I have two strong inclinations right now, the first is to go watch the original “Die Hard”,the second is to take a moment and write about the new film “Live Free or Die Hard”. Obviously we can tell which is winning, it’s even beating out my motivation to write one of three stories I’m working on, that I need to be working on. But how can I not take a moment to talk about one of the most inspiring series I grew up on, and my favorite Christmas movie.
I was 10 years old when I saw the first “Die Hard”, maybe 11 since I wasn’t lucky enough to see it at the theatre. It was however the first “R” rated film I saw by myself. My parents came home from whatever they were doing and I had finished it. 10 or 11 is a pretty young age to witness something as violently powerful as “Die Hard” was. I remember my head yanking back when Mr. Takagi had his brains loosened from his head, my hands clenched in awe as John McClane threw himself off an exploding roof top. Most generations have their films and their heroes; the 70’s had Dirty Harry, late 70’s Luke Skywalker, early 80’s Indiana Jones…these are all great characters, but for me, the character that affected my youth more than any other was Detective John McClane. There was something untouched and pure about this character. Instead of moving head long into action he spent the first part of the movie trying his best to avoid it…hiding out on a level of the building that was under construction, quietly closing a door when he saw the “terrorists” moving past…the last thing he wanted was to work on his vacation it seemed, or to work at all. Maybe that was a bad influence on me, but the great thing about McClane was that under the rough character there was someone trying to be better, someone trying to act polished, sure he’s always been in the wrong place at the wrong time but more importantly somehow he never knows the right thing to say at the right time. This leads me to the most powerful thing about his character, what he wants and loves always reveals itself through his actions and those actions always spoke louder than anything anyone ever said.
Another thing that struck me was the fear in his eyes; fear of death, fear of losing his wife, fear of losing a coke snorting corporate hack that he just met that night! There was fear and desperation. That kind of desperation that means losing your fingernails when trying to claw your way out of a pit. That’s where the tension came from, because you believed his fear, you felt fear yourself. You thought, “Wow, this guy could actually die!”
It was all this because he was presented as a flawed human being. There’s been a lot mentioned in passing about how this human element changed action films from the bloated, testosterone films of the 80’s, and while I’m not going to argue against that, I am going to take a moment and fill in the blanks to the argument as I see it.
I’ve read a few interviews with Bruce (I loathe people that refer to him as the other “B” character of his music career days) and Die Hard at various different places. I tend not to read too much before seeing a movie, so it was done mainly after the initial viewing. One such review was at Rotten Tomatoes, where a lot of things were hinted and suggested at. (Read it here.) One thing Willis mentions is that during the preproduction stages one of the initial screenwriters was talking about the “mythology of Die Hard”. I’ve been thinking about that phrase. The “mythology of Die Hard”. It doesn’t make sense to me. Die Hard has no mythology, that’s what made it work as well as it did. What we saw come to being in the 80’s was the resurrection of the mythological hero thanks to Skywalker in “Star Wars”. Indiana Jones is a mythological hero – dealing with religions and Gods and ancient artifacts, that’s what he’s based on. Certainly more human than what was about to come, but he still had the Joseph Campbell mythos written all over him. Then came the testosterone-laced heroes led by Arnie and Stallone, and what are the characters that populate “Predator”, “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, “Jewel of the Nile” or “Alan Quartermaine”(both respective takes on Indiana), “Terminator”, “Conan”, “Beastmaster”, “Commando”, “Rocky’s 3 and 4” but characters drawn from old English poetry; warriors that are larger than life and take on deities, that rise from the mud and kill hundreds of enemies without so much as flinching when a bullet hits them. It’s perhaps the reason why Stallone fizzled out for awhile as his characters continued to be that larger than life type. He should have learned as Arnie did that a more fragile hero was expected after “Die Hard”. Even his Terminator became…human, so human that it became “Kindergarten Cop” and “True Lies”. While Stallone made…”Judge Dredd”.
No, what “Die Hard” did was it took the mythology out and placed the hero it firmly back on planet earth. Not only did John McClane bleed as much as the bad guys before it was done, but the villains were also just as human, as we witness in Hans Grueber’s line given as an angry retort where you see his intelligence and collectedness give way to an overpowering pride, “I’m an exceptional thief Mrs. McClane and since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.” Or in the character of Karl whose driven to a calm madness in his search for revenge when his brother is killed, or even the look joy seen in the eyes of the henchmen when they finally get that vault open. Villains that are dictated by their intelligence and emotions to me are far more dangerous than a cold blooded hunter like Predator, because you never know what they will do next or how far they will go to get what they want. This is something that Die Hard has prided itself on from the beginning. And this is how Die Hard destroyed the mythology that had been building in cinema over the past decade. These were real people in extreme situations. (Something interesting I read in Creative Screenwriting was how the writers were forced to cut more of McClane out and write in more of the villains, because of Willis’ somewhat conflicting schedule with “Moonlighting”.)
