(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) I first saw Die Hard with a Vengeance on opening day, and I’m pretty sure I saw it again on DVD ten or fifteen years ago. But I can’t find a mention of it on this site, so here we go: I really, really like the first two-third of this film. It open on the iconic “Summer in the City” soundtrack of a bustling mid-nineties Manhattan before starting to blow stuff up. Then it’s a wild ride through the city, accumulating brain-teasers, going through cheeky overdone action sequences and letting Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson do what they do best. John McTiernan’s direction is exceptionally good and there’s a sense of fun, joy and movement to the story. Every cinephile imprints on the movies of younger years, and mid-to-late nineties action cinema is the standard against which I will forever measure others. Die Hard With a Vengeance’s first two acts is good, solid, highly enjoyable moviemaking. I like it a lot, and I had forgotten just enough details about the movie to be charmed all over again. It’s also a beautiful wide-screen homage to New York City in its multiplicities of glories. Then … the film leaves Manhattan and loses quite a bit of steam. While the script is always big on coincidences, they get actively outrageous by the time our two main characters meet again upstate. By the time we’re on a boat, the film settles down to a far more conventional beat, and the tacked-on ending at the border feels more superfluous than anything else. Still, two-third of a great movie followed by a third of an okay one is better than the average. Contemporary viewers will notice that both Trump and Clinton are name-checked (the latter as a likely “forty third president”), and that a few moments eerily echo the events of 9/11.
(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) I’m sure that I last saw Die Hard 2 roughly ten years ago, but since I can’t find trace of it in my online reviews, let’s have another go at it: A decent follow-up to the first movie, Die Hard 2 leaves the skyscraper for a snow-covered airport and reliably goes for big action sequences no matter their crazy justification. Bruce Willis stars as John MacClaine, a bit more super-powered than in the original but still recognizable as a reluctant everyman hero stuck in a bad situation. It still works pretty well, despite some rough special effects and occasional lulls: Director Renny Harlin was climbing at the top of his game back then, and the tension of the film is effectively handled. What I didn’t remember from previous viewing is how heavily saturated by eighties politics the script remains—the references to Irangate are barely camouflaged, and the film does carry a perceptible whiff of Reagan-era political concerns. But of course, the point are the action sequences, and Die Hard 2 does measure up decently as an action film. While not the enduring classic of its prequel, Die Hard 2 remains a good action movie … and it still lives up to expectations today.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The Die Hard series has had its high and lows, but if everyone agrees that the first one was the best, then everyone will recognize that this fifth one is the worst. A joyless action film in which a bland action hero traipses through Russia while insulting the Russians and reminding everyone that he’s supposed to be on holidays, Die Hard 5 becomes the generic end-point of any distinctive series: a film that could have featured any other actors with any other character names. To be fair, Die Hard 5‘s problems are much bigger than simply ignoring the character of John McClane: Much of the blame should go to a dumb script, with the rest generously gift-wrapped by director John Moore’ incoherent action sequences. There are few words to describe how stupid a screenplay this is, marred with coincidences, generic situations, implausible choices and tortured plans far too complicated to be viable. Die Hard 5 seems to be stuck with only one helicopter as an action device, and seems to milk its presence well past the point of diminishing return. The action sequences can’t be bothered to spatially orient viewers, instead relying on copious shaking, dishwater-gray cinematography and blatant disregard for plausibility. The car chase around Moscow, which should have been a standout sequence in any other movie, is here shot in such an incomprehensible fashion that it becomes irritating less than midway through. While Die Hard 5 would have us believe into some good-old father/son rivalry, the result on-screen is more annoying than rewarding, and the CIA plot thread is never believable enough. What a waste, what a sad footnote to a good film franchise and what a disappointment for everyone involved. Bruce Willis, surely you knew better?
(In theaters, June 2007) The good news are that the fourth instalment of the Die Hard series is a very enjoyable return to the roots of the good old action film: explosions, dastardly villains, a wisecracking hero, spectacular action set-pieces and things we haven’t yet seen. The not-so-good news are that it falls short of being a good Die Hard film. Over the long run, I suspect that it won’t matter: the two previous Die Hard sequels initially disappointed moviegoers who then grew fonder of them as time went by. At the very least, an older “John McClane” is back, fighting terrorists who are really robbers and trying his damnedest to save family members from consequent harm. The story is a pack of silliness (Hackers! National infrastructure! Turning all traffic lights to green!) with more logical howlers than you can imagine (including a convenient absence of traffic when needed), but at least it gives Bruce Willis something to do and plenty of opportunities to look good with an increasing number of cuts and bruises. Though the villains are a bit wasted (Timothy Olyphant’s villain never projects too much menace, while Maggie Q is wasted as a sidekick who can’t help but go “yah!” as she’s kung-fu fighting) and the direction is too scattered to be truly inspiring, there are a number of really good action sequences here and there. There’s a bit of parkour, a wall-smashing gunfight, at least one flying car, some hot jet-on-truck action and a crumbling symbol of American power. Good stuff, though I’d like a cleaner look for the action than the fashionable CGI-boosted shakycam stuff. More globally, it’s fascinating to see a mainstream American action thriller take on a plot-line that would have been pure science fiction (in concept and execution) barely twenty years ago: our heroes use cell phones, shrug over memories of 9/11, do some social engineering via OnStar and stare intently at webcams even as McClane is derided as “a Timex in a digital world”. It’s too bad that this is a different McClane than the one who starred in the first Die Hard, but I won’t complain: Fast-paced action movies are rare enough that I’ll take what I can get.
