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 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 it broke all preconceptions for what an action hero could be. Bruce Willis' John McClane is a NYC cop who has (reluctantly) flown to Los Angeles to reconcile with his upwardly-mobile wife (Bonnie Bedelia), but he 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 as fun 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 the crazed 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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Die Hard: 25th Anniversary Collection' to Blu-ray in a handsome and sturdy five-disc box set. The package is shaped and opens much like a book with new artwork corresponding to each movie. Those same pages also serve as sleeves for each disc which slide out by placing some slight pressure to the top and bottom, widening the mouth a little. The inside is smooth and glossy to prevent the discs from scratching.
All four films come on separate Region A, BD50 discs while the fifth disc is also a Region A, BD50 and contains a brand-new retrospective. The book comes with a side-sliding slipcover made of a hard cardboard material with a picture of Bruce Willis on the front and very lightly textured. At startup, each disc goes straight to an animated menu screen with colorful graphics and music playing in the background.
As with all the movies in this 25th Anniversary collection, the first movie in the franchise arrives with the identical AVC encode (2.35:1) as the previous 2007 release. And frankly, the source used for this high-def transfer is in excellent condition, giving fans the best possible presentation imaginable of an awesome 80s action classic. Fine lines and textures are sometimes highly detailed and very well-defined with several shockingly revealing close-ups, exposing pores, wrinkles and trivial blemishes on the faces of ever actor. Beads of sweat shimmer in the light while dirt and grime is made plainly visible covering McClane's entire body. Contrast is terrifically well-balanced and crisp while black levels are true and penetrating. Colors are bold and energetic, and a very thin layer of grain provides the video with an appreciable cinematic quality. (Video Rating: 4/5)
Die Hard 2
Sadly, the sequel is the weakest of the bunch with an average, only mildly impressive AVC-encoded transfer. The presentation has its moments, for sure, particularly at the beginning when there is plenty of daylight, but as we move into nighttime, the quality diminishes quite a bit. Granted, this is due to the original photography and not fault in the encode, but nonetheless, it's not as pretty as the other movies. Although showing a welcomed film-like quality, grain tends to fluctuate from scene to scene while black levels range from accurate and true to a tad murky and flat. Definition is strong for a good chunk of the time but overall unimpressive with several soft scenes. On the other hand, contrast is well-balanced and stable, and colors are mostly bold and animated with good skin tones and textures in facial complexions. (Video Rating: 3/5)
Die Hard with a Vengeance
The third installment in the series wreaks vengeance on Blu-ray with an excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The cinematography of Peter Menzies Jr. comes with a unique and somewhat quixotic appeal, thanks to the use of diffusion filters noticeably softening the picture. Nevertheless, the 2.35:1 image is in great shape with plenty of visible detail in the foliage of trees, the city streets of New York and in many of the brick buildings. Facial complexions appear healthy with notable lifelike textures, especially in close-ups, and we can make out the tiniest bit of rust and imperfection in the subway, on the side of dump trucks and inside the dimly-lit tanker. Contrast runs a tad hot, which seems intentional to give the feeling of a hot summer, but the overall transfer is well-balanced, with crisp, brilliant whites. Colors are full-bodied and bold, particularly in the primaries, while black levels are accurate and deep. (Video Rating: 4/5)
Live Free or Die Hard
Being the most recent of the series, the fourth installment offers the best and often stunning high-def presentation of the bunch. With a squeaky-clean, crystal-clear AVC encode leading the way, the video shows sharp, well-defined lines in the foliage of trees, along the side of buildings and down to individual threads of costumes. Every shard, fragment and debris from car crashes and explosions is plainly visible as they fly everywhere, and Bruce Willis is really starting to show his age by this point, as every wrinkle and blemish is exposed. Contrast is spot-on with crisp, brilliant whites, allowing for excellent visibility into the far distance. Black levels are inky rich with superb gradational details within the deepest, darkest shadows, providing the 2.35:1 image with plenty of depth. Colors are vibrant and accurately rendered with primaries looking particularly energetic. (Video Rating: 4.5/5)
