I swore to her that I would re-watch each film, one a day for four days, and report my findings back to her. So this is for you, Meredith.
RANKING THE DIE HARD FILMS (or: Why Live Free or Die Hard is the Second-Best in the Series)
Prior to beginning my journey through John McClane’s adventures, I did a little research as to how different film critics and sites ranked them. Film critic Leonard Maltin (known to me because of Doug Benson’s The Leonard Maltin Game that he plays on every episode of his Doug Loves Movies podcast) gave each of the four films three stars. No help there. Thanks, Len. Rotten Tomatoes gives the films, in order, freshness ratings of 94, 65, 50 and 82. (In case you’re not familiar with RT, that’s not an average of the scores that the films were given, but instead the percentage of reviews that said the film was good. A film is considered “fresh” on the RT site if it has a freshness rating of 60% or higher.) That would certainly seem to lend my argument some merit. The final area I checked was IMDb’s user ratings; Die Hard got an 8.3, Die Hard 2 got a 7.0, Die Hard 3 got a 7.5 and Live Free or Die Hard got a 7.4.
So, in brief summation:
• Leonard Maltin – four-way tie
• Rotten Tomatoes – 1, 4, 2, 3
• IMDb – 1, 3, 4, 2
How would I feel upon re-watching? Let’s find out!
There’s very little to be said about the first film that hasn’t already been said. It’s an action classic, and justifiably so. What I was immediately struck by, though, was how much of the film could be cut out. Not necessarily entire scenes, but the film felt a little loose and a little too long. It clocks in at 2 hours and 12 minutes, but could probably be sliced down to an hour 40 or an hour 50 without losing much.
The first film sets the bar for both action movies and Christmas films. It’s the ultimate Christmas movie, and if I had to suggest three Christmas-themed things to watch, this would absolutely be one of them. (Along with Jingle All the Way and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”) It boasts the best baddie of the series, an Alan Rickman masterpiece where he enunciates “Mr. McClane” with the same foreboding tone that tweens would later come to fear in his role as Severus Snape (“Mr. Potter…”). And it has one of the most entertaining characters in any of the movies: Argyle, the fast-talkin’ limo driver who spends the whole film listening to Run-DMC and talking on his car phone. What a dude.
I won’t waste more time on this review because there’s no way any of the other three films are better.
The main problem that Die Hard 2 suffers from is that it rides a little too strongly on the coattails of the first film. Being released just shy of two years after the first (Two Christmas-themed movies in July! Awesome!) , it was inevitable that there would be references and winks in regards to the first film. However, they seem to pop up more than they should. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” McClane opines halfway through the film. (This is echoed in one of the film’s final lines, as Holly asks, “John, why does this keep happening to us?”) Characters constantly reference McClane’s actions at Nakatomi Tower, and everyone who’s anyone knows who McClane is and what he did.
The film also suffers from a looser, less identifiable goal. The baddies (led by William Sadler as Col. Stuart, whom you see pretty much fully-nude within the film’s first three minutes) concoct a crazy plot to free General Espinoza, who is to stand trial for drug trafficking. Their connection is never really established, and they seem overly power-hungry, crashing a plane full of civilians just to show that they really mean business. (But, this is true of a lot of 1980s / 1990s action movies, and they’re pretty much all awesome, so I’m gonna let this slide.) This isn’t a terrible premise, but it’s less concrete than Rickman’s goal to steal $600 million in bank notes from Nakatomi Tower’s safe.
With all that bashing, though, there’s still a lot of fun to be had. McClane STABS A GUY IN THE EYE WITH A FREAKING ICICLE IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIGHT. That’s enough to warrant the two hours! There’s also a pretty sweet on-the-wing-of-a-plane fight that serves as the film’s climax. There’s also a pretty cool (and somewhat believable) double-cross that comes halfway through the film, which you don’t really see coming.
With those sweet scenes, though, it’s just a shame that there’s not much that happens in the way of action in the film’s first hour. The crashed civilian plane comes just about at the hour mark, and there’s little in terms of gunfight or action before then. (Compare this to the first, which had action throughout, and you can’t help but feel let down a little bit.)
One last thing to note: If it wasn’t for Holly, McClane would have care-free Christmases. Instead, he visits her at work and has to pick her up from the airport, which only leads to him getting in trouble.
Perhaps the film in the series that least relates to what being a Die Hard movie is (more about that after the write-ups for this and Live Free), Die Hard 3 responds to my one chief complaint about Die Hard 2: not enough action early on. What does John McTiernan do in his return to the director’s chair? He blows up a building in the film’s first two minutes! That’s action!
Where the story becomes kind of forced is when Brother Gruber asks for McClane. In the first two films, McClane finds himself in harm’s way; in this one, he’s explicitly asked for. Rather than sitting at home, nursing off a hangover headache like he would be, he’s drawn into service.
