Appellate Judge Mac McEntire looks great in a filth-covered white tank top.
Our reviews of Die Hard (published April 20th, 1999), Die Hard: Five Star Collection (published July 4th, 2001), Die Hard 2: Die Harder (published April 20th, 1999), Die Hard 2: Special Edition (published July 4th, 2001), Die Hard With A Vengeance (published April 20th, 2000), Die Hard With A Vengeance: Special Edition (published July 4th, 2001), Die Hard 2: Die Harder (Blu-ray) (published October 17th, 2011), Die Hard (Blu-ray) (published October 12th, 2011), and Die Hard with a Vengeance (Blu-ray) (published October 17th, 2011) are also available.
McClane: "I know what I'm doing."
Sometimes, context is everything. This review is being written mere days before the opening of Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment of the mega-franchise. There's a lot of excitement and/or apprehension about the sequel right now, with many looking forward to the return of Energizer Bunny-like hero John McClane, while others are nervous that the movie's PG-13 rating could mean a watered down Die Hard.
This "dawn of the new movie" perspective means this review will become dated in the future, but it is nonetheless how this new box set of the three previous Die Hard movies must be viewed. Why? Because this set in particular has a focus on using the three films to promote the fourth. These films have already had excellent DVD releases prior to this one. This set removes a lot of what was in those releases and adds some sneak previews as to what's in store for part four.
Facts of the Case
• Die Hard
New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis, The Sixth Sense) flies into L.A. to spend the holidays with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, Presumed Innocent). He reunites with Holly at her office Christmas party up inside the high-tech and still under construction Nakatomi building. While McClane is in alone the men's room, everyone else in the building is suddenly taken hostage by the sinister Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, Dogma), and his expert team of multi-national tough guys. Gruber has a devious plot in the works, and he has contingency plans for everything. Everything, that is, except McClane. Now, trapped inside a skyscraper with gun-toting henchmen around every corner, this in-over-his-head cop has to figure out a way to stop the bad guys, armed with only his wits, his fists, and his bare feet.
• Die Hard 2: Die Harder
It's Christmas again, and McClane is in a Washington D.C. airport waiting to reunite with Holly once more and spend the holiday with her parents. Sharp-eyed cop that he is, McClane spots some suspicious activity and investigates, only to have two guys who broke into a restricted area try to kill him. This incident is only the tip of the icy runway: Colonel Stuart (William Sadler, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey) is a mercenary leading an elite squad of former military men with a plot to usurp air traffic control and keep planes hostage in a holding pattern above the airport in a snowstorm until their demands are met. Like Gruber, Stuart has planned for every contingency except one: McClane. On the run from both the mercenaries and from airport security, McClane fights his way from one end of the tarmac to the other on his own, in the hopes of getting his wife back to the ground safely.
• Die Hard with a Vengeance
In New York, it's summer in the city (back of my neck gettin' dirty and gritty), when a bomb goes off in a department store early in the morning. A mysterious man who calls himself Simon (Jeremy Irons, Dungeons and Dragons) informs police that there will be more bombs unless they find McClane and make him do whatever Simon says. McClane's going through a rough patch—he's on suspension from the NYPD, estranged from his wife once again, and incredibly hung over. When he's rescued from one of Simon's schemes by Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson, Snakes on a Plane), a Good Samaritan civilian with some strong opinions about race relations, Simon includes Zeus in his plot as well. Now, McClane and Zeus have to do whatever Simon asks of them, such as solving riddles, outrunning subway trains, and racing from one side of the city to another in a taxi, all while trying to figure out who Simon is and what he's really after. Is there a greater plot in the works or is it merely revenge?
The runaway of success of the first Die Hard and the subsequent adulation of "classic" that it has received over the years are well earned. The reasons for this are many. The first has got to be all the skill that director John McTiernan (Predator) brought to the table. McTiernan is one of those rare directors who really "gets" widescreen imagery and uses the entire screen to his advantage. It's an odd thing to say, I know, because the best directors always put powerful imagery on the screen. It's just that when looking at a great shot in a good McTiernan movie, you don't think, "This is an amazing image," you think, "This is an amazing widescreen image." You could go through Die Hard shot-for-shot and check out how McTiernan makes the screen his canvas with every frame. The many gunfights and explosions here are no-brainers, but simple shots like someone talking on a phone or looking out a window are framed just as skillfully, so that the entire film in one giant feast for the eyes. (Please, for the love of all that pure and wholesome, don't ever watch this movie cropped to full screen on TV. Just don't.)
