Sequel Off: Which Die Hard Sequel Is The Best Of The Bunch?

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This Thursday, A Good Day to Die Hard arrives in theatres, continuing the thoroughly strange journey of one of the most unlikely action franchises in movie history. The Die Hard films are understandably iconic and, for the most part, beloved, but if you took a time machine back to 1988 and told initial audiences that this new, quirky action film starring Bruce Willis would eventually become a five-film strong franchise extending across four separate decades, they would probably laugh in your face.

And for good reason. Very little about the original Die Hard screams ‘massive blockbuster franchise.’ It is a classic, in fact, precisely because it is small-scale, limiting its scope to focus on character and thrills. The set-up is simple, with everyman John McClane trapped in a building full of terrorists, determined to save his wife by any means necessary. There is no larger mythology, every major conflict is resolved by the time the credits roll, and nothing about the film begs for a sequel, let alone four of them.

But here we are, four films later, on the eve of adding another title to the franchise. This is a thoroughly strange series, but I love these movies nevertheless, and while my hopes are hardly high for A Good Day to Die Hard – every single piece of marketing so far just screams ‘no’ to me – I would love to welcome another solid action movie into the mix.

Recognizing the odd nature of Die Hard as a film series, I have chosen it to be the first franchise in our new monthly series here at We Got This Covered: Sequel-Off. The premise of a ‘Sequel-Off’ article is simple: Take two or movies from the same series, pit them against each other in a succession of critical evaluations, and see which one comes out on top. There are no real rules beyond that, this is all my personal subjective opinion, and the structure will probably change drastically from month to month.

For instance: While I intend to compare some sequels to the original films that spawned them in the months to come, for Die Hard, we will only be comparing films 2, 3, and 4. This is a franchise where the original movie is so clearly the best – and there is, as far as I can tell, no dissenting opinion on that matter – that pitting it against the other movies would be utterly dull and predictable. Instead, we will specifically compare the sequels, and see which one of the three – Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance, or Live Free and Die Hard – is the second-best film in the series.

We start with Round I on the next page…


Round I: The Story

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 Story is hardly the most important element in a Die Hard film – the original succeeds spectacularly by employing a simple, straight-to-the-point premise that always remains secondary to the action and characters – but these are narrative exercises nevertheless, and the plot must be discussed if we are to discover the best film. It is a hard category to decide, though, as every Die Hard sequel is, to a certain extent, a riff on the original film, with John McClane facing a formidable, colorful adversary whose lofty goals typically include stealing mass amounts of money under more idealistic pretenses.

Ironically, the only film to break this trend is easily the most derivative of the lot. Die Hard 2 may retread mountains of familiar ground from the first film, borrowing the general plot structure wholesale and relocating it to an airport just to repeat many familiar beats, but its villain is the only one in the Die Hard-verse who isn’t motivated solely by greed. Not a major positive attribute, granted, but at least worth a mention.

Still, the second film does not hold much of a candle to the remaining films, both of which are quite a bit more creative with their storytelling. Die Hard With a Vengeance is arranged as an action-based scavenger hunt, with Jeremy Irons sending McClane and unlikely partner Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) on a race through the city to accomplish various goals. It is an undeniably fun and clever set-up, one that retains the intense, claustrophobic atmosphere of a Die Hard film while opening the action up to an entire city. The twist involving the New York Federal Reserve provides a goofy shot in the arm at the halfway mark, and having Irons play Hans Gruber’s brother is a nice nod to the original film.

Still, when it comes to story, I am drawn mostly strongly to Live Free or Die Hard. It is not only the most different of the four, with McClane battling cyber-terrorism across the eastern seaboard, but it also has the best emotional center of the sequels, with McClane driven by a desire to reconnect with – and, eventually, rescue – his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). It is a device lifted largely from the original film, where McClane was on a mission to save his estranged wife, but it works here too, in part because Winstead is such an immediately appealing presence. Pairing McClane with a younger, non-action-inclined partner (Justin Long) is another successful decision, and while the film certainly lacks any deep or complex themes, it is nicely cognizant of modern technological paranoia, and remembers that McClane himself has always been a bit of a luddite no matter what the era. Live Free or Die Hard is the most narratively intriguing and successful of the lot, and while this round is close, I think I prefer the fourth film over its fellows.

