard thrives on a particularly American trait: distrust of Europeans, especially us dirty, rotten English. Yes, the terrorists are supposed to be German, but you, me and everyone else knows that Alan Rickman is one of those fancy English actors who enunciates clearly, has done shitloads of Shakespeare plays, and probably doesn’t even own a television. Bruce Willis is that guy out of a TV show where he runs a detective agency with Cybil Shepherd.
Die Hard is therefore a battle between the old world and the new, the white collar and the blue collar, the European and the American. It’s the American war of independence replayed in Nakatomi Plaza. Our hero is not going to stand for a bunch of Euro trash storming onto American soil and stealing a bunch of money. No taxation without representation and all that. This is a film where an old-fashioned, blue-collar, beer-drinking, apple-pie-eating, honest-to-goodness AMERICAN gets to chuck a snooty Englishman out a window, much like many Americans once banded together to chuck all of us snooty Englishmen out of America’s metaphorical window way, way back in seventeen-something-or-other.
As an Englishman, I should be offended, but Die Hard is so mint I don’t give a toss.
In fact, Die Hard’s mintness is so excessive, even its knock-offs are good, as though the film has such an impressive surfeit of mint that it can afford to hand some out to its imitators as a kind of charitable donation. Speed, Under Siege, Air Force One, Cliffhanger, Executive Decision, that one with JCVD in the ice hockey arena: all owe a huge debt to Die Hard and all are worth a watch. Not Under Siege 2, though. That one was shit.
If you were compiling a list of the top ten action films of all time, my humble opinion is that Die Hard should be sitting comfortably at the top, possibly wearing a gaudy crown of some sort. This is the grand symphony of the action genre, expertly conducted by John McTiernan, and its perfect combination of well-drawn characters, precise direction, beautifully staged action sequences, almost unbearable tension - and let’s not forget the mintness - make it an action film that has yet to be bettered.
Die Hard 2 (1990)
“You’re the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time!”
“Story of my life.”
Die Hard 2 is not mint.
To be fair to Die Hard 2, there is one problem all Die Hard sequels have to contend with, and that is that they exist within the considerable shadow of Die Hard. It’s probably not fair to compare them to the original, but people are going to do it anyway. It’s like if Bill Gates had three younger brothers – Will Gates, Phil Gates and Julio Gates – none of whom can ever hope to measure up to their older sibling. They may be successful, they may even become millionaires, but are they super-mega-fuck-off billionaires? No, they are not. And Die Hard is the super-mega-fuck-off billionaire of the action genre, so all who follow in its wake are doomed to a life of seeming like lazy, underachieving fuck-ups in comparison to big brother.
With that caveat in mind, Die Hard 2 is still a damn good film. It may not be fully mint, but it has a mint-like quality. It is mint-esque, if you will.
For this one, John McClane is meeting up with his wife (at an airport this time) when a group of villains turn up and take control of the place. It’s another of those pesky gangs of well-organised bad guys, this time threatening to crash a bunch of planes if the government doesn’t release a generic South American drug lord. Once again, the public needs a stubborn hero to run amok behind the scenes, shoot stuff, blow stuff up, punch people in the head, and say motherfucker more than is probably necessary.
Where Die Hard 2 works best is in recapturing much of the feel of the first film. We like seeing John McClane in his full obstinate glory, digging in his heels, refusing to allow the bad guys to get their way, and that’s exactly what we get from this one. Ongoing action series are enjoyable largely because we like the hero and we want to see him in another adventure, so hats off to Die Hard 2 for getting that part right.
Where it doesn’t work is in its lack of imagination. This is the poster child for safe sequels, and it adheres to the formula laid out in part 1 a little too rigidly. We’ve got more bad guys with a precise plan, another confined space for McClane to run about in (and another black sidekick to help him out), Holly’s in peril, Al Powell is eating Twinkies, that douchebag reporter is making a mischief of himself, and they even use Let It Snow over the closing titles again. The film stops short of bringing back Argyle as a pilot or something equally ridiculous (Remember in Speed 2 when that guy whose car got smashed up by Keanu Reeves came back… but in a boat this time? Jesus, that was fucking stupid), but a few more original touches here and there would have been nice.
Also, this film initiates what I’m going to call The Even Numbered Die Hard Shitty American Villain Curse (I’m working on a shorter name). William Sadler may be an excellent character actor (and he’s better than Timothy Olyphant in part 4), but he doesn’t have the charisma to be considered alongside Alan Rickman (or Jeremy Irons). He does naked Karate, which I bet neither of the Gruber brothers ever did, but otherwise Colonel Stewart is not the adversary our hero deserves. If this curse holds true, the villain in Die Hard 5 (Do Or Die Hard) will be played by Brian Cox; and the villain in Die Hard 6 (Die Hard On, aka Die Hard in a Viagra factory) will be played by Rob Schneider.
