As Die Hard 5 sludges towards the mid $200 million in box office takings, just about demonstrating its immunity to the law of diminishing returns (and making life easier for its guaranteed sequel), a four part dissection of a franchise that’s hard to kill. First up, Die Hard’s literary roots and the rules it tries to live by (freely).
I watched four Die Hard films in a day. Here’s the proof in the form of Storified Tweetnotes of Parts One to Four. And here’s the result:
1. The 12 Rules of Dying Hard
DIE HARD: THE TOUGHEST OF THE ‘REALISTIC’ ACTION FRANCHISES, THE ONE WITH THE EVERYMAN COWBOY, THE ONE WHERE THE MOST CALCULATED AND DEVIOUSLY VILLAINOUS PLOTS GIVE A SIMPLE NEW YORK COP WITH FAMILY ISSUES ‘A BAD DAY’.
There’s lots to love there. As of this year we’re up to the fifth instalment, with Bruce Willis doing his neat trick of sandwiching it in between Looper and GI Joe 2. The brilliantly definitive 1988 original muddies the response to its continued appeal a little; while it’s a shame to imagine a limp line of continuing sequels, it’s also hard not think that there may be life in the grizzled old cop yet. There’s certainly little hope that the heady heights of that first film will be reached again. But I’m always loath to can a franchise that’s happily lumbering towards double-digits, especially one that’s retained its leading man and seemingly ‘reboots’ hard. After all, it’s difficult for any sequel to diminish the reputation of an original or earlier film after 25 years. Even George Lucas couldn’t damage the original trilogy that much without actually reshooting them.
With the sixth entry apparently a done deal and Bruce all signed up, it looks like the franchise may now settle into two trilogies, albeit separated by a 12 year gap. It seems odd that one of the most defined franchises (quite ‘jump the truck-proof’ in many ways) has found its yippe-ki-way to five sequels… But then it did start with supreme quality. The first film not only redefined the action film, but also laid down a set of rules that would prove definitive for the franchise. Subsequent sequels have worked within or against the confines of these rules, but for the most part they remain. If you’re looking for the perfect part six, these are the rules to follow:
The 12 Rules
1. McClane’s a fish out of water
Yes, McClane’s having a bad day. But by the Rules of Die Hard this bad day is exacerbated by his already being in an unfamiliar situation (see also Rule 3). First, this situation must be far from his comfort zone – an unknown city or better yet a large corporate tower block or airport. He’s on edge already, but crucially he’s in a jurisdiction that’s not his own, and worse at the whim of someone else. This is particularly Die Hard if that someone is a jobsworth (see Rule 6), villain or if the controlling mechanism is something that he just can’t comprehend, for instance the technology of a giant airport or the world wide web (see Rule 4)
2. McClane’s a family man
And he’s not very good at it, apart from crucially in Part Two. Importantly, it’s not until Part Four that McClane is officially divorced.
3. McClane’s in the wrong place
Contrary to villain assertions in Parts Three and Four, not least countless promotional material, McClane is the right guy, but granted, he is most certainly in the wrong place. While his presence may often be coincidental, there are often compounding factors. A tower siege for instance, is far more likely to put McClane at ease than a Los Angeles corporate Christmas party. There are also secondary levels of being ‘in the wrong place’: in Part One, it doesn’t help that the tower is also still under construction.
4. McClane’s an everyman
McClane’s reaction to everyone and everything is consistent: He is a solely English speaking, technophobic everyman. An important part ofthe franchises appeal (see also, Rule 11)
5. McClane has allies
McClane is always able to assemble a group of allies, though necessarily they often lack any authority (see Parts One or Two) or are thrown together and have to overcome previous difficulties (see Parts Three and Four)
6. McClane versus jobsworths
Similarly, McClane will be constantly hampered by jobsworths while caught in a prolonged escalation of authority. Best personified by the escalation of Part One where it plays straight into the villains’ hands: cop to precinct to SWAT to FBI (strongly linked to Rule 1).
Die Hard is a franchise distinctly aware of itself, even in Part One. Music that switches between the score to be a diegetic part of the film, whistled, sung or just heard by the film characters is an important part of the franchise conceit. It’s almost as crucial as McClane, with increasing irony, wondering how lightening can strike the same guy so many times. When a music refrain may be referenced in the film by hero or villain, it is likely to later link to a key part of the villain’s plot (see Rule 10) at a crucial moment. Particularly interesting in Part One where Beethoven’s Ode To Joy was chosen for its use in A Clockwork Orange.
8. Cause and effect
One of the vaguest rules, as cause and effect of this type is in most film narrative. However, a Die Hard film should use this masterfully and more than the average actioner(a crucial part of establishing Rule 3). There will be prominent foreshadowing: setting plot points early that will prove crucial possibly hours later. Exemplary examples are the jetlag shoe device in Part One or very early and throwaway reference to missing dump trucks in Part Three.
9. Creeping dread
There will be an extravagant villain master plan swinging into operation from the off. This is not Italian Job; the villain is established, or later shown to have been in full control from the beginning. The audience becomes aware of the plot as McClane does or sometimes just before him. The revelation will slowly and leisurely be revealed in mounting tension often against the backdrop of McClane’s personal issues, until…
There will be a gigantic twist, usually with a number of small twists accompanying it. Often a villain will be shown to have obscured their real objective with another crime. Unfortunately it is that first crime that ensnares McClane. Part Three played with this by making McClane the distraction.
