A Personal Die Hard Retrospective

Die Hard

In the commentary to the first Die Hard film, director John McTiernan says that he hadn’t read the book. In an interview with creativescreenwriting.com, screenwriter Stephen E. de Souza says that “What you leave out is often just as important as what you put in.”

Watching the opening scenes to Die Hard, the words “Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp” appear on the screen against the backdrop of McClane’s limo pulling up to Nakatomi tower. As I grew up and got more into books than movies, that line began to stand out. I remember watching Die Hard for the umpteenth time and slowly realizing that there was an earlier story on which it was based. So I sought out the novel—entitled Nothing Lasts Forever—and read it. Watching it again recently, McTiernan’s comment intrigued me as I now knew the source material from which this movie sprung. While the book takes place—much like the movie, on Christmas Eve and into the wee hours of Christmas morning—several key points were changed to subtle-yet-widescale dramatic effect.

In the book, McClane (whose name is Joe Leland), a seasoned New York detective, is flying out to Los Angeles for the holidays to visit his daughter and his two grandchildren. And whereas the movie has it that he’s going there to see his wife, the book tells it different. His wife has already passed. The novel, published in 1979, is tinged with a pulp sensibility and has a 70s aesthetic. It’s also the sequel to a novel called The Detective that came out in ’66 with a film adaptation two years after (starring Frank Sinatra; Bruce Willis is now taking on the character). Comparing Die Hard with its novel, the change in role from daughter-as-hostage, to wife (and, subsequently, grandkids to kids), coupled with the fact that McClane does not know what the main terrorist looks like, make for a far more intriguing adventure—and, I suppose a story more fit for the screen. The film was released in 1988 and is infused with that late-80s, Southern California sunset feel. In the book, Leland flashes back to a law enforcement convention during which he had been made aware of Tony Gruber. So the film’s late subplot of Gruber (whose on-screen name is Hans) making his way alone to try and deceive McClane and retrieve his stolen detonators would never have worked. So too the interplay between the terrorists and McClane over the radio would never have worked either. Something that pulls all the characters, both inside and outside the building, together and makes it feel like they’re all in one room. McTiernan said that he deliberately shot the film to feel this way.

The backbone of the story is the same in both. The crux of which happens when McClane peeks out of his wife’s office and spies the door to the stairs across the hall (it’s during this scene in the book that Leland recognizes Gruber). Clad only in his undershirt, slacks and shoulder-holster, he slips unnoticed by a bad guy, sans shoes, heads up to the next floor and proceeds to formulate a plan for stopping the terrorists and rescuing his wife.

With reference to the “things left in” spoken of by De Souza, several devices make their way from book to film; some that work exceptionally well. The drama of two of the terrorists as brothers (Tony and Karl) lends a humanity of sorts to the villains. In the book, Leland rifles through the contents of each dead terrorist’s bag, finding, among other things, certain brand-name candy bars. If you ever wondered why Uli (played by Al Leong) pilfers a Mars bar from the glass-topped case while awaiting the inept SWAT team, now you know. And lastly, while McClane takes the advice of his fellow passenger during the first scene of the film and proceeds to make “fists with [his] toes” upon arriving at his destination, Leland’s reason for going barefoot comes back to him via flashback as well; a travel suggestion from an old acquaintance. Either way, it sets up the character—in both instances, book and film—as one who is vulnerable, and about two-thirds of the way through, handicapped. This cannot be overstated: Willis’ character of John McClane gets the ever-loving stuffing knocked out of him throughout the movie. And he wins out in spite of it. It’s one of the things that gives the movie the appeal it has, in my opinion. That being said, if there is one thing the book renders better than the screenplay, it’s the pain depicted that one would endure were they making their way up and down stairs and in and out of elevator shafts—all the while being chased by bad guys—with glass embedded in their feet. Absolutely excruciating.

Spoiler alert: in the book, Leland’s daughter is unable to remove the Rolex as Gruber falls from the building. This is what makes the book ultimately a tragedy and renders the film, in one of those rare cases, the better of the two when it’s all said and done. McTiernan says that he refused to have anything to do with the script until he could find some joy in it, saying how a story about terrorists is ultimately a grim one. If you listen, you’ll hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy threaded throughout the film. That and Willis’ wisecracking, half-smile performance set up the leitmotif as one of tongue-in-cheek non-seriousness, if joy (it is Christmas, after all). When one understands that this character is essentially being created by Willis throughout the film, point-in-time (the commentary admits as much), and is being overhauled from the noir/gumshoe persona thought up by Thorp and introduced by Sinatra, it’s clear that—at least for the Eighties—we are being treated to something new, and in this writer’s opinion, a modern classic. One of my favorite Christmas movies.

“Yippee ki-yay, Mister Falcon.”*

*Actual overdubbed line of dialogue I heard once during an edited-for-television showing.

Die Hard 2 Die Harder

Die Hard 2 was released in 1990. I consider it to be a weaker entry to the franchise. Having read the book on which Die Hard was based showed me that Die Harder was itself based on a book—with a different character by a different author (58 Minutes by Walter Wager). De Souza is billed as co-writer for both films.

