Every once in a long while, a genre film that has no delusions of grandeur, but instead just the solid and streamlined efficiency of a cabal of above-the-line and below-the-line artists working at the respective tops of their game, transcends its genre and becomes a great piece of filmmaking, writ large. Such was the case with 1988’s “Die Hard,” a masterful thriller of containment that redefined the modern-day action movie (in addition to spawning a pitch-friendly shorthand and a decade’s worth of knock-offs). The movie not only made Bruce Willis — then still a television personality known for exercising his smirk opposite Cybill Shepherd on “Moonlighting” — a huge movie star, but it also established the basic template of appeal of his contract with audiences: as a wise-cracking, tough guy Everyman, under-regarded by foes at their own considerable risk. Sequels followed, naturally. And on the eve of the theatical release of its fifth installment, 20th Century Fox celebrates the $1.1 billion-grossing franchise with their new “Die Hard 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Collection” release, featuring all four previous movies in the series and loads of bonus features, as well as a new, feature-length documentary.
Much summary of the films themselves isn’t likely needed. The original, of course, centered around Willis’ John McClane, a New York City cop in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to try to patch up a fractured relationship with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) when her office building is taken over by terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Armed only with his gun and his wits, McClane evades detection and then picks off various henchman, foiling their robbery plot. The second film, directed by Renny Harlin, takes place a year after the events of the first movie, and finds McClane, this time in Washington, D.C., having to foil the plan of a former U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel (William Sadler) to spring a Latin American dictator (Franco Nero).
Five years then passed before 1995’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” which reunited Willis with his “Pulp Fiction” co-star, Samuel L. Jackson, and benefited from McTiernan’s return to the franchise; the mad scramble story unfolded against the backdrop of a New York City revenge plot, perpetrated by another terrorist, Simon (Jeremy Irons). A dozen years later, 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard” found McClane battling cyber-terrorists, led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), and trying to rescue his kidnapped daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Taken together, the “Die Hard” films are a portrait of reluctant resilience every bit as much psychological as physical (which is really saying something). Though far less explicitly political than something like the “Rocky” series — whose success was similarly rooted in its star’s considerable brawn, a trait of that character — a compelling case can be made for the “Die Hard” movies as a statement of typical American masculine remove, as well as ingenuity and swagger. He isn’t a proactive hero (and in fact he’s full of often under-articulated regret), but when backed into a corner, McClane comes out swinging, and kicking ass.
The “Die Hard 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Collection” comes in a sturdy matte slipbox, with each side-loaded film housed on a separate disc, and presented in 1080p, 2.35:1 AVC-encoded HD transfers with DTS-HD 5.1 master audio tracks. These presentations are the same as on previous, individually available Blu-ray releases, so there is a bit of variability in the grain and color consistency of the films (the colors of “Die Hard 2” suffer especially in this regard), spanning as they do the pre-digital and digital eras. Also ported over, though not individually listed on the packaging, are the previous extras from the series’ 2007 Blu-ray Collection release. Various audio commentaries, still photo galleries, some fluff interviews and excised material all get their day in court, but among the most notable supplements is a 23-minute chat between an unusually candid Willis and Kevin Smith (a “Live Free or Die Hard” co-star), in which the former talks about people rooting for the first movie to fail because of his TV background, and his general, free-form dissatisfaction with the second and third franchise installments.
This collection’s fifth disc, consisting of all-new material, is its meatiest. Consisting of seven separate featurettes that can be played either individually or together, in a 107-minute chunk, “Decoding Die Hard,” as the disc is deemed, is a sprawling and engaging overview of the series that’s dinged only slightly by a lack of input from Willis. For franchise fans that may initially seem like a huge failing, but since the star is present and accounted for on the other discs, this tack actually gives plenty of supporting and below-the-line players a nice chance to shine and reminisce, including writers Jeb Stuart, Steven de Souza, Jonathan Hensleigh and Mark Bomback, and directors McTiernan, Harlin and Len Wiseman.
The first segment, “Modern-Day Hero,” kickstarts this doc wonderfully, delving into the movie’s origins, casting and pre-production. Since it was originally based on a book, Roderick Thorp’s “Nothing Lasts Forever,” that was a sequel to a novel previously adapted into a movie starring Frank Sinatra, amusingly, Ol’ Blue Eyes actually had right-of-first-refusal on the movie (he passed, a formality). Willis did too, originally, though an 11-week window opened up when Shepherd became pregnant, delaying production on “Moonlighting.” Stuart made significant changes to the source material, but everyone hated the title; “Die Hard” was something that Shane Black had actually put on the draft pages of what would later become “The Last Boy Scout,” which he was writing for producer Joel Silver, so that got nabbed for Willis and McTiernan’s collaboration. Other tidbits from the writers are also quite interesting (de Souza recalls having to scramble to do a find-and-replace draft of “Die Hard 2” that substituted fog for snow, in an effort to temporarily placate executives who weren’t sure about the 1990 sequel’s embrace of wintry weather), and spotlight the unusual fashion that 20th Century Fox has often workshopped this series, since both the third and fourth films got their genesis in spec scripts — Hensleigh’s “Simon Says” and David Marconi’s “WW3.com,” respectively.
The enormous relatability of the character of McClane, as embodied by Willis, is given ample time and spotlight; de Souza recounts bonding with the actor and fellow New Jersey-ite over Roy Rogers, which would spawn the beleaguered cop’s famous, salty catchphrase. The franchise’s villains, of course, are also nicely spotlighted; Rickman, Sadler and Irons all appear in new, interspersed chats, though Olyphant, whom Justin Long at one point jokes is “too good-looking” to be a “Die Hard” villain, does not. It’s nice to hear from these and other supporting actors, who really shed light on the tremendous amount of thought that went into crafting their characters.
Of course, there is no shortage of great production anecdotes, too. Rickman and fight choreographer Charles Pecerni recall McTiernan’s shrugging entreaty to get the actor to perform his own 25-foot free fall, for what’s become one of the most iconic bad guy deaths of the past half-century. And, believe it or not, de Souza says that “Die Hard 2” actually originally had even more cursing, before he was prevailed upon by none other than Fred Thompson to tone it down just a little bit, if only not to court laughter through comedic overdose. One small failing, though: no mention of the series’ sly and iconic use of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a suggestion originally made by McTiernan.
Movies (in sum): B+
Written by: Brent Simon