"For the most part it's fun to blow shit up.
It's the most fun. It really is fun. That's fun."
Die Hard fan and director of Number 4, Len Wiseman
fun it was. I've worked on sets when pyrotechnics have been
used and there is no question, Wiseman's right. It is fun.
But only then, at the time, in the context of making a movie
- but there was something about each and every explosion
in the original, best and unbeatable Die Hard.
None of them seemed gratuitous. Each yellow bloom and boom
was there to serve plot and character. And, if you remember,
the hero's watchword was vulnerability. Here was a guy who
took the knocks. And his subsequent incapacity was written
in to the movie's plot. Terry Gilliam wanted Willis for 12 Monkeys after seeing the 'picking the
glass out of his bare feet' scene and being so surprised
how vulnerable Willis could play.
John McClane stumbles around the corner to confront Hans
Gruber in the Nakatomi Plaza at the climax of John McTiernan's
stunning original, you got the very real sense that if Guber
blew as hard as he could, McClane may just fall over. The
embittered New York cop had fallen, been beaten, blown up
and shot at and performed a particularly clever stunt in
which he fell to his death in a ventilation shaft but stopped
terminal velocity with the tips of his fingers. "Come
out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs…"
Well I forgave McClane the impossible stunt because Die
Hard was such an exceptional film in so many ways.
Yes, it's Hollywood. Yes, he's an unbeatable hero but the
machinations and revelations of the plot were so superbly
written and expertly paced out that one or two nods to indestructibility
were OK by me. I actually feel like watching it again, right
don't know what it was about the 80s but with the likes
of Stallone's Rambo and Schwarzenegger's Rainer Wolfcastle
(whatever the names were of his 'heroes') cinematic human
anatomy was redefined. You could fall from a great height
and with the miracle that is editing, it can appear that
you do a little roll and you're OK. Slowly, movie heroes
became virtually indestructible. And with indestructibility,
you lose empathy and nothing is at stake anymore if "with
one impossible bound he was free" is the lazy writing
cop-out. It's like the arms race. One hero falls off a two
story building and is winded, the next hero, it has to be
three stories and he may grunt. Exponential fantasy violence
growth ends up in cartoon land. These heroes may as well
run off a cliff, only realise this as they look down and
then fall (surviving of course in a big puff of smoke).
Hard's great ace in the hole was Willis as a man
who bled, hurt and still just got on with the job. I used
to get antsy if I had invested in a movie character and
they got shot or injured. I knew - in reality (ha!) - that
their role in the film had to be reduced or we were heading
for a few passages of time. Not any more. Remember in the
fifties, you get shot, you just cover the spot with your
hand and march on. Just check out Leslie Howard's reaction
to being shot in The 49th Parallel. Priceless.
I know movies are not real but what we bring to them - our
empathy - is. I can't care for a super man as a New York
cop whereas in the original, McClane lived off his wits
and outsmarted his enemies not outgunned them. Yes, the
handgun became a sort of trademark and it was fired a great
deal but it was McClane's' thinking and the screenplay's
brilliance that launched the franchise.
(the airport one) was made in a hurry (it did have the most
sublime climax with a Zippo and a trail of aviation fluid)
but contained its own guilty pleasures but Three (the Samuel
L. Jackson one) I loved because there were so many things
in it that rewarded repeated viewing and for an action film,
that says a lot. But it was in Three when I first asked
myself "Is this movie allowing me to care anymore?"
Willis and Jackson are suspended by a cable from a 4x4 on
a bridge down to a cargo vessel on the river. It is about
50 feet high. The line snaps cutting a henchman in half
and slams both heroes down on to a cargo container. Now
my dock argot's not perfect but last time I checked, these
containers were not made of cardboard boxes. A fifty-foot
drop. The pair groan as they climb down, absolutely none
the worse for the fall. Utterly, utterly ridiculous. They
both would have been paté. The film-makers could
have easily provided another less-deathful way of getting
them on the boat but no. Our heroes are invincible which
means they are no longer heroes.
could a fourth instalment - so many years down the line
- not fall prey to the physically-invincible-hero-syndrome?
Answer? It can't. In order to deliver the high action gloss
(bar raised by Neo and pals) you must be able to mete out
and take a pounding, one hundredth of which would drop Tyson
in a hummingbird's heartbeat. So what's the good news? Well,
Willis, for a start. In this role, he's matured and it fits
him like very old shoes. He's even more of a loser this
time around - promoted of course but divorced, stalking
his daughter, screening her boyfriends (doesn't that sound
a tad creepy?) But then Willis the actor is famous for being
extremely protective of his daughters. He's feeling the
pinch so as the US's digital infrastructure dissolves into
hacked chaos (I'm not buying for a second how easy all this
hacking actually appears to be) his simple assignment is
pick up a hacker suspect and deliver him to Washington.
far, so easy. Except that the villain wants all of those
who aided and abetted his digital invasion wiped out. So
John McClane suddenly becomes geek-protector and all that
this entails. The movie is essentially 'Villain with power
over everything via computer is brought to his knees by
super-cop everyman whose values are core-American and a
guy who does his thinking broad and loud'. Clearly the silliest
moments in Die Hard 4 are those involving
a US strike plane that is tricked into engaging with McClane
driving an HGV. The coincidences and abrasions are shrugged
off as McClane survives - and is still intact - after the
many plane attacks. There seems to be an unwritten law in
action movie DNA that states "Thou shalt be more ENORMOUS
than last summer!" when a modicum of good, subtle screenplay
sense may be able to deliver fifty times more of an effect.
In the original Die Hard, McClane's wife's
anger at John not showing up is expressed by her placing
a family photo face down. Very much later, the photo is
turned back up to reveal that Holly is McClane's wife (and
so worthy of being threatened). It's a superb, small moment
that yields the maximum of viewing pleasure. Alas there
are none such in the fourth outing but I will say this.
is honest. If you see a guy smash against a wall, it's a
guy smashing himself against a wall. Yes, digital trickery
is everywhere but like Bond you get a sense these film-makers
did as much for real as they could dare (Willis's stuntman
injured himself very badly while shooting). Die
Hard 4 fits the mould of any actioner that's being
delivered these days but it does have Willis as McClane
and a history. Whether that's enough to send it stratospheric,
is up to you.