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The Weekend We Died Hard

“It’s gotta be today,” I told my wife.

But it wasn’t. The mailbox was empty. I let out a growl of disappointment and Julie started to laugh.

I glared.

“It’s probably not even a good movie,” she pointed out.

It’s probably not. Nevertheless, I’m ridiculously excited to see the DVD of Lockout that I purchased mail-order for three dollars.

Well, I didn't spend REAL money on it, that would be stupid. I have low standards but I do have SOME.

Why am I so jazzed to see this thing? Because it’s Die Hard… in SPACE.

I love Die Hard. The original, from way back in the 1980s. It’s comfort food for me.

DIE HARD and the book it's based on, Roderick Thorp's NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. Pretty nice bookscouting score in hardcover if you run across it, it goes for fifty or sixty dollars these days.

In fact, the whole Die Hard genre is comfort food as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve written about comfort-food entertainment before, and the thing that is its defining quality– the pleasure of the expected. When you kinda know how it’s going to go but you enjoy seeing the band play the hits, so to speak. For some people it’s romance novels, for others it’s James Bond movies, for my wife it’s home-improvement shows on HGTV… but for me, comfort-food entertainment is usually an action movie.

And of those, my favorites are from the Die Hard school of action movie. (Or novel, there are several of those too.) I’ve made a hobby of them over the last decade or so, as they’ve started to multiply, and I have to admit that my inner pop-culture nerd delights in determining whether or not something really fits into the category.

Here’s how you decide. A Die Hard story must have these things–

A lone protagonist, who…
….cut off from all support…
…accidentally encounters…

…a group of terrorists or other similarly violent criminals
…and must improvise a way to fight them using found materials
…in a sealed environment.

It’s a pretty rigid formula, but you can ring endless variations on it. And Hollywood certainly has, over the last twenty years.

You had Sudden Death

–which was Die Hard in a hockey arena. (Or “Die Hard on Ice,” as we call it here.)

And Speed– Die Hard on a runaway bus.

In fairness, that one broke the formula a little bit. Weirdly, the sequel was much truer to the Die Hard idea…

…because Speed 2 was totally Die Hard on the Love Boat.

Then there’s Die Hard on an airplane. That was made three times. Passenger 57…

….Executive Decision

…and, my favorite of the three because of its sheer scenery-chewing insanity, Air Force One.

That one has value-added Harrison Ford as Crime-Fighting Action President. Which is a premise we haven’t seen in quite a while.

Not since James Norcross as SUPER PRESIDENT, actually.

You’d think that Air Force One would be the weirdest variation on it… but no. I think that honor has to go to Shannon Tweed in No Contest. That one is Die Hard at a beauty pageant… featuring Ms. Tweed as a beauty queen who just happens to be a kickboxing and martial arts expert. This contestant’s talent is kicking ass, baby. (One thug exclaims in horror, “She’s like Bruce Lee with tits!” Really, it’s awesome. Words fail me. Trailer here. )

There was even a sequel, FACE THE EVIL, which had Shannon Tweed's beauty queen character again accidentally encountering terrorists, this time in a locked-down art museum. DIE HARD at the Guggenheim.

I could go on and on. Under Siege, Cliffhanger, The Rock, even Paul Blart Mall Cop. There are dozens of them.

Of course, there are the three official Die Hard sequels themselves, with a fourth apparently in the works… but I think really only the first of them fits the formula. Probably because it wasn’t originally going to be a Die Hard sequel. Die Hard 2: Die Harder actually began as a screen adaptation of Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes.

58 MINUTES is another hardcover that's a nice bookscout find in the first edition. Not quite as highly prized as NOTHING LASTS FOREVER but still worth a fair hunk of change.

At some point, Hollywood legend has it, a studio exec reading the screenplay exclaimed, “Wow, this is like Die Hard 2–” and suddenly was inspired to yell for a rewrite to shoehorn John McClane into the story and MAKE it Die Hard 2.