But if Die Hard merely looked good, it wouldn't be as beloved as it is today. Another key to its success is the script, written by Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man) and Jeb Stuart (Just Cause), based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. The plot appears simple at first, but it's more complicated the more you think about it. First, Gruber's plan really is clever, even within the trappings of an action movie. When the police outside the building learn of his presence, he just smiles and nods, because everything they do, they do unknowingly according to his plan. Because Gruber knows exactly how the cops and feds are trained to respond to this sort of crisis, he works them into it, to the point where their attempts to stop him actually get him closer to his goal. Not only does this make him more formidable than your average movie baddie, but it gives the audience incentive to root for McClane, because he's the one fly in Gruber's Euro-trash ointment. It's become a cliché in action movies for the hero to be the only one who can stop the villain, but in the case of Die Hard, it's the truth.
Another notable aspect of the script is just how busy it is. Although Die Hard is often credited a "lean and mean" action flick without any superfluous characters or scenes, there are actually a lot of subplots to keep track of. Every character, even those with only a few scenes, has his or her own story to tell. McClane's sole contact with the world outside the building is Al (Reginald VelJohnson, Family Matters), a police sergeant who's treated like a lowly beat cop by all the other officers. At first, Al is only a means to move a few plot points forward, but, as the movie progresses, we learn more and more about his background. This might seem superfluous and unnecessary at first, but when Al has his big hero moment during the movie's final act, it's suddenly more than just an action beat, but a character moment as well. Or take Ellis (Hart Bochner, Supergirl), Holly's goofy co-worker and fellow hostage who tries to strike a deal with Gruber. In a lesser film, this would be mere filler material, with the writer and/or director tossing in some random comedy so the audience can have a little breathing room in between the gunfights. But in the case of Die Hard, this otherwise jokey scene moves the plot forward in two important ways. First, it provides Gruber with an important piece of information he didn't yet have, and second, the scene ends by upping the stakes. Once it's over, the tension between McClane and Gruber is increased, and McClane knows that he and the hostages are in more danger than before.
So it's a great-looking movie with a rock-solid script. That brings us to the acting, and, again, there are no complaints. Everyone on screen brings his or her best to their roles. At the time, Willis was not known as an action hero, with his only major role being the childishly wisecracking David Addison on Moonlighting. Although a romantic comedy at heart, that series often went into "experimental" mode, with elaborate dream sequences, out-of-nowhere musical numbers, and Keystone Cops-style slapstick chase scenes. Willis grinned his way through every episode, often breaking the fourth wall with sarcastic comments for the audience at home. Producers were allegedly unsure whether audiences would buy the comedic Willis as McClane, the down-on-his-luck cop. This attitude is apparent in Die Hard's early trailers and TV spots, in which Willis wasn't shown at all. Fortunately, producers needn't have worried. Willis's performance in the film is refreshingly smirk-free. Although there is humor in Die Hard—quite a bit, actually—it's humor based on character and situation, never once feeling forced. Whenever McClane makes a joke, it reflects how he is able to think fast on his feet and improvise his way out of anything.
Not enough compliments could possibly be said about Alan Rickman. Here is that rare actor who is always excellent, no matter what the source material. As Gruber, every word Rickman says drips with pure venomy evil. He's rotten to the core, sure, but he's also suave and keeps his cool throughout. He doesn't have the typical action movie "villain freak-out" scene until almost the end of the film. The first time he and McClane meet face-to-face, Gruber instantly thinks of a way to outsmart the hero, and it's arguably Rickman's finest moment in the film. The rest of the cast also brings their best. Gruber's various henchmen never come across as just cannon fodder; each one has his own personality. We get to know them during the movie, even the ones that McClane picks off early on.