(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2008) I’m shocked: This film actually works better the second time around. Free from the initial impact of silly plotting and logical howlers, this fourth Die Hard installment surprises by how well it understands the mechanics of the character, while the direction is a cut above the jerky style commonly used nowadays. The pacing is steady and the climax delivers on its promise. The bare-bones DVD version still includes a fairly entertaining commentary with Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman (who redeems himself after the two Underworld movies): it explains a fair bit about the conception and the making of a project that was a long time in the making. I didn’t actually expect this film to hold up to a second viewing, but it does do quite well.
Ivy, 1979 (1988 reprint), 232 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-8401-0229-5
You remember DIE HARD? Bruce Willis stuck in a skyscraper with terrorists? Alan Rickman as the bad guy with a weird European accent? “Yippey-Ka-Yay”? The hero throwing himself down the roof with a fire hose attached to his waist? Exploding helicopter? Glass shards embedded in foot? “I now have a machine-gun, ho-ho-ho?” One of the best action movies ever?
Of course you remember DIE HARD. Everyone does. It’s a bona-fide modern film classic. It’s worth viewing every Christmas.
But what you probably don’t remember is that the film is based upon a novel, Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever. And what you really don’t know is how much the film improves upon the book.
Oh, it’s obvious that the two works are connected. In both cases, one lone man dispatches a busload of terrorists inside a high-rise building. The various action beats of the film are generally original to the screenplay, though the same general locations (elevator shaft, executive suite, roof) are used. The dramatic arc is identical, gradually mowing down through enemy ranks up to the final mano-a-mano showdown. But even with similar premises, the differences can be dramatic.
Most significantly, the protagonist of Nothing Lasts Forever is nothing like Bruce Willis. Joe Leland (not John McClane) is a sixty-something man, an ex-New York detective with a clouded past, a wrong-man-condemned affair presumably stemming from a previous novel. He’s divorced, slightly bitter and not really prone to wisecracks. The author doesn’t wait a long time before using his alter-ego to fulfill deep wishes; barely twenty-five pages in the novel, Leland’s get a date with a woman nearly half his age. Creepier: the damsel-in-distress in the novel is the daughter of the protagonist rather than his wife.
Where it gets interesting, though, is in the tone shift from novel to screenplay. Whereas the book is dark and nasty, the film is joyful and uplifting. Antagonist-wise, we go from political terrorists to high-tech robbers. Thorp intended to write a “serious” thriller; Screenwriter Stephen de Souza, coached by producer Joel Silver, obviously meant to sketch a mass-market blockbuster. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conclusion of the novel, in which not only does Leland learns that his daughter is up to no good (P.207-208: “’Klaxon Oil has promised to supply the Chilean fascist regime with arms… Your daughter is one of the principals in this illegal transfer of weapons.”) but she actually dies, dragged outside the skyscraper’s 32nd floor by the corpse of the lead terrorist as he’s shot by the protagonist. Talk about a downer!
But outside the obvious cheer of DIE HARD’s revised ending, the clean mechanics of the film contrasted to the often-muddled structure of the book clearly illustrate what a good cinematographic adaptation should be. The temporal unity of the action is tightened: The film ends at dawn while the novel drags on until nearly eleven AM. The film squeezes in an early ironic confrontation between hero and villain. Comparing both versions, the film comes out as a leaner, more focused work, a pure thrill machine unburdened by any higher aspiration, yet more effective because it doesn’t dwell on whatever issues bugged the novelist. Compare and contrast Leland’s internal monologue about women in positions of authority versus DIE HARD’s elegant watch symbolism and you’ll see for yourself.
That’s not even touching upon the things that film can do better than prose. While the jumping-off-roof, breaking-window, being-dragged-by-falling-hose scene is in both the book and the novel, the written version seems limp and lacking in energy compared to the taut filmed sequence.
In the end, Nothing lasts Forever is an average novel turned in a superior film, a book more interesting as an origin piece than a work by itself. Worth a look for fans of the film who want to understand why it’s so good.
(Third viewing, On TV, April 1999) It’s always risky to sit down and watch an old favorite movie. Who knows if you’re not setting yourself up for a disappointment? Maybe your memory isn’t as good at you think it is, and “enhanced” the movie beyond its actual worth? Fortunately, Die Hard still possesses -even after countless imitators- the same qualities that made it an action classic: a tight script, a good premise, nicely-defined characters, a nasty and believable villain, comic relief, great pacing and -perhaps above everything- a superb performance by Bruce Willis. Though perhaps unintentionally ridiculous by moments -like Powell recovering his… er… virility-, Die Hard still stands as one of the action genre’s towering achievements.
(Fourth viewing, On DVD, October 2001) The classics never get old, and so you can watch Die Hard on a yearly basis and still find yourself sucked into its magic. Are there any flaws to this film? Probably, but I can’t be bothered to find them. It’s just too much fun to watch uncritically. The “Five-Star” DVD edition is adequate, but somehow disappoints by not offering more, more, more about the film.