Twentieth Century Fox/Photofest
Bruce Willis as John McClane in the 1988 film Die Hard.
Bruce Willis as John McClane in the 1988 film Die Hard. Twentieth Century Fox/Photofest
Let's get this out of the way right now: The world doesn't need Die Hard 5 — it didn't even need Die Hard 2. But the world is getting it anyway, and news broke yesterday that 20th Century Fox has picked John Moore to direct. Moore directed Behind Enemy Lines with Owen Wilson, the 2006 remake of The Omen, and 2008's much-hyped but critically panned video game adaptation Max Payne.
Moore is taking on what is, from a creative perspective, an awfully daunting task. What makes the Die Hard franchise practically tragic is that it's become so stupefyingly ordinary after bowing in 1988 as a remarkably taut, funny, exquisitely crafted action film that — but for the appearance of late-'80s computer and phone technology — has not aged a day. As explosively entertaining as it was the first time I saw it on the big screen 23 years ago, it was just as good two weeks ago, when my local theater showed it as part of their summer '80s series in a marvelously earthy print that screamed, "I hold up so well that I have been watched ... a lot." The print had been loved into a certain degree of scruffiness that somehow was just right for the film.
They're never going to get the magic back, I don't think. I don't think they want to. The action film has become a bombast delivery mechanism, and the genie is probably not going back in the bottle.
Because really, one of the keys to Die Hard is how small it is. Everyone talks about how it takes place almost exclusively at Nakatomi Plaza, the high-rise where the group of colorful thugs led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) take hostages and then face off against Officer John McClane (Bruce Willis). But in fact, it takes place only on a few floors and in a few other spots — the roof, the elevator shaft, the lobby. Most of the action is limited to a couple of floors of an office building.
Compare that to the passion for wide shots that leads so many films, including Live Free Or Die Hard, to engage in depressingly identical car chases that are supposed to be distinguished by some particularly enormous stunt — a car crashing into a helicopter, for instance.
Die Hard does the opposite. It revels in reminding you of the confined space you're in. There are girlie pictures in one of the construction zones, just so that when McClane passes them the second time during a tense pursuit, he can mutter to them a nod and a greeting: "Girls." Later, a recently killed bad guy dangles from a chain in the very near foreground as a group of terrified hostages runs by — he's been dead for a scene or two, but he'd still be there, so there he is. The film is resolutely grounded in a surprising level of physical and temporal reality (and yes, we're still talking about Die Hard).
And that willingness to stick to a certain internal logic is behind this story's other great strength, which is the absolutely perfect pacing.
Here's how your average action movie works — certainly not all of them, but many of them: There's a lot of pantsing around at the beginning while the bad guy establishes his objective, the good guy establishes how good he is, and you figure out who's who and who you're supposed to root for. This takes about half an hour. Then, there's about an hour of delaying while various obstacles keep the hero and the villain from confronting each other, but nothing really happens, except that there is often One Great Sacrifice that makes the hero even more committed and the bad guy even more bad. Then there's a lengthy Final Showdown between the hero and the villain in which you can sort of tune out, because you probably can't tell who's where at what time anyway, so it's just a lot of jumping and rolling and shooting. At the end, the good guy wins and the bad guy is dead.
But in this one, just about every frame in the film is either (1) setting up or (2) paying off a specific piece of the story. Even everything that happens at the beginning that would normally be window dressing and character development and throat-clearing has a specific reason for being there. "Fists with your toes." Holly slamming down the family photo in her office. Her Rolex.
Possible cracks in the story are preemptively patched. If you've got a guy running around in bare feet because he was separated from his shoes, you have to explain why he wouldn't just nab the first pair he found: "Millions of terrorists in the world, I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister." It's important that Holly's office doesn't say "Holly McClane," not just for the story of the marriage, but because it would screw up the plot later if it were that obvious who she is.
Even things that seem gratuitous at first glance aren't. I used to take the position that the first brutal killing Hans commits was sort of too much — gratuitously awful, too bloody, too gross. But I later realized that it absolutely has to be there. If it weren't, you'd root for him. It's already very easy to like him much of the time; if he didn't commit that particular act, you'd watch the whole movie hoping that he and McClane would figure out a way to band together, take the money, grab Holly, and go to Vegas. Alan Rickman's performance is so funny, and Hans is so smart, he almost deserves the money, doesn't he? If all his guys did was break in and shoot a couple of anonymous security guards — as horrifying as that would be in real life — his transferred badness in a movie might not stick.
The stakes here are very high, established with impressive economy in the very early going in a two-minute scene between John and Holly (literally, their scene alone together is two minutes long) that ends in a fight and has to carry the weight of the rest of the story. They have two minutes to convince you he'd rather get killed than even think about leaving without her and that she'd have utter faith that he'd come through.
Unlike your average bombastic action film, the stakes aren't a nuclear weapon, or an endangered planet, or a plot to poison the water of an entire city — or, as in Live Free Or Die Hard, the entire cybersecurity of the United States. The stakes are an office party worth of people — and, of course, the vault.
This movie builds to a confrontation, but it's actually a series of battles that bring that confrontation closer and closer and have their own satisfying resolutions and clever ways of exploiting the environment. Long conference tables, computer monitors, chains, pipes, fire hoses, interior glass walls. It's a simple, physical, tactile parade of head-butting and broken stuff where, very often, the most helpful and important special effect is gravity.
So how can Die Hard 5 have any chance of competing with such an utterly out of style original?
It probably can't. They've wandered unrecognizably far with this franchise into blowing up everything in sight, making McClane into Superman instead of a guy running around an office building in bare feet (a critical vulnerability, both for plot and for atmosphere). Only by settling for something smaller, something less ambitious in scope and more ambitious in execution, do they have a chance of doing anything other than continuing to bog down an ageless film with a series of what feel like third- and fourth-generation photocopies.