For those with short memories, the franchise that is the face of the modern action film has returned. In 1987, the original Die Hard was released. It was a risky film by a studio with a history of bad decisions and major financial problems. Only twenty-some years before, Fox basically declared bankruptcy with the failure of Cleopatra. Returning to legitimacy was hard going, but they slowly regained footed and in the 1980s took a major risk making Die Hard. It featured all actors who were relative unknowns and a banked on a star that was anything but a legitimate action star.
So much doubt was cast on Bruce Willis as heroic lead that when trailers for the film came out, test audiences laughed at the sight of Willis. He was known as a comedic actor only. Fox tried to save face by removing Willis and his name from all later trailers for damage control to keep the film from being a complete disaster. Of course the film was a major success and the identity of Willis changed forever. Now twenty year later the formula is being redone with Die Hard 4.0. This is the first sequel of the franchise since 1995 and considering Willis’ reluctance to do another sequel, a lot of weight has been put on this entry in the series.
The truth of the fourth entry is that people should have little faith in Willis’s decision making. The film is a cheap knock off of the formula of all the other movies. The only update to the formula is that the nature of the terrorist threat is very modern. Timothy Olyphant plays Thomas Gabriel, a disgruntled former employee of the government. Before leaving his job, he warned the United States about its technological problems. Their ignorance of his warnings drives him to make the nightmare situation for the United States a reality. He systematically begins to shut down the country’s infrastructure. Confident that no one has the intelligence to defeat him, he can’t be prepared for a common man like John McClane using old school actions against him.
The structure of the film is the simple repetition of unbelievable action sequences. The story does a quick job to introduce Willis into the unlikely scenario of hero, but once he is, the film is non-stop with the action sequences. This isn’t like the original where a bad situation is slowly built up into a very dangerous one. Willis is fighting helicopters and other impossible odds right from the beginning. The story, almost non-existent, just ties one action scene to the next. The third film in the franchise took the action scenes to unbelievable heights. It became too unrealistic and absurd. This latest is so much worst that it makes the third look realistic.
But the story is Bruce Willis. He was the unlikely hero and action star of the first Die Hard. Twenty years has given him time to build a resume so prolific that he is now the film world’s most enduring action hero. He portrays John McClane as the typical confident hero here. When an impossible kill is done, McClane continues on with cool and confidence. It feels Bruce Willis is playing Bruce Willis the action star instead of the original character that made him famous.
While I think very little of the new Die Hard, the film is still getting praise in more ways than one. The first is the superficial praise that it is enjoyable and too much fun not to ignore. Action films come out in the plenty, but none feature Bruce Willis going all out to play John McClane. The new one doesn’t have the subtleties of the original, but Willis does well in the action mold. He is an action star who prides himself on the stunts he is willing to take, but before that he was a comedian. The latter element has been the ingredient for the cocky-down-to-earth persona of the “simple cop hero”.
The other has to deal with the thematic issues that have run through the series. The first Die Hard dealt with criticism of institutions and featured heroics that came with outside the box thinking, namely a hero who uses the simple things to kill a bunch of terrorists. His actions in the film went unsupported by the FBI and police who were also involved in trying to stop the terrorists. Of course this idea has been part of movie lore forever. Hollywood movies do not promote logic or skill as the best barometer in which to defeat the bad guys. They promote character and ideals. The simple policeman in John McClane trying to save his wife is that ideal.
But what separated Die Hard from other generic movies is that the institutional criticism in the story got some attention. The film, about a terrorist take over of a large building, employs many actual ideas about would run through in such a situation. In one scene, a psychologist appears on television promoting his book, “Hostage Terrorist, Terrorist Hostage – A Study in Duality”. He hones in on the idea that as a terrorist take over proceeds over the hours, an emotional bonding should start to develop between the hostages and terrorists. The scene cuts with a brutal killing of a hostage, thus destroying the theoretical idea. The book in the film is fictional but the idea behind it isn’t.
Much of the others come with FBI and police procedures in dealing with a terrorist take over. Some situations seem very realistic. At the end the FBI shuts down the power of the building, falsify a report to the terrorists of the release of their comrades in prisons and attempt a sabotage that is suppose to look like a helicopter pick up of the terrorists. The points dealing with the police – specifically the actions of the police chief – feel very false. He is an exaggerated character who says too many nonsense things. The point is that in bungling of many US federal investigations, the deft details with the FBI subplot in the film feels spot on that they may not have been just invented. The accuracy of the details would usually appear in a drama.
Die Hard 4.0 goes even further with the institutional theme. The new film is credited as being based on a 1997 article from Wired Magazine called “A Farewell to Arms” that hypothesized an idea that could destroy the country’s infrastructure. No guns, war machines or bombs were necessary. It was about a technological take over that can be done solely by computers. Die Hard 4.0 goes with the storyline that a top government computer analyst turns into a terrorist once the government ignores his warnings about the weaknesses of their system. As the man who started from the inside of the government, he becomes the perfect man to destroy it.
This idea of a villain is nothing new. Bad action movies like Under Siege 2: Dark Territory has already used it. The villain there was a computer wiz who created a weapon for the United States and then stole it to blackmail them. The difference with Die Hard 4.0 is that it is based in theoretical reality. The original article had serious ideas about how to perform a take over. Die Hard takes those ideas and uses it as a blue print to guide the whole story. Other films have been made with ideas so detailed about committing crimes that countries banned them to keep audiences from seeing how to. Jules Dassin’s Rififi from 1955 had a bank heist scene so thorough and precise it was banned in the United Kingdom. Die Hard 4.0 has many ideas, but shows you need be someone of great means with a large degree of help and inside intelligence.
The problem is that while the subject of Die Hard 4.0 would make top discussion in a classroom, the subject itself overwhelms and exasperates the story. Almost from the beginning the characters are submerged in the situation of a terrorist plot. The film has few themes going for it. John McClane is a problematic character in the other films in the series with battling alcoholism, depression and his family, but here he is given just one scene with his daughter to establish any moral struggle. In the scene, McClane catches his daughter getting sexual with another man in a car. Instead of her admitting she is going too far, she blows up on him and acts like he invaded her privacy. The scene is a thin attempt to set up a feeling that his daughter still distrusts him after all these years.
In the midst of all the action scenes that little the film, the follow up to this scene is McClane’s admittance to loneliness. The audience knows he is referring to his daughter’s actions earlier in the film, but McClane doesn’t delve into that history. Instead he expresses it by telling other characters that there is no glory in being a hero; that it is a very lonely existence and he does what he does because he has to. The daughter is introduced back into the story once the terrorists kidnap her to keep McClane at bay. She becomes witness to his heroics and eventually has a change of heart about him. He no longer is a stranger and his actions bring them back together. The essential theme of the first Die Hard is the same one here as well: heroes are based on character and ideals.