No discussion of Die Hard would be complete without mentioning its impact on action movie filmmaking in the years that followed. Its seemingly simple set-up spawned imitators for years to come. I wouldn't be surprised if we continue to see Die Hard-style films in the future. Throughout Hollywood, a common movie pitch is, "Die Hard on a…" with various claustrophobic settings filling in for the original's skyscraper. Let's see, how many can I think of? There's been Die Hard on a bus, a boat, a battleship, a train, an ice arena, a mountaintop, Alcatraz, and at least six Die Hards on airplanes. Why such a far-reaching influence? Sure, other filmmakers wanted some of the truckloads of cash the original made, but I think there's more to it than that. The basic concept is a potent one, one that speaks to a lot of us. There's a lone hero, in a confined and limited setting, taking out the villains one by one. A lot of us wish we were that hero, coming up with quick and ruthless ways to remove each obstacle (henchman) that comes our way in life. Plus, the Die Hard is a horror movie formula in reverse. Most fright flicks have a lone monster killing off the heroes one by one, but McClane fills that role instead, with thieves, terrorists, and mercenaries taking the place of clueless horny teenagers.
That brings us to Die Hard 2: Die Harder, which itself is obviously a victim of the runaway rip-off pitches birthed by the original. It's "Die Hard in an airport," plain and simple. At first, the movie stinks of sequel-itis, as the attitude seems to be "Let's remake the first movie, but of slightly lesser quality." Throughout the opening setup, we see McClane down on his luck again as his car is towed, intercut with the evil Col. Stuart and his goons marching through the airport with sinister looks on their faces. Structurally, it follows the first 15 minutes or so of the first movie a little too closely, so audiences are left with a going-through-the-motions feeling. Giving McClane self-aware lines like, "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?" and "Just once, I'd like a regular, normal Christmas" might draw big laughs from some viewers, but to me all they seemed to do is say that everyone involved in the film is just throwing it together for the money. At least, that was my attitude until about halfway through the film, when I suddenly got more and more invested in what was happening. Die Hard 2 starts out like another cookie-cutter sequel, but it gets better and better as it goes along. By the end, I'd say the good outweighs the bad by a wide enough margin that the movie earns its Die Hard name recognition.
Although it's not as tightly plotted as the first movie, there are some fun twists during the second half of this one that caught me by surprise, so much that I had no idea where the finale was heading or how McClane would escape his many predicaments. And one thing's for sure: Die Hard 2 doesn't skimp on the action. Although McTiernan wanted to come back and direct, he wasn't able to fit both the sequel and The Hunt for Red October into his schedule. Filling in for him, then, was Kevlar-obsessed action director Renny Harlin (The Covenant). Although some of Harlin's movies aren't what you'd call classics, he has a good eye for action, and knows how to put together a big set piece. A highlight here is a shootout that takes place behind the luggage claim, with various conveyor belts making up the background. This adds a lot of visual "oomph" to an already exciting scene, providing constant movement in the background as well as the foreground. I also enjoyed the shootout scene in an abandoned terminal in which guards dressed head to toe in Kevlar (this is a Renny Harlin movie, remember) are ambushed by the villains, with McClane caught in the middle. There's nothing specifically special about this scene, other than it's just tightly plotted, shot and edited, like an adrenalin-pumping action scene should be.
Willis is clearly having fun returning to the character, and he sneaks in even more humorous lines in this one than before. There's one moment, though, when Willis drops the tough-guy act for a few seconds and shows us McClane's human side. After witnessing an explosion on the airport runway, which results in a setback for the good guys, McClane falls on his back and cries out, "Why? Why?" Here we a man who values human life and genuinely believes in helping others, no matter how snarky he might get at times. As the villain, Sadler has the biggest shoes to fill. Unfortunately, as a military man, his character is limited to military lingo and a staunch military attitude. His performance is fine, but the character in general lacks Gruber's icy evil. Bonnie Bedelia, meanwhile, is better here than in the first movie, and she even gets a few McClane-style lines and a hero moment of her own. In this film, Bedelia reveals Holly to be a real equal to McClane, every bit as sharp a tack as he is.
Jumping ahead a few years, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a visual and structural departure from the previous two films. As much as I'd like to praise the creators for taking a creative risk by opening up the concept from a contained, claustrophobic setting to a wide-open go-anywhere setting, I'm afraid these decisions were not so much creative as they were bureaucratic. The film started life as an original action screenplay called "Simon Says," which was bought by the studio and quickly re-written as a Lethal Weapon sequel. When that didn't happen for whatever reason, the script was even more quickly re-re-written as the new McClane adventure. Writer Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher) seems pleased with the outcome, alleging that about one hour of his original script was maintained, but if I wrote a script that got jerked around by producers like that, I'd be furious.