Now how did this effect me as an individual. I remember seeing a trailer with a man in shadows running towards the camera and then you see that it’s John McClane. This was the first time I ever felt excited from viewing a trailer. “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” inspired me to have a high school graduation picture mirror the poster with Willis in his white t glancing to the right. It was unfortunate that the photographer couldn’t keep up with my vision and threw in some cheesy lighting effect behind me. I saw “With a Vengeance” 9 times at the theatre. And now, in 2006, when I saw on-line for the first time the teaser for “Live Free or Die Hard” I almost popped. It wasn’t excitement, but joy! Few things make me screech with laughter, jump up with delight and jog around my apartment. But as I watched it I became worried. Wait, John McClane is bald?! That makes him look more Bruce Willis than John McClane. Justin Long??…but he’s annoying!! Then after the fourth or fifth time admiring the teaser I saw that glint in Willis’ eyes…in a single momentary flash, my hopes were restored. I refused to watch anymore trailers after that (let me tell you how happy I was that I didn’t,) but other reports started surfacing. PG-13!?!? No, I proclaimed. But then I thought. So what. Now days PG-13 is about as strong as R was then. And it’s probably PG-13 because he doesn’t swear endlessly, and maybe because they don’t use cartons of blood every time someone is shot. But I was still hesitant. Then I read a little thing in Creative Screenwriting in which the Director talked about his first reaction to the script when he was brought on board. He said he remembered reading it and thinking that this isn’t how John McClane would act. He wouldn’t want to jump into the fight with his hand raised and say chose me (I’m obviously paraphrasing), he would say, heck no, not me, find someone else. That statement dashed away all worries. I knew McClane would be treated properly, that he was in good hands.
So finally, I get to see the film…
It’s now been a few days since I’ve both seen the film and started this piece, I’ve had two more chances to see “Live Free or Die Hard” (neither which has panned out). And in this episode of one of the greatest action heroes to grace our screen McClane is dieing hard so we can live free, and let me tell you, he dies harder in this film than he has in previous. The man is thrown, spun, rolled, tossed, flung, kicked, punched, dropped, blown up at, shot, chilled, missiled at, almost run over (a couple times) and who knows what else, and yet he keeps on ticking away. The problem of Justin Long disappears ever so quickly as he proves capable of handling the duties of a second banana and Kevin Smith just as good in a smaller but just as potently acted role (maybe it’s his size that displaces the volume of the film in his favor). I would have complained about the use of a family member, but McClane was originated caring about his family members, and that villains of the past have not gone after his family seems even more clueless now that they have, but even the family member, while bogging down other films, adds some nice dimensions to the McClane legacy. McClane, while not a mythological dragon slayer, is still a warrior, when words don’t suit him his brute force of will and strength does, and that seems to be what catches his enemies off guard. No one can cackle or complain like McClane (both get resounding laughs in this new one.) He’s clever, using his street smarts in a film that gets closer in attitude and dimension to the first “Die Hard” than the other two did. And in the end I cheered and clapped more in this film than I have since “With a Vengeance”. Yes, there is more than one moment that elicits hand slapping guffaws during the 2hours and 10minutes of this film.
There’s been enough written about this film now, too many story elements perhaps given away, so I will say this has been my favorite action film this summer, and may prove one of my favorites of the year, as the first “Die Hard” is one of my favorites of all time it’s hard to imagine it not being. A stronger third act kills Spidey 3 and a more concise story helps it overcome Pirates 3. And while it has no special effects, it does just as much damage and is just as big as either of those films, while still remaining incredibly grounded in the characters scrapping sensibilities. One of the things that elevates it is the fact that there’s no need for a reoccurring love interest or plot points. Each Die Hard film carries the character from one year to the next, but thankfully no precise story elements follow. The only other American serial character I can think of is Bond, but McClane has more heart, as we witness in another one of the classic Die Hard moments in which, separated for a moment from the action, we hear him talk about what it means to be a hero, and we see in his eyes and hear in his voice those similar regrets that he only started having in the bathroom in the first as he pulled glass from his feet – the more things change… As I write I feel a strong fondness for the character, as if he were a family member, or someone I had written myself. I had to throw in the first film the other day to find a quote and just the mere action of forwarding and reversing through the images, it was like looking at one of those moments in life in which something took hold of you and taught you something great…it was a memory, images in a photo album…my childhood, and a certain excitement went up and down my spine and a yearning to sit and watch all of it almost pulled me from what I was supposed to be doing. After all this time, 20 years, that a movie could still have such incredible drawing power. The same cannot be said for “Return of the Jedi”. But there I go again, putting Die Hard above Star Wars. Some might cry, “Blasphemy!” but let me say this. There are now more great Die Hard films (4) then there are Star Wars films (2 1/2), then there are Indiana Jones films (3…though the verdict is still out on 4), Alien films (2 1/2), Pirates films (2-that does not include the first film), Spidey films (2 1/2)…the only American series is Bond that has “Die Hard” beat (or the Pink Panther?) and the most recent Bond has picked up on what “Die Hard” first did and that was take the mythology out of the hero and make him a man again…and it was the best Bond I’ve seen in ages. Thankfully, this new “Die Hard” continues to cement the fact that nobody does it better than John McClane into the annals of films history. And regardless of whether this next Indiana installment is great it was hinted at in the RT interview that “Die Hard” may still have it beat with talks of a 5th film. I’m already mentally in line!
To be a Devil’s Advocate…John McClane gets lucky in this film…a lot. Hand to hand fights are resolved relatively quick – nothing has quite matched the lengthy grudge match from the first film, which is what I was hoping for with the wall-jumper. Len Wiseman’s direction is great, but he does suffer from ADD at times (sometimes you can let . The action sequences get a little out of hand towards the end, but somehow the fact that McClane realizes how out of hand it all gets helps. But that’s being picky. The biggest problem with this film, the one that ultimately can’t be helped is the missing Michael Kamen score. His brilliant and memorable score from the first three films somehow elevated the over all product. Sadly Mr. Kamen has been dead now a couple years. It feels a little like Indiana without John Williams. The new scorer is good though and keeps the energy high without it being overzealous like say Hans Zimmer.