McClane is an everyman, and responds to situations in a naturally humorously way. Despite the self-awareness of other parts of the films, his aren’t fourth-wall breaking one liners. McClane is no Deadpool; he is simply a wry and gnarly cop having a bad day. One who expects foreigners to understand his English swearing perfectly. A fine line must be drawn between superhero and cocky: in Part One this is neatly defined as a cowboy, something which continues through the franchise despite McClane’s protestations. This is often helped by the international part of the plot. A cowboy persona encompasses McClane as the definitive American everyman, but also a specialised maverick. As The Dark Knight franchise sees actors taking on the mantle of the Bat, the Die Hard protagonist must take on the mantle of the Hat. In some films, while McClane denies that he’s a cowboy, Willis almost drawls like John Wayne. Humour’s main presence in the franchise comes from the fact that the Die Hard film conceit is innately humorous – and not simply because of its ridiculousness. The hosepipe sequence of the first film is a effectively a tripartite joke with a structure that could be lifted from a number of Lloyd or Keaton films.
12. The Franchise is called ‘Die Hard’
Die Hard. Yes, a statement on its single-minded hero, or villains… But also I’ve always thought, simply about being bloody hard to kill despite the situation. Violence is a key part of this as you might expect, as are high death rates and very visible blood. Although the franchise has seen a steady decrease in rating (it currently stands at 12A as of part 5), violence is crucial. If Part Six is called Die Hardest then it should be a winner.
The Other Themes
There are several other themes that run heavily through the franchise, but can’t quite be considered Die Hard Rules. Media parody is particularly evident in the first two, but it quickly loses signal. By Part Three, the media is kept at arm’s length only to be exploited by the villain. In Part Four there sole purpose is to be manipulated while by Part Five there’s a barely police presence, let alone a journalist (beyond a headline grabbing turn by top ranking anchor women Sophie Raworth).
Location is one key component. The first three films remain resolutely based around three different American cities. This lessens by the State hopping Part Four, while Part Five transplants McClane to Moscow. While not a rule, interpretation of this through the films could be the most important tenet of Die Hard – something particularly important when considering Die Hard 4.0.
But first a filmic and literary detour.
Admittedly most rules were set by the first film – still quite rightly the best action film ever made. Part of that first film’s brilliance was inadvertent: it was made in that crazy unimaginable pocket of non-time: the late 1980s. You couldn’t make that film in America now. Films of the time like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours are destined never to become soft and cuddly Sunday afternoon flicks. A kind of high swearing, semi-automatic gloss-grit that will never be repeated.
Other bullets aligned: They included John McTiernan directing at the top of his game, Speed director Jan de Bont showing why he should have stuck to cinematography, and a nice homeland realism; while Rambo was sillily taking on the entire Soviet army in Afghanistan and Arnie was making Predators bleed before falling back towards the Terminator. Casting also certainly helped. Not only was it human-shaped suaveness of brilliance Alan Rickman’s big Hollywood break, but also Bruce Willis’ first big role. With his five year stint in Moonlighting drawing to a close, he was not only an actor willing to work to make it on film, but also a proven comedy-drama actor. The ingredients were good, but none more so than the source material.
2. Die Hard as Adaptation
The first Die Hard set the franchise’s standard for adaptation, but an awkward one. It was adapted from Roderick Thorp’s 1979 thriller Nothing Lasts Forever, itself inspired by The Towering inferno. That book’s title presciently suggested John McClane’s slide into James Bond throughout the series, but on page he is actually called Joe Leland. In one of those wonderful quirks of movie rights, the adaptation of this book triggered a first refusal clause for the actor who had played Joe Leland in the prequel novel’s own film, The Detective. At 73, Frank Sinatra declined and the role eventually fell to another crooner, Bruce Willis.
Die Hard II: Die Harder was also an adaptation, this time translating Thorp’s characters into Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes. It’s probably a good thing that in the pre-24 world, the main plot wasn’t just 58 minutes long. While not a book adaptation, things came full circle with the third instalment, delayed a few years while various scripts were rejected. That the film finally emerged from an original screenplay for a new Lethal Weapon film was not unexpected and ultimately works well. While the Riggs and Murtaugh dynamic is still visible through McClane and Zeus, it neatly complied with most Die Hard rules and neatly bookended the trilogy. It was also a neat spin on the first film’s genesis. When Sinatra had passed, the script was mooted as a sequel to Commando. Though the ‘Die-hardness’ of the third film’s certificate was diminished, the return of McTiernan helped. The film is a lot more violent than memory may suggest, though sadly it was to be the last Die Hard film to feature Bruce Willis’ hair.
Die Hard 4.0 surfaced in 2007, in the rather unfairly unappealing hands of Len Wiseman. The Underworld helmer should not have been unexpected. This was no Lecter, Alien or Ripley franchise and Wiseman could be seen as an heir apparent to McTiernan and Die Harder helmer Renny Harlin. With Parts Four and Five, the dynamic had certainly shifted, as had Hollywood. Live Free and Die Hard, the name Die Hard 4.0 para-stole from New Hampshire’s state motto, was again an adaptation, this time from John Carlin’s 1997 Wired article ‘A Farewell to Arms’ – which had previously stalled in script form for the proposed film, WW3.com. Part Five was the first to lack an ounce of adaptation. Instead sourced from the mind of the A-Team’s screenwriter Skip Woods. Not universally admired by fans of that Team, not for his Wolverine: Origin’s screenplay – at least you can see the sign of intent with reverential yet twisting previous credits.
The strong tradition of adaptation working within the rules of the franchise has helped steer Die Hard over two decades, but did anyone think that the quality would really be sustainable through five films…