Die Hard: The Phantom Menace Legacy

Am I the only one who finds it a bit sad that the Die Hard films have become synonymous with “big, dumb action films”?

Don’t get me wrong.  I think too often we assume that a movie with action is “stupid” automatically.  That’s a real shame, but it’s also one that isn’t going to change soon.  I also haven’t seen the newest Die Hard flick, and while the trailer makes it look like “Destruction porn” (as a friend of mine put it recently), I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve seen it.

What I’m talking about here is the perception (no doubt earned to some extent) that Die Hard are big dumb movies about explosions.  It’s a bit disappointing to me because it glosses over the fact that the first Die Hard flick is a very subtle, interesting, and intelligent action film.  It was (and still is) a game changer, and yet, with a string of more over-the-top sequels behind it, the legacy of the original film is all but forgotten.

It’s easy to forget, but at the time of its original release Die Hard was something of an odd duck.  It starred Bruce Willis, who was known for his comedy roles.  It featured a hero who was in over his head, who struggled against a small force of bad guys.  And its scale was small, taking place in one location, over the course of one night.  These weren’t accidental choices either.  These were very deliberate decisions meant to subvert audience expectations about everything action movie were.  It could’ve gone down in flames.  Instead, it redefined the genre.  So much so that the genre of Die Hard on a BLANK was born.

Die Hard 2 continued the tradition and managed to keep the charm without stretching things too far.  Again, the formula is followed.  John McClain is on his own, fighting devious criminals, struggling to stay one step ahead.  It also dares subvert its own formula by not putting McClain completely trapped.  It’s hard to follow up a film like the original Die Hard, but Die Hard 2 manages to succeed.  Mostly by not losing sight of the importance of what made Die Hard work.  It’s about a tough, yet not invulnerable, cop.  He’s far from perfect.  He seems in over his head.  And that quality makes him more human and relatable than most action heroes.  Sure, John kicks far more ass than you or I ever will, but he also seems like a guy living in a real world, surrounded by real people.

The problem is that it isn’t a formula you can maintain endlessly.  With each new adventure, the stakes are raised, the action becomes ever more ludicrous.  And eventually, Die Hard came to represent all the excesses of action adventure films.  What started as a movie about a cop trying to stop a sophisticated robbery in his bare feet had become a blowing up helicopters by driving cars into them, save the Eastern seaboard story.  Absurd.  Ridiculous.  Guilty of so much excess for excess’s sake that it’s easy to get lost in it.

I’m not against absurd adventure.  I’m looking forward to mountain climing ninja fights in the new G.I. Joe flick.  The notion of giant robots battling lava-spitting kaiju in Pacific Rim fills me with glee.  But this wasn’t what Die Hard was supposed to be about.  Or rather, not what it was supposed to be about originally.

This is the nature of sequels, I suppose.  It’s no different than Star Wars filling the screen with light saber battles or horror movies where the slasher becomes tougher, more powerful in every installment.  It’s power creep in storytelling.  And perhaps it is unavoidable.  Given a long enough timeline, everything becomes an imitation of itself.  It seems inevitable.

It is also highly profitable.  So it’s hard to criticize Hollywood for going in that direction.  My only point is that the original Die Hard isn’t a dumb movie.  It briefly reinvented the entire action genre before the genre sank back into the predictable mire that it tends to be.  It ironically transformed Bruce Willis into the action star he was meant to NOT be, and it became everything it was meant to offer a counterpoint to.

It’s also why I’m so reluctant to write sequels myself.  People sometimes think I don’t like my worlds and characters enough to revisit them.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  It’s so easy for the greatest idea, more original characters, coolest stories to collapse into more of the same.  It makes Star Wars into The Phantom Menace and Raiders of the Lost Ark into Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  And it happens almost every single time.

I’m not saying people don’t care about their work still.  Phantom Menace is a bad movie, but it’s not because Lucas didn’t care.  It’s just because there was no need for it in the first place, and Lucas, despite his best efforts, was working with tired old clay.  And John McClain was designed to have one adventure (maybe two) and walk away and live a more ordinary life.  Instead, he’s been imperfectly cloned and pushed through explosions for our amusement.

It makes money, and we are eager to embrace it even as we deride it or pretend not to notice.  But let’s not forget that behind every Anakin Skywalker there’s a Darth Vader who deserves to be recognized as the original cloth from which the lesser version was cut and molded.  Underneath all those explosions, all those ridiculous set pieces, John McClain is still somewhere in there.  Just one good cop in way over his head.

That’s the guy I miss in these sequels, but he ain’t coming back.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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4 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    I think there is a lot of truth in what you’ve said here, but I also think there is a perception difference based on when you see the original. For me, I saw the first two Die Hards at about the same time and the third not long afterwards. So for me the first three all seem to be integral parts of the overall Die Hard idea. I do think the first one is the best movie for a number of reasons, and certainly the whole regular cop in the wrong place at the wrong time idea comes out much better in the original, but to me Bruce Willis was always an action star who was able to kill lots of bad guys and blow things up. Star Wars is another great example. I saw the original trilogy for the first time on three consecutive nights when I was six or seven years old, so they have always been essentially one movie for me. When people talk about Return if the Jedi being a worse movie, it always seems strange to me, because I have no framework for a world where that movie is not part of Star Wars. I know you are a big fan of the Tarzan and John Carter books. Don’t you think part of the reason you like the sequels to those books more is because they were all written before you read the first books in the series? By the way, I am totally not trying to criticize you for not writing sequels, because I love that you put out such original stories each time.

  2. Alberto
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    In light of the impending Star Wars orgy that awaits us over the next few years, may I humbly say that what the world needs is less Star Wars, not more. I say this as a big fan of the original trilogy, and I even kinda, sort of liked the prequels, even though I freely acknowledge they’re trash.
    Anyway, please keep bringing on original stories. You are a breath of fresh air.

  3. Posted February 19, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    the original die hard is a good movie. couldn’t take the third one or any after it at all…

  4. Posted February 22, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I gotta say I loved Live Free or Die Hard. I only saw the first one afterwards, and loved it. But what LFDH represented to me was a distillation and perfection of what action movies are supposed to do (much like The Expendables was). I went in thinking it was destined to fail, but what hooked me was the over-the-top action. I have no problem with little character development or a bare-bones story so long as the action is good and semi-believable. In the Line of Duty 4 had around 45-minutes of kung-fu action in an hour-and-a-half to two-hour movie and is considered legendary. However, the quality of the kung-fu sustains the movie.
    But going over-board, like you said, could be bad. Like excess world-building in fatnasy is too much. I thought Hard-Boiled was too much action at one time, and, eventually, the movie lost me. Same happened with Robert Jordan. I couldn’t hang with either product. But the genre requires these things, and writers have to, and should, do it. But I hope we do it well and in an exciting way.

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