Anyway, Vengeance has McClane running all over New York City, instead of trapping him in a singular environment. And all this is happening during the day, and in summer, two more departures from the first two. Other cops are actually working with McClane for once, instead of branding him as a maverick "cowboy" playing by his own rules. But, most notably, McClane is no longer working alone. The series takes a turn into "buddy cop" territory by teaming our hero with Zeus, a Harlem shopkeeper who gradually makes the jump from civilian to action hero as the movie progresses. Zeus is a very curious addition to the Die Hard mythos, an ordinary guy who gets caught up in McClane's adventures, becoming a major part of the story. In between speeches about not trusting the white man, Zeus says he doesn't want any part of this, and yet he's pretty quick to drop that hesitation at times, especially when it comes to figuring out Simon's bizarre riddles. It's fortunate that Willis and Samuel L. Jackson have such good chemistry; otherwise the Zeus character could have derailed the entire movie. Just when Zeus starts to get a little too abrasive or, dare I say it, too whiny, suddenly he and McClane have a couple of amusing lines of dialogue, and then it's back to the action. Zeus is offensive without being too offensive, if that makes any kind of sense.
Jeremy Irons is appropriately slimy as Simon, and he should be applauded for bringing so much personality to such a close-to-the-chest character. Simon spends most of the film pretending to be someone else, putting on various identities depending on who he's dealing with. He is so secretive, and he plays so many head games with so many different characters, that we're given only a fleeting sense of who this guy really is. In the hands of a lesser actor, Simon could have become a blank cipher, someone you forget about immediately after the movie is over. Irons makes the character kind of charismatic, though, and you get the feeling he enjoys messing up an entire city like he does. But, again, when you're dealing with Simon, how do you know that's not all part of the act?
McTiernan returns to the director's chair for Vengeance, and he brings his usual sense of style with him. For a bigger film with a ton of location shooting right in the heart of New York, McTiernan can't quite mimic the pure artistry he brought to the first film, but there are still a huge amount of shots, big and small, in which his widescreen sensibilities are still evident. It's just that the tone is different in this one. In the first film, McTiernan kept the tension constant. In the third one, he keeps the momentum constant. This movie doesn't stop for a breath. Just as one gunfight, chase, or explosion ends, another begins. The characters are constantly in movement, driving at breakneck speeds, sprinting down busy sidewalks, leaping to and from subway cars, and so on. During the rare moments in which someone's standing still, then it's the camera that's in movement, circling them or whizzing past them. Die Hard with a Vengeance is an entertainment workout. By the time it's over, you'll feel just as exhausted as the characters do.
Willis's take on McClane this time is to make him a lot more world-weary. In Die Hard 2, he starts the movie as a sharp-eyed cop, spotting danger before it happens. In Vengeance, he spends the first part of the movie jumping through Simon's hoops, not knowing what's happening and not really prepared for the craziness happening around him. I doubt the McClane of the second film would have ever have taken that stroll through Harlem. He would have instead tried for some way to subvert Simon's plan even at that early stage. So, what happened to McClane in between the second and third films? He and Holly are on the rocks again, that's no doubt part of it. I have to wonder, though, what else? When watching all three back-to-back, I missed Bonnie Bedelia this time out. She fills a vital role in McClane's overall story. In the first two movies, McClane is driven by the love for his wife, even if their relationship is complicated at best. In between parts two and three, we've missed a huge chunk of story. It's alluded to, but the details are scarce. This makes me think a fourth movie isn't such a bad idea. When Vengeance ends, the bad guys might be defeated, but I feel McClane's overall journey still isn't concluded.
