-John McClane (Bruce Willis)
For almost twenty years, Die Hard has been an undeniable part of the public lexicon. Bruce Willis' take on John McClane quickly went from endearing to iconic. In many ways, he's the ultimate action star. Not because he's superhuman, but because he remains so very human. McClane is a man who nobody can stand to be around, but he's always the man you want to be near in a pinch. Through the course of four movies, McClane and Die Hard have become bywords for undeniable, unstoppable, unflinching action. To capitalize on the release of the latest film in the series, Live Free or Die Hard, Fox has released all four flicks on Blu-ray, sold individually or together in one collection. Watching them back to back to back (to back), it's easy to see why Die Hard remains such a vital and enduring series.
In the film that started it all, lifelong New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting L.A. to try and make amends with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Their first meeting, at Holly's company Christmas party, is tense, and a final reconciliation is put off due to a team of terrorists infiltrating the building. Led by the enigmatic Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), they hold the company hostage in an attempt to break into the vault located on the premises. But even the best laid plans can fail thanks to one little fly in the ointment, and that is McClane. Able to escape without being noticed, it's now up to McClane to take on the terrorists one by one, or lose everything that's dear to him.
Despite a long and varied career, it's hard to think of Bruce Willis as anything but an action star. Despite going against type time and time again in films like Pulp Fiction and 12 Monkeys, he will forever be remembered for one role: John McClane. But in 1988, Willis was that guy from Moonlighting. He was seen as a funny up and comer, but not as any kind of star, and certainly not in an action extravaganza. What a difference one movie can make. Die Hard exploded like a nuclear bomb in the summer of '88, bringing audiences in by the truckload and redefining the rules of the action genre.
Much of that can be laid at Willis' (bare) feet. McClane was unlike the other heroes of the time. Actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had turned the action genre into a self-parodying prospect: Muscled boneheads who can barely speak English ripping through hundreds of faceless victims with gattling guns and exploding arrows, all capped off with a cringe-inducing quip. Willis plays McClane as a down to earth, down on his luck working stiff who's too bullheaded for his own good. He makes mistakes, second guesses himself, and these traits forge an instant connection with the audience. Willis, of course, plays McClane as naturally as breathing, making offhand comments and heroic gestures feel equally spontaneous.
Director John McTiernan choreographs the film brilliantly. Instead of having McClane wade through a sea of unsuspecting baddies, he limits the encounters and makes each one count. Every scene has an arc, which all builds in to the larger construction of the picture. The fights are truly thrilling and suspenseful, and you can see McClane degenerate from damage as the movie progresses. The struggle all takes place in one building, giving Die Hard a now-famous sense of claustrophobia that makes each fight even more breathtaking.
Die Hard isn't just the best film in the series, it's one of the best action films ever made. It's still a benchmark of the genre to this day. It continually captures new audience members every year, and its status as a classic is secure. 5 Stars.
Having escaped Nakatomi Plaza with his life and his wife, John McClane now finds himself at Dulles International Airport, waiting to pick up Bonnie from a flight. Of course, things don't go as planned when a group of ex-military renegades hijack the airport to facilitate the escape of an imprisoned war criminal being transferred through Dulles. McClane, of course, isn't just going to sit still for this kind of thing, especially when it turns out that as part of the plan, all planes en route to the airport have to circle above until the escape is complete, even if it means that the jets crash.
I know that Die Hard 2 has its supporters. It is nice and comforting to see McClane and the gang back again, but let's face it: This flick is a steaming pile of crap. This shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who bothers to notice that the director was Renny Harlin. Harlin, a thoroughly mediocre director, had no clue what made the first film so successful, and is completely unable to replicate any of the visceral achievements that McTiernan pulled off so well.
First, the good. Bruce Willis plays John McClane. That's it. That's the only reason to watch the movie. Annoyingly, in an attempt to make McClane even more likable to audiences, Willis softens the role, making McClane more of a jokester, and whining about Holly endlessly. Yes, her life is in danger, but it was also in danger the last time around, and McClane was much more hard edged about things. So even the version of McClane that we get in Die Hard 2 isn't as satisfying as in the other entries.