It’s a difficult job making a sequel, and that’s especially true when you’re making the sequel to The Greatest Action Film Of All Time. We should therefore give a polite round of applause to director Renny Harlin for A) Having the balls to take on such a daunting task, and B) Not making a total pig’s ear of it. He may lack John McTiernan’s magic touch, but he gave the world a solid, enjoyable Die Hard film that did not fall to pieces in its third act or have a scene where John McClane surfs on a jump jet.
Also, he made Deep Blue Sea, which is fully, fully mint.
Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995)
“You are about to have a very bad day.”
“Tell me about it.”
The best word I can use to describe Die Hard With A Vengeance is mink, which is to say it comes tantalisingly close to being mint but then goes a bit wrong at the end. It’s a shame, because for the bulk of its running time this is as good a sequel to Die Hard as you could possibly ask for.
Story-wise, what you get is this: John McClane – back in New York, separated from his wife and two steps (one step) away from being a full-blown alcoholic – is nursing a heavy hangover when he finds himself on the wrong end of a nasty game of ‘Simon Says’. Turns out, the Simon in question is Simon Gruber, brother of Hans Gruber and a man with a similar taste in meticulous plans and thievery. McClane teams up with black sidekick #3 (Samuel L. Jackson) to put a stop to this naughty shit, once again opening up his bag of violence and profanity in the process.
For me, this is the film that best demonstrates John McClane’s defining character trait: large-testicled bull-headedness. I’ve read arguments in the past that it’s his relationship with Holly that defines him, but Die Hard With A Vengeance disproves that theory. He may have chucked Hans Gruber out a window to save his wife, and he may have exploded Colonel Stewart to save his wife; but this time Holly is nowhere to be seen and our hero still insists on foiling this new larcenous plot. Even when Simon Gruber and his murderous girlfriend (played by Muse Troubadour out of Gilmore Girls) escape and McClane could probably just go home and drink a bunch of booze, he gets into a helicopter and flies all the way to Canada just so he can explode the pair of them.
That is one stubborn bastard.
There are several things that Die Hard With A Vengeance gets right. Firstly, John McTiernan returns with another bag of his mint-flavoured magical action pixie dust. Hooray for John McTiernan. Secondly, we’re in odd number territory so we get Jeremy Irons as a worthy adversary for McClane. Hooray for Jeremy Irons. And thirdly, the film does a great job of adhering to the Die Hard formula but not so closely that it feels like another retread of the original. Hooray for, um, throwing in a few new ideas but not throwing out all the important old ideas we liked so much in parts 1 and 2.
What it gets wrong is the ending, which sours the mintness of the rest of the film. If your story is set within the confines of Manhattan Island, your story should be resolved within the confines of Manhattan Island, just like Die Hard ended in the building and Die Hard 2 ended in the airport. Events should not come to a head in Canada after McClane follows the flimsiest clue in the history of action cinema (Gruber’s aspirin bottle) to track down the bad guys. On the DVD’s commentary track, screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh admits it’s a shitty ending, which is refreshingly candid, but it begs the question: Why the fuck didn’t you fix it?
Had Jonathan “I Stopped Die Hard With A Vengeance From Being As Mint As Die Hard’ Hensleigh found a way to, at the very least, bring his story to a more satisfying conclusion on the boat (which seems like it could have been a pretty simple thing to do), what we would have here would be one of the great sequels of action cinema, and a film that could stand proudly beside The Greatest Action Film Of All Time and do that thing with its hand where you try to figure out which of you is taller. Die Hard would win, obviously, but the comparison would not be out of line.
Despite its flaws, this is a very good, very enjoyable film, and a worthwhile outing for our favourite stubborn bastard.
I wish I could say the same about the bland plastic garbage coming up next.
Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)
“On your tombstone it should read: ‘Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”
“How ‘bout: ‘Yippee-ki-yay, mother(GUNSHOT)!’”
You know what? Fuck this film. Live Free Or Die Hard is not mint. Live Free Or Die Hard does not even know how to spell mint. Live Free Or Die Hard would not be mint even if it fell into a giant vat of mint sauce with a family pack of Tic Tacs shoved up its ass.
Live Free Or Die Hard is wank.
The story goes: Disgruntled computer nerd Thomas Gabriel launches a virtual attack on the east coast of America as a pretext for nicking what seems like all of the money in the entire United States. Only John McClane and his smartass computer nerd sidekick can save the day, for some reason.
