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Film Fanatic: Die Hard Marathon

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It was a couple of months ago that I learned that Regal Cinemas was planning yet another movie marathon. As someone who loves the cinema, I was quite envious of all the people who got to see every Marvel movie in anticipation of The Avengers coming out or the Lord of the Rings Trilogy for The Hobbit’s release. I’d never seen more than two movies consecutively at a movie theater so the thought of at least four seemed daunting and exciting at the same time.

But this latest installment in movie-binge watching is a franchise near and dear to my heart. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. So me and a few friends decided to spend 12 hours in a movie theater to experience perhaps the greatest action-movie franchise; Die Hard. “Yippee ki-yay mother”… well, you know the rest.

A good day to watch a marathon.

We arrived at the theater at 11:45 am. The original was set to start at noon. Before entering reserved theater number eight, we handed over our ticket stubs. I was hoping for some fancy Die hard lanyards, but instead we got matching bracelets like we were headed to the County Fair.

We wanted to make sure we got there a little early because a prime seat in a movie theater is like real estate, it’s all about location. The theater was about a quarter full so we were able to sit where we wanted toward the back and in the middle. If this was going to be our unofficial home for the next half-day, it needed to be perfect.

The man-to-woman ratio was probably 70/30 which was a little surprising. There were a number of couples too. A pre-Valentine’s Day gift for the guys which would probably be followed by a Nora Ephron marathon the next day no doubt.

Die Hard

The original. Where it all started. To answer the trivia question I asked last week, Bruce Willis was the sixth choice for the role of detective John McClane. To think of anyone else after all these years is crazy, but at one time, guys like Burt Reynolds and Richard Gere were offered the part.

But in serendipitous fashion, Willis got the role despite being only known for the television series Moonlighting. What was it about him that connected with fans and spawned four sequels? The answer is his every-man quality.

In a decade where action movies were dominated by musclebound hulks like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis represented the little guy, the underdog, the reluctant hero. He didn’t necessarily take pleasure in killing bad guys, he just had to because there was no one else.

Die Hard
The original is still the best.

The brilliance of Die Hard is in its simplicity. A group of criminals posing as terrorists take control of a skyscraper to obtain the millions of dollars in negotiable bearer bonds (way cooler than money) inside a vault. A cop from New York just happens to be there to try and repair his marriage and have a Merry Christmas. There’s no government takeovers or WMDs or world domination at stake, just a bunch of money. The villain, Hans Gruber, even pokes fun at this notion in the film.

And speaking of Gruber. In another bit of serendipity, Alan Rickman was cast as the main villain despite never having been in a movie before. His experience at that point had primarily been in theater.

Perhaps the greatest movie villain of all time, Rickman played Hans not just as a typical bad guy, but as a character with personality. The subtlety of his character (including a slight hint of insecurity when it comes to his intelligence) made him not only fun but unpredictable.

Die Hard remains the best in the series because it got everything right. The variety of action and suspense (claustrophobia, explosions, shoot-outs), mixed with the best villain and a great deal of humor and soul made Die Hard not only the best action film ever made, but a template for endless copycats seen in the ’90s. Those $20 we spent to see all of the films was a great deal, but I’m sure many in the theater would have forked over that amount just to see the original on the big screen.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

At some point in this marathon you’ve got to make a sacrifice and go eat a proper meal. As much as I love popcorn, you can only take so much butter and salt. So in between one and two, some of us decided to eat at Chili’s. Because there was only a half-hour gap between each film, we knew we would miss the beginning of the first sequel but hey, a guy’s gotta eat.

Of the first four films in the series, this was my least favorite. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Die Hard 2 just felt like a typical sequel rehashing a lot of what made the original so good instead of making its own material feel fresh and new.

But sequels have a built-in audience, so Die Hard 2 tried to please fans by staying relatively close to the original in terms of story and action. Instead of the location being in a skyscraper it’s an airport, trade the sidekick cop with a sidekick traffic controller, swap the limo driver with a janitor and substitute the D-Bag police captain with an equally douchey airport captain. Not to mention they brought back Mrs. McClane (or Ms. Gennero after this) again to be the damsel in distress.

As far as the action goes, the sequel felt the need to once again get McClane in an elevator shaft at some point and have him crawl through ventilation ducts and wander through tunnels. He does get to branch out a little bit, but is there anything more boring than a snowmobile chase?

Die Hard 2
A slightly disappointing sequel.

The film does provide one of the more memorable scenes in the entire series. As McClane is trapped inside the cockpit of an airplane, he has to strap himself into a pilot’s chair and eject after grenades rain down all around him. The climatic fight on top of a moving airplane is also fun as he has to deal with not one but two AWOL soldiers. Ironically, the biggest cheer of the night came at the end of 2 as McClane uttered his famous line just before blowing up the airplane.

Despite playing it safe, Die Hard 2 still goes down as an entertaining action movie. Willis is as likable as ever and throwing him into another unfamiliar setting adds another hurdle to the story. There’s plenty of great one-liners from McClane (none I can repeat here) but it was odd seeing the unedited version again. If you’ve ever caught the film on TBS, it might be the most unintentionally hilarious edit job ever (Yippie ki-yay Mr. Falcon anybody).

