Bank robbers. Terrorists. Maladjusted computer nerds. Some nonsense in Russia that I honestly don’t completely remember. It took Disney to almost certainly put the final nail in the coffin of one of the most surprising action franchises in modern film history.
While it doesn’t seem like Die Hard is something anyone would call an unexpected success, it was a surprise hit in 1988. The film’s story of Lieutenant John McClane, an off-duty cop forced to become a hero on Christmas Eve, made an action movie star out of Bruce Willis and established Alan Rickman in his first film as a singular actor. That’s quite a journey for a film which originally began as a potential vehicle for Frank Sinatra.
As I’m ranking every Die Hard movie from worst to best, I can hopefully emphasize just how unlikely the first film was in almost every possible way. Sequels inevitably followed, and most of them are at least entertaining.
None of them are quite up to par with the original and its status as cinematic lightning in a bottle, though. However, as we go through 30+ years and five distinctive movies, the fact becomes clear that this series is still, perhaps, the best body of work Bruce Willis has done.
Despite having seen this movie at least twice, it’s still difficult to get a sense of what A Good Day to Die Hard is actually about.
The basic premise is easy enough to follow. John McClane (Bruce Willis, in what is likely to be his last performance as the character) heads to Russia because his CIA agent son (Jai Courtney, who doesn’t have a lot to contribute here) has landed himself in trouble with a murder rap in Russia.
Upon arriving, terrorists bomb the courthouse where his son is being held, and we’re off to the races.
Except the movie never really goes anywhere. Sure, the plot progresses, with completely forgettable villains, punctuated by an occasionally entertaining action or chase sequence. However, nothing ever really seems to actually happen in this movie.
Despite a solid performance as McClane, Willis seems noticeably lost in a movie with a story that never really engages, pacing that doesn’t fully develop a rhythm, and supporting performances that contribute nothing memorable or even interesting to the proceedings.
If all you’ve ever wanted from a Die Hard movie is a middle-of-the-road Bruce Willis performance, some good sound editing, and a few large-scale explosions, then you’ve come to the right place.
Of course, detractors of this franchise will say the paragraph above describes all of them. We all know that’s not accurate. While I don’t hate this movie on the level that some do, it was extremely easy to put this film at the bottom.
The fourth entry, which tweaked John McClane to be more pronounced and fantastical action here, may have its problems, but at least that film benefits from the essentials of this franchise. In the first place, you need a good villain to play off our hero. Despite Sebastian Koch and Yulia Sniger doing their best, this movie offers nothing of note on that front.
In fact, generally speaking, A Good Day to Die Hard is more of a generic action movie than anything even remotely resembling the 1988 original entry. The film picks up briefly when Mary Elizabeth Winstead reprises her role as John’s daughter from Live Free or Die Hard, leading plenty to wish the movie had involved her to a greater degree instead.
4. Die Hard 2 (1990)
Director: Renny Harlin
After the stunning success of Die Hard, a sequel was inevitable. What works for Die Hard 2, at least in retrospect, is how closely it tries to stick to the original. This is particularly evident in the humor which came to define the first entry. Director Renny Harlin and screenwriters Steven E. de Souza and Doug Richardson aren’t looking to rock the boat.
This makes Die Hard 2, which this time pits John against terrorists at an airport, a satisfying-enough experience. It also helps that this 1990 sequel has a good actor in William Sandler, although his disgraced U.S. Army colonel character isn’t nearly as interesting as Alan Rickman’s German bank robber in the 1988 film.
However, while fun, lightning doesn’t quite strike twice here. Even now, the first Die Hard has a sense of fun and inventiveness about it. Die Hard 2 keeps the qualities most of us like about these films, but it doesn’t add anything of its own. If you watch the first two films in this series back-to-back, this becomes particularly apparent.
Still, as mentioned before, what you have here remains the making of a better-than-average sequel, particularly for this period in film history. While it wasn’t essential to bring back people like William Atherton and Reginald VelJohnson, I’m happy to see them all the same. Bonnie Bedelia is also back as Holly Gennero McClane, and it’s a shame that neither Bedelia nor Holly (save for a brief off-camera appearance, played by someone else) returned after this entry.
As is the case with most of the returning faces here, Holly isn’t given much to do either. She can only do so much as a passenger stuck on an airplane that’s being forced to stay in the air by William Sadler’s terrorist on the ground. The fact that she’s in peril again is one of Die Hard 2’s laziest components.
“Lazy” could also be a good way to describe the movie’s failure to take such a stellar cast of actors playing bad guys, including John Amos and Franco Nero, and make them much more than the setup for a very apparent conclusion.
But again, while none of this is as much fun as the original, it’s still pretty good in the context of the Die Hard series as a whole.
At the least, it’s considerably better than A Good Day to Die Hard.
3. Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
Director: Len Wiseman
You can’t argue with the opinion that Live Free or Die Hard’s John McClane is a considerably different hero from the one we met back in 1988. That McClane was a reluctant hero, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. This 2007 version of John still has him as a victim of circumstance, but one who rises to the occasion by becoming the basically-invincible-killing-machine the first movie distinctly tried to avoid.
