“Oh we are just up to our ass in terrorists again aren't we John?”
I don't think I'd even hit my teens and as a Christmas treat my school (somewhat unbelievably) had decided to show our entire year one of two movies: Robocop or Die Hard. I'd never heard of Die Hard and desperately wanted to see Robocop, so my vote was for the former. But they picked the latter. Over two hours later, having had most of the older staff members (predominantly female) walk out, and you had a room-full of boys desperately wanting to take their shoes off and run around the building shouting “Yippee-Ki-Yay...(you know the rest)”. It was one of the best movies that I had ever seen, and still remains an absolute all-time classic action thriller. After two enjoyable sequels it seemed as though the character of John McClane (embodied by Bruce Willis, who went on to stardom off the back of it) had died with the rest of the 80s/90s action heroes, pillars of non-P.C. machismo borne of an age when kids wanted to grow up to be cops or firemen or spies and not wizards who play stupid imaginary games in posh Eton-esque schools. Stallone had 'matured', Schwarzenegger had dropped movies for politics and Willis was having a poor run of dismal bad-hair-day productions. But just when all hope appeared to have been lost, rumours of a fourth Rambo film hit the 'net. With Rocky Balboa returning Stallone to form (and proving that he was indeed capable of another Rambo escapade), the timing was perfect for a fourth Die Hard instalment. And so, twelve years after his last outing, John McClane returned to our screens, just as tough and hard to kill as he had ever been. Here we are, the same year as its release, finding the classic action collection - now a quartet (sorry, 'quadrilogy') - hitting Blu-ray just over a month before Christmas. So, are they all still any good? And is the new addition truly worthy of the Die Hard moniker?
“Who are you?”
“Just a fly in the ointment. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.”
It's Christmas Eve and John McClane has travelled all the way to New York to join his estranged wife and spend Christmas as a family. The wife, Holly, moved to Los Angeles because her career was taking off, and McClane stayed behind to deal with a backlog of low-lives as a cop in the NYPD. After a tentative welcome, our old-school cop finds himself an unnamed guest in Holly's workplace, the Nakatomi Plaza, a superstructure which terrorists have just decided to besiege. However, the terrorists, led by the British-accented villain Hans Gruber, have a grander scheme than merely exchanging hostages for the freedom of incarcerated colleagues, and it all comes down to money. The fly in their ointment is McClane, who manages to take on the armed group single-handedly, and pick them off one by one in a bid to keep the hostages - including his wife - alive.
Die Hard is one of the top ten action movies of all time, a true classic that redefined the action hero, adding the dimension of the average everyday working-man's character who, complete with soiled vest, no footwear and a fifteen-shot Beretta, has to make his way through floor after floor of terrorists who have taken hostages in a skyscraper. It has spawned so many imitators since (some good, like Seagal's best movie, Under Siege, and Keanu Reeves' Speed, despite the fact that their respective sequels were not so good) not just in terms of concept, but also in terms of specific ideas and characters (the posh Brit villain and 'henchman who returns from the seemingly dead for one last assault' are ideas that have since become something of a cliché) and has a re-watch value that exceeds many movies both before and since. The action scenes are truly memorable (who can forget McClane crawling around air-ducts mumbling to himself, with only his zippo to light the way, or jumping off the exploding roof of the skyscraper?), the lines are actually quite funny and make the character remarkably endearing, the fights are brutal and realistic (the hero knows no martial arts, often winning through luck rather than skill) and the story itself is solid, coherent and makes for over two hours of sheer entertainment.
“Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...”
Willis himself is on top form, profanities pouring out of his mouth with every line he speaks, and mumbling a sarcastic self-narration throughout as if this were just another bad day at the office. Fresh from his comedic TV role in Moonlighting, he slipped into his action-man role as John McClane with remarkable ease, giving audiences a hero who was much easier to relate to than his muscle-bound predecessors (Ironically the story was originally pitched to Arnie as a sequel to Commando, and then to Sly, eventually reaching Willis when all others declined). Arguably he was never better than here in this first instalment, although his role in the Shane 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' Black-penned Last Boy Scout is a strong contender, but returning to his character over the last two decades has often proved to be a good career decision.
Facing off against Willis, and providing us not only with the best villain from the series but one of the best villains of all time, we get Alan Rickman - also on top form, despite this being his movie debut - as the fiendishly clever Hans Gruber. As aforementioned, the Brit (or at least British-accented) villain has become something of a cliché now, but back in '88 he was super-cool and pretty damn menacing to boot, particularly as embodied by Rickman. After all, can you remember the last time a villain actually made good on his promise to kill somebody on the count of five if they did not divulge some information? Even M:i-3's outstanding pre-titles sequence in this vein was ruined by a contrived plot-twist reversing its effect further into the movie.
