‘Die Hard’ 101

Someone once proposed to me that “It’s a Wonderful Life” might be the best movie of all time and I countered with “Die Hard.” He amended his proposal to best Christmas movie, to which I responded, “Still ‘Die Hard.’”

While best Christmas movie would be pushing it, “Die Hard” certainly belongs at or near the top of any list of best action movies. It is a thriller that works so well, you can watch it over and over and always be entertained.

And the movie has spawned a string of sequels that have captured much of the charm and slick action of the original.

“Die Hard”
4 stars out of 4

Few people realize the original was based on the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp, author of a handful of tautly constructed thrillers, and was a sequel to the “The Detective,” which became a movie in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra, who thankfully passed when offered a chance to bring the sequel to the big screen. Well-directed, well-written and well-acted, the movie features one of the most likeable everyman characters in film: NYPD Detective John McClane, determined to save a roomful of hostages, including his wife, from a band of high-end thieves posing as terrorists who have taken over a Los Angeles skyscraper. The movie not only made Willis a star, it vaulted Alan Rickman, co-starring as notorious Hans Gruber, into a favorite movie villain.

“Die Hard 2: Die Harder”
3 stars out of 4

Round two gets a bad rap from some critics for being too much of a clone of the original, trying too hard to top its predecessor in action sequences and humor and ending up being, at times, too over the top. This one, based loosely on “58 Minutes” by Walter Wager, has McClane battling a band of rogue soldiers who have seized control of the airport in Washington, D.C., in the middle of a snowstorm as part of plan to free a drug lord being flown into the United States. William Sadler is definitely a second-rate villain when stacked up against Rickman’s Gruber. But naysayers aside, it is a fun action-adventure film that has held up well in the past 20-plus years and is always worth watching again.

“Die Hard: With a Vengeance”
3.5 stars out of 4

Director John McTiernan, who crafted the original, returned to prove that three times would be a charm for Willis/McClane in this near-perfect thriller with McClane back in New York and this time engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Gruber’s brother Simon, played with vigor by Jeremy Irons, who has McClane and company chasing about the city trying to prevent bombings while he pulls off a major heist. Samuel Jackson joins the team as reluctant partner-by-chance Zeus, giving this film some extra clout as a buddy film.

‘”Live Free or Die Hard”
2.5 stars out of 4

It took more than a decade for John McClane to surface again, and it turns out it was still too soon. Willis as McClane and lots of action are the only things that tie the movie to the first three. Timothy Olyphant, who is great in “Justified,” is easily the weakest of the quartet of “Die Hard” villains in his role as pissed-off computer genius Thomas Gabriel, who is seeking revenge on government officials who ignored his concerns about security flaws in the nation’s online financial systems by simultaneously shutting down the nation’s computers and electronically stealing millions. Justin Long shows he’s no Samuel Jackson as McClane’s new reluctant partner, hacker Matt Farrell. It’s loaded with action and attempts at humor but comes off feeling very much like a “seen-it-all-before” sequel. Worth watching once, it doesn’t command repeat viewing.