Reel Rumbles #27: “Die Hard” vs. “Lethal Weapon”

23 Dec

In This Corner…

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, which means many people will be turning their movie-watching attention to a lot of those feel-good holiday favorites. But for some, this is the most wonderful time of the year… for busting some heads. Nothing says peace on Earth like a good, old-fashioned, blood-pumping action flick, and this year we’re entering the Reel Rumbles ring with a couple of the best. So get ready to deck the halls (and some thugs). It’s time for Die Hard vs. Lethal Weapon.

Round One: Story

We’ve all seen the clones: There’s been Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on a battleship, Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane…you name it, if it’s a typical action movie made in the past 20 years (especially in the 90′s), it’s probably ripping off Die Hard in some way.

But before 1988, nobody had seen anything quite like it. Die Hard revamped the action genre. As portrayed by Bruce Willis, John McClane was no Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. And he was far more relatable because of it. Instead of the action superhero, Die Hard presented an ordinary man trapped in extraordinary circumstances. In a lot of ways, it re-shaped the action-movie mold.

Lethal Weapon, meanwhile, didn’t so much create a new genre. But it certainly defines one. Coming out the year before Die Hard, Lethal Weapon is the quintessential film in a sub-genre that even John McClane himself has dabbled in: the buddy-cop movie. Variations on this theme are almost too numerous to mention. Think of the Rush Hour series, 48 Hrs., Tango & Cash, or, from this past year, The Other Guys and Cop Out (starring Mr. Willis). Even the third and fourth Die Hard films can be accused of falling into this category.

The buddy-cop film always gives us two protagonists, wildly opposite from each other (even, much of the time, along racial lines): the straight-laced, by-the-book cop teamed with an over-the-top, unhinged partner. Obviously, through the course of the film, they must learn to work together to stop the bad guys, usually bickering and cracking wise along the way. Lethal Weapon excels in all of these ways, but goes a step beyond that, painting its protagonists as real characters–as opposed to caricatures–from very different walks of life. But perhaps not so different: Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) lives a life that perhaps the despondent Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) could have had, if only his wife had not been killed in a car accident.

Die Hard features New York cop John McClane caught in the middle of a deadly hostage situation that provides cover for a daring heist at the Nakatomi Tower in Los Angeles. Lethal Weapon sees L.A. cops Riggs and Murtaugh investigating the apparent suicide of a young prostitute, only to find themselves going head-to-head with a drug trafficking ring. Both plots are fine fodder for a cop movie, but Die Hard pulls slightly ahead in the treatment of its protagonist: The fish-out-of-water, one-man-against-the-world angle brought something fresh to Die Hard that has been copied ad nauseum ever since, whereas Lethal Weapon was simply a shining example of an already well-established genre. Advantage, Die Hard: 10-9.

Round Two: Script

Both movies feature big action sequences, yet they both take a bit of time in establishing their main characters before they get into the thick of things, and the films are better for it. Die Hard takes nearly twenty minutes before anything shocking or violent even happens. But then, when it does, the tension never lets up. By confining the action to such a small space (a skyscraper and the surrounding city block) and length of time (it all happens in one night), the script adds tension to the already volatile proceedings.

Lethal Weapon begins with the shocking suicide of a young girl, but then also takes its time in establishing character before the action gets going. In fact, it’s almost when the action starts that the story unravels a bit. The Riggs and Murtaugh characters are set up, they investigate the girl’s murder and discover a drug trafficking ring, but then, when they take on the bad guys, the action (rightly) takes over the spotlight. It’s just that the final act is a bit over the top; when it culminates in a one-on-one fight between Riggs and the evil Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), logic is somewhat thrown out the window in favor of a great fight scene. It’s hard to complain about the down-and-dirty fight, but where’s the logic in cops standing around while Riggs battles in a fight that could easily get him killed? (It’s an action movie; don’t complain too much!)