“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”
Although the rest of the actors walk in the shadows of Willis and Rickman, they are all well-chosen for interesting roles - like the bumbling beat cop who happens upon the siege (Reginald Vel Johnson), the dangerously stupid police chief who plays right into the terrorists' hands (Paul Gleason), the gung-ho FBI agents who brashly rush in to save the day (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), the annoying new reporter who deserves to and finally gets his come-uppance (William Atherton) or the classic helpless heroine (Bonnie Bedalia as Holly).
It's one of those 10 out of 10 movies, perfect from start to finish. Perfect premise, story and script, actors, setting, cinematography and general direction. The soundtrack is superb, the explosive set-pieces unique, the ideas fresh and memorable, and the whole thing basically redefined both the action movie itself and the concept of the action hero himself. And whilst studios could never truly hope to top it, they certainly had good reason to think that there was plenty of money to be made from turning this into a franchise. 10/10.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Christmas again, and this time Holly McClane is en route to Washington, with her husband John McClane waiting patiently to meet her at the airport. It doesn't take long before he gets into trouble, however, maintaining his 'wrong place, wrong time' motto in finding himself combating a group of mercenaries who have taken over the Airport and are intending to crash the circling planes (including Holly's) unless their demands are met. Once again McClane has to almost single-handedly save the day.
Returning to the role just two years after his first outing, with no memorable movies in between, it was clear that Willis wanted to consolidate his action-man persona as John McClane. Strangely, I've always had a soft spot for Die Hard 2, despite the fact that it is generally derided by critics and the public alike. I think the problem lies in the fact that it is perceived as being largely just a rehash of the first movie's story. In actual fact, on a first viewing, most probably found it quite original - ok, so returning characters are crow-barred clumsily into the plot, like McClane's wife returning to once again be in peril, but who could have predicted the twist about the military unit sent in to stop the terrorists? Or even the explosive ending when McClane is effectively defeated by the villain, only to set his plane on fire? I think the biggest trouble is that, once you know the twists, the film is infinitely less watchable. Unlike the first movie, it is much harder to revisit on any level other than the purely visceral.
Action-wise, we once again get some great set-pieces, from the shocking crash of the first aircraft to the grenades vs. ejector seat sequence, the snow-mobile shoot-out on the ice to the brutal finale atop an aircraft wing. If there had been no Die Hard, this would have probably been rated much higher, but coming on the heels of a superior predecessor, and drawing so many parallels with it, the sequel could not hope to avoid walking in its shadow.
“I don't like to fly.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I don't like to lose either.”
Cast-wise it's really just Willis' baby this time around, and he's just as endearing in his world-weary average everyday cop role. He suffers slightly, however, from having a lacklustre villain to play off against. William Sadler as Colonel Stuart is about as animated as Robert Patrick in T-2 (oddly enough, Patrick himself gets a minor cameo as a disposable henchman), despite the fact that he does not have the excuse of playing a cyborg. Foolishly trying to combine the ideas of the smart villain and the hard-to-kill henchman, the end result is a character that never truly satisfies as either. As aforementioned, it was also foolish to work in the returning individuals from the first movie - the bumbling beat cop Al, the irritating reporter and the helpless wife, as well as create some other comparable characters like the ignorant police chief, here played by Dennis Franz.
Overall, Die Hard 2 is a solid, well-composed action thriller, marred slightly by a seeming lack of originality that I believe is exponentially worsened by each successive viewing. Still, at the time (and on first viewing) it made a solid, tense companion-piece for the first instalment and marked another thrillingly good action vehicle for rising star Willis. (It should be noted that the theatrical release for Die Harder was severely cut, and it was only because I first saw the movie on VHS that I managed to avoid being frustrated by this fact - the first case of the much-criticised pattern of cutting Die Hard movies) 8/10.
Die Hard 3: Die Hard with a Vengeance
We're in New York this time, and John McClane is the victim of an elaborate game being played by the terrorist Simon Gruber. Brother of the lead villain from the Nakatomi incident, he is out to avenge Hans' death at the hands of McClane, although his vendetta is merely the tip of the iceberg in his plan to destroy the US economy and become rich by stealing the gold out of a New York vault that rivals Fort Knox. Reluctantly partnered with fast-talking shop-owner Zeus, McClane has to face off against the terrorists and once again save the day.
“I threw his little brother off the thirty-second floor of Nakatomi Towers out in L.A. I guess he's a little pissed at me.”
“You mean to tell me that I'm caught up in all this sh*t because some white cop threw some white asshole's brother off a roof?”
