I'm not ashamed to say it: The Die Hard quadrilogy is one of the most satisfying action series of the 20th century. Not only did the first film make a global superstar out of Bruce Willis (while arguably also nearly shackling him to a career spent making reductive rip-offs of said break-out film), it created a template for the next generation of movie-makers to either pay homage to or, more often, simply rip off. It's not for nothing that the phrase "It's like Die Hard on a (blank)" came into vogue not long after Willis first uttered the iconic "Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker."
While the quartet of Die Hards are unquestionably satisfying, they are also wildly uneven. The first film remains an exercise in lean, mean action filmmaking 20 years later, while the ill-advised sequel (that would be Die Hard 2: Die Harder) tries to cram all of what worked from Die Hard into a patently flimsy structure that wobbles mightily throughout. The third film, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a return to form, fusing style and substance to a breathless plot that almost (but not quite) flies off the rails. The fourth and latest film, 2007's Live Free or Die Hard, pales in comparison to its predecessors (more than a decade elapsed between the third and fourth films) but does capture the spirit of the earlier outings.
The series' popularity has also resulted in a veritable mountain of DVDs being issued, re-issued, re-re-issued, re-packaged and re-configured countless times. By my conservative count, Die Hard and its sequels have been issued on DVD 15 times, not counting the various "collections," which materialized with each successive sequel. This "ultimate collection" is merely the latest, incorporating the fourth (and final?) Die Hard film, 2007's slam-bang Live Free or Die Hard. More details about the individual films and their respective supplements are below.
The four films contained in this latest repackaging (all the discs are identical to the versions already in print) are as follows:
Die Hard, dir. John McTiernan (1988)
The one that started it all -- it serves as the arguable apex of Eighties action cinema, made a big fat star out of Willis and remains a benchmark for filmmakers two decades later. The plot is elemental in its simplicity: John McClane, vacationing in California and visiting his estranged, head-strong wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), finds himself embroiled in a struggle -- contained within a mostly empty skyscraper, no less -- with slick Euro-terrorists, led by the smug Hans Gruber (a note-perfect Alan Rickman).
For a little over two hours, McTiernan, working from Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza's screenplay (itself an adaptation of Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel "Nothing Lasts Forever"), delivers laughs, thrills and adrenaline-charged set-pieces which don't skimp on the gore. Willis, of course, anchors the film with his funny, believable performance (even when he's tip-toeing across a floor covered in shattered glass) but the entire cast is solid, from Bedelia's put-upon spouse to William Atherton's gloriously slimy newscaster (although there weren't many films in the Eighties where Atherton wasn't playing a slimeball). If there's a better example of Hollywood firing on all cylinders, I'd love to see it.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder, dir. Renny Harlin (1990).
For every Godfather, there must be a Godfather III and for me, Die Hard 2 is exactly that, a miscalculated follow-up to a hugely successful first film. Perhaps it's the slap-dash nature of the plot (adapted from a different novel, Walter Wager's 1987 thriller "58 Minutes," by Doug Richardson and de Souza) or the fact that many of the film's parts feel recycled from the first film, but this sequel never jells.
Whereas the initial Die Hard ingeniously unfolded within a single structure, the second film dashes hither and yon, all over Washington D.C.'s Dulles Airport during one frantic, snow-blown night as the villainous Col. Stuart (a screw-loose William Sadler) conspires with rogue U.S. soldiers to bring Gen. Ramon Esparza (Franco Nero) safely into the country.
The biggest problem? Inserting McClane into this particular story feels wholly arbitrary, especially when placing McClane's wife on a circling, low-on-fuel jetliner as some kind of impetus for him to act -- the whole thing smacks of overreaching. You're never really invested in the outcome, as with the first film.
Col. Stuart is a cardboard cut-out, the peripheral characters are downright annoying and Willis seems to be somewhere else. All in all, it's a frustrating experience, knowing that the right set-up can provide maximum enjoyment with these characters. Ah well, there's always the inevitable third film ...
Die Hard with a Vengeance, dir. John McTiernan (1995).
Talk about a return to form -- McTiernan back in the director's chair meant a lean, mean plot that didn't mess around (and deftly ties into the first film; Jonathan Hensleigh's riddle-strewn screenplay is a breathless wonder) and a reinvigorated Willis, whose McClane found a great foil in the mouthy, brave Zeus Carver (a terrific Samuel L. Jackson).
Back in New York City and nursing one helluva hangover, McClane is forced to play a horrific game of Simon Says, with the stakes involving large bombs in very public places (the New York Stock Exchange, elementary schools, etc.). With help from Harlem shopkeeper Zeus Carver, McClane embarks on a seemingly superhuman quest to track down Simon, his explosive toys and find out just why this apparently random reign of terror involves him at all. If it sounds like too much story, don't worry -- somehow the whole film flows smoothly, although the abuse McClane takes in the latter third may have some astonished.