First up, that ridiculous story. There’s an unwritten law that says every successive sequel must be at least fifty percent bigger than its predecessor. Therefore, the Die Hard series has progressed from Die Hard in an office building to Die Hard in an airport to Die Hard in Manhattan to… Die Hard in a country. It’s good to play around with the formula or the adventures of John McClane would become stale – that’s what I liked so much about Die Hard With A Vengeance – but this film takes the embiggening tendencies of sequels to a preposterous extreme. The villainous plan in Live Free Or Die Hard is far, far, far too huge to believe that one man, no matter how stubborn he may be, can foil it.
Also, and this is pure speculation on my part, but if an actual terrorist attack of this enormity were unleashed on American soil, wouldn’t the president let slip the dogs of war as well as sending everyone who has ever seen the film Hackers to internment camps to be water-boarded?
Relying on one obstinate copper and a nerd with a shit beard seems distinctly un-American to me.
Next, there’s John McClane himself. He’s still stubborn and he still gets beaten up a lot, so that’s pretty good, but he doesn’t smoke like McClane, he doesn’t swear like McClane (unless you count the harder cut of the film, which has poorly dubbed-on ‘motherfuckers’), and he has apparently borrowed Rambo’s magical invulnerability bubble, which changes him from the relatable everyman of part 1 into yet another boring indestructible superhero. He doesn’t even look like his old self. In fact, with his bald head and leather jacket he looks like a guy on his way to a Vic Mackey look-alike convention. What’s the point of a Die Hard sequel if we don’t feel like we’re seeing our favourite stubborn bastard back in action?
The final nail in Die Hard’s coffin is Timothy Olyphant, who falls victim to the even number curse established in part 2. When this guy was cast, I was pretty pleased. He’s a good actor (excellent on Deadwood) and he’s played charming asshole types before in films like The Girl Next Door and Go. Die Hard villain seemed like a part he could really sink his teeth into, but instead he just picks it up, sniffs it a bit, then puts it down again without even compensating by throwing in some naked Karate. When you’re outshone by your hench-persons (Maggie Q and Cyril Rafaelli are both good in limited roles), you have failed to provide suitable competition for the hero of the piece.
Wait, that’s not the final nail. There’s one more miserable nail to go. I almost forgot, Kevin Smith is in this film as a funny fat computer nerd who lives in his mother’s basement and collects Star Wars shit. Nothing more needs to be said about that - it speaks for itself.
After one classic film and two flawed but enjoyable sequels, it’s a shame to see the Die Hard series arrive at this point. You could argue that it has a smidgen of value when considered as a bland, generic, family-friendly, twenty-first century action movie – turn off your brain, don’t think too much about how little sense the whole thing makes, enjoy the glossy Michael Bay-esque visuals and new car smell – but I say fuck that. And fuck Michael Bay, too, while we’re at it. Die Hard can and should be better than that. Die Hard should not be wank.
Live Free Or Die Hard is wank, though.
If they ever do another Die Hard, I’ve got my fingers crossed they can find a way to extricate John McTiernan from his legal troubles and let him finish the series with some dignity. It’ll be an odd numbered sequel, so we’ll at least get a good villain. My vote goes to Brian Cox (as Daddy Gruber, maybe?), but any classically trained British actor will do fine. If Sylvester Stallone can still be Rocky and Rambo at his age, Bruce Willis ought to have at least one more John McClane adventure left in him. One where he where he gets to be as stubborn as ever, foil an elaborate scheme, kill a snooty European bad guy, smoke cigarettes and say motherfucker a lot, and not, under any circumstances, become buddies with a nerd.
Do it for us, Bruce Willis and John McTiernan.
Make Die Hard mint again.
P.S. While I was writing the last part of this review, an episode of The X-Files was playing in the background. During this episode, just as I was coming to the end of the review, there was a scene where a character was watching the original Die Hard on television. It was the bit where John McClane jumps off Nakatomi Plaza with a fire hose tied around his waist. How weird is that? I choose to take this as a sign that the Gods of Mint concur with my conclusion that one final Die Hard instalment is required to restore balance to the force and whatnot.
P.P.S. Further titles for potential Die Hard sequels:
Live And Let Die Hard
If You’re Gonna Die Hard, Die Hard With Your Boots On
I Hate Myself And I Want To Die Hard
The Die Harder They Come, The Die Harder They Fall
If I Should Die Hard Think Only This Of Me, That There Is Some Corner Of A Foreign Field That Is Forever England (this is one for all you WWI poetry fans out there)