Speaking of drawn into service, I get that it’s an action movie and some suspension of disbelief is needed, but would cops really risk a civilian so willingly? After McClane hooks up with Zeus (in a nice nod to then one-year-old Pulp Fiction, re-uniting Willis and Samuel L. Jackson), Brother Gruber demands that the two of them (McClane “and the Samaritan”) follow him on his wild goose chase. I don’t know how real law enforcement works, since the extent of my knowledge pretty exclusively comes from movies, but in OTHER movies, cops do everything they can to protect civilians. I dunno.
(Oh, also on another side note before I forget, another nice send-up to Pulp Fiction is the mention of Captain Kangaroo.)
Die Hard With a Vengeance further strays from the Die Hard formula by masking who the real baddie is until 42 minutes into the 2-hour movie. You know he’s of Germanic heritage, but you don’t know he’s Snape’s brother until a third of the way through the movie. Compare this to the first two films, where you find out exactly who McClane’s going to be going up against within the first 15 minutes of the film, and it’s just sort of weird. Not bad weird, just different weird. (More on this later, too.)
Gruber’s separation from the action – with his only interactions coming via telephone – along with McClane being sent all around NYC on a wild goose chase make for a feeling of too distant drama. The stakes are high, I guess, but it’s tough to feel any sense of unease. Things are going on in one place, and everyone else is somewhere else.
One minor gripe I have with this movie, and with the evolution of McClane as a character, is he is WAY too eager to pull the trigger. The one scene in particular where this struck me was in the tunnel, where Gruber’s men are driving the dump trucks full of gold. McClane eases up to a parked dump truck, and without even finding out who’s inside, he pumps both driver and passenger full of lead. Really? Okay.
Two cool action movie moments to report: A DUDE GETS SLICED IN HALF WITH A TRUCK CABLE! IN MID-AIR! Also, McClane pulling a 360 degree turn in his car and shooting out the guys chasing him was pretty unbelievable, but also pretty awesome.
Without going too crazy in-depth here, just a few final shout-outs. Shout-out to Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, who shows up as “Arab Cabbie” in the film! Also, shout-out to Ramsey, N.J., former home to Sports 4 Starters producer Christian Larson! (One of the dump trucks is from John Murray Trucking of Ramsey, N.J.) Also, I’m pouring one out for the loss of Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennaro McClane, who doesn’t show up in this movie (or Live Free).
Ugh. I can tell already that this movie did not live up to what I thought of it. NOT TO SAY THIS IS A BAD MOVIE, as I’m going to fully evaluate them in the next section, but still.
Before I pan it too much, DOUBLE BONUS POINTS for featuring Timothy Olyphant (who plays the coolest character I’ve ever seen, Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens on FX’s fantastic series Justified) and also Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Lucy Gennaro McClane), who is beautiful and also awesome in Death Proof. (Also, has Zeljko Ivanek ever been in a TV series or movie where he doesn’t wear a suit? I think I’ve only seen him in TV’s The Event and in this movie, but he’s basically the same character.) Anyway…
So, the weirdest thing about this movie is that it was based on an article called “A Farwell to Arms” written for Wired Magazine by John Carlin in May 1997. When did the Die Hard series become Law and Order, ripping story ideas from headlines? I’m not going to read the whole article, because it’s long and sort of boring-ish and I just watched a movie about it, but you can read it here.
McClane is once again thrust into the action, rather than having action develop around him. The U.S. Government requests “a senior detective” to go pick up a hacker. Why? Because without it, there’d be no movie. I’m pretty sure any common patrolman could have picked up Justin Long, but who knows. (Also, what’s the deal with the guys trying to blow up Justin Long’s apartment? You have the balls and the wherewithal to plant C-4 in his computer tower, apparently, but don’t have a remote detonator? You require that he presses CONTROL + ALT + DELETE to set it off? And your backup plan is guns? Huh?)
Probably more a product of the ever-ramping up action of films from the mid-90s into the 2000s, there is probably more action in this film than in the other three combined. Not that that’s a bad thing – it’s a very entertaining thing, in fact – but it doesn’t really feel much like a Die Hard movie. (More on that later, too.)
What’s sort of cool about this movie is that the bad guys use technology to do their bidding, just like they did in Die Hard 2. (Also, is John McTiernan as afraid of technology as John McClane is? His two movies have more traditional baddies with guns and bombs, while the other two movies have much brainier baddies. Sorry, Hans, you’re still pretty smart.)
Two final things that struck me: when did McClane learn to fly? Why did he learn to fly? He skipped some lessons, but can still pilot a chopper from D.C. to Baltimore. Okay.
Secondly, this film reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Both seem, on some level, of a passing of the torch from old-timer to young gun. I know there’s a Die Hard 5 in the works, and I guarantee Willis will be back, and it won’t be Justin Long running around blowing things up, so it’s not as close of a comparison as it seemed that Shia LeLaBeouf would take over the Indy series. But in both movies, you have a young guy helping the older, grizzled vet out on things he probably could have done himself a movie or two ago.
