A Good Day to Die Hard (2013, John Moore)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

John McClane heads to Moscow when his son is arrested and thrown into prison…

Source material: This is the first Die Hard film that isn’t based on pre-existing material. Initially, the movie was going to be called Die Hard 24/7 and there were rumours it was to be a crossover with TV show 24. John McClane would have teamed up with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. Surely that would have been more entertaining than what we ended up with…

John McClane: He’s still a cop in New York and still separated from ex-wife Holly. Hearing that his son is in trouble, John flies to Moscow, where everyone is either a criminal or a moron and the authorities show no interest in terrorists running amok. He makes idiotic quips as he blithely ignores huge destruction and untold deaths, and for the first time the character seems uncaring and arrogant. Bruce Willis gives the most dour, lifeless and bored performance of his career. Look into the actor’s eyes and you can see him daydreaming about the fee.

Regulars:
* Jack Gennero (Jai Courtney) is John McClane’s 30-ish son, who was known as John Jnr when we saw him as a small boy in the original Die Hard. Like his mother in that film and his sister in Die Hard 4.0, the character doesn’t want to use John’s surname; father and son also haven’t spoken for a few years, which explains why John is unaware that Jack is now a CIA operative working in Russia. But when news reaches New York that Jack has been imprisoned, John flies over to see what’s what… For a while, actor Jai Courtney seemed to be specialising in turgid franchise films: he’s also in Terminator Genisys and Suicide Squad. And he’s terrible here, turning a character we should care about into a petulant brat. Why the CIA would ever trust this whiny, quick-to-tantrum man-child with daddy issues is difficult to fathom.
* John’s daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), returns from the previous film for a cameo.

Villain: There’s a cack-handed plot about a Russian billionaire called Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) who has a secret file that could incriminate corrupt politician Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), so Chagarin’s henchman Aik (Radivoje Bukvić) breaks Komarov out of prison in order to get the file. If you manage to pay attention until the third act, you discover that the file never existed and Komarov is the real bad guy. Or something. Also involved in the story is Komarov’s daughter, Irina (Yulia Snigir), who’s there simply to provide a shot for the trailer when she unzips her motorcycle leathers to reveal her underwear.

Music: The score by Marco Beltrami is actually not that bad. It’s busy and powerful and steals the interest during many of the film’s 376 action scenes.

Review: A poster for this film contained the strapline ‘Yippie ki-yay, Mother Russia’. Not one single element in the movie itself even approaches that level of smartness or self-awareness. Watching A Good Day to Die Hard is a truly dreadful, depressing experience. It seems to want to be a Bourne film: urgent, visceral action; clipped, terse dialogue scenes; and driving incidental music. But it lacks the intelligence, panache and interesting characters that made those early Bourne adventures so engaging, and instead comes off more like a straight-to-DVD Steven Seagal flick. There *is* a plot – we know this because there’s one scene after 55 minutes where Jack explains it to John. There’s also a plot twist – late on, one character kills another and we’re meant to be impressed by the script’s Usual Suspects-esque sleight of hand. However, the film is directed by John Moore (who’d previously made the appalling remake of The Omen). He’s not interested in wit or character development or depth or subtext or suspense. He prefers computer-game carnage carried off without any style or story logic or consequence. “It’s going to be loud,” smirks one of the bland villains just before the first of several thousand explosions – it’s also going to be sensationally dull. This is a crass, classless, joyless, artless sequel and the worst film ever made that comes from an otherwise decent series.

One… oh, I don’t know… thing that blows up out of 10

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Die Hard 4.0 (2007, Len Wiseman)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: In North America, this film is called Live Free or Die Hard. But it was thought that the rest of the world wouldn’t get the pun on New Hampshire’s state motto (‘Live free or die’). The replacement title is arguably a better fit, given the movie’s subject matter, and director Len Wiseman and star Bruce Willis have both said they prefer it.

When cyber-terrorists take control of every Government computer system in America, New York cop John McClane teams up with a young hacker to stop them…

Source material: The genesis of this movie lies a magazine article by John Carlin called A Farewell to Arms, which was published in 1997 and investigated cyber-terrorism. Its research and ideas were then used as the basis of a film script called WW3.com, but production was postponed due to the 9/11 attacks. A few years later, it was dusted down and rejigged as a Die Hard sequel.

