The Evolution Of Die Hard – Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh writes;

Oh look, there’s another DIE HARD movie that nobody asked for. The critics hate it. Even Bruce Willis looks tired and bored of the whole thing. But it has what the genre demands: ‘SPOLSIONS! LOTS AND LOTS OF ‘SPOSIONS! And that seems to be what audiences want. A DIE HARD movie is pretty much critic-proof as far as box office goes. The studio should breath a sigh of relief, despite releasing it in February, the dead zone where studios release movies they know are not very good so they can at least get the tax write-off, rather than summer where you’d expect a big new DIE HARD might be released.

Rather than talk about how good or bad the new movies are, it’s more interesting to look at the DIE HARD series as the evolution of the Hollywood action movie through the decades.

The 1980s were partly defined by the emergence of the blockbuster action movie, of which DIE HARD was one of them. The other movies that came up were RAMBO, LETHAL WEAPON, ALIENS and PREDATOR. It wasn’t just big, explosion setpieces that defined them, but also the shadow of the Vietnam War. Apart from being obviously overt text in the Rambo movies, it provided background for the heroes of both DIE HARD and LETHAL WEAPON, with its heroes having fought there. James Cameron has said that the Marines’ panic as they realise they’re out of depth against aliens that attack from the shadows was meant to be commentary about the war in Vietnam. PREDATOR had a similar subtext with the heroes being picked off by a guerilla menace that used the jungle as cover. In DIE HARD, John McClane triumphs over the bad guys by hiding in the guts of the Nakatomi Plaza and becoming a guerilla fighter the way the Vietcong did to hold off the US military. These movies were emblematic of Reagan-era revisionism in having their heroes violently triumph over the bad guys after the mostly dark, pessimistic dystopian movies of the 1970s. The DIRTY HARRY movies underwent a similar evolution – from Harry as a throwback cop with a downbeat ending in the first movie to superhero in the sequels – but that’s another discussion.

Action movies are fantasies about asserting and reclaiming masculinity through action, and, well, shooting and killing dudes. The first DIE HARD, adapted from the 1979 novel NOTHING LASTS FOREVER by RODERICK THORP, was also more steeped in naturalism. There was also a subtext of class tension in portraying John McClane as a blue collar cop on the verge of losing his wife to a more middle class job and slimy yuppy suitor. The plot was also reasonably grounded in having McClane up against a sophisticated gang of thieves masquerading as terrorists to pull an elaborate heist. What made McClane relatable was his fear and panic at being caught in a situation way out of his depth and his streetwise talent for improvising his way out of danger.

DIE HARD 2, by movie standards, might come off as a crass example of Hollywood’s tendency to make sequels essentially the same plot but bigger and louder. Adapted from another novel, 58 MINUTES by Walter Wager, to lock down a high concept to fit the franchise, it also exemplifies the over-the-top excess of the 80s as the decade progressed. The key moment is the mid-point of the movie where the bad guys actually go ahead and blow up a whole (British) airliner full of innocent passengers just to show how nasty they were. Up to that point, no action movie has gone ahead and killed a few hundred people as a cheap throwaway plotpoint. It was deemed excessive and very few action movies since have gone there, since that was recognised as the storytellers shooting their load way too early. The first DIE HARD is still taught in film writing classes as a prime example of meticulous plotting where character motivation and plot cause-and-effect fit together brilliant. The airline moment in DIE HARD 2 is now cited in classes as an example of crass overkill in movie storytelling.

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE is very much a 90s action movie, and one of the last to use New York City as a backdrop to a big actioner in the tradition of action and cop thrillers dating all the way back to the Sixties. Thrillers set in New York after that have mostly been shot in Canada. To me, it represents a lot of the strange placid feel the 90s had, when the economy wasn’t in terrible shape, Giuliani’s New York was in full swing with its racial and social tensions quietly brewing away. The notion of a master criminal holding a city to ransom is oddly quaint when compared to the ideological terror of post-9/11 terror fears.

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD felt like an attempt to restart the action movie after 9/11, jumping on the bandwagon of cyberterrorism that was big on the eve of 1999 as it strenuously and sensibly avoids the morally messy entanglements of Islamist terrorism by basically having what’s pretty much a hip hacker as a Bond villain. The metamorphosis of John McClane into unflappable and murderous superhero has already set in by now.

By A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, John McClane has fully crossed the rubicon into comic book sociopathic ubermensch. You could argue that the character isn’t even really “John McClane” anymore so much as another fiction suit for Bruce Willis’ action hero persona. Gone is any of the blue collar naturalism or believable fear, replaced by an almost-smug jadedness as shit blows up and real estate is trashed around him yet again. And this time, he gets to go to a foreign country to trash its real estate. It’s not his or his son’s fault, of course. The bad guys started it. The universe of the fifth movie is so far removed from any reality we know about, defying anything we understand about what makes humans tick. McClane and his kids are such cold-eyed sociopaths unfazed by supervillainy that you can’t believe they could have come from New York or New Jersey so much as bred from test tubes in some secret supersoldier project. It’s just as well McClane’s wife is out of the picture, since she couldn’t possibly have bred these killer kids. The plot is so convoluted and insane that it’s practically in orbit, defying every notion of logic that most humans are accustomed to. Of course McClane’s son would be an insane CIA agent who decides that becoming a murderer and international criminal is considered the perfect cover for going after Russian baddies. I’m sure there are Russians who will see A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD as an expression of American imperialism where the hero gets to go abroad to trash their cities. And it’s still going to make big bucks at the Russian box office for its macho action violence, and no other film industry will spend $200 million to have the biggest ‘SPOSIONS ever!

He’s even bald now. In Action Movie Semiotics, baldness in the macho hero is a signifier of ruthless efficiency. The Rock, Vin Diesel, Bruce Willis… the action hero has no time for hair! In the first DIE HARD, John McClane had a head of hair that was increasingly disheveled the more things blew up around him and he was shitting himself trying to stay un-blown-up. This is an evolution from the everyman hero to the overblown, invulnerable superhero fantasy that has overtaken pop culture. Sign of the times.

The DIE HARD movies after the first one may not necessarily be good films, but I find them invaluable as social documents for the shifts in our culture.

Evolving badly over time at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh