Over the last twenty years, John McClane has become such an iconic part of the action-film landscape that it's hard to remember a time when he wasn't etched in our pop culture consciousness. Starting with 'Die Hard' and continuing through three sequels, the character has proven to be one of the most durable in a very fickle genre. Aside from James Bond and Indiana Jones, there may be no other action movie hero who has lasted as long or remained as beloved by audiences. McClane redefined the boundaries of the action archetype, bringing a warmth, humor, unpredictability and an almost fanciful sense of masculine derring do to the genre.
1988's 'Die Hard,' of course, was the film that started it all, and broke all preconceptions for what an action hero could be. Bruce Willis' John McClane is a NYC cop who has relocated to Los Angeles to reconcile with his upwardly-mobile wife (Bonnie Bedelia), but ends up trapped in a skyscraper with a bunch of mercenary thugs led by the sniveling Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Simple premise, great action, airtight execution. And unlike the muscled action heroes of yore (this means you, Gov. Schwarzenegger), McClane is not a superman, but rather just an ordinary guy stuck in an extraordinary situation. His cocky facade masks a palpable vulnerability, but that only makes him even more courageous. By the time he gets around to kicking Gruber's ass at film's end, he's already rewritten every cliche in the action movie playbook.
Just wrapping up his run in TV's 'Moonlighting,' Willis was at his hungriest in 'Die Hard,' and he almost single-handedly carries the entire movie on his well-oiled shoulders. McClane's got more quips than James Bond and Freddy Krueger put together, but somehow Willis makes the character endearing rather than smarmy. Rickman is also the best villain of the entire 'Die Hard' series, coming off as the kind of uber-nasty psycho who would stab you with a knife, lick off the blood, and then stab you again. And the seemingly incongruous pairing of Willis and Bedelia manages to generate real sparks, making us actually believe that this guy would risk everything to save his wife, instead of just another tired plot device. Add to that John McTiernan's economical direction and a breathless set of stunt sequences that still hold up, and 'Die Hard' stands head-to-head with the absolute best action flicks of the '80s.
'Die Hard 2: Die Harder' hit screens only two years later in 1990 and was essentially a remake of the first film, only this time set at an airport with a whole group of psycho terrorist baddies who like to crash planes for fun and profit. After they take control of the airport and demand millions, McClane must outwit their superior technology while again dealing with a bumbling police bureaucracy. Meanwhile, McClane's wife (a returning Bedelia), is stuck high above in one of the circling planes.
Aided by a bigger budget and the energetic direction of Renny Harlin ('Cliffhanger,' 'The Covenant'), 'Die Hard 2' pumps up the formula that worked so well in the first film, and it's almost as much fun, although the seams of the formula show through at times. There's an element of freshness missing (Willis' wink-wink quips have already grown stale), and the villains are nowhere near as memorable as the scenery-chewing Rickman. And why has the spunky Bedelia been banished to a cheap seat in coach for the entire flick? Still, there's enough of the old McClane magic left in 'Die Hard 2' to make it worth a return visit.
Next we have 1995's 'Die Hard with a Vengeance.' This time, a crazed mad bomber named Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) has an axe to grind against McClane, and is planting explosives all over New York City. With the help of a local shop owner (Samuel L. Jackson), McClane must complete a series of tasks laid out by Gruber, or innocent civilians will die. Eventually, the madman's true motivations will be revealed, but they aren't as exciting as the build-up would leave you to believe.
'Vengeance' sees the return of director McTiernan to the franchise, and also opens up the milieu considerably, with McClane hitting so many scenic stops in the Big Apple that he might as well be a tour guide. Unfortunately, what worked so well in the first 'Die Hard' was its sense of confinement and claustrophobia, and 'Vengeance' just isn't asfun or suspenseful. The script is also ham-fisted in its attempt to weave in social commentary (the Jackson character seems to face bigotry at every turn, all in wholly contrived ways). And with Bedelia bowing out of this third outing, there is little personal drama for McClane, so we barely feel invested in the eventual outcome of all the carnage. 'Die Hard with a Vengeance' is certainly my least favorite of the series.
Fast-foward over a decade and we have 2007's 'Live Free or Die Hard.' Surprisingly, things get back on track with this long-in-development fourth entry, which turned out to be one of the biggest hits of year. McClane is still McClane, as ornery and resourceful as ever, albeit a bit more grizzled. This time, he's up against crazed patriot Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who's out to "redeem" America with an all-out attack on its technological infrastructure. With the FBI unable to catch the criminal mastermind, it's up to McClane and a geeky hacker (Justin Long) to foil the villian's plot, as well as save McClane's daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Directed by Len Wiseman ('Underworld'), 'Live Free or Die Hard' works as a surprisingly resonant retelling of the "aging old relic story," where the fighter must jump back into the ring for one last fight to ensure his legacy. But it also doesn't forget what made the first film such a gas, giving us wall-to-wall old-school action that needs little assistance from overdone CGI or slapdash music video editing. 'Live Free or Die Hard' is both modern and retro, giving us all the stunts, explosions, humor and ridiculous violence we loved the first time around, but also throwing in enough new emotional wrinkles for the McClane character that it doesn't all feel stale. It's the perfect sequel that plays just as well to newbies as it does long-time fans of the series.