Our rugged, blue-collar hero also arrives with the same DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack as before, and it's a fantastic listen. Considering its age and the period of when it was made, the original design is not the sort to go toe-to-toe with your more modern action spectacular, but it sure puts up a hell of a fight for a 25-year-old movie. Mostly contained in the fronts, the soundstage is wide and welcoming. Especially with the fun and pretty-clever music of Michael Kamen, imaging feels expansive, with excellent fidelity and full of warmth while very lightly bleeding into the surrounds. Dynamic range is clean and precise with outstanding distinct detailing in the instrumentation, and dialogue reproduction remains well-prioritized throughout. Best of all is a robust and impactful low-end with tons of highly-responsive and punchy bass. Each bullet and punch comes with serious weight and force while explosions and helicopter blades penetrate deep into the room with awesome wall-rattling effect. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
Die Hard 2
Compared to the others in the series, this DTS-HD MA soundtrack is not quite up to the task, which is not to say it's bad. It's just not as noteworthy and is comparatively the scrawniest of the bunch. Although very subtle and somewhat restrained, rear activity is still plentiful, with several great atmospherics inside the airport. Sudden bursts of action and gunfire continue supplying the surrounds with many discrete effects, but imaging is mostly a front-heavy presentation. Dialogue and character interactions are generally loud and clear in the center, but once in a while, voices tend to get lost in the commotion, slightly overwhelmed by the explosions and barrage of bullets. Nevertheless, dynamic range remains clean and precise, with excellent distinction and separation in the upper frequencies. Low bass is not very commanding or potent, but it's effective and adds some gravity to action sequences. (Audio Rating: 3.5/5)
Die Hard with a Vengeance
'Vengeance' arrives with an enjoyable and highly amusing DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which packs the action with a great deal of fun and excitement. Rear activity is very subtle but at a near constant with discrete effects of city noise and traffic, generating a pleasant and satisfying soundfield. Panning and movement during action sequences are flawless with bullets and debris whizzing by in all directions or with the sounds of sirens echoing through the busy streets. In the fronts, dialogue is well-prioritized and intelligible from beginning to end, and channel separation is terrifically well-balanced with several convincing off-screen effects which create a wide and spacious soundstage. The mid-range is clean and precise with excellent clarity in the upper frequencies. Sadly, low bass is not as powerful and commanding as I would have liked, making a couple explosive moments feeling somewhat wanting, but overall, the lossless mix offers plenty of entertaining impact. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
Live Free or Die Hard
This DTS-HD MA soundtrack may be identical to the previous release but it remains and continues to be one of the best available on Blu-ray. All manner of noise, chaos and mayhem spreads into every corner of the room and with flawless panning, creating a highly satisfying 360° soundfield. The smallest debris and piece of rubble falls all around the listener with excellent discrete clarity while bullets and helicopters fly overhead. The action continues to excite with a broad and expansive soundstage that creates a massive wall of sound while delivering precise, well-prioritized dialogue in the center. The mid-range is extensive with room-penetrating clarity that's dynamic and sharply detailed, allowing for the tiniest shard of metal or falling glass to be perfectly heard. The best attribute of this lossless mix is without question the authoritative low-end, which effectively reaches ultra-low frequencies with commanding force. Explosions and bullets not only rattle the wattles, but they're felt hard in the chest and vibrate the couch with each shot. (Audio Rating: 5/5)
Fox recycles the same set of supplements as the previous Blu-ray release but not from the DVD Five-Star Edition, making the majority of this release a simple repackaging.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Die Hard with a Vengeance
Live Free or Die Hard
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment re-releases the 'Die Hard' collection to Blu-ray as a 25th Anniversary edition. All four films are collected in a handsome and sturdy digibook-like package that includes an extra fifth disc with all-new retrospective tempting fans to rebuy. The package recycles the same audio and video presentations from previous high-def releases, while the new documentary is exclusive to this set. On the surface, owners of those other releases will be happy to know nothing has changed, but for anyone who's being patiently waiting, this is a very nice set indeed, especially at its current price point for four films.