Bruce Willis has two modes — playing John McClane and collecting a paycheck.
While the latter roles are usually direct-to-Redbox fare, to say that Willis playing some version of his iconic Die Hard lead isn’t meant as an insult. Audiences connected with McClane because he reacted to increasingly escalated situations in a more human way. He’s a blue collar, New York cop who pops off at the mouth, laughs at his tragedies and smokes cigarettes. McClane is a hero, stuck in a crossfire of familial obligations and hostage situations.
Die Hard worked by going against action conventions. The casting of the TV star Willis, the Shakesperian theatre actor Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s rival Alexander Godunov as the henchman Karl was risky. Before the shootouts begin, director John McTiernan shows the troubled relationship between McClane and his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). When the action arrives, it’s set within a claustrophobic time frame. If the Die Hard formula contains atypical casting, family drama, and a ballet of bullets, only one other movie with Die Hard in its title succeeded — Die Hard With a Vengeance. The rest (Die Hard 2, Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard) failed to capture the McClane magic. Better examples of better Die Hard movies exist outside McClane’s world.
Unintentionally or not, Willis brought McClane to a wealth of other films. Given that, the real Die Hard series should be as follows: Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout, Die Hard With a Vengeance, 16 Blocks, and Moonrise Kingdom. This series is logical, following Willis as he physically ages, showing the actor embracing McClane’s personality, and bringing it to better movies — ones that don’t reek of cash grab desperation like Die Hard 2 does.
Like its predecessor, Die Hard 2, a.k.a. Die Harder takes place around Christmas. McClane is trapped in the Dulles Airport, waiting for Holly to arrive. After a shootout with rogue agents in a baggage hangar, McClane has to convince local authorities that terrorists have hacked Dulles’ operational systems to rescue a drug lord. It’s complicated, bombastic, and directed by Renny Harlin. William Sadler does stretches in the nude (because he’s the villain, duh). McClane ejects himself out of an exploding plane. It’s less of a movie and more of a wink from a studio exec nudging you and asking, “See? Remember that? It’s like the first one, right?”
A better, darker, and filthier follow-up is The Last Boy Scout — as if, after the Nakatomi incident in Die Hard, McClane became a lousy, drunk, Los Angeles private eye. His Joe Hallenbeck is a chain-smoking investigator who wears his past in his five o’clock shadow; he spends most of the film squinting into the distance and moaning about his life. Shane Black’s over-complicated script pits Hallenbeck against government corruption, a pro football league, and PCP. However, the movie does have Die Hard-esque elements: character actor, comedian, and playwright Taylor Negron plays a villain, while Damon Wayans co-stars as a younger, more profane version of Reginald VelJohnson’s Sgt. Al Powell. The action may not be tied within a tight window of time or have the the intensity of a Die Hard, but The Last Boy Scout feels like a more natural progression of McClane’s life as Hallenbeck struggles to keep his family life intact. Hallenbeck’s drunken cynicism is also the same spot we find McClane in the only worthy Die Hard sequel.
Die Hard With a Vengeance takes what was great about Die Hard and multiplies those ingredients by a factor of ten. McTiernan takes McClane out to the streets of New York, trying to disarm chemical bombs across multiple iconic locations, with the help of a Harlem pawn shop owner named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson, subbing in for VelJohnson). Of course, Hans Gruber’s brother, Simon (Jeremy Irons), planted the bombs; Irons, like Rickman, came from a Shakespearian theatre background. The quotable With a Vengeance heaves obstacles at McClane, flinging him around like a crash test dummy as he escapes an overflowing aqueduct, gets trapped in a bank elevator with Simon’s goons, and is tied to a bomb in the Long Island Sound. After each set piece, Willis and Jackson are bloodied and bruised, stopping only to yell at each other. It all works because of how we first see McClane: suspended, hungover, and annoyed that he isn’t watching Captain Kangaroo reruns. Little of McClane’s family is injected. During the final moments, Carver convinces the cop to do some soul-searching and call Holly. While the end of With a Vengeance was repeatedly rewritten and reshot, the final cut fits, as McClane seeks to improve his standing with Holly and his family.
After With a Vengeance, Willis waited a dozen years to return to Die Hard. In 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, McClane became a superhero; a better entry in the McClane canon is the underrated 16 Blocks. Richard Donner’s final directorial effort to date features Willis as Jack Mosley, a burned-out, drunk, New York cop. On his last shift before retirement, Mosley has to take a key witness, Eddie Bunker (Yasiin Bey), across town to testify against corrupt cops. Like Die Hard, 16 Blocks’ action unfolds in less than a day. Like McClane, Mosley used to be a good cop, but now? He’s an irritant who starts the day with a swig of scotch. Bey, f.k.a. Mos Def, is an energetic counterpart to Willis’ lethargy. As movies increasingly treated Willis as a chiseled, smirking action god, his Mosley is a stumbling, white-haired veteran cop with puffy bags under his eyes. Slow to react, Mosley can’t comprehend his own shock as he and Bunker are chased by other cops. Still, Mosley has a sense of decency and longs to do something right — much like John McClane.
16 Blocks didn’t light the box office on fire, and Willis’ final turns as McClane in Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard were bigger financial hits. But both movies turned McClane into a farce; if you thought McClane’s stunts were unbelievable before, wait until you see him launch a taxi at a helicopter in Live Free or Die Hard. But wait, it gets worse! McClane battles cyber-terrorist Timothy Olyphant. Kevin Smith makes an appearance as a hacker. McClane barely bleeds. A gunblast blunts the coda as McClane becomes a family-friendly comic book hero a la Iron Man.
A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth and (as of now) final Die Hard title, barely registers as a movie, much less a Die Hard movie. McClane is in Russia (what?), tracking down an estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney, remember him? Also, what?); both are caught in a terrorist web led by a guy named Komarov (uhh…what?). The core of A Good Day to Die Hard is McClane’s relationship with his son — something never previously mentioned in any Die Hard movie. A Good Day to Die Hard is the laziest Die Hard movie, not even trying to hit any of the beats of its predecessors, merely throwing McClane into a string of shootouts.
If the Die Hard series was only meant to be five movies, a better wrap-up is Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson’s ensemble comedy doesn’t have the violence and R-rated-ness of a Die Hard movie, but Willis’ turn as Captain Duffy Sharp feels like a logical next step in McClane’s life when viewed after 16 Blocks. A policeman stationed on a New England island, Sharp is called into action after two troublemaking teenagers, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), run away from their respective scout group and home. While Moonrise Kingdom’s focus is Sam and Suzy’s Romeo & Juliet-type love, Willis gets top billing. And he plays Sharp as a more reserved, but still sarcastic and self-deprecating cop — or like McClane, but nearly 60 years old and chilling out in a quiet town. As McClane had trouble with love interests, Sharp tries and fails to maintain an affair with Suzy’s mother (Frances McDormand). However, in the orphan Sam, Sharp finds an outsider who is just like him. Together, Sharp and Sam become partners. “It’s been proven by history: all mankind makes mistakes,” Sharp tells Sam over dinner. A few beats later, Sharp offers Sam a gulp of beer. It’s a cool and casual move — the exact type of thing McClane would do.
At nearly 65 years old, Willis doesn’t have to do another Die Hard movie. However, of the five future movies his name is attached to, the only one that looks promising is titled McClane. It’s not much, but at least it’s not a direct-to-Redbox movie.