As a franchise, the Die Hard series stands tall. In the character of John McClane, Willis found his best-ever role, and with a combination of brawn, brains and snarky wit, created a whole new icon of the action movie. Add to that some of the most top-notch stunt sequences and effects the genre has ever seen, and you have a series of four films that truly do rival such legendary franchises as James Bond, the Terminator and Mad Max. I can't claim that the 'Die Hard' series hasn't had its ups and downs, but even in its weakest moments, the Die Hard series has never been less than a total blast.
All four John McClane films are making their high-def debut this week -- both here, as part of 'The Die Hard Collection,' and as standalone Blu-ray releases. Each of the films are presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encodes, framed at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. However, that's about the only consistency you're going to get with this set, which each transfer varying considerably from the others in terms of quality. (Note that I've included individual ratings for each of the video transfers below. The overall Video rating is a composite score for all four presentations.)
First up is the oldest flick in the bunch, and unfortunately 'Die Hard' looks every one of its twenty years. You'd at least hope for a clean source, but this one's both grainy and bespeckled. Black are fine, but contrast could have been punchier. The image is quite soft and flat throughout, and shadow delineation is generally left wanting. Likewise, there's never any depth to the presentation, and although detail is decent overall, it doesn't deliver the level of upgrade compared to the standard DVD that I've come to expect.
At least color reproduction is pretty good, with little bleeding or chroma noise, although fleshtones can appear too pink. I also noted some banding and pixelization during fast action. Despite these issues, I'm still giving the video transfer an above average score, if only because it's far from the worst catalog title I've seen. Having said that, especially for such a high-profile release, it's hard not to rank this this one as a disappointment.
My video score for the original 'Die Hard': 3 stars (out of 5)
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Coming only two years later but with a much bigger budget, 'Die Hard 2' doesn't deliver much of a jump in picture quality over 'Die Hard.' The picture still looks flat, soft and lacking in definition. Blacks and contrast are about on par with the original as well, and again there's no "pop." Likewise, shadow delineation remains only fair, with fine textures pretty much lost in the darkest areas of the picture.
On the bright side, colors are a bit better saturated than 'Die Hard,' particularly reds and blues, which look more vivid and clean. Fleshtones still skew a bit too much toward the reds too much for me, with poor Bonnie Bedelia looking much like Miss Piggy's long-lost sister. At least there are no major compression artifacts to speak of, so that's a plus.
An overall wash with its predecessor, 'Die Hard 2' earns a video score of 3.
Die Hard with a Vengeance
This is where things happily start picking up. Finally, with 'Die Hard with a Vengeance' we have a noticeable upgrade over the standard DVD release. That old transfer was laced with awful edge enhancement, which I'm happy to say Fox has largely rectified here. The image is sharp, but no longer overrun with edge halos (I did still notice some slight ringing, usually on wide shots with lots of highly-contrasted areas). Contrast is also much better than on the first two 'Die Hard' flicks, and 'Vengeance' has a much brighter, more detailed style. Depth finally pops, and colors are more robust yet also more natural. Fleshtones, too, are finally accurate.
The source print is still not pristine, however, with a pretty consistent level of fine grain and some dirt. I also was disappointed to see some noise and compression artifacts -- for example, right during the opening bomb explosion, some slight pixel break-up is noticeable in a far shot of a cloud of smoke. There is also a slight print wavering from time to time, though it's generally not intrusive.
All in all, 'Die Hard with a Vengeance' is a clear improvement over its predecessors, earning it a solid 4 star video rating.
Live Free or Die Hard
Given that this is a brand new film, it should come as no surprise that this one boasts by far the best picture quality of the four flicks. As I wrote in my full length review of the standalone version of this disc, the film itself is far from generic in its visual design, making bold use of hard-edged hues and harsh contrast through much of its runtime. Blacks are incredibly deep with superior shadow delineation, so that even minor details remain clearly visible throughout. Though fleshtones are slightly skewed due to the film's heavy use of blue, I was impressed by how fantastic close-ups in particular look -- I could make out every last pore on Bruce Willis' skin. The presentation is also razor-sharp, yet not edge-enhanced into oblivion, which further increases the 3-D effect.
The only deficiencies are a handful of scenes that break down under noticeable noise, at times resulting in oversaturated colors that only serve to increase the fuzziness. Still, these scenes are the exception to the rule, with the overall picture quality on this one earning it a robust 4.5 star video rating.
Fox offers up matching DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround tracks for all four flicks in 'The Die Hard Collection' (all encoded at 48kHz/24-bit), but not unlike the video transfers, this one's another mixed bag. (Again I will offer up an individual Audio rating for each flick below, with this review's overall Audio score an average of all four.)
Kicking things off is the series' first installment, and it's a nostalgic return to the days before multi-channel surround was commonplace in theatrical exhibition. This remix clearly has a processed feel, with discrete effects only jumping in during the big bang moments, as if only a select frequency range was bled out and directed to the rears. That does give the surrounds some sense of life during the action scenes, but don't expect imaging that's seamless, or any sustained atmosphere. There's only minor score bleed, too. Fidelity on the rest of the track is only average, with flat highs and a compressed feel to the midrange that's dated. Likewise, low bass is fine, but hardly couch-shaking. Dialogue is also somewhat muted in the mix.
My score: 3 (out of 5).
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Much to my disappointment, 'Die Hard 2' actually sounds weaker than 'Die Hard,' at least in terms of envelopment. Surrounds are almost completely inactive except during the bursts of action. Discrete effects feel just as processed as on the first film, although when the more aggressive moments kick in, the heft and clarity of the rear soundstage is improved. Realism and depth to the dynamic range is also superior, though it still sounds its age. And again, dialogue left me straining to hear lower tones, with anyone with a deeper voice tending to get lost in the mix.
My score: another 3.
Die Hard with a Vengeance
Things get fun again with the third film in the series. As was the case with the video, this is just a newer, brighter, punchier soundtrack than the first two flicks. Thanks in part to the greater use of outdoor locations, ambiance is far livelier. The rears are much more engaged, with a greater sense of depth and impact. Subtle discrete effects are effective, and at last the soundfield came alive in a way I had been hoping for on 'Die Hard' and 'Die Hard 2.' Dynamics are also improved, with high-end free of tinniness and much deeper .1 LFE (at last, the subwoofer cranked). Dialogue is also much better balanced, and I was not left straining for dialogue intelligibility.
This one earns a solid 4.
Live Free or Die Hard
Especially after watching the first three films in the franchise, this one is the sonic equivalent of a sledgehammer. Obviously this is a modern film, which gives it an immediate advantage over its predecessors, but beyond that this also happens to be a truly exceptional mix by any measure.
As I wrote in my review of the standalone edition, surrounds are highly aggressive and truly enveloping. Directionality is all over the place, with sounds zipping about the soundfield with excellent transparency. I was equally impressed with how atmospheric sounds were so well-dispersed that they're often hard to localize -- always a sign of well-done sound design. Dynamics are also pounding, with 'Live Free or Die Hard' delivering some of the deepest and most forceful low bass I've heard in my eighteen months of reviewing next-gen titles. The sheer crunch and realism of the entire frequency spectrum is just as impressive. And I was absolutely shocked that I had no dialogue balance problems.
'Live Free or Die Hard' offers up an absolutely first-rate, 5 star audio presentation.
'The Die Hard Collection' has to be among Fox's most highly-requested catalog titles on Blu-ray, making it somewhat disappointing that the studio hasn't produced any new supplements for this box set. To be fair, the studio did re-issue each of the earlier films back in 2001 on DVD (each as a two-disc special edition) and they've ported over most of those extras here, Unfortunately, I found those sets rather lackluster even at the time (none included any new documentary material), and my feelings haven't changed watching all this stuff once again on Blu-ray. It's wafer-thin, and almost entirely comprised of EPK material. (Fox hasn't even upgraded the vast majority of this material for high-def, with most of the video-based extras receiving 480p/i/MPEG-2 encodes only.)
The film that started it all receives by far the weakest package of extras in the entire collection. For whatever reason, Fox has dropped one of the standard DVD's major features (dubbed "The Cutting Room"), which contained unique editing and audio mixing functions, a multi-angle shooting demo and even the complete script in text form. Here's what we do get:
Supplement rating for 'Die Hard': 2 stars (out of 5).
Die Hard 2
As we move on to the second film in the franchise, the depth of content improves somewhat, as get some actual making-of material here (even if it is all in the form of outdated promotional featurettes):
Supplement rating for 'Die Hard 2: Die Harder': 2.5.
Die Hard with a Vengeance
The third film in the franchise doesn't divert from the commentary/EPK approach of the supplements on its two predecessors. Though there's lots here, it's honestly hard to imagine even the most dedicated fans not getting bored with most of this fluff:
Supplement rating for 'Die Hard with a Vengeance': 2.5.
Live Free or Die Hard
Finally we come to the last film in the series. I certainly found it to be the best supplemental package of the four movies, not only because it's the newest but also thanks to the terrific 90-minute documentary and several other valuable extras.
Supplement rating for 'Live Free or Die Hard': 3.5.
John McClane has been in the pop culture consciousness for twenty years now, and it's great to finally have all of his adventures contained in one high-def box set. As is to be expected wih a series that spans two decades, the quality of this Blu-ray collection varies from film to film. The video and audio improve as the sequel number increases, and ditto the supplements. All things considered, this is fairly good set, especially given the fact you get four films for about $90. It's just a shame the first two flicks don't look better, and that Fox didn't produce much in the way of new extras for this first-ever Blu-ray release.