The Winner: Live Free or Die Hard

Current Score: 0-0-1

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Round II: The Villain 

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Given the incredible precedent Alan Rickman set in the original film, the villain will always be one of the most important parts of any Die Hard film. If McClane does not have an interesting, intimidating adversary to fight, there is little point in investing in the action.

All three sequels fare relatively well in this regard, though the best of the bunch is immediately obvious. Jeremy Irons is rather stupendous in Die Hard With a Vengeance, relishing the opportunity to play an over-the-top bad-guy with wonderfully campy gusto. He is simply tons of fun to watch, and while I do not find him nearly as intimidating as Rickman, he is certainly on equal footing in most other regards. Like Rickman, he projects intelligence well, and proves himself suitably ruthless over the course of the film. Irons does not make for an all-time great villain, but when it comes to the Die Hard sequels, he is clearly the best.

Timothy Olyphant comes from a similar mold in Live Free or Die Hard, playing a character defined by his wit rather than physical strength. He is quite good in the part, and seems like a fitting antagonist for a film about cyber-terrorism, but by nature of the character, he is not as flashy or entertaining as Irons.

William Sadler is a distant third as Col. Stuart in Die Hard 2, though there is a certain charm to the completely overblown nature of his performance. He is also, notably, the only real physical threat among the Die Hard villains, which is at least worth a mention. Still, he does not compare to Irons or Olyphant, and the former wins this category with ease. 

The Winner: Die Hard With a Vengeance

Current Score: 0-1-1

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Round III: The Supporting Characters

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While Die Hard films typically boil down to McClane and the villain as the most important players, the movies are at their best when Bruce Willis has other engaging personalities to play off of. The original film did this the best, of course, with great characters like Sgt. Al Powell providing solid laughs and emotional beats throughout. One of the reasons so many fans view Die Hard 2 as a disappointment, I think, is because it lacks these sorts of characters; it is almost impossible to remember any of the non-McClane figures in the film, and one of the only character interactions that truly excels comes in Reginald VelJohnson’s brief cameo.

Die Hard With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard are obvious improvements over film 2 in this regard, even if they fail to stack up to the original. Both of these movies stick McClane with a sidekick, and attempt to flesh out the police/FBI force behind him. I never find myself hugely interested in the latter set of characters, but I like both sidekicks a great deal. Samuel L. Jackson is a great addition to the cast in film 3, and shares entertaining chemistry with Bruce Willis, while Justin Long works surprisingly well as a completely non-physical partner in the fourth film. I like both of them quite a bit – and film 4 deserves mention here for Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s good work as Lucy McClane – but Vengeance has a slight edge thanks to Jackson.

The Winner: Die Hard With a Vengeance

Current Score: 0-2-1

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Round IV: The Action

Bruce Willis and Justin Long Sequel Off: Which Die Hard Sequel Is The Best Of The Bunch?

Now we come to arguably the most important part. These are action films, after all, and the quality of the set-pieces is a crucial element to consider. All three Die Hard sequels succeed quite satisfyingly in this category, and it is, therefore, a tough round to call.

As usual, I think we can rule out Die Hard 2 right off the bat. While I enjoy the action scenes in this film – the final fight on the plane is an excellent climax – Renny Harlin’s sense of pace and momentum is dramatically inferior to what other series directors achieved. The film’s set pieces may be its brightest moments, but that does not mean the action stacks up to what movies 3 and 4 have to offer.

Indeed, both Die Hard With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard are expertly made thrill-rides, each featuring fights, shootouts, and set pieces unique from one another, or even from the original film. The third movie is defined by some exquisite, goofy car chases and lots of madcap stunts – including McClane and Carver’s extremely painful jump onto Gruber’s boat – while Live Free or Die Hard is all about big-budget spectacle.

Some have argued that the latter’s penchant for over-the-top action-movie heroics stops it from feeling entirely like a Die Hard movie, but I respectfully disagree. While it is true that film 4 takes McClane further away from his ‘normal guy’ roots than ever before, I have always appreciated Len Wiseman’s efforts to center each action sequence around McClane’s core skills: Resilience and resourcefulness. John gets wrapped up in some huge, death-defying mayhem, but he does not suddenly become a superhero; he still takes a beating each time his life is at risk, still only escapes by the skin of his teeth, and always come out on top thanks to his wit and quick-thinking. Those are the core traits of any Die Hard action sequence, and in the fourth film, those ideas are simply blown up to ridiculous proportions.