Personally, at least as far as this film is concerned (A Good Day overextended my goodwill towards this idea by a lot), I don’t mind the transition. I didn’t even mind in 2007 that the movie was the first in the series to go for a PG-13 rating over the traditional R.
Obviously, you don’t have to watch that version at this point, but it wouldn’t make a big difference, at the end of the day.
A hacker named Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant, who is surprisingly grounded for this kind of movie) is holding the United States cybersecurity infrastructure hostage. This concerns John largely because he picks up another hacker (Justin Long, making for a very solid sidekick), who is targeted simultaneously by Gabriel’s small army of mercenaries. John’s just following orders to pick up a potential person of interest, drop him off, and go back to having a terrible relationship with his daughter (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead, whose performance is so good, I sincerely wish we could have just had her as John’s sidekick). He doesn’t really need this nonsense.
In this way, the movie goes back to the idea of heroism being thrust upon John. The interpretation held by many is that this can only happen so many times before believability becomes strained.
Maybe, but Live Free or Die Hard (also known as Die Hard 4 outside the US) , coupled with an impressively alert performance by Bruce Willis, has a lot of stuff that can be difficult to accept at face value. If you’re still enjoying yourself at about the 20-minute mark, you’re going to be fine.
Fourteen years later, Live Free or Die Hard holds up surprisingly well. The movie may not have everything we love about the first entry, but there’s more than enough here, including a ferocious fight scene between Willis and Maggie Q (fine, fine, that several-stories-drop probably should have killed John), to justify this film coming in at number three on a Die Hard ranking.
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
Director: John McTiernan
No one dies harder than John McClane. Conversely, no one directs a great Die Hard movie like John McTiernan. As sequels go, the immensely satisfying 1995 Die Hard with a Vengeance might be one of the best of all time. The clear and, dare I say it, logical (as far as these movies are concerned) connection to the first film is at the top of the list of the best things about Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Separated from Holly (who’s pretty much done with the series as a character at this point), suspended from the force, and amid an ongoing bender, John McClane is forced back on the job by a terrorist/bank-robber with a decided focus on John in particular. Only Jeremy Irons, playing the brother of Alan Rickman’s villain from the first film, could come close to being as much fun as Rickman was. Die Hard with a Vengeance permanently cemented the essential element of having a bad guy as much fun, if not more so, than the protagonist.
However, Jeremy’s enormously entertaining villainy aside, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a rare sequel that gets literally everything right. From an explosive, attention-grabbing opening, to a frantic pace that strikes a perfect balance between action, humor, and even character, there isn’t an ounce of this film that should be cut or changed in any way.
On the sidekick front, it seems weird these days to imagine Samuel L. Jackson as following someone else’s lead. Nonetheless, in 1995, on the heels of the game-changing Pulp Fiction, Jackson was only just beginning his ascent to superstardom. He still has those character actor chops, but he’s probably past playing a character like Vengeance’s Zeus.
You can make up your own mind about how Jackson is forced to reconcile his initial opinions on cops and white people. Outside of that, this is one of Jackson’s best performances. Every scene with Bruce Willis, as the two are forced to work together to stop another gaggle of European bad guys, contributes to one of the strongest pairings of two conflicting personalities in the “buddy cop” formula. The opposites-attract-whether-they-like-it-or-not trope has rarely been done better than it was here.
1. Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
Some people honestly don’t believe that there’s been an action movie as good as Die Hard since 1988.
Perhaps that’s a bit much, but it remains nonetheless a perfect movie across the board. Directed by 1980s action movie legend John McTiernan, Die Hard has aged extremely well against the inevitable odds put forth by time.
Why? The uniqueness of the basic premise might be difficult to fully appreciate decades later. First of all, you have to remember that at the time of filming, Bruce Willis was largely considered a TV actor with two mediocre leading man performances at the movies under his belt. The decision to cast him was a somewhat controversial one. However, 20th Century Fox ultimately believed Willis could convey the everyman quality ingrained in the soul of the screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. They were right.
The screenplay in of itself is important to focus on here. Everything you need for at least an enjoyable experience is in place: a strong hero with deep personal stakes, an antagonist who will bring out the good guy’s best qualities, and a great supporting cast. Die Hard also boasts phenomenal technical achievements in the cinematography, music, editing, sound, production design, and more.
However, the secret weapon of this film is that screenplay. It’s the heart and soul of why this film offered a decidedly different type of action film for the late-80s, while nonetheless hitting the marks people expected. Die Hard cares about its characters, even the ones who don’t last very long. You appreciate that even the characters who fit very rigid archetypes have a certain vitality about them.
This vitality comes across in other forms, as well. From the legendary roof set piece, to non-action scenes as thrilling as the ones with gunfire and explosions, everything about Die Hard still expresses a degree of energy that is impossible to ignore. The movie is guaranteed to pull you in.
Not only is Die Hard the best movie in the series, it is also one of the best action movies of all time. Very little about this film, the parts that count anyway, has aged.
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