DIE HARD is perhaps one of, if not the most, critically lauded action films. Made during a glut of intense shoot-em-up action vehicles ranging from the excellent FIRST BLOOD (1982) to the considerably less excellent DEADLY PREY (1987), DIE HARD broke from the pack by being an incredibly compelling scrappy and tense action thriller. At a time when the dominant approach to action films was spectacle and scale, DIE HARD differentiated itself by being relatively low-key and deriving Hitchcockian suspense from intimate moments and normal situations.
Beginning with the good-not-great DIE HARD 2 (1990), the series saw a consistent decline in quality. DIE HARD: WITH A VENGEANCE (1995) offered up action, but it lacked the satisfaction of the original. LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007), the 4th entry in the franchise, was a solid action film, but a terrible DIE HARD film. Finally, as much as we’d like to, let’s not forget the massively disappointing 5th entry in the franchise, A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2014). What went wrong? Somewhere along the line, producers and writers lost the essence of what makes a good DIE HARD film. But what is that? What elements make a DIE HARD film?
Let’s take a look at the original. Truly, DIE HARD was the granddaddy, and not just of the series, but of a specific style of action film emulated by films like SPEED (1994). DIE HARD follows John McClane, a Joe Schmo in the purest sense of the phrase, as he fights terrorists that hijack a high-rise. Good thing McClane is there to attend a corporate Christmas party thrown by his wife’s company.
Already, we have one of the driving forces behind DIE HARD ‘s success. Much of what’s been written about the film after its release focuses on the relatablity of the protagonist. McClane is no Rambo, no T-1000. He’s a guy in the wrong place, at the wrong time. And at no time during the proceedings does McClane overstep the bounds of verisimilitude. Whereas other notable films of the period opted to heighten the action, raise the stakes to astronomical heights, and focus on grand setpieces, DIE HARD took a decidedly more subtle approach. Granted, the film’s packed with its share of explosions, but they’re not center frame in the same way that McClane’s survival is. In McClane, the film found its first asset.
Don’t assume for a moment, however, that McClane is completely helpless. The backstory of his character does include a stint as a police officer. In this way, a basic level of understanding of his situation is established, one that gives him enough skill to challenge the danger, while at the same time leaving him relatively powerless. In effect, this creates a wonderfully tense setup. The major distinction that sets the story apart from the grander films of the 80s is that our hero can lose. McClane is not totally equipped to deal with a gang of terrorists, and as a result, every fight is a moment of tension. When you strip down your story, isolate it, and give the protagonist a conflict that’s solvable but seemingly incredibly difficult, you instill a powerful sense of doubt.
This sense of subtlety and restraint is not as expertly utilized in DIE HARD 2. As with any sequel, there’s a desire to raise the stakes. As a result of McClane’s survival in the first film, we’re now dealing with a substantially rougher, more typical action hero. The elevation of the threat from the very contained, claustrophobic Nakatomi Plaza to a large airport, further demonstrates a misunderstanding on the part of the creators as to what made DIE HARD such a success. Still, DIE HARD 2 manages to get some things right before the rest of the series moves into generic action territory. The choice of setting is one of the distinct elements of DIE HARD. As with the original film, DIE HARD 2 is set during Christmas Eve. Already we’re touching on the aforementioned accessibility. It’s easy for viewers to imagine themselves in an airport going home for Christmas. It’s believable for viewers to place themselves in an office Christmas party turned hostage crisis. They’re relatable situations for many people in a way that breaking your son out of a Russian jail is not. It’s not that a film with such a premise can’t be good, but it’s fundamentally not what DIE HARD is about.
If relatablity is important, so is isolation. Thrillers have been utilizing intimate locations since before Hitchcock’s ROPE. The smaller their setting, the more tension can be mined from the film. Danger lurks around every corner, and there’s nowhere to go. We reach DIE HARD 3, 4, and 5, and this intimacy is gone in favor of typical grandiose settings. There’s just no sense of thrill in making McClane a superhero romping through New York or Russia. DIE HARD’s isolation means that our hero only has one person that he can rely on: himself. This small detail goes a long way in explaining why every DIE HARD following the second has been less and less successful.
Having watched the entirety of the series, returning to the beginnings of DIE HARD is a breath of fresh air. There’s a definite tendency towards tension over action, and when an event happens, it is a release of tension and not just a booming, loud action scene. The filmmaking principles applied to the first DIE HARD fall more in line with the stylistic elements of classic Hollywood thrillers. Excitement builds from the little things. McClane’s lack of shoes in the first film means he isn’t just avoiding terrorists and certain death, but he is avoiding shattered glass as well. It’s a minor touch with a lot of payoff in terms of how worried the audience is for McClane. We get a sense that McClane is human, competent but in extreme danger nonetheless.
Compound the character’s fragility with a liberal use of dramatic irony, and you keep your audience balancing on a knife’s edge. We know more about the danger than John McClane does. We see the risks hidden behind everything he does. DIE HARD 2 understands this as well. Dramatic irony utilized well is the essence of captivating tension. When we know more about the situation than our protagonist, it engages our imagination, forcing us to worry constantly about their fate. When tension derives from more than high stakes, the result is a film that reaches out and grabs the audience instead of presenting them with a montage of bland explosions.
DIE HARD succeeds by having a high opinion of itself and the audience. The film applies classic thriller techniques to a decidedly action setup, managing to breathe life into a genre that very easily could—and does—go stale. The audience is left with a film filled with ingenious and subtle treatment of tension and action. DIE HARD 2 doesn’t have the luxury of being as good as its predecessor, but so few films usually do. It nevertheless gets marks for managing to retain some of DIE HARD’s more successful aspects and being an entertaining film in its own right. It’s a downright shame that the series loses its way, but films like OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2014) demonstrate that DIE HARD’s formula still works. All hope is not yet lost.