Die Hard Series: Action Heroes and Villains–Needed

Different kinds of histories can be written based on the popular action franchise “Die Hard.” Just by analyzing the characters of the hero and villain. We can learn about the history of genre filmmaking and action stars, and even the history of U.S. politics. Spanning two decades, the series began in 1988 with “Die Hard,” continued with two sequels in 1990 and 1995 and is seeing this summer its chapter four, “Live Free or Die Hard,” after a long hiatus. All four installments have starred Bruce Willis, the one steady component in a vastly changing landscape, as a working-class New York cop John McClane.

Jobs Needed: Action Stars

In 1988, a lot of attention was paid to the fact that Bruce Willis, then best-known for his popular TV series “Moonlighting” (With Cybill Shepherd) was getting paid $5 million. Twenty years later, no one would raise an eyebrow over paycheck north of $20 or $25 million, plus points or shares of the theatrical grosses, ancillary, and merchandise.

At 52, Willis may be the last man standing as far as action stars are concerned. His mates (and rivals), Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvetser Stallone, all past 60, all dating back to the 1970s and 1980s actioners, have vanished, or retired.

Interestingly, John McTiernan, who directed the first and third “Die Hard,” had worked with Scharzenegger on good (“Predator”) and bad (“Last Action Hero.”) actioners, and he also helmed “The Hunt for Red October,” with the would-be action star Alec Baldwin; Harrison Ford replaced Baldwin in the next picture.

What explains Willis’s lasting power Younger than the other stars by several years, Willis also was more of an everyman hero. He was not pumped up like Schwarzenegger’s comic-strip hero, or the overly-muscled Stallone in his 1980s “Rambo” flicks. Boyish and mischievous, there was a smirk on Willis’ arrogant face that some viewers liked, while others despised. Though invincible, as far as American action heroes go, he was also more human, more vulnerable. Willis tried to be the average-Joe, the smart-alecky boy-next-door with marbles in his pocket and frogs in a mayonnaise jar.

It also helped that Willis was a more skillful actor, particularly adept at delivering witty, ironic one-liners and self-deprecating homespun humor. Some of us have always preferred Willis in supporting roles, like in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” or in Robert Benton’s “Nobody’s Fool,” starring Paul Newman.

It’s one of this popular genre’s mysteries that Hollywood exec have not been able to create new, viable action stars. First, there was an effort to use men of color, such as Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Samuel Jackson (promoted to leading man status after playing character roles for a decade).

Of the younger generation, there was Ben Affleck, in an effort to replace Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, who carries with honor the franchise of the “Bourne Supremacy” series. Even younger, but still untested, are Josh Hartnett and Aron Eckhardt. Who knows the future of the genre may be with the gifted, rapidly rising Shia LaBeouf, who this season appears in “Disturbia” and “Tranformers,” and will next be seen in Spielberg’s “Indian Jones 4.”

Characters Needed: Good Villains

Film critics tend to be nostalgic, and we now look back at the first Die Hard with more tolerance than we did at the time. But a careful look at the first film shows that even back then, the narrative was replete of clichs. Take the interracial elements. From the beginning, perhaps influenced by the success of the “Lethal Weapon” series with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, the “Die Hard” franchise emphasized its interracial elements, reflected in the heroes and their buddies as well as the villains.

Drawing heavily on the Howard Hawks formula for romance and adventures, the “Die Hard” series also featured a middle-aged man who’s estranged from his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) but is still in love with her. In fact, in the first film, McClane gets trapped while he goes to visit Holly at her office Christmas party. Disaster and earthquakes always seem to strike on big holidays or mall openings, as was evident in the schlocky adventures “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno.” Without revealing too much, let’s say that in “Die Hard 4,” McClane is divorced and his daughter gets kidnapped.

It might be more instructive to examine the villain’s character in the four films and their changing nationality, personality, and politics.

In the first “Die Hard,” Hans Gruber was a classy villain, played by a classy actor, Alan Rickman, graduate of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sporting an elegant suit, Hans was a ruthless terrorist, the kind of malicious snake that could even scare Samuel Jackson.

The references made by both villain and hero were to movies, not to any “external” reality. Hans mocks McClane, via radio, “Who are you Are you just another American who saw too many movies as a child” Hans is not stupid, or out of touch. McClane not only likes cowboy star Roy Rogers, he even likes to be called Roy.

There was another thug in “Die Hard” in the shape of Russian Bolshoi Ballet star Alexander Godunov, playing Karl, the brother of McClane’s first victim. A dancer, Godunov moved gracefully with his long blond hair flowing, but he brought a note of incongruity to the part.