As almost all action movies, Die Hard requires its suspensions in disbelief, too (including a final scare from a supposedly dead character, á la a cheap horror movie), but that last logic leap in Lethal Weapon causes it to falter just a little in the home stretch, and allow Die Hard to come ahead in this round, 10-9.

Round Three: Performances

Let’s get this out right now: If we were only talking about the heroes in these two movies, it would be sorely tempting for this round to go to Lethal Weapon, simply because Mel Gibson and Danny Glover have Bruce Willis outnumbered.

In Die Hard, Willis created a new kind of action hero: the Everyman, caught in an extraordinary situation, and flying by the seat of his pants simply to survive. We’re introduced to McClane on board a landing plane, his fingers white-knuckled on his seat’s armrests as he struggles with his fear of flying. He’s going through a rocky separation from his wife. He has to run around fighting terrorists with no shoes on, for cryin’ out loud! All the while, he’s cracking wise and reaching out over the radio to Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) for tenuous support as he struggles against terrorists trying to kill him and cops on the outside seemingly trying to do everything in their power to screw him over. He’s extremely effective and relatable, and there are many reasons why John McClane is one of the most iconic action heroes of all time.

But in Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are one of the ultimate tag teams. Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh couldn’t be more different: First, we see Murtaugh, surprised in the bathtub by his family on his fiftieth birthday. Then we see Riggs, alone in the squalor of his trailer on the beach, struggling with the death of his wife and thoughts of suicide. Say what you will about Mel Gibson, the man turns in a fantastic performance as Riggs. (Witness the scene where he bites down on the barrel of a gun, finger on the trigger; it’s riveting, and gut-wrenching.) And Danny Glover is the perfect foil, as Murtaugh has to fret over whether or not Riggs is going to get him killed. Lethal Weapon‘s sequels focused a lot more on comedy, but the original has a great mix, and Riggs and Murtaugh are the perfect buddy-cop duo.

However, films like these depend just as much on the strengths of their villains as they do the strengths of their heroes, and it’s here where Die Hard has Lethal Weapon whipped. Alan Rickman brings us the ultimate villain in Hans Gruber: cold, calculating, mean as hell. His henchman, Karl, is played with perfect menace by Alexander Godunov (a stark contrast to the Amish farmer he played in Witness.)

And while Gary Busey and Mitchell Ryan are effective in their villain roles in Lethal Weapon (check out the scene where Ryan’s General McAllister orders Busey’s Mr. Joshua to hold his arm over a flame to demonstrate his loyalty), they are not as omnipresent in their film as Rickman is in Die Hard, and as such don’t build up the same level of menace. They are obviously threatening, but don’t have the screen time to get under the audience’s skin like Hans Gruber does.

So while Gibson and Glover might be able to double-team Willis into submission, Alan Rickman is able to pull off the victory in this round for Die Hard, 10-9.

Round Four: Direction

Director John McTiernan really burst onto the scene with his second feature film, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring testosterone fest Predator, in many ways the type of action movie Die Hard would turn on its head. And it’s these two films that McTiernan is forever going to be known for. With Die Hard, he created one of the greatest action films of all time: once the action stops, it never lets up, ratcheting up the tension and thrills for its entire run time.

In 1987, Richard Donner was already a Hollywood heavyweight, having helmed classics in three very different genres: The Omen, Superman and The Goonies. With Lethal Weapon, he set his sights on another genre, and created the buddy cop film by which all other buddy cop films would come to be judged. What made Lethal Weapon so great? Perhaps it was the fact that this movie wasn’t just about the action and the laughs. Donner presents Riggs and Murtaugh as real characters that the audience can root for, not just the cardboard-cutout caricatures that appear in so many cop films.

If anything, it comes down to the slightly sloppy final act of Lethal Weapon (which may be slightly more the fault of the script than the director) to lose this round. Lethal Weapon is near-perfect in its execution, but it could be argued that Die Hard IS perfect. Round four also goes to Die Hard, 10-9.

