Why does DIE HARD get worse with each sequel? One word: fear. With every movie, John has a little less of it.
The new Die Hards keep making the same mistake. They raise the stakes by giving John ever-increasingly dangerous external obstacles. This really misses the point of what makes those obstacles meaningful.
John McClain used to be scared. THAT is what made him an everyman. He worried he was making the wrong choice. He worried one mistake could get someone killed. And that person was sometimes himself.
The obstacles John faces don't in themselves make him an everyman. The thing that makes John relatable is his FEAR.
In DH1, he's TERRIFIED for his life. But more than that, he's terrified that if he dies, so will the wife and the marriage he's desperate to save.
So it's not enough to pit John McClain against one difficult obstacle after another. Hey, it's cool that he can ramp a car into a helicopter, but where is John's fear?
Where's the fear we saw from John in DH1 when he looked at the tunnel he'd have to hang down to escape?
Where's the horrified curse we heard when dropped into the tunnel knowing he might plummet to his death?
Compare these two scenes, one from DIE HARD, the other from A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. In DIE HARD, John hides under the table while Gruber threatens to kill the Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi unless he gives Gruber the access code into the vault.
The whole time, John McClain is RIGHT THERE, gun already drawn. And then he does nothing. Gruber shoots Takagi in the head, and our great big hero RUNS.
That scene and what follows are exactly what make John McClain so relatable. He berates himself for not saving Takagi. "Why didn't you stop'em, John?!" But then he reminds himself why. "'Cause then you'd be dead too, asshole."
John McClain knows he's only human, and he's so afraid that even the filmmakers let him show it. That's bold. Compare this to A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD. John is...different.
Whereas once McClain worried about people getting hurt, now he's angry because these silly civilians keep getting in his way. Don’t they know he’s been in how many Die Hards?!
Now how do you fix this? Aside from not watching any of the Die Hards beyond part 3? Well first of all, make the stakes relatable. What even are the stakes in Die Hard 4?
I realize there were larger implications in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, but for a general audience, the premise of DH4 was essentially: Watch John McClain risk his life again to save...the internet? I'm going out on a limb to say they weren't trying for dramatic irony.
Now I get it, with each successive movie, John overcomes so much that it only makes sense that he gains confidence. By movie five, obviously he should laugh at the obstacles he faced in movie one.
But if you have McClain now full of confidence, the problem needs to be what new obstacles he faces precisely because of who he is now. That's the nature of a character arc. Something about who you are is causing the problem in your life today.
If he's so confident? Make him overconfident. He takes on something he never should have accepted, and it puts him and the people he loves in danger he hasn't known since DH1.
Or go the other direction. Who can go through this many unpredictable catastrophes and not have PTSD? I'd absolutely buy everyone around McClain thinking how awesome and badass he must be by now, but he's more scared than ever.
Or go the TAKEN route so that McClain doesn't care about his own life, it’s his kid who’s in danger because they’ve rejected everything about McClain. Their only hope is for them to save themselves.
In essence, make McClain as afraid as he was in DH1 because his child is in a similarly vulnerable position that he can't save them from simply by being badass. If you said I'm basically suggesting they write John McClain as C3PO, that's a good point.
If you said maybe Liam Neeson should play John McClain in the prequel, I would say that is the first Die Hard I will be seeing on opening day.
Also, let's all remember that time the bad guy tried to karate chop John McClain.
Anyway, I'm off now to watch DIE HARD: DIE HARDER. Those first three are still classics. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.