Friday 28 December 2012

Die Hard Christmas Double

Merry Yippee-Ki-Ay

Die Hard
1988 USA
Directed by John McTiernan
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

Die Hard 2: Die Harder
1990 USA
Directed by Renny Harlin
20th Century Fox DVD Region 1

Okay. So I thought, rather than hook up with Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life for Christmas again this year, I’d watch a few alternative Christmas movies to celebrate the festivities instead. Rare Exports you already know about (reviewed here) and my next choice this year was to take another, long overdue, look at the first two Die Hard movies, both of which are set during the Christmas period.

Before I go into these, however, I just want to make one thing clear... I really like Bruce Willis.

I understand, from stories I’ve heard told by co-stars and directors alike (James Garner and Kevin Smith) that he can be a real pain to work with. I’d even gleaned that myself from documentary material I watched years ago on Terry Gilliam’s excellent 12 Monkeys, where Bruce was questioning the direction of a scene with Gilliam. To which my initial reaction was, “Shut up Bruce, he’s a director and you’re just an actor who’s not doing what he’s told you. Do what he tells you to!” Which is probably a less actor-friendly reaction than I maybe should have had, actually, and I probably wouldn’t have the same take on that these days... but when it’s Gilliam you have to recognise directing genius and so... anyway... enough of that...

Bruce Willis is one of the very few modern actors who would have fitted right in with the old studio star system. It may sound obvious but most modern actors and actresses are usually just really good (or bad) modern actors and actresses, period. They are not the larger than life personalities who were seen regularly performing or abusing their craft back in the 20’s, 30s, 40s, 50s and even the 60s. There are very few these days, for example, who could stand head and shoulders with the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Charlton Heston, Greta Garbo, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and the like. These weren’t just actors, they were stars... they had a large following of fans for many decades and their names brought the audiences to their movies in droves. These days, there are just a handful who can sustain that kind of interest over a long period of time and be popular enough to be caricatured for their specific personalities and character traits. I’d say, off the top of my head, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzennegger, Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner... maybe Johnny Depp... and Bruce Willis is very much a part of this very exclusive set of the modern equivalent of old-time studio “stars”. At least that’s how I see him.

As for Die Hard... well my perception was always quite contrary to most people’s opinions in that I actually thought they got better each movie, with number 3 being the greatest, and then dropping back slightly with 4, which I still enjoyed better than the first one... except... looking at the first two now, I don’t things are quite that simple.

I’ve told this story before in my review of the Frank Sinatra film The Detective (see here) but Die Hard is an adaptation of the sequel novel to The Detective and when Frank Sinatra, after being given first option to replay the character in the sequel, refused that option, the character’s name was changed to John McLane and tailored to give the rising star Bruce Willis (who I and probably most people only knew from his stint on the excellent TV show Moonlighting at the time... although I’m not sure how that show would hold up these days) a shot at big screen stardom. Die Hard, and a few other movies he did, really cemented his reputation and kick started his big screen movie career... a career in which, even when he’s playing a parody of himself in films such as The Expendables 2, shows no signs of letting up (indeed, his fifth Die Hard movie is due to open here next year, at time of writing).

The first Die Hard was originally something of a disappointment to me twice, I’m afraid. I first saw this maybe 6 months to a year before it actually got released at cinemas. A friend of mine who I used to visit had one of those “very 80s” dodgy videos-to-your-door, pirate services (which is why I saw the original, uncut version of Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left when I was in my teens). We all sat and watched this fairly fuzzy copy of Die Hard and my friends all loved it. I thought it was nothing special but, by the time it was released in cinemas and my friends were still going nuts about it, I’d convinced myself that maybe I’d just seen it in the wrong frame of mind, on a fuzzy pirate, and that maybe I was missing something. So when a bunch of friends went to take another look at the movie when it hit the big screens, I went with them. My verdict? it really was nothing special... I’d been right.

Then I remember going to see the second one when that came out and thinking that it was much better than the first... and I was very impressed with the third one. Watching the first two again I realise that my perceptions of the films have changed and I think I prefer the original over the sequel now... and I think it’s because I can better appreciate the design of the shots now than I could previously.