Some five years after the second instalment, Willis returned to the role that made him famous after a mix-bag of movies in between (the high points being Last Boy Scout and Pulp Fiction, the many lows including Striking Distance and Colour of Night), and it was a good move. John McTiernan also returned to direct it, after passing the mantle to Cliffhanger's Renny Harlin for the second movie because he was tied into The Hunt for Red October, and you can immediately tell that there is an increase in quality. It helps that the script was first intended for a Lethal Weapon sequel (after the first attempts at a third Die Hard movie died some three years earlier when Under Siege did the 'Die Hard on a Boat' thing remarkably successfully, for a Seagal movie) allowing a more original animal to be fashioned from the classic Die Hard mould. Arguably it does not quite follow the pattern established by the first two movies (and continued in the fourth outing), instead adopting the reluctant buddy-buddy format - thankfully to great effect. It was a stroke of genius casting Samuel L. Jackson opposite Willis, cementing his angry preacher-man style persona which has defined his career and making for some absolutely superb repartee between the two of them.
This goes somewhat to making up for the slightly disappointing villain, Simon, played by Jeremy Irons complete with a dubious German accent. He's perfect on the other end of the phone for the first half of the movie, or even suit-clad (as was his on-screen brother villain played by Alan Rickman in the first movie) but as soon as you see him wandering around in a lilac vest wielding an M60 machine gun you start to lose the ability to suspend disbelief. He is clearly a capable villain - and certainly not a negative point about the movie, quite the opposite - they just tried too hard to distinguish him from the bad guy in Die Hard and in doing I think they lost some of the audience. The supporting roles aren't too bad: Graham Greene as one of McClane's cop buddies and Sam Phillips as the ruthless hench-woman Katya, although the thuggish lead male henchman is largely forgettable - probably mostly thanks to some rigorous film censorship. Which brings me to the only significant flaw with the third Die Hard movie: it was cut to shreds on release (as with the second movie), leaving two of the key fight sequences (the elevator shootout, which could have been a truly memorable scene, and the fight between McClane and the lead male henchman) distinctly unsatisfactory. This also slightly diluted the disappointing climax (which could have easily been made better through use of the Alternate Ending, which you can view in the Special Features).
“John... in the back of the truck you're driving, there's 13 billon dollars worth in gold bullion. I wonder would a deal be out of the question?”
“Yeah, I got a deal for you. Come out from that rock you're hiding under, and I'll drive this truck up your ass.”
Still, relatively minor niggles aside, this is still a thoroughly enjoyable movie. The stunts are pretty big (and, as was apparent in the Die Hard series, increasingly implausible), the script witty, the story solid and the action tight. Although arguably it was not really a Die Hard story, per se, when it was recently released uncut (or as uncut as we are ever likely to see it) in the West, what had been previously an enjoyable Lethal Weapon-esque buddy-buddy actioner finally graduated to being truly deserving of the Die Hard name. And thanks to the excellent decision to team up Willis and Jackson with some great dialogue between them, this addition almost rivals the first movie in terms of re-watch value. 9/10
Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard
Returning to New York, terrorism has gone to the next level, with a group of mercenaries using the Internet to hack into high level Government facilities and bring the United States to a standstill. Old school veteran McClane, who is now having troubles with his estranged teenage daughter, is once again on the scene, finding himself the unexpected protector of a young internet hacker who may be the key to stopping the terrorists. Needless to say, through brute force and assault tactics that involve firing cars at his opponents, he faces off against the well-organised criminal unit in a bid to save the country.
Since the gap between Die Hard with a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard is significantly bigger than between any of the other movies, the return of Willis as McClane was much more of a surprise this time around. And the first comments from the cast and crew left fans brimming with high expectations. Willis himself described it as bigger and bloodier than ever before, and arguably as good as the first outing. Was he wrong? Well, after the first two movies, the whole “Die Hard in a...” idea had been ditched in favour of the buddy-buddy routine that was With a Vengeance, and whilst this purportedly final instalment is clearly designed to return the franchise to that format, it does not forget the things that made the third addition so refreshingly new. The trouble is, upon cinematic release, it was found that Die Hard 4.0 had been cut to shreds, leaving it arguably the least 'Die Hard' of the series, and leaving hardcore fans disappointed that their brutal 80s/90s action icon had been diluted by the need for catering to a broader (i.e. younger) audience.