John McClane: It’s been 12 years since we last saw our hero. In that time, he’s lost both his wife and his hair. He also has an edgy relationship with his now-grown-up daughter. Bruce Willis plays the role with noticeably less sparkle than in the previous films: this is a middle-aged, world-weary, grouchy John McClane.

Regulars:
* Lucy Gennero (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was last seen as a small child in the first film. She’s now in her mid-20s and, like her mother two decades earlier, is refusing to use dad John’s surname. She crops up early in the film when her father warns off her boob-grabby boyfriend, then returns much later when the villain takes her hostage. It’s a good, spirited performance from Winstead.

Villain: Nestling somewhere between the first Die Hard’s icy-cool Hans Gruber and the third movie’s OTT Simon, Thomas Gabriel is one of those bad guys who’s so well-funded you wonder why he’s bothering. Seriously, his operation – dozens of goons and nerds, thousands of dollars’ worth of high-powered computers, helicopters, cars, a Knight Rider-style techno-truck – must have cost an absolute fortune. Why doesn’t he just retire to an island somewhere? Well, joking aside, his motivation is that no one listened when he warned the authorities that the US was open to a crippling cyber-attack. So he’s decided to do it himself to teach them a lesson. Timothy Olyphant is suitably intense in the role, and also has a couple of dry one-liners. His chief sidekick is Mai Linh (Maggie Q), a sexy Asian chick who can beat people up. (Was this film written by men, by any chance?)

Music: The unremarkable score is by Marco Beltrami. (Michael Kamen, who worked on the opening trilogy, had died in 2003.) Credence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 song Fortunate Son is heard on a radio in one scene – John is disappointed that his young friend Matthew doesn’t know it.

Review: The Die Hard series moves into the 21st century. The world has changed since John McClane’s last outing, so we now get a plot built around cyber-terrorism. There are lots of computer screens and keyboards and servers and cables and primitive smart phones and Red Bull-gulping hackers listening to loud nu-metal music (and never using a mouse). All that coupled with a race-against-the-clock storyline means the whole movie is reminiscent of TV show 24, especially in the way that computers can basically do *anything* the plot requires. Later on, we also meet Warlock (Kevin Smith), an angry geek living in his mother’s basement surrounded by Star Wars toys. It’s a fun world to drop the old-fashioned John McClane into. He feels out-of-place and is far from comfortable with computers and modern technology. It’s a case of PC vs McClane, you might say if you were stretching for a pun that doesn’t really work. But the movie also has a huge sense of Hollywood scale. Outdoor scenes often feature masses of extras and wide-open spaces, while the stunts and general carnage are ridiculously overblown. Plausibility and the laws of physics are thrown out of the plate-glass window as cars fly through the air and crash into helicopters. With such an action-movie budget to play with, in fact, it’s a shame that so many dialogue scenes in vehicles are shot against unconvincing greenscreens. But the spine of the story is another buddy-movie team-up. This time, John McClane’s companion is 20-something whizzkid Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) and they’re an entertaining partnership. The age difference is used for several gags and characters beats (John is “a Timex watch in a digital world”), while the two actors have chemistry. And for all its flashy pyrotechnics, Die Hard 4.0 is actually about something: the film has comments to make about society’s overreliance on technology. (In a neat gag, a Terminator action figure – a symbol of cold, soulless, artificial intelligence – falls off a shelf and starts a bomb.) It might lack the bite of the first three films – it’s a 12 certificate, for example, so the dialogue is not as colourful – but Die Hard 4.0 zips along and is very enjoyable hokum.

Seven fire sales out of 10

Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An enigmatic man called Simon forces Lieutenant John McClane to complete a series of tasks and puzzles in New York City – otherwise he’ll blow up a school…

Source material: Whereas the first two Die Hard movies were adapted from unrelated novels, this one is based on a film script called Simon Says. Originally intended as a standalone thriller, it was then rewritten as a potential Lethal Weapon sequel. But after Bruce Willis rejected several storylines for a third Die Hard film – including an idea that was later used for Speed 2: Cruise Control – Simon Says was appropriated and retooled as Die Hard With a Vengeance.

