Thursday, February 28, 2013

Childhood Memories of the "Die Hard" Trilogy

SPOILERS throughout for the Die Hard series, mostly the first three movies.
 
The latest Die Hard wasn’t so bad that it killed the series, but it was enough to make me revisit the first three films and truly appreciate them.  I grew up with Die Hard and I believe that the first film set the standard for what a good action movie can be.  I continued to grow up with Die Hard 2 and realized what a sequel should not be.  And I watched Die Hard: With a Vengeance and realized that a series can change…and still be good. 
 
But back to the most recent two films first.  If you want to know what I thought was wrong with A Good Day to Die Hard, just click here.  As for the fourth installment, Live Free or Die Hard, I really enjoyed that film, and still hold it in higher regard than the second film.  I’m leaving it out of this because it came out just a few years ago and I had already established my taste in movies at that point.  For the record, I acknowledge how insane that film is, and I know some of the action goes against what makes a Die Hard film, but it was fun enough to forgive the change to the series.  Now on to the real Die Hard films.
 
Die Hard
I was allowed, as a child, to watch movies like Die Hard.  The first film came out when I was four years old, so I didn’t see it in the theatre or anything, but I do remember watching it on VHS very early on.  Not to get into a whole parents/FCC thing, but violent films (within reason) were not prohibited in my home.  But if any nudity showed up, then I was made to cover my eyes lest my fragile boyish mind be warped.  I blame the Puritans…  Anyway, I was allowed to watch the movie and I loved it…and I’m not messed up, at least, not because of that film.
 
Bruce Willis made that film work.  He introduced this everyman hero that was believable even though he was engaged in ridiculous action set pieces.  I know the latest movies have turned the craziness up well past 11, but let’s face it: the original Die Hard is no documentary.  Willis personified a man out of place going through a very bad day to perfection.  To this day I can’t think of an actor who can yell angrily quite like Willis.  When he’s yelling at the cops to pay attention to him or cussing out a bad guy as he kills him, I can’t help but smile.  (Okay, maybe these movies did mess me up a little…)
 
As a child, I just liked the film for the great action, the humor, and the more original elements.  Moments like McClane pulling shards of glass out of his feet.  Or the sight of a dead thug with “Now I have a machine gun ho ho ho” written on his shirt in blood.  (I nearly ordered a shirt that said that a while back before I thought better of it.)  And you have one of the all time great villains in Hans Gruber, who was really only great because of Alan Rickman’s awesome performance. 
 
Die Hard was just a fun movie for me for years.  Then I went to college.  I had a class called “After Vietnam” that dealt with politics and the changing culture of America from the end of the war to the late 90s.  I can’t remember exactly why, but watching Die Hard was part of an assignment.  It was something about the end of the 80s, the fear of Japan taking over, gender roles, etc.  It really opened my eyes, but sometimes I wish I could get them shut again.  I can still enjoy the film for what it is, but now when I watch it I can’t help but think about what statements the film is making or what McClane represents.  It’s nice to have an added layer to the film, though.
 
Die Hard 2
I’ll be honest; I have no distinct memory of watching Die Hard 2 for the first time.  I remember watching it later on DVD and hating it, but I don’t know what my initial response to this film was.  I guess the fact that I forgot about it says enough.  Revisiting it lately, I stand by my disdain for this film.  I have decided, however, that the latest Die Hard is much worse than this. 
 
I suppose I forgot about this one because it’s such a carbon copy of the first film.  You could just see the meeting that took place for this one:
 
“We need to make another Die Hard. Fast.  Any ideas?”
 
“How about Die Hard in an airport?”
 
“Brilliant!  Now hire some hack director.”
 
I know, I know.  The sequel is actually based on a novel and it was altered to be a Die Hard movie.  Fine, but they must have really altered that novel because this is so similar to the first movie that it’s boring.  Watching it again, I was just baffled by some of the film’s oddities.  Why is the bad guy doing naked aerobics at the beginning?  Why did McClane think he could just leave his car in front of the airport to pick up his wife?  (This isn’t Airplane!)  And why do all the Washington, D.C. police officers seem to be from New York? 
 
This film just had the same problem so many sequels have: new location, same story.  It even seemed to try to continue this “end of the 80s” theme that the first film had since a cocaine drug lord was the villain and the war on drugs was mentioned.  Honestly, the film was only interesting to me because of how different things were back then.  McClane smokes inside the airport.  There’s a shootout inside the airport and it’s pretty much just brushed aside.  McClane has a beeper.  Stuff like that. 
 
Overall, not as bad as I remember, but Die Hard 2 is still a boring sequel that attempted nothing new.
 