By this time (in the film), the Nakatomi incident has given McClane a measure of national notoriety. The co-opted plot for the film has Willis reprising his role, flying into Washington DC from Denver in order to meet his wife for the holidays. The character in the book is a decorated and celebrated New York police detective named Frank Malone. And whereas the book has Malone in New York awaiting his daughter’s flight, the film changes things a bit. Finding himself yet again in the wrong place at the wrong time, terrorists have endeavored to secure the release of a Latin-American general whose illegal activity has supported the international drug trade. While the main bad guy in the book is the lead terrorist, the film-adaptation addition of the drug kingpin again lends an international, widescale scope to the film in much the same way as the European and Japanese influence from the first Die Hard. This is, in my opinion, another thing about the franchise that sets it apart. Rotating a worldwide event in a closed-quarters setting around a nobody who comes to apprehend the situation and then solve it. What’s not to love?

Talking to a pilot friend of mine, I came to find out that what looked to be a pretty neat plot—gridlock a number of passenger jets by disabling the radio system during a perfect storm in order to wreak havoc—would never have flown in real life (like, seriously). As we had this conversation about halfway through my reading the book, what respect I had for the novelist, drained. There was a disclaimer, however, at the end that pointed out everything of which my pilot friend had informed me. Okay. There’s something about the second one that just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t know what it is. All the ingredients are there: danger, innovation, snappy one-liners. A hero you can root for and villains for whom one can hold real enmity. And it’s all tied up neatly with a spectacular finale and happy ending—it even takes place during Christmastime. That being said, out of the five films thus far, it’s number four for me as far as favorites go. Reginald VelJohnson’s cameo reprisal as Sgt. Al Powell—against the backdrop of the aforementioned Southern California sunset—was a saving grace.

Die Hard With a Vengeance

“You are about to have a very bad day.”
“Tell me about it.”

Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh says in the commentary that he looked to posit the third film as a direct sequel to the first and not simply a standalone entry into the Die Hard franchise. It was during the time between second and third films that I came into the knowledge of “Die Hard”. And, I suppose, my appetite was whetted for it growing up in Southern California during the late eighties; I related to the atmosphere. So by the time three was released in 1995, I was totally on board. But instead of the cozy, near-claustrophobic settings that marked the first two films, the third—titled Die Hard With a Vengeance—utilized the whole of NYC; it also abandoned the Christmas theme. Needless to say, this one feels altogether different. And while the screenplay was not based on a book like the former two, I distinctly remember buying the movie novelization (written by Deborah Chiel) after seeing it, wanting to live in its depiction of the Big Apple. According to the commentary, the film was based on a screenplay that was in turn based on an event in Hensleigh’s childhood. Again, something about McClane’s underdog character living by his wits (this time on his home turf)—against a threat that had only scaled since his prior two adventures—excited me immensely. And Hensleigh’s explanation of turning his totally unrelated screenplay into something that fit right in with the Die Hard franchise was supremely satisfying as well. That being said, creating an ad hoc brother to Hans Gruber in the figure of Jeremy Irons’ Simon character could potentially be the weak spot of the whole thing, I dunno. This one stands as my second favorite (though the ending is weak, in my opinion). All politics aside, both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are mentioned by name in Die Hard With a Vengeance.

Die Hard set a high benchmark in all aspects and not one of the subsequent four films meets it in any case. Vengeance comes closest for me. It ends with a wide-angle shot of McClane phoning his wife out in Los Angeles.

Live Free or Die Hard

Rooting around online for any upcoming info during the early days of IMDB, I came to find out that the 2003 film Tears of the Sun was originally slated to be the fourth entry in the series. And while that never panned out (it’s a great movie in its own right), a 1997 Wired article entitled “A Farewell to Arms” ended up providing the source material for what came to be known as Live Free or Die Hard. By this time, one could be forgiven for doubting that there were any more stories to tell in the life of John McClane. Back to walking the beat, this time McClane is enlisted to escort a hacker (played by Justin Long) to DC from Camden, New Jersey, over the Fourth of July. It is during this period that a jilted former intelligence officer has utilized his skills in order to bankrupt the United States Social Security Administration. The article was dry and boring. The movie, however, wasn’t half-bad; my favorite behind numbers one and three. Furthermore, Live Free or Die Hard introduces us to Lucy McClane, John’s strong-willed daughter. She’s all grown up and in danger due to the villain’s shenanigans.

A Good Day to Die Hard

Described by my younger brother as “A video game plot with ever-increasing explosions” A Good Day to Die Hard ends in feeling like a sub-par episode of a Die Hard television series. This one involves McClane’s son John working for the CIA and running afoul of, I’m not sure what. Needless to say, McClane Senior shows up to save the day. And that’s all you need to know. The slow-motion parting shot of John Sr. and his two kids walking across the tarmac—despite the forgettability of the prior 98 minutes (give or take)—provides a fitting, if beautiful, end to the franchise. Or at least the story thus far.

In closing, Bruce Willis is quoted as wanting to retire the character of John McClane with a sixth film. In concert with this, a plot line has been released that would show McClane in his younger days as a New York cop on the beat, going back and forth between the late seventies and present day. And while the internet is abuzz with mostly negative reactions to the reveal, one commenter wisely pointed out that the character of McClane, as he’s depicted in the first film, is a tabula rasa. In other words, any story elements a screenwriter would want to add to the character would not flow in line with the creation of the franchise nor with early impressions of McClane. Either way, the only one who has yet to appear in subsequent entries (post Die Harder) is McClane’s estranged wife Holly. Who knows what’s in store? To see Bonnie Bedelia recast as Holly McClane nee Gennaro, however, would sew the whole thing up on a high note, in my opinion.





Five Years Ago Today