John McClane: He’s in a bad way as the story begins. John’s back working as a cop in New York but has been suspended; he hasn’t spoken to his wife for a year, and spends the whole film with a monster hangover. Incidentally, between the previous Die Hard movie and this one, Bruce Willis had cameoed as John McClane in Loaded Weapon 1. One of the leads of that 1993 comedy film was Samuel L Jackson, who’s the chief guest star of Die Hard With a Vengeance. Both Willis and Jackson were also in Pulp Fiction together in 1994, though their characters only shared one scene and didn’t talk to each other. So as an in-joke during Die Hard With a Vengeance, John McClane quotes some lyrics from Flowers on the Wall, a song that Bruce Willis’s character listens to in Pulp Fiction.

Regulars: Holly McClane is mentioned a couple of times and we hear her over the telephone briefly. But this is essentially the only Die Hard movie with no recurring characters other than John. 

Villain: The film’s bad guy is only a voice to begin with – he makes calls to the cops and demands that John McClane play parlour games. They deduce that he’s German and clearly holds a grudge against John, yet no one puts zwei and zwei together… The character is played by a blond, athletic Jeremy Irons, who finally appears on screen after 45 minutes. Sadly, it’s a pretty irritating performance. Truly successful bad guys don’t think of themselves as evil; in their heads, they’re the heroes. However, Irons is a paid-up member of the Jonathan Pryce School of Villainy – ie, he thinks his character should be twirling his moustache and laughing manically. (The actor also does a naff American accent during one scene.) He has several lackeys, but none makes much impression. Eventually, it turns out that all the games and puzzles are just a distraction while Simon steals tons of gold bullion from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Why involve John McClane at all? Because Simon is the brother of the first movie’s Hans Gruber and wants revenge for his death.

Music: Michael Kamen returns for a third Die Hard score, and has perhaps too much fun quoting the tune of 19th-century song When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Review: After LA in film one and Washington, DC in film two, the Die Hard series now hits New York – and it’s a very NYC-centric story. Manhattan, Harlem, Central Park, Wall Street, traffic jams, the subway, yellow taxis, coarse cops, rude businessmen – they’re all here! The spine of the story sees Bruce Willis’s John McClane forced to team up with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus Carver, a smart, pragmatic shopkeeper from Harlem. They make a great, bickering team and we’re soon into classic mismatched-duo, buddy-movie territory. The characters bounce around New York, solving puzzles and trading sharp dialogue. It’s a lot of fun… for 45 minutes. Then the actual plot kicks in, Jeremy Irons shows up, and it all becomes very on-the-nose. The stunts get bigger, the villains’ plot becomes more convoluted, the terror levels are raised – but we’ve lost any Die Hard-ish distinction.

Seven sandwich boards out of 10

PS: I spotted an oddity while rewatching this 22-year-old film – the script mentions both candidates from the 2016 US Presidential election…

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Die Hard 2 (1990, Renny Harlin)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While waiting for his wife to land in Washington, policeman John McClane stumbles across a terrorist plan to seize control of the airport…

Source material: The plot of Die Hard 2 is taken from 58 Minutes, a novel written in 1987 by Walter Wager. A good, rattling thriller, it has no connection to either the first Die Hard film or the book it was based on. As well as rejigging 58 Minutes for John McClane and co, screenwriter Steven E de Souza took the opportunity to add a sly crossover with his earlier movie Commando (1985): both films feature the fictional Central American country of Val Verde. (By the way, Die Hard 2 is often referred to as Die Hard 2: Die Harder in promotional material – but that subtitle doesn’t actually appear on screen.)

John McClane: Our hero has become a minor celebrity in the two years since the first film. His heroics at the Nakatomi building led to interviews and TV appearances, though we’re told he struggled on current-affairs show Nightline. Bruce Willis is again superb in the role and the frequency of his wisecracks has only increased. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he asks himself knowingly as goes up against terrorists while wearing a dirty vest.

Regulars:
* John’s wife, Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), is on a cross-country flight that’s approaching Dulles when the bad guys take over the air-traffic-control systems and stop all landings. The plane is going to run out of fuel, of course, upping the personal ante for John down on the ground. While the crisis develops, Holly gets an enjoyable little subplot with…
* Slimy news reporter Dick Thornburg (William Atherton) is – how’s this for a coincidence? – on the same flight as Mrs McClane. This causes an issue because a judge has ordered that she stay 50 yards away from him after punching him on live TV. When he deduces that there’s a problem on the ground, Dick calls his station and broadcasts the information – so Holly zaps him with a taser.
* Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) appears briefly when John phones home to LA to ask for his colleague’s help. Al’s eating a Twinkie, which is a call-back to the first film.

Villain: The leader of the terrorists is Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), who’s introduced via a bizarre scene of him doing yoga in the nude. The character is a cold, calculating baddie who’s nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber – but then again, who is? Stuart has several lackeys, including guys played by Robert Patrick (soon to be the T-1000 in Terminator 2) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (who later directed an episode of Firefly). Their plan is to secure the release of General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a Central American fascist who’s being extradited to the US and is due to land at Dulles. Halfway through the film, a crack team of US Army commandos arrive on the scene, seemingly to defeat the bad guys – but then we later learn that they’re actually allies of Stuart. The squad’s leader is played by John Amos, later a semi-regular in The West Wing.

Music: Michael Kamen again provides the effective score. Vaughn Monroe’s Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! plays the film out, as it had done in the first Die Hard movie.

Review: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This sequel shamelessly reuses most of the successful ingredients from the first Die Hard – a wisecracking John McClane, his composed wife, the slimy journalist Dick Thornburg, a group of well-drilled terrorists, a confined location at Christmas, some local police who don’t know what they’re doing – and the result is very, very near to being equally entertaining. The film has real drive and momentum, and crosscuts between the subplots with a genuine slickness. The action scenes are inventive and exciting. The dialogue is packed full of action-movie attitude. And while the antagonists feel a bit off-the-shelf, there are some other enjoyable guest characters. Instead of an almost empty skyscraper, this time we’re in a wintery, blizzard-struck airport containing 15,000 people. The place is run by the unflappable Ed Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson, a fascinating man who was a lawyer during the Watergate hearings, later a US Senator, and ran for President in 2008), while the local police force is headed by Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), one of *the* great sweary/ranty/angry police captains in genre cinema. Meanwhile, a TV journalist called Sam Coleman (Sheila McCarthy) is on the scene to not only provide the audience with exposition but to also help John out a couple of times. So, while not reaching the Mount Olympus heights of the first movie, Die Hard 2 is a very fine action thriller in its own right. There’s a certain untidiness in some areas – a bit of unconvincing ADR here, some clunky dialogue there – and we miss a villain as good as Hans Gruber. But all in all, a very, very enjoyable film.

Nine sitting ducks out of 10

Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Police officer John McClane visits his estranged wife during her office’s Christmas party. But when terrorists enter the building and take hostages, John finds himself the only person free…

Source material: Die Hard is an adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), an enjoyable-enough potboiler by Roderick Thorp. Because the novel was a sequel to a book that had been turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra, Sinatra was asked to headline Die Hard too. But he had just passed 70 and retired from acting, so turned it down. The script was then retooled as a standalone story, and middle-aged Detective Joe Leland became the thirtysomething Officer John McClane. (It’s often been said that, at one point, Die Hard was going to be a sequel to the 1985 action film Commando and would therefore have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Steven E de Souza – the writer of Commando and co-writer of Die Hard – has denied this. He says the ultimately unmade Commando 2 was a completely separate script.)

John McClane: Die Hard’s hero is a dry, droll, cynical cop from New York. For overseas viewers who might not understand, it’s spelt out that he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in LA,  but he still leaps into action when trapped in a skyscraper with gun-totting terrorists. Cast in the role was Bruce Willis, an actor who was hot from witty TV drama Moonlighting, and he’s *perfect*. He gives McClane a wry smirk, plenty of sarcasm and bags of attitude. One of the key reasons why the character is such a success is that he’s not a Schwarzenegger-type Special Forces vet who can kill a platoon with his little finger; he’s just an everyday guy (albeit one who knows how to fire guns). He even gets an instant all-time-great catchphrase: the villain likens him to a cowboy, so he replies, “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker.” A good indicator of what an amazing performance Willis gives is the fact he often talks to himself and yet the device never feels clunky or forced. That’s a difficult trick to pull off.