Fun fact-- turns out Walter Wager was also 'John Tiger,' a guy who wrote a lot of tie-in books for I SPY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, among others.

It wasn’t much of a stretch– structurally, 58 Minutes is essentially Die Hard at the airport. The other two sequels, though, Die Hard With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard, both seem to me like John McClane stories, not Die Hard stories. There’s no enclosed environment.

Anyway, thinking about this pattern, the Die Hard story structure, reminded me of the time Die Hard was done in comics.

No, no, not Die Hard Year One.

Though I did like that a lot, and you can pick it up in two collected volumes for not a whole lot of money if you’ve a mind to.

No, the one I’m thinking of dates quite a bit further back. In fact, it predates the actual Die Hard by more than a decade. The Brave and the Bold #113, which hit spinner racks back in March of 1974.

This is just a helluva comic book. In addition to the lead story, it’s also got the Challengers of the Unknown, Viking Prince by Joe Kubert, and the origin of Hawkman– also illustrated by the great Joe Kubert– that climaxes with Hawkman and Hawkgirl punching a Thanagarian dinosaur in the face.

Sigh. Damn but I loved the 100-page era at DC.

But anyway, it’s the lead story, “The 50-Story Killer!” that concerns us here. Because this is Die Hardwith Batman. (And the Metal Men, but they don’t have much to do.)

It was one of the great Bob Haney-Jim Aparo collaborations in an era that had a lot of them. I got this off the stands, back when it came out, and I adored it. The hook that opens the story is that Gotham’s elected a new mayor, and he’s decided to shake things up a bit.

Specifically, he wants to replace Commissioner Gordon– and Batman.

But how, you may ask, can you replace BATMAN?

Automation, says the new mayor.

Batman huffs off in a huff and tries to fight some crime, but gets his ass handed to him and the Metal Men have to bail him out.

“Read your press clippings”? New mayor’s kind of a douche, isn’t he?

But Batman’s day is about to get worse. Obeying the court order, he heads back to the Wayne Foundation building and hangs up the Batsuit…

…just in time for the building to be TAKEN OVER BY TERRORISTS.

These guys are too nasty for mere police.

And Gotham’s new heroes, the Metal Men, don’t do any better.

Clearly, it’s time to go old-school. A chastened mayor calls in Gordon… and Gordon knows EXACTLY what to do.

And with that, the Die Hard Bat-action is really on. There’s lots of skirmishes and cat-and-mouse with Batman and the terrorists… all to find where in the building the bad guys have stashed the gas supply that’s slowly poisoning the hostages.

Unfortunately, Batman has to cut his search short… and the tension keeps mounting…

….anyway, I don’t want to spoil any more of it for you because you really should experience it for yourself. I still think it’s just plain goddamn awesome, even today. Haney and Aparo were at the top of their game and this was right in the middle of what I consider the best of their run. It’s available in the third volume of Showcase Presents The Brave and Bold Batman Team-ups, and I think it’s also in the new color hardcover of Jim Aparo Bat-stories.

Either one of these is great. But me, I prefer the original comic, because of the added awesome of Hawkman PUNCHING A DINOSAUR IN THE FACE.

In fact, I got so jazzed writing this column I think I might have to go pull my copy out and read it again. It’ll take the edge off that damn empty mailbox.

See you next week.

24 Comments

*Heavy sigh* One of these days I’ll probably end up splurging on all of those Jim Aparo Batman hardcovers. I’ve just got to have all of those awesome B&B stories in color.
Otherwise, I never thought about all those movies fitting into a Die Hard sub-genre, but you’re definitely right. And you’re right about Die Hard and its sequels, in that only the first one really fits the formula. For me, the first one is the only one I can still watch – it’s classic cinematic comfort food, with the predictable story and almost mesmerizing violence. First saw it in the theater, and then about a half-dozen times on TV. On the other hand, when I watched installments two and three on TV, I could barely sit through them…
As for Die Hard in space, there’s an episode (actually a two-parter) of Star Trek: Voyager that sort of fits the formula: the Kazon take over the ship and dump the entire crew on some barren planet, leaving only the holographic Doctor (still confined to Sickbay at that point) and the borderline psychotic Betazoid Suder inside the ship to save the day – with Lt. Paris in a shuttle craft trying to help them from the outside (all right, that part doesn’t quite fit the formula, but close enough…)

So I think I figured out where the gas was just from the pages you showed me. I’m in to that comic, though. I’m all for old school Batman being McClane.