Die Hard: With a Vengeance
Die Hard went on hiatus for a few years and returned when I was eleven years old with Die Hard: With a Vengeance.  Actually, I’m just going to refer to it as Die Hard 3.  Let’s face it, fans and non-fans alike wish this series never went down the path of non-numbered sequels.  This film brought me back into the fold.  Watching it again recently, I still consider this the second best of the series.  This film stuck out to me back when it first came out not just because it was a funny action film, but because it dealt with social issues in an upfront way that actually made my eleven-year-old self think a bit. 
 
The film contains this subplot about racism, actually reverse racism, that I had not seen before.  That said, if I was to watch this for the first time today, I’d probably be groaning at the heavy-handedness of it all.  For example, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Zeus, asks his nephews, “Who do we not want to help us?”  They respond in unison, “White people!”  Zeus laughs and says, “That’s right!”  I’m not saying that his character can’t think like that, it just seems like there could have been a more subtle way of conveying that character trait.  I suppose the choice to make McClane wear a sign proclaiming “I hate n*****s” in Harlem wasn’t subtle, either.
 
The film handles the racism in a realistic way.  In many ways, this was a post-racial film, even though a post-racial world is pretty far away.  Instead of McClane and company treading lightly with Zeus, they roll their eyes and dismiss most of his claims of racism.  At one point, McClane finally breaks and calls Zeus a racist.  That was certainly the first time I had seen a white man call a black man a racist, in film or in life in general.  Now, whether or not any of this is a proper way to address race relations is up for debate.  The point is that it made me think about real issues at a young age.  Can’t fault a movie for that.
 
The race stuff has led some viewers to complain that Zeus is an annoying character.  I can see that, but I loved the dynamic of Willis and Zeus.  Their insults and back and forth just seemed natural.  Yeah, it’s pretty much Sam Jackson yelling for two hours, but I like it when Jackson yells at people.  And Bruce Willis as a hungover McClane reacts perfectly to it all.
 
This film works mainly because they changed the formula, which is something that has irked some fans ever since.  This is the movie that turned Die Hard from a “wrong guy in the wrong place” series to a “kill all the bad guys” series.  I agree that the first scenario is the better one, but I want to see more adventures of John McClane.  To do that, he needed to become a bit more than an unlucky guy.  To be fair, he’s still thrust into these events against his will.  It just seems like he’s a little more invincible this time around and he has begun to treat these outlandish events as just another day on the job. 
 
Die Hard 3 marked the beginning of McClane’s transformation into the kill-crazy sociopath he becomes in Die Hard 5.  Let’s look at this realistically (ha!) for a moment.  What else could this character turn into?  He either accepts that he is the unluckiest guy on the planet and sinks into a deep depression, or he embraces the hero that the world has turned him into, going so far as to actively search for bad situations he can insert himself into.  (Disclaimer: This does not mean that I am backing down from my Die Hard 5 criticism.  I still dislike that movie very much.)
 
The videogame
The completion of the trilogy was culminated with a Playstation game called, appropriately, Die Hard Trilogy.  I bring it up because it’s definitely part of my childhood and I have to comment on the videogames based on all three of these films.  It was one of those games that I remembered loving, but when I replayed this game a few years ago, I realized that it had not aged as well as the movies.  I will say that it was ridiculously difficult (or I just sucked at it), and I remember gaining most of my enjoyment by running down pedestrians in the Die Hard 3 section just so I could see the blood wiped off the windshield followed by McClane yelling, “Sorry!”  Random, I know, but it stuck with me.  Back to the films.
 
Final thoughts
The journey of John McClane throughout the Die Hard trilogy was a very important part of establishing my film knowledge.   It showed me that a great action movie has to be slightly plausible, well acted, quite violent, and fun.  It showed that a character needs to change or things can get pretty boring.  And it showed me that an action series can address actual issues. 
 
John McClane, for better or worse, is a character from my childhood.  Because of two of those first three movies, he’s a character that will never grow too old to enjoy.  The new films may never be able to create that experience I had as a child, but what childhood favorites entirely survive into adulthood?  I’ll always have Die Hard and Die Hard 3.  No matter how much I change, I know I can always go back to those films and be a kid again.  And isn’t that the feeling all action movies are trying to evoke?

4 comments:

  1. Eric--I think this format for your movie reviews and opinions is going to work for you as it allows you more freedom.
    As far as "Die Hard" goes, I liked the first one because it was just different for it's time period and I may have seen the 2nd one but don't remember it so that says enough. Bruce Willis made you love his character as John McClane and Alan Rickman is ALWAYS fun to watch as a villain.

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  2. THanks for reading, Susi. I definitely enjoyed writing this more than a regular review.

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