The entire cast is solid, from Jeremy Irons' cold-hearted terrorist Simon, to cops Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, Larry Bryggman, Anthony Peck and Kevin Chamberlin. Again, while the last 30 minutes stretch credibility and begin to wear viewers down, Vengeance still crackles with all the energy Die Hard 2 lacked. Easily the second best film in the series.
Live Free or Die Hard, dir. Len Wiseman (2007).
It's hard to know why a fourth Die Hard film needed to be made, but at least those behind and in front of the camera made sure it didn't suck (too much). Bruce Willis is starting to show a little wear, though ...
Almost, but not quite, re-booting the franchise with a little help from a snide Justin Long (who co-stars as a hapless hacker), this fourth run-through pushes the credibility envelope even further than the finale of its predecessor. The plot -- cyberterrorists conspire to take down the American government over the long Fourth of July holiday weekend -- is merely an excuse for McClane to both protect the wayward hacker, recover his kidnapped daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and indulge in some high-flyin' stunts. (Hey, how come his son couldn't be involved?)
My biggest gripe? Timothy Olyphant, swell actor that he is, doesn't make a terribly frightening bad guy, which saps a lot of the tension from the plot (well, that and the realization that McClane has survived three other movies). That said, Willis seems to be having fun and the techno-gobbledy-gook doesn't seem terribly implausible. But about launching that police car into a helicopter ...
DVD Talk reviews of previous versions of the Die Hard series
All four films are presented as originally released on DVD, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers of varying crispness and saturation. Obviously, the first three films just don't have the pop of the 2007 installment, but that doesn't mean they're a mess -- on the contrary, all the Die Hard films are solid, although the second half of Die Hard with a Vengeance has always seemed plagued by excessively grainy video. The first two films exhibit a bit of softness, but in spot comparisons with previously available discs, they appear similar and unchanged for the worse. Overall, an acceptable to very solid set of transfers.
As with the the visual transfers, the aural options are also unchanged from previous two-disc editions. The Dolby Digital tracks are ever-so-slightly edged out by the DTS tracks in terms of warmth and clarity, but both soundtracks are crammed full of vivid sound effects, shouted dialogue and frenzied score. You'll duck as bullets whiz by, glass shatters repeatedly and explosions shake the room. In short, these are top-notch sonic experiences. All four films include optional English subtitles.
From my research, it appears that none of the two-disc sets in this collection have been beefed up in any way -- all of the supplements found on previous two-disc editions of the Die Hard films are included here. These two-disc sets are housed in slim digipacks, tucked inside a holofoil slipcase, with brief synopses on the back of the slipcase and the bonus features listed on the back of each digipack.
In brief, here are the bonus features for each film:
Die Hard: A compelling, informative commentary from McTiernan and production designer Jackson DeGovia; a more focused, scene-specific commentary from special effects supervisor Richard Edlund; a "seamless branching" version with the extended power shutdown sequence cut back in.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder: Revealing, insightful commentary from Harlin; the perfunctory "Die Harder: The Making of Die Hard 2" doc and featurette; four deleted scenes (presented in non-anamorphic widescreen); "Villains Profile" featurette (presented in non-anamorphic widescreen); Harlin interview; behind-the-scenes vignettes; a storyboard sequence; a visual effects breakdown; theatrical trailers and TV spots.
Die Hard with a Vengeance: A relaxed, info-packed commentary from McTiernan, Hensleigh and former Fox exec Tom Sherak; a fascinating, more downbeat alternate ending; the fluffy "Behind the Scenes: Die Hard with a Vengeance" TV special; the equally fluffy "A Night to Die For/McClane is Back" TV special; making-of featurette; three behind-the-scenes vignettes; a storyboard sequence; Willis interview; seven special effects breakdowns; two trailers and 10 TV spots.
Live Free or Die Hard: Unrated and original theatrical versions; commentary with Willis, Wiseman and editor Nicolas De Toth; the "Analog Hero in a Digital World" making-of featurette; a diverting Willis/Kevin Smith interview; a predictably bland Fox Movie Channel special; the film's theatrical trailer; a music video from Guyz Nite and a music video making-of featurette.
The Die Hard quadrilogy is one of the most satisfying action series of the 20th century. Not only did the first film make a global superstar out of Bruce Willis (while arguably also nearly shackling him to a career spent making reductive rip-offs of said break-out film), it created a template for the next generation of movie-makers to either pay homage to or, more often, simply rip off. These two-disc editions, while re-packaged from previous releases, are in a space-saving slipcover and nothing, extras-wise, has been lost, so until another "collection" supplants it, this latest offering is a cinch for DVD Talk Collectors Series.