There must be a mathematical formula to describe the diminishing returns of the Die Hard sequels
I used to think each new movie was half as good as the last one, which makes 2 an awesome thriller in its own right and 3 an above-average action movie… But then 4 kind of screws that up. No movie with a CGI man-versus jet sequence is going to approach the dizzy heights of being half as good as Die Hard 3.

The Die Hard episode of a TV show is almost as much of a standby as the Groundhog Day episode. There was actually an episode of Lois & Clark called Fly Hard, with Jimmy Olsen in the McLane role.

I need the B&B issue… Also I’ve wanted to read Nothing Lasts Forever for years but have never seen it available.

Gavin is right about the Die Hard format adapted into TV episodes. Almost every detective / crime show uses a variation on it at least once (sometimes more) a season. I share Greg’s love of the 100 pagers and would love a showcase or color volumes of those (with all the reprints, character bios and extras). The mixture of reprints were always interesting and a book containing reprinted spectaculars would be a nice anthology, as well as a nice overview of DC’s extensive heritage. I would do them in order of being published. I picked up a couple of beat up copies at the NYCC and they were fun to look at and revisit. My all time favorite B&B 100 pager was #115 with the Atom. What a bizarre, crazily far fetched story but so much fun to read. Plus the reprints were greatly entertaining.

It may not count for you Gavin, but it’s $7 on Kindle.

The Die Hard episode of a TV show is almost as much of a standby as the Groundhog Day episode. There was actually an episode of Lois & Clark called Fly Hard, with Jimmy Olsen in the McLane role.

That one tickles me too, but I think my favorite is the one on The Middleman. And Chuck did a great one as well, where they posited that Die Hard‘s Al the Twinkie-loving cop is related to Big Mike at the Buy More, and had Reginald Veljohnson show up to do a guest bit.

I thought about listing TV episodes, but I felt like I was getting carried away just listing the movies.

But that dinosaur’s really Byth, isn’t it?

Hmm, I see it’s “Thanagarian” name is the Brontadon:
http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20080418003559/marvel_dc/images/a/a7/Brontadon.jpg

DIE HARD! GUY PEARCE!

I like it when you combine (or make mention of) two of my favourite things. :)

The thing I loved most about Die Hard that the second didn’t have (and now it’s obvious as to why, if it wasn’t even supposed to be a Die Hard movie to begin with, much like the North American 2nd Mario Bros game) were all the subversions of the action genre. John McClane is a down-to-earth cop with marital problems, no pretenses or superhuman abilities, and even fights in bare feet. He succeeds where he should likely fail, as he doesn’t even have a weapon in the first half of the movie. He’s basically everything he’s not by the time the fourth film rolls around, where he’s an indestructible crime-fighting machine.

For the record, LOCKOUT is PHENOMENAL.

I have the Aparo hardcover but have not made it this far. I really need to get on the ball.

There’s also a Star Trek Next Generation episode called “Starship Mine” that pretty much precisely follows the formula, if I remember correctly.

Kindle definitely counts, thanks for the tip!

Even stranger, when they first purchased the rights to Thorp’s novel, they re-wrote it as a sequel to Commando. After Arnie dropped off, it was rewritten again as its own movie.

“No, the one I’m thinking of dates quite a bit further back. In fact, it predates the actual Die Hard by more than a decade. The Brave and the Bold #113, which hit spinner racks back in March of 1974.”

Which, Greg, if you hadn’t noticed, predates Thorp’s own “Nothing Lasts Forever” by about 5 YEARS. (Also, just for some really wild ventures into trivia: Thorp’s “Nothing” was a sequel to his first novel, 1966′s “The Detective,” which was itself turned into a 1968 box-office hit, starring Frank Sinatra.)

Which, Greg, if you hadn’t noticed, predates Thorp’s own “Nothing Lasts Forever” by about 5 YEARS. (Also, just for some really wild ventures into trivia: Thorp’s “Nothing” was a sequel to his first novel, 1966′s “The Detective,” which was itself turned into a 1968 box-office hit, starring Frank Sinatra.)

I knew that. I don’t think it’s particularly relevant; I don’t for a minute think Thorp stole the idea, but yes, Bob Haney got there first. You probably could make a case that Die Hard hit me so hard because of my subconscious recollection of the Batman story but I never made the connection consciously until recently.

Nothing Lasts Forever is actually a very different story in its tone than the movie– Joe Leland is older, world-weary, and he’s trying to re-connect with his grown daughter, not his wife. A lot of the set pieces are the same, you still have the same basic plot– but the story is much more about an aging warrior trying to find the skills he used to have, to persuade himself that life is still worth the living, and so on and so on. It’s a good book but it’s much more somber, much less balls-out adventure like the movie was.

I thought about mentioning that, and The Detective, but I didn’t really want to get into a huge thing about it, the column was already kind of all over the place. But it’s worth knowing, for those that are interested in the books; 58 Minutes is much more of a Die Hard kind of adventure, also, for those who were wondering.

And if you’re looking to win a bar bet, “I bet you can’t name a character that was played by both Bruce Willis and Frank Sinatra” is a great trivia question.

I’ve been making my way through that Aparo hardcover for a few months now, but I haven’t gotten to this story yet. I love visiting Earth B, but I usually only read one or two stories from the collection at a time. I like to make those collections last a while.
Interestingly enough, the “Die Hard with Batman” premise has been used several times in recent yeras; right offhand, I remember a two-parter in “Detective Comics” a few years ago that was a fill-in story doen during Paul Dini’s run on the book, and of course, the issue of “Batman Inc” with the eye-searing CGI art.

Good column Greg, but I think your initial premise is flawed. My understanding of the “Die Hard” premise is that is this: one man trapped in a place against insurmountable odds. I thought Lockout was more like Escape from New York, one man has to go into a dangerous place that the authorities don’t want to go into and get a VIP out. Another example of the “Die Hard” sub-genre would be “The Taking of Beverly Hills” with Ken Wahl.

Let me guess the location of the gas: The “Y” in WAYNE, that the leader conveniently points to?

I thought Lockout was more like Escape from New York, one man has to go into a dangerous place that the authorities don’t want to go into and get a VIP out.

Well, if my damn movie ever GETS here, I’ll watch it and then I’ll KNOW! Grrrrrr….

…Am I the only one who kind of wants to see that Shannon Tweed movie now? C’mon, it stars Robert Davi AND Andrew Dice Clay! :)

…Am I the only one who kind of wants to see that Shannon Tweed movie now? C’mon, it stars Robert Davi AND Andrew Dice Clay! :)

On my personal Die Hard scale I rank it (and its sequel) higher than Sudden Death and Cliffhanger, but lower than Executive Decision. It’s kind of in the same ballpark as Passenger 57 or Under Siege. But funnier because, well, it’s Shannon Tweed. Your mileage may vary.

Greg, you should curate film fests…and book clubs.

that 100 page Batman + Metal Men was one of my 1st comics ever. That and a Marvel Tales (?) which reprinted the famous Spidey where’s trapped under the huge metal thing and lifts it off. I read both of them to tatters. So many years (and books) ago.

Great column. I love 80s-style action movies and Die Hard is definitely one of the best, for lots of reasons, but let’s just point out Alan Rickman’s “American accent” for one.

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