Fans of these movies like to point at the "R" ratings with pride, insisting that these are action movies made with adult viewers in mind. I have no problem with that, but I still say perhaps one "adult" aspect of Die Hard with a Vengeance was overdone: the swearing. Now, I'm no prude. I enjoy plenty of movies that have tons of swears. It's just that the good ones make swearing a part of the language of the film. These include Pulp Fiction, Scarface, and perhaps the best example, Midnight Run, in which the f-bombs are so well-placed they're practically poetry. See, the thing about swearing is that it's a form of expression. When it's the right way for the characters in your movie to express themselves, then, yes, have them swear up a storm. But when it's not the right form of expression for your characters, that's when it gets gratuitous and distracting. Die Hard with a Vengeance absolutely pummels viewers with swearing. Instead of a character-based line for someone to react to whatever's happening, every character just shouts, "F***!" When there's an explosion: "F***!" When there's a car crash: "F***!" When there's a double cross: "F***!" Whenever someone blinks: "F***!" It just gets to be too much after a while, and it gives the movie a severe case of "everyone talks the same" syndrome. Yes, the first two movies are not shy about swearing, but those scripts knew when to hold back. At one point in Die Hard, McClane calls someone a "jerkweed." That's not from a censored TV version, that's 100 percent unedited McClane. It's only one word, and yet it provides a small glimpse into McClane's thought process and how his sense of humor works. But the McClane of the third movie wouldn't have said "jerkweed," he would've just said, "F***!" again, like he does every three seconds. Don't get me wrong. I still think the movie's a fun ride, but the script's over-reliance on swearing is f***ing overkill.
Tech time: Based on my research, it appears that the audio and video on these discs are either the same or incredibly similar to the ones previously released. The widescreen image on all three is remarkable. These are, obviously, films in which the visuals are of great importance, so the colors are strong and vibrant, and the black levels are deep and rich. Audio comes by way of DTS and Dolby 5.1 tracks in English, as well as Dolby 2.0 tracks in English and French. Differences in the two 5.1 tracks seemed minimal to my ears. The second and third films have appropriately robust audio, with gunshots and explosions roaring through the room for an immersive "you are there" feel. I have to admit, the audio for the first movie didn't really jump out at me like the others did. It's not a bad track; it just didn't have that extra intensity the other two seemed to have. The only scene that really made me sit up and take notice of the audio in Die Hard was the fistfight with the blonde dude near the end, whereas the other two films were loaded front to back with aural "wow!" moments.
I still can't figure out that "three-gallon jug and five-gallon jug" riddle.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You know what I love most about DVDs? The bonus features. Sure, the improved video and the surround sound are wonderful, but in my opinion it's the extras that make a DVD. They take a great movie and turn it into a genuinely interactive experience. I've passed up buying some of my all-time favorite films because they're on bare-bones discs, and I've bought movies I know are crap just because they're in packed two-disc special editions.
In this set, Die Hard gets two commentaries with the director and others, plus a text commentary. The other two films get director-only commentaries. These are all great, packed with tons of information about each movie. The only new extras here are on the fourth "Yippee-ki-yay" disc, with a 40-minute featurette about making Die Hard, and a second 40-minute featurette combining a look at the other two. Overall, these are good, with interviews from the directors, writers, and a few of the actors (but not Willis) and some behind-the-scenes footage. On the downside, they do repeat some information from the commentaries, and they get a little too self-congratulatory at times. And, yes, three trailers for the fourth movie are on here too. Finally, the set comes with a nice little collectible booklet and a ticket for Live Free or Die Hard (do movie theaters actually accept these things?).
So what's the problem? All of the commentary tracks were ported over from the previously-existing two-disc sets of the movies, which also had far more bonus features than what is on here. If you dig parts two and three, for example, wouldn't you much rather have an additional DVD for each movie stuffed to the pants with bonus material, rather than just one short featurette trying to cover both of them at once? That's what I thought.
Get this: the June 22, 2007 Entertainment Weekly named the first Die Hard the "greatest action movie ever" just one week before the release of Live Free or Die Hard. What an astonishing coincidence!
These movies are great action flick fun, with the original being an absolute must-see. Unfortunately, the overall package of this particular box set is more about promoting the fourth movie than providing the best possible presentation of the first three. Over to the right there, under "Accomplices," I've included an Amazon link marked "BUY THIS ONE!!!" That box set contains all three two-disc editions, and it's the one I'd recommend for the discerning movie fan.
Of course, once the fourth movie reaches DVD about six to eight months from now, we'll be right back here talking about whatever box sets or collections will be released at time. Until that day, I promise I will never even think about going up in a tall building again.
Yippee-ki-…you know the rest.
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