The airport location also does not lend itself to the kind of close quarters combat that the first film had. Despite being a building, an airport is massive and sprawling. McClane is all over the place, frequently outside, and it's not interesting. Harlin tries to find ways to get McClane into more confined areas, using the flimsiest of excuses to shove him into air ducts and elevator shafts, all to no good effect. The action is more loud than kinetic, and even on a visual level the movie lacks character. Gone are Jan de Bont's dynamic lighting schemes, replaced with flat and flaccid compositions that offer no sense of atmosphere.
The villains are the most faceless in the entire series (and yes, that includes Timothy Olyphant's monotone Thomas Gabriel in the fourth film). Even worse, Bonnie, an essential character in the first film, is shoved onto a plane to participate in a 100% useless subplot that does nothing but take away the focus from the few bits of tension Harlin was able to tape together. It ruins whatever pacing the film had, and goes nowhere but to the punchline of a bad joke.
There's a scene in Die Hard 2 where McClane says to himself, "How does the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" It's a question the audience will find themselves asking the entire time they watch the movie. Harlin doesn't have the talent or imagination to make a passable action picture, let alone something that could stand up against the triumph of the first film. It's not even fun in a "so bad it's good" kind of way, because the production values are too high. Just a miserable failure all around. 2 Stars.
Many years have passed since the events at Dulles, and it turns out McClane is still an asshole. He's moved back to New York, leaving Holly and the kids out in L.A. But that's the least of his problems. One morning, a bomb goes off in the middle of the city, and the perpetrator, a man referring to himself only as Simon (Jeremy Irons), demands that McClane go through a series of tasks and solve puzzles of increasing difficulty. If he fails to comply, more bombs will go off and more lives will be lost.
Die Hard 2 was obviously a cash-in, the result of Fox looking to make a quick buck off of a hot property. Thankfully, they took a different approach with the third film, bringing back John McTiernan to handle the directing duties, and changing many of the established formulas. All of the supporting cast is gone. Willis is the only original actor who remains. In their place are a series of comfortable character actors, more than happy to let Willis run wild. And boy, does he ever. McClane is at his lowest in With A Vengeance, starting the film with a horrible hangover. McClane has never been more rude, pushy, and willing to destroy property as he is here, and it's refreshing to see McTiernan and Willis bring the character back down to earth.
Jeremy Irons is the second most memorable villain in the series, rivaling Rickman in many ways. Shockingly, it turns out that when you cast great actors, you get great performances. Simon is a delightful creation: Severe and determined, he just can't help toying with McClane, even though he knows deep down that to do so is a terrible idea.
The other major change is of the locale. Dropping all pretense of small spaces, McTiernan takes the film in completely the opposite direction. McClane and unwilling partner Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson, providing a nice counterpoint to Willis) find themselves frantically racing all over New York. McTiernan uses the geography and nature of the city to create the tension that he loses by opening up the playing field. Many of the film's best sequences involving McClane and Zeus trying to navigate and avoid New York traffic in an attempt to stop yet another bomb.
Visually, McTiernan also shifts gears, making the movie gritty and grainy to match the grime of the story. The vast differences of this film versus the others proves the reliability of John McClane. Many of the elements people thought were essential to the series (Bonnie, confined spaces, Christmas) are thrown right out the window, and With A Vengeance is better for it. All the movie needs is a good story, cast, and director. Die Hard With A Vengeance is my personal favorite of the four, a devilishly fun thrill ride that offered McClane a whole new world of cinematic opportunities. 4 Stars.
John McClane just can't catch a break. His marriage to Holly has finally ended in divorce, and now his college-bound daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) isn't willing to talk to him. After a particularly poor attempt at reconciliation, John is called to arrest and escort a hacker, Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) that the FBI feel might have hacked into their Cyber Crime Division. But in the attempt, McClane and Farrell find themselves under fire by the henchmen of the real master criminal, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant). McClane, determined to finish his assignment, brings Farrell to the FBI, where he finds that much of the East Coast has been shut down by Gabriel and his team. Now it's up to McClane, with Farrell in tow, to stop Gabriel before he ruins millions of lives.