I, for one, like that. Die Hard films have always been ridiculous, ever since McClane jumped off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza using nothing more than a fire-hose for support, and Live Free or Die Hard ups the ante without betraying the central character. Coupled with the best action direction of the sequels, that gives the fourth film a slight edge in my book, even though I am sure many readers will strongly disagree. 

The Winner: Live Free or Die Hard

Current Score: 0-2-2

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Round V: The One-Liner

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With the score currently standing at 0-2-2 (sorry Die Hard 2 but…you should have been better), we need one final category to break the tie and declare a winner in this silly little contest. Having already covered the story, characters, villains, and action, it seems to me that there is only one major Die Hard frontier left unexplored: The One-Liner.

You know the line of which I speak. The one little, throwaway quip John McClane directed at Hans Gruber in the middle of the first film, a crass and inauspicious piece of dialogue that, like the series itself, inexplicably exploded into a defining piece of action iconography: “Yippi-ki-yay, Motherf—er!” The quote is so ingrained into the very fabric of the series at this point that I cannot imagine analyzing the films without comparing how they employ this legendary kiss-off line.

And I am, believe it or not, extremely tempted to give Die Hard 2 the win in this category and send this Sequel-Off into a sixth round. Die Hard With a Vengeance does not really enter in to this particular conversation, as it stands a distant third in effectively using the one-liner (McClane says it after he kills Simon Gruber, which is a mistake), but Die Hard 2, for all its many faults, is undoubtedly the film that sent the line into the pop-culture stratosphere. Having just been thrown off the plane Col. Stuart and his cohorts are using to escape, McClane opens his lighter and prepares to set fire to a long stream of jet fuel – thus exploding the plane and exterminating the bad guys – but before he does so, he pauses. “Yippi-ki-yay, motherf—er,” he says, and lets the lighter go, thus setting his plan into motion.

It is a ridiculously badass moment, and a practically perfect use of the line. It punctuates McClane’s action, defining his character not as an out-and-out hero, but as a sarcastic yet resourceful man of action confident enough to pause for a quip. The moment works beautifully, only enhancing the awesome nature of a truly kick-ass finale, and is the real reason why “Yippi-ki-yay motherf—er” became a staple of the franchise.

But as good as Die Hard 2 does by the one-liner, I must go with my heart, and it tells me that the fourth film made even better use of McClane’s iconic vulgarity.

Yes, Live Free or Die Hard does indeed contain my favorite “Yippi-ki-yay.” No contest, really. I remember seeing the film for the first time, on opening night, and being blown away by the thoroughly surprising, badass, and completely ridiculous use of the one-liner.

By the time the film reaches the final standoff between McClane and villain Thomas Gabriel, John is in reliably bad shape, and stands little chance of taking the man out in combat, even if Gabriel is hardly a physical powerhouse. Gabriel does indeed get the upper hand, and with his daughter’s life at stake and a gun pressed against his chest, McClane comes up with a truly audacious idea.

“On your tombstone, it should read ‘Always in the wrong place at the wrong time,’” says Gabriel.

McClane responds: “How about ‘Yippi-ki-yay, motherf-“

And then leverages Gabriel to pull the trigger, shooting himself through the shoulder and killing the villain instantly. ‘Hell yeah’ does not even begin to describe it.

Beyond being a really awesome climactic surprise, the entire exchange is a great, thoughtful nod to McClane’s own unlikely iconography. The Die Hard series only perpetuates, from a narrative standpoint, because McClane has terrible, unlikely timing, as Gabriel correctly notes. But we stick with the movies because we love this crazy, profane action hero and his unorthodox methods, and McClane’s use of the one-liner – coupled with his last resort decision – is a wonderful defining moment for both the character and the series.

It is also possibly the cleverest f-word workaround in a PG-13 movie, and that alone is worthy of praise. While Die Hard 2 offers some strong competition, Live Free or Die Hard is the clear winner here to my mind.

The Winner: Live Free or Die Hard

Final Score: 0-2-3


Yes, Live Free or Die Hard is indeed my favorite sequel in the series. While I do not feel any of the follow-up films come close to the original Die Hard, I like the fourth installment quite a bit – the silly PG-13 controversy wound up having no bearing on its quality – and believe it is the franchise’s most entertaining secondary entry.

Feel free to commence with the hate mail; I just hope we get at least one screaming Die Hard 2 fan-boy looking to pick a fight.

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