Now that we’re getting into holiday season, everyone should be dusting off their VHS (or DVD if you’re in the 21st century) copies of Die Hard since it’s the perfect holiday movie. Even if you’re not hunkering down with your family to watch John McClane (Bruce Willis) save Nakatomi Plaza from a band of terrorists/thieves, maybe you’re excited about news of a sixth Die Hard film. In a recent interview Die Hardest screenwriter Ben Trebilcook revealed that they might bring back one of McClane’s old comrades. So we’re taking this opportunity to look back at McClane’s best partners.
20th Century Fox
Jack McClane (Jai Courtney)
In A Good Day to Die Hard, John McClane was joined by his son, Jack, to fight against corrupted Russian government officials. Who doesn’t love a father and son bonding movie; it’s good fun all around. Sort of. John and Jack don’t exactly have the most loving relationship, but they make a good team.
Matt Farrell (Justin Long)
As the young computer hacker to McClane’s wizened detective, Matt Farrell isn’t like any other of John’s partners. He doesn’t have any experience averting terrorist plots, he can’t shoot a gun, and he’s kind of jumpy. But what he lacks in physicality, he makes up for with computer knowledge — which John totally does not have.
Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson)
As in father of Apollo, Mt. Olympus, don’t mess with him or he’ll shoot a lightning bolt at you. Most fans of the Die Hard film series can attest that Zeus is probably the most beloved of John’s partners; he certainly has some of the best one-liners, like the slightly-altered quip mentioned earlier.
Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson)
Although we all love Zeus, Sergeant Al Powell will forever be John McClane’s best partner because he was there with John at Nakatomi Plaza where it all began. Al and John became lifelong friends on that fateful December night as they helped each other thwart Hans Gruber’s plans and save the hostages. Al even makes a cameo in Die Hard 2, though more as a friend than a partner.
We can’t help it; it’s become ingrained in all of us. We hear the first few bars of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or hear some rambunctious cowboy-type spout “yippee ki yay,” and our thoughts immediately turn to Die Hard.
John McClane embarks on his fifth (mis)adventure this week in John Moore’s A Good Day to Die Hard. This time around, John is in Russia and ends up inadvertently teaming with his son Jack to stop a nuclear weapon from falling into the hands of some very unsavory characters. What is it about this series and this character that hasallowed him to remain alive and well in the imaginations of audiences 25 years after the first film? To understand the longevity of this franchise, it is important to not only to analyze the appeal of the first film, but also to understand how its defining characteristics have been stretched, altered, and redefined.
Ordinary Guy Extraordinary Situation
Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were Alfred Hitchcock’s go-to leads for many years. Why? Because they embodied his prototypical hero; the ordinary man in the extraordinary situation.
Bruce Willis as John McClane is simply the action movie iteration of that same character. While he too is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, contemporary audiences connect with him because he is not as passive or out of his element as Hitch’s heroes. His law enforcement training casts him in a natural protector role that compels him to forge headlong into trouble. This has been a threadline through all four existing movies.
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It’s ironic that the new film is called A Good Day to Die Hard, given that John McClane hasn’t had a good day in quite some time. The guy has terrible luck, and though it may seem absurd how often these things keep happening to him, on some level, we relate to his seeming inability to catch a break. Additionally, what we like about John is that, again pursuant to his status as a regular guy, he gets hurt in the line of duty. And this is not the single flesh wound of most action heroes. By the end of all the Die Hard films, McClane is bruised and bleeding profusely. By the closing credits of Die Hard with a Vengeance, for instance, McClane looks like the lone survivor of a horror film.
Even Live Free or Die Hard, which is the most widely reviled sequel, saw McClane physically decimated by the end. The problem however is that Live Free or Die Hard pushed the envelope as to what McClane was able to survive, bloodied or otherwise. All of a sudden, he could surf fighter jets and walk away from fifty-foot plummets onto concrete overpasses. He also began inexplicably throwing cars at helicopters. Die Hard 2, arguably the second weakest entry, may have involved a few overzealous stunts, and the fall from the cable onto the cargo ship in Die Hard with a Vengeance may have been a bit over-the-top, but there is only so much disbelief we can be required to suspend with this character.