Live Free or Die Hard had so many cards stacked against it that it's a minor miracle that the film is watchable at all. It had been twelve years since the last Die Hard, and usually such long gapes indicate endless script rewrites that have sucked all the vitality out of the original idea. The political climate had also changed, with the idea of terrorism in America no longer being so outlandish. And the choice of Len Wiseman as the director sent many into an uproar. Wiseman is the director of the two Underworld pictures, and while I find them guilty pleasures, I would not put them on the level of the McTiernan Die Hard entries.
It's to Wiseman's credit that his efforts on Live Free show tremendous growth from his first two outings. The sequences in Washington where Gabriel is systematically shutting down system after system, causing chaos and destruction, are so well done that I found myself on the proverbial edge of my seat. The entire film doesn't hit those heights, but for Wiseman to achieve that even for twenty minutes is, in my mind, a major step forward for him. And even the absolute worst moments in the film never get anywhere near as bad as any single second of Die Hard 2.
The biggest flaw is Timothy Olyphant as Thomas Gabriel. Olyphant can generously be described as an actor with limited range. Even on the acclaimed series Deadwood, Olyphant's character was by far the least interesting. Here he tries to appear darkly menacing, but mostly just comes off as laughable. Much better is his second-in-command/lover Mai Lihn (Maggie Q) who whose beauty belies a fierce temper and a mean kick.
The rest of the supporting cast work surprisingly well. Justin Long plays an iteration of pretty much every character he's ever played (except here he's a hacker), but I've always found him to be charismatic and Wiseman knows how to use him. Mary Elizabeth Winstead channels the tenacity of McClane and the vulnerability of Holly in a performance that I bought completely. The film even manages to shoehorn Kevin Smith into its second act and it doesn't rock the boat.
Considering how widely Willis has branched out since With A Vengeance, it's a bit surprising that he agreed to play McClane again. Maybe he missed the character as much as we did, or maybe the money was too good to pass on. Either way, it's great to see him on screen again in the role he was born to play. He seems more balanced than he did in Vengeance, but has developed the gruffness of a veteran cop who knows it's almost time to retire. I don't know if he'll be able to make it through a fifth film, but for now I feel the old McClane magic still works.
Of course, it would be irresponsible of me to review Live Free or Die Hard without mentioning the ratings debacle that accompanied its theatrical release. All three previous movies had been hard R's, as befitted an action series that always felt like a punch to the gut. At some point during production, Fox decided to entertain the idea of making Live Free PG-13, resulting in McClane unable to say his signature line in full. I was quite vocal in my opposition to a PG-13 release, but being the die hard Die Hard fan that I am, I still couldn't keep myself away. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even without the blood and the swearing, the movie felt like it still belonged in the series. Still, there are some sequences that have obviously been re-edited in order to obtain a PG-13 rating, and they're handled so poorly that it grinds the picture to a screeching halt. Luckily, these scenes are few and far between. 3.5 Stars.
Throughout the years, John McClane has been through his ups and downs personally, professionally, and cinematically. But if there's one thing that isn't in doubt, it's that Die Hard has been resilient, lasting for decades and becoming one of, if not the premiere action franchise of the latter half of the twentieth century. Not too bad for a guy who watched too many Roy Rogers movies as a kid.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Die Hard: I was surprised by how much better Die Hard looked in HD than it did on DVD. Aside from the obvious difference in compression artifacts, many of the shots on the Blu-ray have increased clarity and detail. Jan de Bont's stylish lighting, with plenty of lens flares, is well reproduced. The close-up of John in the air duct with his lighter on is a night and day difference. On the other hand, Die Hard is a naturally soft film, shot with anamorphic lenses and a shallow depth of field. It doesn't escape the curse of the late 80's film stock, with colors that look well worn. If you're looking for the best reproduction of the film on home video to date, this is it. If you're looking for demo material, you'll need to keep on moving. 3 Stars.