Regulars:
* Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is John’s wife. Six months earlier she moved across country for a new job; she’s been using her maiden name, which doesn’t please John when he arrives at her office at Nakatomi Plaza. Once the terrorists take over, she becomes the leader of the hostages and shares a couple of excellently frosty scenes with bad guy Hans. (In Nothing Lasts Forever, the lead character was visiting his daughter not his wife. But then they cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis.)
* We briefly see John and Holly’s young children, Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jnr (Noah Land). They’re at home being looked after by a maid called Paulina (Betty Carvalho).
* When John finds a two-way radio and contacts the outside world, he strikes up a connection with local policeman Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Unlike his LAPD superiors, the likeable Powell quickly recognises the severity of the hostage situation and also figures out that John must be a cop. Their friendship as they talk over the radio has real charm.
* Once it becomes clear that something is going on at Nakatomi Plaza, a news reporter called Dick Thornburg (William Atherton, efficiently slimy) starts covering the story. He’s an amoral shit who thinks nothing of manipulating children for his report.   

Villain: The story’s bad guys show up primed and ready. They move into the building stealthily and with little dialogue, killing security guards and making their way up to the floor hosting the Christmas party. The group has distinctive, memorable members – which always helps in a film with a crime gang – but the standout is still its leader. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is an icy-cool yet charismatic German in a Savile Row suit. There’s a great reversal of expectations when we learn that he’s not the political terrorist we all assumed him to be: he’s just after the loot stored in the building’s vault. However, when Holly accuses him of being just a common thief, he sharply replies. “I am an exception thief, Mrs McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.” Rickman gives a sensational performance of guile and confidence and poise in what was, remarkably, his first ever film. Actually, it’s difficult to think of a better-played, more entertaining villain in any movie.

Music: The near-constant incidental music was written by Michael Kamen, who’d previously provided great scores for Brazil (1985), Highlander (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) and TV magnum opus Edge of Darkness (1985). It’s an excellent piece of work, creating tension and supporting action with aplomb. It’s especially good at taking us by the hand and guiding us through moments where we’re crosscutting between different scenes. Kamen also quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when Gruber and the others finally open the vault.

Review: Like a million-pound sports car or a shiny new iPhone, this movie appears so effortless and elegant and pristine, but it’s powered by some extraordinary complex engineering. On the surface, Die Hard is an endlessly entertaining slice of popcorn cinema. There’s action, humour, drama, surprises, suspense and violence, and it’s all muscle, no flab. The film keeps opening up, starting relatively low-key as a group of criminals sneak into a Christmas party and ending up as an enormous action thriller involving helicopters, explosions and SWAT teams. It’s populated by vibrant, interesting, well-played supporting characters – cheeky young chauffeur Argyll (De’voreaux White), stoic company boss Takagi (James Shigeta), lairy businessman twat Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), befuddled police chief Dwayne T Robinson (Paul Gleason), two arrogant FBI agents both called Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L Bush). Everyone in this amazing cast gets line after line of acidic, colourful dialogue packed full of substance and swearing and wit. But look underneath and the film is even more impressive. A huge amount of skill, smartness and hard work has gone into making Die Hard seem so graceful. Narrative filmmaking is about the revelation of information – character details, plot developments, and so on – which must be drip-fed in a specific order and at specific times. Here, the pieces are moved around the chessboard with absolute precision, guaranteeing that we know exactly what we need to know at exactly the right time. We also learn about characters through their behaviour, while their choices drive the plot and action is always significant. Cinematographer Jan De Bont uses the anamorphic widescreen format for all its worth, throwing in extreme framings and telling the story through composition, lighting and purposeful camera moves. John McTiernan directs with a ballsy energy but also a light touch when needed. It’s simply a masterpiece. One of the very best action films ever made.

Ten machine guns (ho ho ho) out of 10