Bonus Round: Christmas Spirit

Of course, we all love a good, blood-pumping action movie, but if you’re going to set your film at Christmastime, you’d better incorporate some of the spirit of the season, especially when your movie is set in L.A. and there’s no bloody snow! So while Die Hard and Lethal Weapon both succeed on the action front, which film displays more “Ho-Ho-Ho”? Let’s examine a couple of key areas to find out:

Opening Christmas Carol?

  • Die Hard: None, though early on, Argyle blasts “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C. in the limo.
  • Lethal Weapon: “Jingle Bell Rock” gets us in the mood before we switch to an ominous score over a topless girl launching herself from a twenty-story building.
  • Advantage: Lethal Weapon

Characters in the Christmas Spirit?

  • Die Hard: John McClane whistles “Jingle Bells” when he first arrives at Nakatomi Tower.
  • Lethal Weapon: A quintet of police officers practice a rendition of “Silent Night”, a cappella, in the precinct.
  • Advantage: Lethal Weapon

Christmas Set Pieces?

  • Die Hard: Mr. Takagi throws a heckuva Christmas bash on the 30th floor.
  • Lethal Weapon: The Murtaugh home is decked out for the season; Riggs participates in a harrowing firefight in a Christmas tree lot.
  • Advantage: Die Hard

Best Christmas Gag?

  • Die Hard: Hans Gruber discovers one of his thugs, dead in an elevator, strapped to a chair with a Santa hat and “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho” scrawled in blood on his sweater.
  • Lethal Weapon: Mr. Joshua enters the Murtaugh residence looking for blood. When he finds A Christmas Carol playing and Ebenezer Scrooge asking “What day is it?”, he shoots out the TV and yells, “It’s goddamn Christmas!”
  • Advantage: Die Hard

Closing Christmas Carol?

  • Die Hard: “Let It Snow” – Cute, as papers fall from the sky from the exploded top floors of Nakatomi Tower.
  • Lethal Weapon: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – Sweet, as Riggs joins the Murtaugh clan for Christmas dinner.
  • Advantage: Lethal Weapon

Most Catching Catch Phrase?

  • Die Hard: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf@cker.” – John McClane.
  • Lethal Weapon: “I’m gettin’ too old for this sh@t.” – Roger Murtaugh.
  • Advantage: Die Hard

Okay, so they’re Christmas movies that aren’t really about Christmas. But Lethal Weapon displays just enough holiday spirit to edge out Die Hard in this superfluous extra round: 10-9.

And the Winner Is…

Lethal Weapon is a great action movie. But Die Hard is Die Hard, and it’s hard to beat, no matter who you are. Both of these films offer a great alternative to classic holiday fare, but as far as picking the better film for Flickchart is concerned, the choice is clear: Our victor, by UNANIMOUS DECISION: Die Hard.

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  • KingofPain

    I’ve seen both of these about a quarter of a million times. Up until the late 90s I even claimed Die Hard was my favorite Christmas movie. Now, though, I can’t stand Die Hard. So many of the characters are so obnoxiously stupid that watching it hurts my head. The news guy is an idiot, the deputy police chief is an idiot, Ellis is an idiot… Way too much of the movie is wasted on McClane arguing with Robinson. It’s a petty and pointless conflict. (And that “cheap horror movie” part is made even worse by the cheesiness of Powell mustering the courage to draw his gun again. Just awful.)

    Now that I think about, I guess I actually do prefer Lethal Weapon. You are right about Rickman being a more colorful villain, but the guys in Lethal Weapon are scary. I never really thought the villains in Die Hard were that threatening, but those Black Ops (or whatever) killers in Lethal Weapon really were sinister and creepy. I seriously would not want them pissed off at me. I’m going with Lethal Weapon on this one.

  • johnmason

    Well, I can’t argue with your choice, because I think they’re both great.

    You do raise a good point about Die Hard: The movie goes out of its way to make every “good guy” EXCEPT McClane and Powell to be total morons…

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