There are a bunch of callbacks to the original “Die Hard” in the new sequel, “A Good Day to Die Hard.” McClane says “Yippee ki yay,” of course. Someone refers to Americans as cowboys. And there’s a clever homage to the famous final moments of one East German terrorist-larcenist named Hans Gruber. These moments help remind us we’re watching a “Die Hard” movie even though we’re not having any fun.
But in spite of the references and connections, there is a key difference between the two films, one juxtaposition that lays bare everything that has changed in 25 years of “Die Hard” movies and, if one were so cynically inclined, in all of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. In a perceptive piece on Huffington Post, Mike Ryan spots it and explains why it’s so disheartening.
It involves the most famous scene and most iconic image in all of the original “Die Hard:” John McClane’s desperate leap from the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza. Surrounded by explosives, under fire from an FBI helicopter, McClane does what he has to do to survive: ties a hose to his waist and jumps. He slams into the side of the tower, shoots out a window and leaps through it. Then has has to unhook himself from the hose as it falls to earth, threatening to drag him down to his death with it.
Maybe because that moment is the most memorable, there are two similarly death-defying leaps in the new “Die Hard.” In both cases, John McClane (Bruce Willis) — now with his adult son Jack (Jai Courtney) at his side — is once again on the run from bad guys in a helicopter. Once again, his only choice is to leap for his life. And so he does. As Ryan puts it:
“The two then crash though scaffolding at a high rate of speed (scaffolding that it’s hard to believe they were aware existed), eventually falling into a chute of some kind and then landing safely on the ground without harm. McClane didn’t think twice about this decision; there was no anguish at the thought of dying. He didn’t even bother looking for a fire hose to swing from.”
I had certainly recognized as I watched the new “Die Hard” that John McClane had gotten a lot sturdier in recent years — within the first half hour of this movie he totals not one but two different cars, and walks away from both of them totally unscathed: not a cut, not a scratch, not even a rip or tear on his casually macho wardrobe. But Ryan’s comparison between these leaps really hits it home. The McClane of 1988 was muttering to himself the entire time he jumped off the top of Nakatomi, pleading with God not to let him die. After he survives, director John McTiernan holds on McClane’s face as he absorbs the gravity of what he’s done — he’s sweaty and shaking and in complete shock. The McClane of 2013 careens out of a window as a matter of course, barely even checking to make sure there’s a scaffolding to break his fall. Ho hum. Just jumping out of an enormous building. Whatevs.
It’s not a huge difference in content, but it is a huge difference in terms of what that content does to the audience on an emotional level. 1988 John McClane’s plight is exciting because there’s a chance he could die. 2013 John McClane’s plight isn’t because we know he can’t. Somehow, he knows it too.