Also, two nice shout-outs to the series: the movie takes place on 4th of July weekend (which makes literally NO DIFFERENCE except for the fact that the police are short-handed, so they have to call in McClane, and for the “enjoy your Independence Day!” message in the hacked TV transmission), which follows the first two films’ theme of having a holiday-related story. Also, nice little shout-out to a mocha-skinned Agent Johnson – it’s like the black Agent Johnson and the white Agent Johnson from the first film had an Agent Johnson baby!
After re-watching all four movies and writing 2,000 words about my observations, I’ve realized one thing about the series: the order fans rank them in really comes down to how you define what a Die Hard movie is. If you like to see Bruce Willis running around, blowing things up, then you could (wrongly) argue that the fourth is the best. (If this was your argument, you’d probably go 4-1-2-3. And be wrong.)
Having seen all four movies in the last 72 hours, a few themes arise: the best Die Hard movies are one where McClane finds himself embedded in the action, without being forced in; the most tense films are actually lacking in action, as the directors tend to lend the action build gradually; the best bad guys are the ones who are known from the start; every woman in the series (except for Maggie Q in Live Free) is written in a very sexist fashion; and McClane is unbelievably technologically averse.
Let me start from the last of my points and work my way up. McClane doesn’t know anything about technology, and it’s sometimes funny and sometimes annoying. I get that this originated in the 80s, and cops didn’t need to know stuff like that, but still! He comes off sound like David Cross in that Mr. Show sketch where he abhors technology.
As for the women, you could argue that Bedelia’s Holly is a strong woman, but both she and Lucy want to stake their independence through their most intimate detail: their name. They both want to distance themselves from John, and do so by using their surname Gennaro. BUT, as soon as the shit hits the fan, they both run to Daddy / John and say, “Man, my last name is McCLANE!” It’s sort of embarrassing. Maggie Q, in all like 20 minutes of screen time in the series’ fourth chapter, is the most confident and effective woman in the series, sort of by default. There aren’t many other women in the series, aside from the lady cop / secretary from Die Hard With a Vengeance, whose only line worth remembering is her saying, “The kids are gonna be okay, but if we wait any longer, I’M gonna pee my pants!” Yuck. Write a real woman into the fifth movie, please.
(Also, as a side note, where’s McClane’s Magical Negro in the fourth film? [In literature, for those of you who don’t know and think I’m racist, the Magical Negro is a character who helps propel the protagonist through their powers; Michael Clarke Duncan’s character John Coffey in The Green Mile is an example of this.] Though no black man in the series actually has powers, McClane is helped by Carl Winslow (aka Al Powell aka Reginald VelJohnson, such an awesome name) in the first film, Art Evans as Leslie Barnes in the second and Samuel L. Jackson as Zeus in the third. There’s basically no one of color in the fourth.)
Now we get into what makes what Die Hard better than the rest. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but in the four films, the three bad guys who are the most compelling are the ones whose faces and identities you know from the start: Hans Gruber, Col. Stuart and Thomas Gabirel. Brother Gruber lacks purpose and any level of emotional impact because you don’t know who he is for almost half the movie! Having a prevalent bad guy introduced early on makes them cooler and more bad-ass. It also gets you excited for McClane to ultimately take them down.
As the series goes on, the mindless action becomes more and more prevalent, ultimately culminating in the explosion-filled Live Free. Above, I wrote about how little action there is in the series’ first two films, but arguably those are the most tense. Why? Because you wonder how the baddies are going to strike next, rather than having another explosion or attack thrown in your face. (I can’t get too upset here, though, just because I love Timothy Olyphant.)
But finally, the most important element, and what I feel defines a Die Hard film more than anything else, is sort of two related parts: where the action takes place and how McClane is put into that situation. The first film is a perfect example of where the action takes place: he’s visiting his wife at work and gets sucked into the drama that unfolds. He’s pretty literally confined to one building. The second film has him pretty much confined to just one place as well, but an airport gives him more room to run around than a building does. The third film blows this open and leaves him free to run about all of New York City, and the fourth film blows this open even further as he traverses from New Brunswick to Camden to Washington D.C. to Baltimore.
But perhaps the more important part of that final qualifier is how he’s put into the situation. Or, as I imagine the writers saying, “How can we get John McClane in this predicament?” He finds himself in a building, he finds himself in an airport. HE’S JUST THERE. Things happen around him. Cool! But then, all of a sudden, he’s requested by name? He’s sent to pick up a kid because they need a senior detective? Lame. Too far of a stretch.
I’m over 3,000 words here, and have laid out pretty much all the ideas I have about the series. With all that said, I must admit that I was wrong about the series’ order. You win, Meredith. But I don’t think you’re right, either. I think after re-watching all four films and my amateur critical analysis, the proper order is as such:
(1) DIE HARD
(2) DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER
(3) LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD
(4) DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE