Spy Shit: How Die Hard Chose Franchise Over Film

A Good Day To Die Hard has the distinction to be the first entry into the franchise in a while that was originally written as a Die Hard movie – if it seemed weird to you that John McClane was flipping cars into helicopters and battling cyber-terrorists, yeah, originally, he wasn’t supposed to meet the Apple guy at all. So this new film had the opportunity to define or at least identify the things we love about Die Hard and make them work in a fresh context.

You can see the barest echoes of that appreciation of the original film in Skip Woods’ screenplay here – a villain who hates cowboys, the prominence of shattered glass throughout some of the action scenes – but unfortunately these are just throwaway echoes, bloodless references which add nothing original. When Casino Royale trots out “Shaken, not stirred,” it’s in a surprising, new context; it plays on our expectations and adds another layer by having Bond respond, “Does it look like I give a damn?!” The two repeating lines the McClane boys get, “Damn you, John,” and “I’m on vacation!” mean absolutely nothing. We get no sense of a deepening father/son relationship or even any tension that might imperil it. When Bruce Willis grumbles the sainted watchwords of the franchise, they too mean nothing in context, but are merely deployed at the climax to have maximum impact.

film studies

Look, modern action movies do have a recognizable, formulaic structure to them, one that’s in part been defined by the original Die Hard: three/four acts (depending on whether you want to break an act at the midpoint) made up of complications and developments – a twist in the villain’s plan, heightened stakes, new goals/characters, delays/ordeals that allow for character development – that the protagonist reacts to even as he works to achieve an original goal before an established deadline – when his wife’s plane will run out of fuel, etc.

The problem with Die Hard 5 is a fundamental misunderstanding of why the original Die Hard works: the emotional arc of John McClane is resolved through his gradual control of (super badass) physical action – think about the end of the second act stretch where he has to run through all that broken glass to get to safety. It’s an ordeal, almost a Passion moment, which allows John to do the thing he couldn’t have been able to do before getting trapped in the Nakatomi Plaza: to admit to his wife (via walkie talkie, but whatever) that he’s sorry. The resolution of the external conflict somehow also heals the characters’ internal conflict – when Holly is dangling off the edge of the building, the corporate “yeah, it’s a rolex,” watch, the possession that represents her estrangement from John, falls off with Hans, freeing them from both the physical villain and the mental block to their relationship at the same moment, through the same physical action. It’s really amazing. Die Hard gives its action meaning and grounding through the emotional journey of its characters.

film theory

Think about how many time I used the word emotion in the paragraph above, and yet Die Hard is probably the greatest action film of all time, certainly my favorite Christmas movie ever. Die Hard 5 can’t see the feelings for the cowboys and the yippie-kai-yay, Mother Russias. It may have a relationship that needs fixing – a father/son misunderstanding – complicated by a larger villain’s plot, but it doesn’t connect these things nor spend time on the McClane boys in a way that isn’t cursory or covered through throwaway lines.

What A Good Die To Die Hard is, is an entry into a franchise, not a film in its own right. Not only is the setting for the action super archaic (Chernobyl, really?) and absolutely no time spent on the villains – you can tell one guy is devious because he plays chess (Magneto called he wants that set back), and one henchman is differentiated by eating a carrot (really?) and our supposed main villain is only evil because he wears European suits and spends time in a sauna. Entertaining action films don’t need to be the most nuanced things ever to be good. Pirates of the Caribbean 1  is deeply silly and its pleasures based on performance and humor almost as much as action. There are gloriously mindless 80s action films: Commando comes to mind. But franchises need more bedrock to stand on – a firm identity that allows for the repetition and variation of a new entry into the series. You need a firm series identity.

cinematography

The Fast And The Furious is actually kind of a great example of how to keep a franchise going strong – they’re essentially heist films (Fast Five actually has them dragging a giant-ass safe across Rio at high speed) where the car chase is the essential vehicle (heh) of the heist instead of just a consequence of it. With five entries in almost half the time, the Fast series knows how to combine just the right amount of  character growth through physical action (think amount how each film has a training sequence where the crew gets better at driving and also closer to each other) with the absurd, awesome, physical spectacle of cars doing fast and furious things. They vary by location, McGuffin, and supporting cast; the caper resolves and everybody leaves on good terms until the next job.

The problem with the later Die Hards is that they’ve consistently upped the intensity of the action without changing John McClane at all. The definition of the Die Hard universe is one in which an off-duty NYC cop, not a superhero or particularly elite fighter, had to improvise through a hostage crisis, bleeding copiously and falling down and loosing hope and picking himself back up the way everyman heroes do: there’s real danger of John falling down the elevate shaft to his death. He doesn’t navigate physical space with the effortlessness of James Bond.  To take this character, without changing him and in fact reconnecting the audience to him through catchphrases and homages, and putting him in a CGI explosion-fest as an impervious video game superhero is to negate the very things that define him.

casino royale

The Bond films understand this perhaps better than any franchise, and have a remarkable adaptation mechanism because they can keep changing their terms with each new version of Bond. 90s Brosnan!Bond existed in a far more cartoonish world than Craig!Bond does now, and that reflects current trends in action: the operatic darkness of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is on full display in Skyfall and the intensified continuity made popular by the Bourne films is a huge part of why Casino Royale succeeds. The series can adapt to changing tastes in the genre.

It seems like Die Hard wants to be relevant, but only through the technical quality and intensity of its action, which is directed unthinkingly, with a generic look in the worst sense of the word. John McClane suddenly doesn’t hug (he totally hugs in Die Hard) or cry or take anything but in stride. The series has abandoned character reality in exchange for spectacular action hyperreality, and despite all the critical lamentations of the mindless state of action films, it’s a bargain audiences seem to be rejecting. We need for there to be stakes, and there aren’t any if the characters are detached.

die hard 5

It’s a shame because there’s a chance where the film could have changed tack and surprised us. Jai Courtney (wasted as John Jr.) takes some rebar to the abdomen and looks to be fading fast. If the film had actually handled this seriously, with McClane changing his goals and trying to care for his son in a way he never has before, while also being hunted down by a bunch of crazy Russians, it might have gone to some places that are actually interesting (instead of Chernobyl, which hasn’t been for, like, two decades).

Instead, McClane essentially tells his son to stop being such a pussy and cowboy up. He pulls the rebar out (!) and amazingly, Jack does not die from internal bleeding in the next few hours. You can tell the film doesn’t want you to worry about nitpicks like human anatomy and physics and just enjoy the action, but by relying on the tropes of Die Hard without complicating or redefining them, we’re still tied to that original Die Hard universe; it deserves a far more thoughtful, creative film than the cookie-cutter, FPS walkthrough franchise entry it’s gotten here. A Good Day To Die Hard took the formula itself over the things that, filled in, elevate the formula and makes a film unique. It made a franchise entry instead of a film, and y’all, I’m too old for this shit.

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