franchise me die hard

Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.

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The Franchise: Die Hard: following the increasingly improbable misadventures of street-wise police detective John McClane as he repeatedly crosses paths with dangerous super-criminals. The series has spanned five feature films from 1988 to 2013.

previous installments
Die Hard

The Installment: Die Hard 2 (1990)

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The Story:

John McClane should think about becoming Jewish, because once again his attempt to make an Xmas rendezvous with his wife Holly gets cockblocked by some super criminals. This time things go down in an airport. And instead of thieves pretending to be terrorists, now we have actual terrorists being terrorists, led by a rogue U.S. Army Colonel (William Sadler) who forces all in-coming flights to circle the runways, slowly running out of gas, unless the US government frees a Central American drug lord (Franco Nero) being transported to the airport. Or whatever. Holly is in one of those circling planes, so McClane has to get involved. Once again, pretty much every other authority figure – except one black guy – is a complete idiot and only gets in McClane’s way, forcing him to do all the heavy lifting. John Leguizamo is in there somewhere for a second too.

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What Works:

When talking about Die Hard 2 I think it is important to remember how silly Die Hard is. To quote myself from last time, Die Hard is an intelligently made dumb movie. Die Hard 2, on the other hand, is a competently made dumb movie. It is the film that Die Hard easily could have been. By any reasonable measure it is about as good as you should expect a film like this to be. It showed up; it does its job. Unfortunately, Die Hard is that overachieving coworker in the office that spotlights just how much more Die Hard 2 could be doing.

But if we can check those expectations a little, Die Hard 2 is an amusing bit of action fluff. I was quite entertained. Director Renny Harlin has a reputation as a hack. Some of that is certainly earned, but he was one of the masters of the 1990s “action cheese” contrail left behind by the 1980s. Cutthroat Island remains a punchline to this day, but let’s not forget that his career highlight The Long Kiss Goodnight came out the year after that film. And I’m a remorseless fan of both Deep Blue Sea and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. As the exceptional Nightmare on Elm St documentary Never Sleep Again documented, Harlin wasn’t the guy to bring in if your film was having script problems. But he will make that crap script super watchable. That’s my pull quote for Die Hard 2: “Super watchable!” Harlin crafts some nice set pieces and visuals, like the baggage room fight, McClane cleverly finger-printing a corpse, and the scene in which the terrorists crash a plane by tricking the pilots into thinking that the ground is 200 feet lower than it actually is. Harlin has a good mind for the ridiculous. William Sadler’s introduction as Colonel Stuart is probably the most iconic bit in the film, with Stuart naked in his hotel room practicing martial arts. The cast is solid too. Sadler, John Amos, Tom Bower. Bruce Willis is doing his thing again. I wish Dennis Franz had been in more doofy films like this, hamming it up; he’s fun. And tossing Franco Nero in as a Manuel Noriega-esque villain is pretty great.

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What Doesn’t Work:

Die Hard had a big impact on audiences. But it had an even bigger impact on Hollywood. Second maybe only to Jaws, Die Hard has to be the most borrowed from and outright ripped-off film of the modern era. Mainly because it is so easy to rip-off. Even to this day you’ll still hear writers describe an idea as “It’s Die Hard in a ____.” or “It’s Die Hard on a ____.” Die Hard 2‘s greatest failing is that it feels more like a Die Hard rip-off than a sequel.

Getting off on the wrong foot, Roderick Thorp didn’t write any more Joe Leland books (that I’m aware of at least). That doesn’t really matter, considering how much John McClane was altered from Leland. But the fact that Die Hard 2 was adapted from a completely different novel – Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes - shows where everyone’s head was at when this project kicked off. 58 Minutes was obviously selected because someone read it and thought, “Hey, this is like Die Hard.” The relevant thing here, in my hypothetical scenario, is that the thought wasn’t, “Hey, Frank Malone, the hero of this book, is just like John McClane.” The powers that be chose to sequel the concept of Die Hard, not the characters, something that time has proven again and again usually doesn’t work that well. And Die Hard 2 is guiltier than most rinse-and-repeat sequels too. (At least Home Alone 2 wasn’t set in a house again!) Once again we’re in a fixed location, with events unfolding in semi-real-time. Once again McClane is attempting to get together with his wife Holly. Once again McClane isn’t on his home turf. Once again it is terrorists (I realize Hans Gruber turned out not to be a terrorist, but you get what I’m saying). Once again the local authorities are all idiots. Once again reporter Richard Thornburg is around, and once again Thornburg’s reporting causes complications. Most inexplicable of all, once again it is Christmas. Why?! What the hell does Christmas have to do with anything? The film attempts to make its carbon copy reality a strength by giving McClane quips like, “Oh man, I can’t fucking believe this. Another basement, another elevator. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” But such quips (of which there are far too many) just make things worse by asking us to not only forgive but embrace the rerun gimmick.

