With the imminent release of A Good Day to Die Hard (the fifth Die Hard film) this week, we’ll be be posting several features taking a look at the franchise.
I don’t know why, but discussions on which Die Hard film is the best always seem to get heated. It’s not just an internet phenomenon—I’ve seen arguments break out on this issue in the flesh on multiple occasions. Of course, the biggest transgression one can make is to suggest that one of the sequels is better than the original. Real talk: that’s an offense that should be brought before a jury. Things get more contentious past that. There are people who abhor the fourth film, Live Free or Die Hard, while others don’t get why that film is so hated (more on that tomorrow). Then there’s the bout we’re gathered here for today: the duel between those that believe Die Harder is the second best Die Hard film and those that maintain With a Vengeance deserves the first-runner-up honors. For the longest time I thought that Die Harder was the correct answer. In fact, I thought it wasn’t even close. But over the last few years my conviction has crumbled substantially. Now, it seems to me like it could go either way.
The issue is slightly more complex than a simple “Which is better?” question. “Which is better?” is a helpful way of framing this debate, but there’s another related question that we could ask: “Which is the better Die Hard film?” The implication being, of course, that one of these films may be truer to the Die Hard spirit than the other. Should that be a factor for consideration before we declare one film more favorable?
Are we looking for the best overall film?
Let’s not beat around the bush: judged objectively and empirically, With a Vengeance is the superior film, and by some margin. It draws all of its strength from its script, which is almost as airtight as the first film’s (though it is nowhere as deep thematically as the first film). With a Vengeance’s portrayal of a heist on the Federal Reserve was so convincing that the FBI actually contacted and interviewed screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh just to ensure he wasn’t some kind of criminal mastermind. This is a picture that will serve you well—consistently good; a tremendously satisfying experience. (However, it must be said that the conclusion comes on a little quick and feels like a huge non sequitur. Hensleigh should have found a way to end it on the boat.) And With a Vengeance must have one of the best opening sequences of films made in the 90s. It is positively Kafkaesque, like something out of a nightmare: McClane asks why he of all people must walk around Harlem with a sandwich board reading ‘I Hate Niggers,’ and his boss can only respond, “I don’t know, he just said it had to be you!”
On the other hand, Die Harder’s script is almost as deficient as With a Vengeance’s is superb. Its basic scenario is top rate: terrorists take over control of an airport and begin doing what terrorists do. It is the original film but on a grander scale. Unfortunately, it suffers from a tremendous, crippling plot hole. As we know, the film concludes with planes using fire on the ground as a beacon with which to land by. Strangely, earlier in the film a plane had already crash landed on the ground leaving a huge trail of fire in its wake, but nobody had the smarts then to realize that the pilots could use that as a navigation guide. They just had to wait an hour for that idea to percolate in their minds before they could implement it again. That writing error is unfortunate because, against all odds, Die Harder is still a terrific ride. Its action is fun and rawer than the first film’s, and the filmmakers chose to inject more comedy into the mix, with plenty of one-liners from McClane. As a result, almost all of the franchise’s famous quotes come from this picture.
- “You’re the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time!”
- “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”
- “Oh, we are just up to our ass in terrorists today John!”
- “You’re not supposed to leave your seat until the plane reaches the terminal—no frequent flier mileage for you.”
- “What sets off the metal detector first—the lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?”
- “Just once I’d like a normal Christmas...”
So while With a Vengeance is good all-round, Die Harder is a flawed picture. Purely on a technical level, the point goes to the third film.
But what if we’re looking for the best Die Hard film?
The story is a little different if we ask not for best film overall but for the best Die Hard film. The distinction may need a little clarification: the ‘Die Hard scenario’ is essentially a situation where one man is thrust into an enclosed environment, typically a confined space, and is surrounded by enemies. There’s a little bit of leeway to be had. The large number of enemies might be replaced by one major threat, like the bomb on the bus in Speed. How confined the enclosed environment is can differ. The original Die Hard took place across a small number of floors in a high-rise; Die Harder’s airport is significantly bigger, but still smaller than 16 Blocks’ two or three buildings, and smaller still than With a Vengeance’s city-sized arena.
Crucially, the hero himself is not integral to the formula. John McClane is the heart of the Die Hard films, but he is not what actually makes Die Harder a Die Hard movie. As evidence of this, we see how other films that aren’t part of the franchise are more representative of the Die Hard experience than, say, the fourth Die Hard film was. Where the fourth film is set across multiple states and has McClane constantly buddied up with a sidekick, a film like Air Force One is essentially a beat-for-beat knockoff of the original Die Hard (it may as well have just been called ‘Die Hard: Airplane Edition’).
Under this most-faithful-to-the-first-film conception, it is Die Harder that takes place beside the original in the number two spot, with With a Vengeance and Live Free bringing up the rear. Die Harder is essentially the original film blown up to a grander scale—a bigger environment, bigger battles, and bigger explosions. But crucially, McClane is still trapped, he is still outnumbered, he is still hurting, and he is still alone. The third film eschews most of that. It is expansive, the opposite of claustrophobic; the fights are so dispersed throughout the picture that we never get the feeling McClane is on the back foot and in real trouble—in fact, we never get the sense that McClane is going to have any problem dealing with these terrorists at all; he does get beat up a bunch, but he is never alone, because Zeus is by his side almost the whole way through. I would even submit to you that With a Vengeance isn’t actually a Die Hard film. Sure, it is by name, and sure, it stars John McClane, but that’s where the similarities with the previous two films end. There’s no Bonnie Bedelia (Holly McClane), there’s no Sergeant Al Powell, and there’s no snow. I must stress that this isn’t a criticism—it’s simply the fact that With a Vengeance isn’t playing the same game as the first two films are.
In that way, we’ve taken personal taste out of the decision and provided a split that in a way favors both films. The people who say that With a Vengeance is the better film are absolutely right—but it happens that they’re not watching a Die Hard film. If you’re looking for a key-for-key follow up to the original, Die Harder would be the better one to explore.
Let’s end with a small thought on Die Harder. I’ve maligned it a bit here, but only in service of comparing it against With a Vengeance. Die Hard 2 is still a great movie and an absolute thrill ride, and is easily one of the better action films of the 90s. But there is something unique about it, something that doesn’t apply to the first or third movies: I strongly believe it is the only Die Hard film that is worth remaking. The original is perfect, and to remake it would be sacrilege; you likely can’t improve on With a Vengeance, so that should be left alone. But if you think about it, Die Harder’s plot would make more sense if it took place today. Airports, they tell us, are still prime targets for enemies of the West. An attack on an airport is, sadly, highly plausible. What’s most interesting, however, is that airports (and airplanes) now depend almost slavishly on computers, certainly more so than in 1991. What if terrorists were to hack into an airport’s network and run rampant within? A well-directed update to Die Harder, one that seals up its major plot hole, would be a major contribution to the franchise. If in ten years they have to pick some Die Hard film to revisit, let’s hope it’s that one.
Tomorrow... Live Free or Die Hard: is it really that bad?