By Bob Freville
There’s an inherent problem with the Die Hard series—it hasn’t been good since 1995. Sure, 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard had its dim charms, such as Maggie Q in black leather and the scenery-chewing fan boy Kevin Smith’s cameo as a basement-dwelling hacker. But there was an insufficient amount of awesome to sustain the otherwise laughable installment.
What the franchise lost when Underworld director Len Wiseman came aboard was any semblance of grit or reality, even hyper-reality. One could argue that what made Die Hard appealing in the first place was its very human anti-hero.
Far from the Steven Seagals of the world who can take a machine gun to their windshield and drive away without a scratch, Bruce Willis played John McClane as a flawed and vulnerable man, one whose blood leaves a trail throughout the fated Nakatomi Plaza.
This was not the McClane of 2007 who was able to survive a brush with a fighter jet and a collapsing bridge without so much as rupturing his ball sack. This was the flesh and blood homosapien of 1988 who had to struggle to make his way through an air vent without burning his thumb off on a hot Zippo.
Instead of the honest, soft-spoken family men typified by Charles Bronson, McClane was a divorced alcoholic mess who had to grapple with a hangover while battling the bad guys. Rather than puffing out his chest and making heroic declarations, McClane was a babbling disaster who cussed at his assailants and offered up sarcastic barbs in lieu of the expected police negotiation tactics.
The last two iterations of Die Hard don’t even seem like they were written for the same character, largely because of the obscene time gap between them. 1995 saw the release of Die Hard: With a Vengeance, arguably the last worthwhile entry in the series.
In it, McClane is back where he started, nursing a headache and navigating the seemingly impossible terrain laid out for him by yet another psychopath. The threequel doesn’t waste our time with any of the self-improvement saccharine audiences had come to expect from things like the Lethal Weapon films.
On the contrary, we are afforded a potential sidekick in Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus Carter, a small business owner who is cajoled into assisting McClane in the villain’s game of riddles. Zeus is there not only to transform Die Hard 3 into a buddy comedy but to reinforce just how little has changed in McClane’s universe. The Harlem native is like a one-man Greek chorus, incessantly lamenting what a shitty trainwreck John McClane is.
Compare this to the forced surrogate father-and-son camaraderie that develops between McClane and Justin Long’s Matt Farrell (Live Free or Die Hard) and it’s blatantly obvious that the franchise has gone off the rails. What Wiseman brought to the table in the last two egregious installments was a cartoonish superhero style of action and a series-defying form of bloodless violence.
From the parkour-practicing bad guys whose stunts look like a rehearsal for Spiderman to the lame expository dialogue of its goofy villains, both Live Free or Die Hard and 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard represent a reinvention of the wheel that nobody asked for, especially not the die hard fans of the Die Hard series.
The last movie oddly ignored the plot developments and character arcs of its predecessor, opting instead to add an estranged and, indeed, extraneous son (Jai Courtney) character to McClane’s life. The good money said that Die Hard had died flaccidly and was likely dead for good.
Cut to six years later and now yet another sequel has been officially announced. Except it’s not just a sequel, it’s also a prequel.
Yep, the project formerly titled Die Hard: Year One will be released as, simply, McClane. The title change is no doubt motivated by two mitigating factors: 1) Fans did not react well to news of ‘Year One,’ fearing that the one ingredient essential to the series (Bruce Willis) would be in absentia. And 2) Bruce’s former-Planet Hollywood partner-in-crime Sly Stallone made an ass-load of cash by directing himself in a Rocky reboot entitled Rocky Balboa, to say nothing of the success he’s had with Creed.
Details about the sequel and its plot have been kept close to the vest, but the producers have assured the public that Willis will feature prominently in the flick which will flash back and forth from McClane’s younger days as a rookie cop in New York City to his current life as…Bruce Willis.
That’s the one thing the fans and the media have seemed to neglect when it comes to latter day Die Hard movies. Those who would get pissed off at the prospect of a Willis-free Die Hard are very obviously operating on nostalgia mode.
Were they to go back and re-watch either Live Free or Die Hard or its abysmal follow-up, they would see that the John McClane we all know and love is barely recognizable within the bald pate and squinty eyes of Willis’s whispery twilight persona.
It’s no surprise since Willis has long forgotten how to play anyone other than himself. The balding wife beater-wearing John McClane from the first two pictures is long gone, so why keep Willis around to phone in what could be a bad ass performance by a more game actor?
But I digress.
The real question is why bother with a prequel when a better sequel already exists?
I’m talking about A Million Ways to Die Hard, the hardcover graphic novel by Wolverine veteran Frank Tieri and artist Mark Texeira. The book’s plot takes place on the eve of the first film’s anniversary and it is made for the Post-Tarantino Age, revolving as it does around the rather contemporary concept of a movie-obsessed maniac taking hostages at the storied Nakatomi Plaza.
Die Hard is an action franchise desperately in need of a good bad guy. Ever since Wiseman took the helm, the series has been drained of anything approaching the slimy malevolence of Hans Gruber (the late Alan Rickman) or the inspired iniquity of his poofy brother (Jeremy Irons in ‘With a Vengeance‘).
A Million Ways… delivers the sinister skeleton of the perfect post-modern villain. Mr. Moviefone is equal parts Ghostface (Scream) and Internet troll, a madman who could be quite memorable in the right hands (Think Sam Rockwell or Michael Shannon).
The evidence available suggests that McClane will be yet another sequel by committee (hence the years of development and title changes) and not the Die Hard that fans have been hoping for. On the other hand, A Million Ways… has the raw potential to be just that.
Instead of some franchise-bastardizing quasi-prequel, it is a blueprint for a balls-out meta-sequel to the original, one that retcons all but the first two entries. At just four short chapters, the graphic novel is a brisk read that leaves plenty of room for improvement.
As a sequel in its own right, it isn’t all that incredible (Tieri’s dialogue is often cheesy and derivative), but that doesn’t matter. What the book does is serve as a concise guide that a solid screenwriter could follow when setting it into type.
A sort of gorgeously-rendered storyboard for how to make a proper return to the brash, potty-mouthed action classic we all grew up on, A Million Ways to Die Hard is everything that die hard Die Hard fans deserve. Shit, it even gives us Sgt. Al Powell’s son. You remember Sgt. Al Powell, he was TV’s Carl Winslow on Family Matters. Well, he also happened to be the ballsy cop who helped McClane communicate with the ground in part one.
Are we still set to nostalgia mode? You bet.
The studio should scrap McClane like they scrapped countless drafts of the script before it and pay attention to what Tieri and company have going on. The right wit and some nimble fingers could crank out a worthy movie using the pages of this above average graphic novel. So what are you waiting for, Hollywood? Yippie ki yay, motherfucker!