Rambo: First Blood Part II is a pretty retarded movie that betrayed its predecessor in its own ways, but conceptually speaking, it at least built off the first film and expanded beyond its original high-concept — it wasn’t just John Rambo getting mixed up with more asshole cops in another small town. But, okay, to be fair, it is hard to sequel a movie with a limiting high-concept like Die Hard. It was probably inevitable that things had to go down this road for the sequel. After all, “Die Hard in a ____” was the impression the first film left everyone with. The powers that be surely worried that audiences wouldn’t show up for a movie about John McClane doing his normal detective work. So let’s forgive the sequel for the whole “Die Hard in an airport” thing. But couldn’t we stop there? Did we have to try and make things even more similar, to go the Back to the Future route and make it seem like there is farcical cosmic fate controlling McClane’s life? I mean, Christmas? Holly is a hostage again? Thornburg is on Holly’s plane? Seriously? Even Ghostbusters 2 didn’t bring back Atherton’s Walter Peck! And that would have made more sense, because at least those characters were all still in New York. I’m kinda surprised fucking Argyle didn’t show up in Die Hard 2. Or that McClane didn’t lose his shoes again. The film got it right with Al Powell’s return, appearing in one scene over the phone in a context that is plausible and fitting for story (McClane faxes Al some finger prints, since the local idiots won’t help him). But in every other instance the film goes out of its way to callback to Die Hard.

I appreciate that Die Hard 2 acknowledges the fact that John McClane would have been all over the news after the events at Nakatomi Plaze. The problem is that the sequel in no way builds off this reality. It has nothing to do with the story, other than certain characters recognize McClane at times. But these moments of recognition are played for laughs and never in a way that impacts the unfolding plot. I would have liked to see the film explore this element more, and possibly utilize McClane’s celebrity as the jumping off point for the film’s story, instead of it just being bad luck yet again.

An oft-cited plot-hole in Die Hard 2 is the fact that really any radio could have reached those circling planes and foiled the terrorists from the get-go. This specific issue doesn’t actually bother me, because this is just a doofy action movie. The problem is that this is the exact kind of thing that Die Hard would have found a smart way around. Die Hard 2 doesn’t feel like anyone gave as much of a shit about plausibility. It was all about going for that movie moment and assuming the audience wouldn’t mind. Take the very “movie moment” when McClane reveals to Captain Lorenzo (Franz) that the Special Forces team had been using blanks when fighting with the terrorists. McClane fires the machine at Lorenzo. That is definitely the most exciting way for McClane to prove his point, but the way things are staged it also makes McClane seem like an idiot. What if the dozens of other cops standing around had pulled their guns on McClane? This attitude pervades the whole film. In one of the most famous scenes in the film, in which McClane launches himself out of an exploding plane in its ejector seat, we’re treated to the world’s most useless grenades. The handful of grenades tossed into the plane cockpit by the terrorists take nearly a minute to explode, allowing Bruce Willis plenty of time to mug comically for the camera, formulate a plan, and also display why most grenades aren’t given 45 second fuses. This is the kind of thing Harlin excels at. He goes for the moment, and he usually goes big. It isn’t like this sort of thing is out of character for a big budget action movie. But we already got a taste of what its like when John McTiernan weighed everything together equally. Die Hard is a silly movie taken seriously. Die Hard didn’t have scene in which over a dozen armed terrorists allow two of their commanders, separately, to fight John McClane on the wing of a plane when someone could have just taken the incentive to shoot him — especially after McClane successfully killed the first guy fighting him on the wing!

Die Hard was a film in which events evolved organically in a great way, with the balance continuously shifting back and forth between hero and villain. McClane caused Gruber a lot of headaches. Die Hard 2 feels very random, with McClane getting mixed up in things, working his way closer to Stuart, but not really affecting things very much. The biggest set-back to Stuart’s plan comes when General Esperanza is forced to land earlier than planned on a different runway because some jackass shot a bullet through the cockpit window of his transport plane. But that jackass was General Esperanza, who didn’t seem to have a great plan for killing the transport plane’s pilots. Shouldn’t McClane have in some way been responsible for this level of plot point? He would have in Die Hard.

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Overall Body Count: 267
McClane Kills: 26

Best Villain Dispatching: Killing one of the terrorists with an icicle.

Best Quip:
Carmine: You’d be a surprised what I make in a month.
McClane: If it’s more than a dollar ninety-eight I’d be very surprised.

Worst Quip: [While crawling through another air duct]
McClane: Just once, I’d like a regular, normal Christmas. Eggnog, a fuckin’ Christmas tree, a little turkey. But, no. I gotta crawl around in this motherfuckin’ tin can.

McClane’s Most Preposterous Feat: Lighting a trail of jet fuel on fire, which then blows up the bad guys’ airplane mid-take-off. I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure the rate at which that trail of fuel would burn is much, much, much slower than the speed of an airplane during lift-off, especially considering the flame needed to burn upwards through fuel falling from the plane into open air.

“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” Context: Said to no one, as McClane ignites that fuel trail leaking from the terrorists’ airplane.

Should There Be a Sequel: I guess. The seal has been broken. So, whatever. Might as well have McClane get trapped in a mall or cruise ship next Xmas.

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Up Next:  Die Hard with a Vengeance


previous franchises battled
Alien
Back to the Future

Critters
Death Wish
Hellraiser
Home Alone
Jurassic Park
Lethal Weapon
Leprechaun
Meatballs
The Muppets
Phantasm

Planet of the Apes
Police Academy
Predator
Psycho
Rambo

Tremors