In actual fact, the fourth film is still pretty damn good fun, a solid, cleverly plotted action thriller that combines classic, memorable action set-pieces and brutal fights/shootouts with classic Willis one-liners to good effect. Willis, using his age rather than pretending to be younger than he is, is on top form, pulling bad-guys through walls, jumping off things that are exploding and always making time for a witty remark. And his character even gets a little more depth this time around, mostly as a side-effect to being partnered up with the teen hacker he has to protect. This team-work also allows for some clever repartee between the two, a la Die Hard with a Vengeance, although Justin Long is no Samuel L. Jackson. Long, playing the hacker, is probably best remember for his part in Dodgeball, despite starring in the two schlock horror Jeepers Creepers movies, and he does surprisingly well here, in a role which could have easily provided the 'Jar Jar Binks' of the movie.
“You know what you get for being a hero? Nothing. You get shot at. A little pat on the back, blah blah blah, attaboy. You get divorced. Your wife can't remember your last name. Kids don't wanna talk to you. Get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me kid, nobody wants to be that guy.”
Villains, as is clear from the previous movies, are a real hit-and-miss affair, and Timothy Olyphant was a curious choice to play the brain behind the net-based attack on the U.S. The star of the superior HBO Western Deadwood (and upcoming man behind the new Hitman adaptation) he is clearly capable of playing dubious characters, I'm just not sure he works well as a fiendishly clever villain. Certainly he has his moments in Die Hard 4.0, and he never wanders around in a silly lilac vest like Jeremy Irons in With a Vengeance, but he still does not quite fit the bill for me. He does not have the presence of either Rickman or Irons, nor even the physical skills of Sadler in the second instalment.
In addition, whilst Maggie Q's kick-ass femme fatale certainly looks good, her fight with Willis is a little disappointing. Far superior is free-running Cyril Raffaelli as the martial arts henchman who proves the slipperiest for Willis to deal with. Raffaelli provides many of the high points with regard to the villainous (and real stunt action) side of this instalment. It's also worth noting Death Proof's Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane's suitably sassy teenage daughter and Sunshine's Cliff Curtis as one of the lead Government Agents trying to stop this disaster. The less said about Kevin Smith's cameo the better, as I found his character to be the most crowbarred-in of the lot.
When it comes to the action, Die Hard 4.0 is certainly the biggest and loudest of the bunch, with some spectacular set-pieces. Sure some are just silly (like the dodging the spinning car CG-fest, that better suited Spiderman 2), and some are a bit too much for the character of McClane (the True Lies-esque plane sequence) but some are pretty memorable (like firing a car at a helicopter) and you can largely excuse the over-the-top nature of this addition because it is so damn entertaining. In fact, that is the biggest selling point of the movie: whatever you might criticise it for, it's pretty good fun to watch, and if all you are missing is some more swearing and blood, then most fans will be quite content in the knowledge that the uncut version is being released on DVD.
“You just killed a helicopter with a car.”
Answer in Blu-ray Theatrical Cut:
“I ran out of bullets.”
Answer in Uncut DVD Version:
“People get killed by hundreds of thousands of cars every year...this is only four more.”
New Lines available only in Uncut DVD Version:
“I'm gonna' kill this motherf***er and get my daughter back. Or get my daughter back and kill this motherf***er”
“Shut the f*** up!”
“Bonnet's on fire. This can't be good. This is a bad f***kin' idea.”
“F*** you bitch!”
Reinstating all the swearing that diluted this instalment (and adding in some different lines), as well as making most of the hits more bloody, the uncut release clearly makes this film more deserving of the Die Hard label, but the shame of it is that on Blu-ray - the supposedly next generation format - we just get the PG-13 theatrical cut. It makes no sense: surely the majority of Hi Definition viewers, given the price restrictions, are working twenty- or thirty-somethings? Why would we want the PG-13 cut? How many under 13s are going to pick this up? It makes even less sense in the box-set since it is included in a package with three other movies that are all R-rated, but I guess that's just because they also could not be bothered to release two Blu-ray versions. I'm one of the many appalled and disappointed by the decision made here, and it marks one of the biggest down-sides to this box set. It also leaves fans who felt the fourth Die Hard outing to be a little watered down faced with the option of either downgrading and buying it on DVD or hanging around until Fox pull their thumbs out for another edition. PG-13 Blu-ray Cut Version: 7/10; Uncut version, currently only available on DVD: 8/10.
So, overall, you have one undisputed classic, a by-the-numbers sequel, an original, engaging third instalment and an enjoyable if diluted (at least on Blu-ray) final film. Any way you cut it, these are four of the best action movies out there, and thus this marks one of the best action movie franchises ever. Willis' reinvented action-hero John McClane is an icon for all ages and I, for one, hope that this is not the end of the Die Hards. But if it is, these four make for a great collection.
“On your tombstone it should say 'Always in the wrong place at the wrong time'.”
“How about 'Yippi-kay-ay, motherf***er.'”
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