Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rank 'Em: The Die Hard Franchise

Of all the franchises to come through Hollywood, the Die Hard films stand above them all for me. Generations before me would cite the early Star Wars films as their favorite; some would claim Indiana Jones brought them into the world of cinema as a youth. I grew up with John McClane saving citizens from certain death, and I fell more and more in love with these action films as I became an adult. Sure, it is more violent and crass and maybe not as widely regarded as these other franchises I have mentioned, but for my money there was not a more influential Hollywood storyline than the plight of John McClane. Of course, the Die Hard films vary in degrees of quality and some have not aged very well. But, at the same time, I know of at least one entry that has solidified itself as a modern American classic.

The newest entry, It’s a Good Day to Die Hard, will be released on Valentine’s Day of 2013, and the early trailers are nothing short of depressing. The franchise appears to have lost its way, to abandon its roots in order to get bigger and louder and less personal. But for now, let’s look back and see how the first four entries compare to one another…

4) Live Free or Die Hard – After seeing this fourth installment the first time I may have ranked it third in the franchise, but time has not been kind to “Die Hard 4.0.” It is amazing to me how dated a film from 2007 can appear, but Live Free made a big mistake in making technology so central to the story. This time, McClane is drawn out as an analog cop in a digital world. Technological advances have passed him by and he has no time for such things. He is given the menial task of protecting a computer hacker (Justin Long) from bigger and badder computer hackers intent on crashing the American economic system. Aside from the dated technology, the film is neutered in order to fit it inside a PG-13 frame. McClane’s “Yippee-kay-ay” line is muffled by gunfire, and the action has shot up up and away from any sense of reality. McClane fights an F-16 this time… give me a break. And to top things off, Timothy Olyphant’s villain, Thomas Gabriel, is a far cry from the other three villains in the franchise.

3) Die Hard 2 – I have always had a love/hate relationship throughout the years with this first sequel. Capitalizing on the success of the first film, producers went bigger and added many more bullets along the way. Taking over for brilliant action director John McTiernan is Renny Harlin, whose career is riddled with mediocrity. There are times where I really dislike Die Hard 2 for its flat action sequences and endless gunfire. But recently I have found it more enjoyable in a nostalgic sense. I enjoy the fact that McClane is under siege on Christmas once again, and we cannot discount the importance of Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) in the proceedings. Keeping the action inside a closed arena, this time around an airport, is also a nice touch to keep the mood of the original intact. William Sadler is a solid follow up to Hans Gruber as well as Colonel Stuart. While it is nowhere near the brilliance of the original, Die Hard 2 has a few hits in between its misses.

2) Die Hard: With a Vengeance – What makes Die Hard 3 such a wonderful action film is the fact that John McTiernan is back behind the camera. You can see his work in the action sequences and the framing of the actors, something lacking from the previous two entries helmed by inferior directing talent. There is also a nice tie in with the original film, as the villain this time (the great Jeremy Irons) plays Hans Gruber’s brother, Simon. Intent on getting revenge while also robbing the Stock Exchange, Simon plays a clever cat-and-mouse game with McClane and his reluctant sidekick, Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson, really adding a level of intensity and humor to things). There is something else which plays into the success of the film on a personal level: the state of McClane. In these better entries, John is having personal problems. In the first one, he and Holly are estranged living apart. Here they are separated and John, finding comfort in the bottom of the bottle, has been suspended. While the arena has expanded from a single setting to New York City, there is still a great deal of intimacy given the fact that the villain is out to get John and the players are limited to three central roles.

1) Die Hard – There was never any question of which film would be atop the list. Die Hard is the perfect action movie, an American classic which also launched the career of Bruce Willis. Trapped in a skyscraper fighting off terrorists, all the while trying to save his estranged wife, John McClane redefined the action star as the decade would soon switch from the 80s to 90s. Where Stallone and Schwarzenegger used their biceps, Willis as McClane used his smarts, his wit, and his everyman personal to outsmart and outfight the villains. It brought about a more identifiable hero for audiences. And Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is the penultimate action-film villain, a seething Euro killer. The action in Die Hard is balanced, never really reaching beyond a certain sense of reality. McClane has to use the building to defend himself; very rarely is he out in the open where bullets magically miss him. Die Hard changed the way action films were considered, and is one of the more important films of my childhood.  And we mustn't discount the importance of the film being set at Christmas, which adds a timeless quality to the film as a whole.