Die Hard 2: As I mentioned above, Die Hard 2 does not have the visual sophistication of its predecessor. Renny Harlin went for a much flatter look, sometimes going so far as to bathe a scene in a red or blue light. As you can imagine, this results in an image that is generally devoid of fine detail. But even beyond the inferior cinematography of the film, I feel like Fox didn't put as much effort into this film's transfer. Much of it looks blotchy and I was able to detect artifacts in various scenes. The close-ups don't reveal as much detail as they did in the first film, and even a medium two shot looks shockingly soft, to the point of feeling almost out of focus. 2.5 Stars.
Die Hard With A Vengeance: Now we're getting somewhere. Die Hard With A Vengeance was shot in a gritty, grainy style, but that doesn't stop this disc from looking pretty good. Being a more recent film, Vengeance is more in line with what you'd expect from a high definition transfer, with good detail and color reproduction. The grain is ever-present, giving a nice film-like presentation to the image. I was disappointed to see the specter of edge enhancement rear its ugly head, however. On the whole, I was mostly pleased with Die Hard With A Vengeance. 3.5 Stars.
Live Free or Die Hard: In yet another visual scheme, Len Wiseman decided to overexpose much of Live Free and raise the contrast. At times this can get a little distracting, but in general we still get a top notch transfer befitting a brand new motion picture. There's plenty of detail, with every wrinkle, cut, and bruise on Willis' face clearly visible. Blacks are deep and shadow delineation is excellent. The picture is almost entirely free from artifacts, which is a good thing since Live Free has the most tightly cut action of the four. This is exactly what you would expect from a high profile release and should be praised. 4.5 Stars.
Die Hard: Die Hard was originally mixed in stereo, and thus this 5.1 mix feels very processed. The rears are used infrequently, even for the score. When it is, it's not well balanced, being less discrete and more overt. The bass feels anemic and dialogue, especially Holly's more quiet lines, has a tendency to dip down a little lower into the mix than I would have liked. While the DTS track might have sounded pretty good six years ago, I think it's time for Fox to invest in an entirely new mix for this one. 3 Stars.
Die Hard 2: Further fueling my beliefs that Fox just doesn't care about this sequel, Die Hard 2 is actually a minor step down from the first flick. The big action sequences feel a little better integrated, but the scenes in between are pretty much strictly stereo. Many of the same dialogue issues reappear here. The climax shows some improvement, with better ambiance and balance amongst the effects and the score. In particular, the final explosion sounds quite good, with some decent bass. 3 Stars.
Die Hard With A Vengeance: The first film in the series to be made after the general acceptance of large multichannel soundtracks, Die Hard With A Vengeance is a huge step up from the first two. The opening sets the tone, with some great classic rock interrupted by a vicious explosion, with the sound of glass and debris flying every which way, cars overturning, and people fleeing in terror. The mix never lets up, with a wide soundfield that encompasses much of the city's background noise. Dialogue is significantly improved, including Simon's intentionally tinny phone calls. I don't know how much of an improvement the full lossless track offers, but what we've got here is great. 4 Stars.
Live Free or Die Hard: Do you even have to ask? The latest installment is not only brand new, but directed by a man who clearly knows the value of a truly enveloping sound mix. I gave Wiseman's first film, Underworld, a five for sound on Blu-ray, and I'm more than happy to do the same with Live Free. Right from the opening frames, the sound track settles in with a menacing score by Marco Beltrami. Again, an explosion breaks things up, but the sound is so aggressive that you might think it's your own house that's blowing up. The action sequences are sold through the sound, which flash by, traveling from speaker to speaker and by the end, you won't know which way is up. The fidelity is clear as a bell, and the range is astounding. This is a first class audio mix all the way. 5 Stars.
Aside from the trailers I've listed, all of the special features are in 480p.
Die Hard 2:
Die Hard With A Vengeance:
Live Free or Die Hard:
Note A: The star ratings are combined ratings for all the films put together. Note B: The images in this review are not representative of the quality of the image on the respective Blu-ray discs.