So Funny It Hurts
One of the things we have loved about these movies from day one is John McClane’s wry sense of humor. Even when he is in dire situations, he still manages to trade insulting jabs with the bad guys. McClaine is also unsure of his own means. He would often be heard quipping, “this is a bad idea,” whenever attempting some makeshift explosive or leap into a dangerous situation with barely a look beforehand. It was a subtle note of self-effacing humility that has underscored each and every entry.
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This emphasis on comedy to lend personality has also been evident in the franchise’s supporting cast. Though also providing some of the film’s most heartfelt interaction, Die Hard’s Sgt. Al Powell provided a wonderful comic complement to Willis’ otherwise solitary hero. Reginald VelJohnson’s outside-looking-in beat cop didn’t even enter the Nakatomi tower, but he is regardless an indelible part of this series. Powell was brought back for a cameo in Die Hard 2. Furthering that trait, to a rather diminished effect, McClane was aided by a janitor named Marvin later in Die Hard 2.
It was in Die Hard with a Vengeance that this concept was extrapolated into the creation of an actual sidekick who accompanied McClane through the whole movie. Samuel L. Jackson played off Willis so well that the franchise skirted what could have been a tumble into the generic buddy cop film rut. This trend would also explain Justin Long’s presence in Live Free or Die Hard, though his spastic hacker sidekick was a poor complement to McClane and only served to emphasize the fact that the villains went from formidable terrorists/thieves to jumped-up Best Buy employees. Hopefully John’s own son will offer a fitting counterbalance to his antics in A Good Day to Die Hard.
Next: Opening Up the World of Die Hard… for Better or Worse
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
The Accordion Effect
When academics breakdown the appeal of the first Die Hard, the word that comes up without fail is claustrophobia. The action in that 1988 disasterpiece was confined to a single high-rise building, but charted as much destruction as certain smaller war films. The problem with sequelizing a film like Die Hard is that the dogma of sequels dictates that each new movie must be of a grander scale than the previous entry. How do you make Die Hard bigger while still maintaining that closed-in feeling? In Die Hard 2, we stretch out only slightly from the Nakatomi high-rise to Washington D.C.’s airport. Then, Renny Harlin added a blizzard to the proceedings to successfully sever that airport from the outside world.
Die Hard with a Vengeance is the most interesting film in this respect. Now, McClane’s arena for battling violent heist men spans the entirety of the city of New York. With a setting that expansive, how could the returning John McTiernan possibly replicate the Die Hard formula? Simple. This was the first time we were seeing McClane on his home turf; having been a displaced lawman in the previous two films. That territoriality helps anchor him, confine him if you will, to the proceedings. There was also the highly personal aspect of Jeremy Irons playing Hans Gruber’s brother that locked him into the conflict.
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This is where Live Free or Die Hard failed. McClane was again out of his element, and the setting needlessly wide with no mitigating, anchoring components. This also represents the biggest challenge for A Good Day to Die Hard. McClane could not be more out of his element in Russia, so it falls upon the writers to create a sense of confinement even within that enormous foreign city. The bottle can be as big as you want it to be, but it still has to feel like a bottle.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Taking all these elements into account, we can postulate where the franchise may go for the recently announced Die Hard 6; that is, based on Willis’ recent statement that there will be another. Perhaps it’s time for McClane to go back to Nakatomi. He will have strayed so far at that point that a direct return to the roots of the series may be just what we need. Let’s say he’s hired to help develop new security measures for the building, which is being renovated again after twenty-five years. His wife still works for Nakatomi, presenting an opportunity for another reunion, and is once again in the building when a simulated hostage scenario becomes horrifyingly real. However, this time John is outside the skyscraper when this goes down, and a brash young upstart cop, one who idolizes McClane, is the man on the inside. John uses his expertise to guide our new hero through the drastic situation; becoming himself the Al Powell character.