The first sequel may be the weakest of the first four entries, but you could do a lot worse than Die Hard 2.

Die Hard: With a Vengeance

Die Hard 3 wasn’t originally conceived as a sequel. Entitled “Simon Says,” the script went through many different drafts and screenwriters and almost ended up being the third sequel in the Lethal Weapon series. Even aspects of previous drafts would eventually become Under Siege and Speed 2: Cruise Control. But despite not being a true sequel in the franchise, Die Hard 3 is without question the best of the sequels.

Finally being a cop in the city in which he lives, McClane must deal with yet another eccentric Euro dead-set on not only causing havoc in New York, but also interrupting McClane’s perfectly good hangover. But there’s a reason the mysterious Simon has so much hostility towards him. McClane threw his brother off the Nakatomi building.

But simply killing him would be too easy. So Simon lays out a series of tasks for McClane to complete. If he isn’t successful, there will be “another big bang in a very public place.” Luckily McClane has a physical sidekick for this adventure. The always angry Samuel L. Jackson steps in as the reluctant “good Samaritan” Zeus.

Die Hard 3
The best of the sequels.

Willis is perfectly capable of carrying his own film, but the addition of Jackson is what makes Die Hard 3 shine. Both actors have great chemistry together despite a level of racial hostility throughout the film. But their relationship only adds another level of conflict to the narrative.

The risky thing about 3 is that it removes the formula that worked so well in the first two films. Thinking in terms of a video game, the movie is no longer constrained to one location. It’s an open-world sandbox where diversions may occur at any point. Since there are so many things going on in different parts of the city, it establishes a chaotic energy that moves the story forward. You have to focus on what McClane and Zeus have to do, what the cops are doing to find a school bomb and what Simon and his fellow criminals are up to.

The finale may seem a little anti-climatic, but overall Die Hard 3 works the best of any of the sequels because it isn’t afraid to branch out. New York becomes McClane and Simon’s playground and we are in awe of the kinetic energy on display. Jeremy Irons comes the closest to topping Hans Gruber as a villain and there’s just enough variety in the action sequences and humor that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Live Free or Die Hard

It’s just after seven now. Time to stretch the legs and get some popcorn and a soda. Naturally, there’s only one person working the counter at the concessions so of course there’s a line. But I’m not in a hurry. The lady behind me apparently is. Before the person in front of me can finish putting their change away and leave, the lady taps on my shoulder and says, “Hey, pay attention. My movie starts soon.” I’m just relieved to be standing again so I think nothing of it and order my food.

As I was leaving the theater after 3 ended, I overheard a woman saying to her boyfriend, “I didn’t know they made a fourth movie.” To all of the fanboys out there, Live Free or Die Hard was apparently a disgrace. The only entry in the series to receive a PG-13 rating, Die hard 4 sort of represented the new action movie these days that relied on heavy use of computer-generated effects to cater to a younger audience. But that wasn’t John McClane. That wasn’t ’80s cinema or even early ’90s.

Gone was the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking New York cop. He was replaced with a grumpy old-school guy. A “Timex watch in the digital age,” according to the villain. But while I did have a problem with the film’s PG-13 rating, I’m definitely a defender of Live Free or Die Hard.

Missing in this latest entry is the premise that the villain is pretending to be a terrorist so he can pull off a great heist. This time he actually is a terrorist in the form of Thomas Gabriel. He’s apparently pissed that the government hasn’t implemented better security when it comes to cyber terrorism so this forces him to wreak havoc himself just to prove a point.

What’s a Die Hard movie without a sidekick. This time it’s in the form of the “Mac Guy” Justin Long. Once one of Gabriel’s minions, computer whiz Matthew Farrell reluctantly works with McClane to bring down Gabriel and restore digital order. Like with Jackson in the last entry, the banter between Willis and Long is entertaining. The racial dynamic has been replaced with an age dilemma as Farrell is constantly trying to explain to McClane what’s he’s doing with those complicated computer machines.

Die Hard 4
The most underrated entry in the series.

The major weakness of Die Hard 4 is that it strips away the reluctant hero in McClane and turns him into a bit of an indestructible force. In the first film, there was no one else but him in the building. In the second, everyone was apparently either an inexperienced airport cop or a corrupt soldier. In number three he had to be the one to save the day because the villain said so.

There’s a line in 4 when McClane is explaining to Farrell why he’s risking his life. He says something like “Trust me, if there was somebody else to do this I would gladly let them but there’s not. So we’re doing it.” What do you mean there’s no one else to do it? Are all of the cops and feds on vacation for the Fourth of July? The reluctant hero has been replaced by a superhero and he’s apparently the only one who can save the country.

But the film is consistently entertaining with memorable car chases, fight scenes and gun battles. I’m also giving the film serious credit for attempting to remain practical when it comes to the action sequences. It isn’t until the third act when things become over-the-top ridiculous when McClane goes toe-to-toe with a fighter jet.