In “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” McClane stumbles into a bigger terrorist plot to hijack a whole airport. “Man, I can’t believe this,” he moans. “How can shit like this happen to the same guy twice Self-referential irony or self-referential parody Probably both.

Director Renny Harlin tries to compensate with speed and volume for the lack of tension in the yarn–the movie zooms along like a roller coaster. Based on Walter Wager’s novel “58 Minutes,” the tale (scripted by Steven E. de Souza of “Die Hard” and Doug Richardson) begins when Dulles Airport is taken over by a mercenary group at Christmas time. Led by Col. Stuart (William Sadler), they want to stop the extradition of a Latin American for prosecution on drug charges. Dulles dispatches its own airport police and the Army a team of commandos, but to no avail.

The mercenaries strike as McClane waits for his wife Holly (again Bonnie Bedelia) to arrive on a plane. They take over the tower’s communications, tell the controllers to stack the incoming traffic and threaten massive retribution; a British jet is chosen as object lesson. While the airport police chief, tower control and the Army argue over tactics, McClane ignores the officers and takes up with the airport janitor, who knows his way through the underground that connects the terminal and runaways.

“Die Hard 2” was released just after the bonanza of “Batman,” which was as much a socio-cultural phenom as a movie. For many, it was refreshing to see a human hero, McClane, as a capeless crusader, an average cop who saves the day without a robo suit. Using commonsense and basic skills, Willis’s detective continued to outthink a technologically superior force of evil geniuses.

The first film takes place in the airshafts of a Los Angeles skyscraper, but the second was less claustrophobic, packed with action, from the first scene in the baggage check to the last one with mid-air explosions. Harlin’s breathneck direction traded on our fear of flying; little did we know then that in a decade the fears would become a national paranoia. The action is spectacular. In one sequence, McClane ejects himself from the pilot seat of a grounded plane as the aircraft explodes beneath him.

Screenwriters Doug Richardson and Steven de Souza added humor, as in the scene where McClane vows to “wake up and smell the 1990s,” facing a daunting new challenge, using a fax machine. “Die Hard 4” plays on technology, too, but now cell phones are the problem.

Harlin upped the ante on the action, violence–and number of villains. The bad guys include Franco Nero, as a Latin American dictator and drug trafficker about to face trial, William Sadler as the maniacal leader of a special-forces unit hired to rescue the dictator, and William Atherton as a sleazy TV journalist trapped on a plane with McClane’s wife.

The third segment, “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” brought back John McTiernan as helmer, and switched the action to the Easy Coast. McClane feels safe at home in the Bronx; it’s the last place he expects to find his foe. But a genius named Simon (played by Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons) engages McClane and the whole city in a deadly game.

When McTiernan saw the album cover for Sam Phillips’ Martinis & Bikinis, he thought she would be perfect as a German terrorist. After performing “These Books Are Made for Walkin’ for Ready to Wear,” she made acting debut as the mute terrorist cohort of Irons’ villain, Simon.

As McClane’s buddy, Samuel Jackson fulfilled a number of functions. He helped bring black audiences to the plexes, elevated the series’ cachet with his acting chops and appearances in prestige indies like “Pulp Fiction” and Spike Lee’s movie, and offered an ear and a mouth to the obligatory banter, a staple of such pictures.

But despite pumped-up volume and overinflated budget, the third was the least successful of the series. The picture is marred by improbable chases and a confusing heist. Some of the problems derive from the fact that the original script by Jonathan Hensleigh wasn’t written for the series.

Irons plays the snide, intelligent terrorist brother of the late Hans Gruber, the character played deliciously in the first film by Alan Rickman. Simon blows up a department store, then sends McClane down on his luck, nearly alcoholic and on suspension.

By chance, McClane meets Zeus (Samuel Jackson), a Harlem shopkeeper, and the two take a ride to prevent a subway explosion. Between explosions, they find time to banter about blacks and whites, each accusing the other of being a racist.

In this picture, the broader social context was crucial: It was hard to watch “Die Hard 3” without the disturbing feelings that prevailed in the wake of the recent Oklahoma City bombing.

The Following Contains Crucial Points

In “Die Hard 4,” the villain behind the scheme is a handsome American named Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a disenchanted government security officer who’s helped by a group of internationals, a woman from Asia (Hong Kong star Maggie Q), a man from Europe (French action star Cyril Raffaelli). Is the choice of baddies a reflection of the zeitgeist or a concession to the fact that Hollywood movies are now making more profit abroad than at home, thus their international flavor.

I leave it up to you dear readers to decide whether the “Die Hard” series has evolved or devolved. However, for my money, none of the franchise’s heavies can match Alan Rickman’s subtle malevolence in the first “Die Hard.”