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It’s a self-aware conceit, our young hero could experience all the same physical trauma as he’s caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the interaction between the older version of McClane and the new hero would be ripe for comedic banter. This could also represent a nice passing-of-the-torch moment. Not to say the franchise would need to continue with the younger cop in the lead, but instead effectively bookend the turbulent cinematic career of Detective John McClane.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox (2)]
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Merry Holidays, everyone!
As we are nearing the end of December, and are on the verge of crashing into the full swing of the season, I thought I would spotlight a few of the very best Christmas films currently available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service. First up, for your consideration, a classic holiday action extravaganza: Die Hard.
Who Made It: Die Hard was directed by the great John McTiernan. The year before Die Hard, McTiernan gave us the ultimate Schwarzenegger vs. alien hunter movie: Predator. McTiernan’s ability to craft the perfect action scene is unquestionable and he would ply that trade again when he returned to the franchise to direct Die Hard: With a Vengeance.
Who’s In It: Die Hard stars Bruce Willis in the lead role and was actually a major launching pad for his entire career. Though not his first film, it was his first real cinematic vehicle. At the time Willis was most widely known for his work on the comedy series Moonlighting and was far from being considered an action star. Die Hard was the film that made Hollywood change their perception of Willis forever.
What’s It About: Die Hard is the story of New York City cop John McClane who travels to L.A. at Christmas to visit his estranged wife and kids. He is taken from the airport to the Christmas party of his wife’s company, The Nakatomi Corporation. Unfortunately, John isn’t the only last-minute attendee. A group of international terrorists take control of the party seeking to steal a fortune from the company’s vault. John must now use all his training, his courage, and the element of surprise to singlehandedly take them out.
Why You Should Watch It:
Die Hard is a classic for a myriad reasons. It set the standard for action movies for years to come. It took the action experience out of the wide-open battlefield or sprawling landscape of an entire city and confined it to one high-rise; creating a sense of claustrophobia and forcing the hero to improvise. The best scenes in the film are John McClane crawling through the ventilation ducts or leaping from one floor to the other via the elevator shaft. He goes so far as to Gerry rig a fire hose into a rope and dive off the roof and into a lower floor. Amazing! This “hero stuck in a ______ battling terrorists” model would be imitated for years.
And the hero is not some superhuman, or specially government-trained killing machine. He’s a cop; a regular blue-collar worker who didn’t go looking for a fight, but instead had adversity dropped in his lap and has to rise to the occasion. That famous scene wherein he walks across the broken glass is a bloody token of his mortality, reminding us all that our hero is just an average guy with Titanic-sized balls. The relationship between McClane and Sgt. Powell, played by Family Matters’ Reginald VelJohnson, further emphasizes his average Joe status. Powell becomes John’s only link to the outside world, his one unwavering voice of support; the kind any one of us would need to even consider continuing on in a dire situation like his.
Of course, a great hero is nothing without a great villain, and Die Hard has one of cinema’s best. The leader of the terrorist cell/band of thieves is a sinister figure by the name of Hans Gruber. Playing the role of the seminal antagonist was none other than Alan Rickman, who would go on to play Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Rickman is so icy cool, so calculating throughout the film and his curt, patronizing back-and-forth with McClane is outstanding. It boils down to the perfect canonization of the age-old battle between brains and brawn. Ironically, McClane ends up winning by outsmarting Gruber.
The real reason for the longevity of Die Hard’s appeal has to do with its setting; not so much the where, but the when. There were, and continue to be, so very few Christmas-themed action films when Die Hard was released in 1988. The holidays, after all, are supposed to be a time of merriment and reverence, right? Die Hard warps this to its own devices; even using jingling bells and snippets of carols to underscore its sinister tone. John McTiernan changed the rules and gave us what would come to be regarded as one of cinema’s foremost action films, with plenty of violence and profanity in tow, set during the most wonderful time of the year.