The movie has a few nicely subtle callbacks to the earlier films including government bureaucracy and FBI agents named Johnson, but you can’t help but feel the movie is a little constrained because of the rating. I mean we don’t even get to hear McClane utter his famous line cleanly.  Luckily there’s an unrated DVD available for all the Die Hard purists like me.

Other than a lack of some trademark vulgarity and violence, Die Hard 4 is still an entertaining and somewhat old-school action film. There was some trepidation on my part, as I’m sure there was with a lot of people, when Willis decided to reprise the role despite being in his fifties. But like slipping on an old pair of shoes, Willis seamlessly fits into the role that defined his career.

A Good Day to Die Hard

I’ve never been so exhausted from sitting for so long. Ten hours in a movie theater will do that to you. But the whole point to all of this was to arrive at this point Wednesday night. It’s 10:00 pm and the lights go down. We see a few memorable trailers including the one for Fast & Furious 6 until we get to a video of Bruce Willis sitting in a chair. He looks directly at all of us and says, “Thank you for experiencing the Die Hard Marathon. I hope you enjoy this latest installment in the franchise.” We all look at each other as if we’ve just won something. My friend turns to me and says, “I’d love to have a beer with Bruce Willis. He seems like a cool dude.” Damn straight!

When I first read about the plot for Die hard 5 I was a little sceptical. For the first time in the series, the story was taking place outside of the US. Instead of New York or Washington, we were getting our latest dose of McClane in Russia. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. It seemed like a cool way to reestablish the “fish out of water” aspect to his character. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the last installment, McClane struggled to repair his relationship with his daughter. In this one, it’s his son. After learning that Jack has been arrested and charged with murder, John decides to fly to Moscow. But what’s his motivation? To support Jack as he goes through the trial? To simply try and reconnect with him? Maybe to bust him out, but then why would he do that since he’s a cop and all? Unfortunately, the beginning of Die Hard 5 acts as a warning of things to come. A lot of confusion and very little in the way of plot and story.

What makes a great Die Hard movie? I’ve already outlined it exhaustively in this piece but basically it boils down to a good story with memorable and entertaining set pieces built around it, a great villain and a worthy sidekick for the main protagonist. Sadly, the latest installment has none of that.

A Good Day to Die Hard
The worst of the Die Hards by a wide margin.

McClane makes it to Moscow and conveniently arrives just as Jack is being escorted into the courtroom along with another man. While this is happening, a team of Russian thugs are planning on either grabbing Jack and the man or killing them both I don’t know. Meanwhile, McClane literally just stands outside on the street. It’s as if he’s just waiting for his cue to start shooting bad guys instead of doing something that moves the story forward.

Eventually, Jack and the mysterious man make it out of the courtroom where McClane is there to surprise them. Jack doesn’t have time for hugs and kisses with dad so he takes off in a van. Bad guys then pursue him and McClane then follows them in a long, drawn-out freeway chase.

The plot of Die Hard 5 constantly changes its mind. A political prisoner plot becomes an international intrigue plot, which becomes an epic terrorism plot. Jack as it turns out, is a spy whose mission is to escort a disgraced Russian to obtain a really important file and then bring his sexy daughter with them back to America.

McClane apparently has no idea his son was a spy this whole time (isn’t he a detective?) The reason for their relationship being so strained is never fully developed and it makes for a number of scenes where father and son bicker back and forth. The movie is determined to force the drama of this story into some kind of father-son reconciliation but it just never really works.

There are basically three main action sequences in this film and everything else around them feel like nothing more than filler. The lengthy car chase resembles something out of The Terminator rather than Die Hard as three vehicles cause endless amounts of destruction. Did Michael Bay direct this sequence?

What follows are awkwardly put together moments where villains literally dance to fill time and rehash Hans Gruber’s great monologue in the first film about his disdain for American cowboys. You have no idea who the actual villain is until the third act and by then you don’t really care. John McClane’s wise-cracking self is replaced with endless smirking and the need to continuously remind us he’s on vacation.

The action scenes, particularly the last one, look cool if you were playing a video game but the rest of the film doesn’t earn such a spectacular finale. McClane literally flips the bird to the bad guys as they fall from a building into a pool. This may have sounded great on paper, but seeing it on the big screen produced unintentional laughter on my part.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had already released action movies before the release of A Good Day to Die Hard. I thought of those inexpensive films as nothing more than geriatric exercises from old men way past their expiration date. Sadly, the latest Die Hard falls into that category. Willis is looking a little long in the tooth at this point and based on his performance and the material he agreed to star in, perhaps it’s time for him to finally hang up the Beretta, gun strap and wife beater. I can’t believe I just said that.

So the ending to our marathon wasn’t what we hoped for, but by then we were ready to go home. After more than 12 hours in a movie theater, it was a little too soon to start venting about what went wrong with number five. But now I can say I’ve experience all of the Die Hards the way they were meant to be seen, on the big screen. After 25 years, five movies and 12 hours, I feel like I deserve a t-shirt or something.


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