Die Hard
Die Hard is a much better action movie than I thought... but it’s a film which takes away from itself even as it gives. To explain: visually the film is actually pretty good. The film can, in many cases, work with an absolute minimum of extraneous detail but it’s like the producers got worried about it and looped in unnecessary dialogue and exposition which detracts from the films obvious visual strengths.

For example, a shot near the start is a perfect way to demonstrate this. We already have established that Bruce Willis is playing somebody called John McLane and that he’s there to visit his wife and kids. A little while later we get a female character who goes into her office to get the phone and sits with her back to us, talking to John McLane. She is on the extreme left of screen and the camera is focusing on the photographs on the shelf behind her which take up the rest of the screen and, as the camera pans and dollies to show more of these details, we finally see a photograph of her and Bruce Willis together, signifying to the audience that this, is indeed, Mrs. McClane. This is an impressive use of visual shorthand to establish characters and their relationship to each other without actually having to spell things out in as dumb a fashion as possible to the audience.

But then, of course, the movie does then spend the next ten minutes or so spelling it out less subtly and in no uncertain terms that these two are actually married (although living apart). This takes away all the strength of the visual material and dilutes it down while at the same time re-enforcing the concept. Which is a shame because the movie is full of visual flourishes like this. John McClane’s lack of shoes is elaborated on twice visually before the camera decides that the shoes he’s left in his wake are not enough of a clue to the bad guy (played by Alan Rickman, one of the more intelligent presences in Hollywoodland screen villains) and so throw in a shot or two where he notices John McClane is not wearing shoes and then gives the order to shoot out the glass on a floor. They really didn’t need to do that as it then makes no sense to establish this earlier in the film and give it such an elaborate set-up with a conversation that takes place on a plane. So that’s a bit of a problem for me.

A small problem, too, is Willis’ early screen performance where either he, improvising, or the script writers, were not willing to allow him to relax into the role without cracking a steady stream of Moonlighting-style one liners. This doesn’t really help the movie and, since he’s on his own for most of the film, these little monologues come off less as James Bond-cleverness and a lot lamer than the producers probably realised. When he’s not wise-cracking, though, Willis does a really good job and you can see how the writers got the ingredients right and why he was propelled to big screen success from this movie.

The score is fantastic too, although I understand there was a lot of “management intervention” on this one (there's a moment which bugged me right from the first time I saw it where James Horner's score for ALIENS is tracked in). The late, great Michael Kamen goes for what would be his typical action-writing sound but because of the film being set at Christmas, introduces quite a few seasonal touches which are woven into the underscore and work at, for most people, an unconscious level. Trust me, you’ve never heard the opening of Winter Wonderland orchestrated so sinisterly as it is in here. He’s also used quotes from Beethoven’s Ninth to establish the origins of the villain in this one and, for some reason less obvious to me, unless it’s foreshadowing a scene involving a sprinkler much later in the movie, musical quotes from Singin’ In The Rain. Whatever... it all works very well and is fittingly regarded as an all time action classic in regards to scoring as well as it’s similar status as a movie in its own right.

With its claustrophobic setting, with only infrequent breaks to show what is going on outside the “tower block under siege” element of the story, Die Hard is a much more enjoyable film than I’d originally thought it and, because of the strength of the holiday spirit in both the dialogue and the score, is a great little action movie to watch in the run up to Christmas.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Die Hard 2: Die Harder is a different story. John McTIernan is replaced as director by Renny Harlin (a director I actually quite like for action films, despite his reputation) but, perhaps because it’s based on a book by a totally different author - 58 Minutes by Walter Wager - the film does not plunge the John McLane character (who was again, obviously, not the character who was in the original novel) into a “single player” claustrophobic situation like the first. In this one the action takes place in an airport one snowy Christmas while he, aided and abetted at various times by people he finds along the way, fights to stop a team of crack mercenaries and a team of professional soldiers (who they are in cahoots with) from freeing an important political prisoner when he lands.

