Thanks to Kung Fu Monkey, I've had the Die Hard song running through my head for several days. So this week, I dipped into my laserdisc collection (yes, they still work, thanks for asking) and watched Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Die Hard with a Vengeance.
Some spoilers below!
Now, I've always liked the original best, but I hadn't watched any of these films in several years, and it was shocking to see how bad the second movie is, and what a Frankenstein's monster the third is. I'm sure the upcoming fourth installment will be entertaining, but I don't hold out any hope that it will have any kind of consistency or real continuity with the earlier films.
The first Die Hard is, frankly, a historical document. I don't think even law enforcement personnel can carry unsecured firearms on commercial flights now, and you can only light up a cigarette at LAX if you're inside one of the smoking terrariums. Then there are the gas prices (77 cents a gallon for premium), the lack of cell phones or other wireless devices among the party guests... the list goes on.
But all that aside, it's a tightly wound suspense story. Sure, there are plenty of gunfights and explosions and stunts, but they all occur within the framework of a good narrative (based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp). John McClane doesn't go looking for trouble; he does everything he can to avoid direct confrontations with the terrorists. He doesn't need to fight them to defeat them--he just has to interfere with their plans.
Everything in the first movie happens because of the characters, and even the supporting cast are crucial to the story. McClane's wife Holly, big bad Hans Gruber, and the sidekicks--LAPD Sgt. Allen Powell and limo driver Argyle--could all have been stock roles, just filling space or moving the plot forward to the next action scene, but the movie takes time to develop them so they're not just cardboard cutouts.
The second movie is a massive disappointment. I mean, it doesn't just suffer by comparison; it actively blows huge, overwritten, expository chunks. Not only that, but it doesn't even try to make the people matter; it's all about blowing shit up. Of course, given that it was based on a different novel, 58 Minutes, by Walter Wager, it's not surprising that the characters lose their way.
The third movie was originally a screenplay titled Lethal Weapon 4.
Perhaps the thing that bothers me the most is that the quality and intelligence of the dialogue diminishes almost geometrically in the sequels. The original is peppered with macho insults, but that turns into simple cussing in the sequels: everything is about masturbation in the second movie, and sodomy in the third. Apparently scarcasm has become too subtle for today's action heroes.
I will see the fourth one, Live Free or Die Hard, but I'm not too optimistic at this point. The original Die Hard revitalized the action genre back in the eighties, but I think we need something new, especially since special effects are a dime a dozen now with computer graphics and whatnot. It still hasn't gotten any easier to write a good story.