To do this, the bad guys knock out communication and leave loads of planes circling in the skies above the airport, ready to crash when they run out of fuel, and the tension and suspense of this movie is about whether John McClane can take the bad guys out and find a way of getting the planes to land safely, before his wife’s plane crashes into the runway.

Well, I say tension and suspense and I suppose it’s fair to say that these elements are present in the movie, but they are just not tightened up to screaming point as they were in the hands of director McTiernan in the first movie. Harlin makes movies which are action spectacles for the sake of the guns and explosions, I think, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this very valid approach to making movies... it’s just not quite as effective as the first in the sequence. Although, as I said earlier, when this one first came out, I was singing a different song.

Saying that, though, there’s still some nice things in this movie. Willis is still spewing unwanted monologues everywhere but, also, is consistent in the role and very watchable. The iconic legend who was Django, Franco Nero, is also in this one as the political prisoner villain, but I have to say he was really wasted in this. I wish he’d have been playing the main villain on this one because I still see Nero as a man of action and it was only three years prior to this movie that he’d made his “official” Django sequel, Django Strikes Again... and so he could still do all the physical stuff. He does, though, add a certain weight to the role... so maybe that’s why they picked him. Whatever reason, it’s certainly good to see him and this element, along with plenty of action sequences from Willis and another, out-the-park musical score from Kamen (which is, alas, not as Christmassy in spirit as the tone of his first Die Hard score), make for a very entertaining Christmas action movie.... if not quite as taut as the first.

So that’s one of my Christmas doubles then... after which I watched... ahh, you’ll find out.

Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder have both dated quite a bit... this is the age of the pager, not the mobile phone, when these movies were made. In fact, it strikes me as I write this now that you just  couldn’t make these movies with this kind of story anymore because the invention of the common-or-garden-everybody-has-one mobile phone would kind of make the necessary communication limitations on the plot redundant. However, with the franchise still going strong, the films will be well thought of in “action-thriller” circles for quite some time, methinks, so if you haven’t seen these ones then it’s probably worth checking them out, if only to have an opinion of them.

I’m going to watch the third and fourth on BluRay sometime after the new edition of the box set comes out with an extra disc at the end of January, so I’ll let you know what I think of those two when I watch them... not to mention my verdict on the fifth one when it hits our cinemas next year.

Happy New Yippee-Ki-Ay!


  1. So I have to agree with you about Bruce Willis being in the same category as the likes of John Wayne, Erol Flynn, James Cagney, etc possibly even Humphrey Bogart! I very much like the olden days with such greats as Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn etc. there are just too many to name all. And yes there are only a selected few nowadays that can stand along side such greats. Bruce surely is one of them. In fact I think putting him in the same bag as John Wayne is right on the money. To talk about Die Hard I have to say I kind of liked John Maclane talking to himself at time in this. I mean we all do it at time and I think this kind of made him more like us. A hard working cop, who gives 100% in his job. Also here you see a man all on his own trying to take out the bad guys and I'm sure has some times he just wants to let it all out how he feels about certain things. Now try to imagine him not saying anything in those moments. Would it really be as good a movie as it turned out to be? I personally don't think so, but that is just me. I also liked the addition of known music pieces. Can't really explain why, but it just put a kind of intimatesy or familiarity (something we can identify with). Not that any of us would ever be found in the same situation like him! lol But maybe you can understand what I am trying to say.

    For Die Hard 2 let me just say that I got to see that movie a month or so before I got on a plane for the very first time in my life. It was when I came to the US. I can tell you that I was not happy at all and asked myself many times why I had to see this movie at that time! lolol

    1. Hi again Petra.

      Ha! Yeah, there's very few actors and actresses working today who have that kind of larger than life "movie star" personality but Willis seems to be one of them.

      Your Die Hard 2 story is funny. What NOT to watch before you take a plan journey. Must be right up there with AIRPORT!

      Thanks again for reading and writing. I do appreciate your support of this humble blog.

      All the best to you.