When you think of Die Hard, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If the answer isn’t Bruce Willis, I humbly submit that you are lying. True, there hasn’t been a particularly good Die Hard film in 20 years, and recent efforts to jump-start the franchise have met with critical derision. But 20th Century Fox’s latest idea adds insult to injury. Die Hard: Year One will reportedly focus on a young John McClane fighting crime in the 1970s, played by a new actor, with Willis perhaps filming some scenes in the present day to help pass the torch.
Reports of the death of Hollywood originality may be exaggerated—amid the explosion of superhero franchises, there have been plenty of strong non-sequels (The Martian, Inside Out, Trainwreck) atop the box office this year. But Die Hard: Year One represents the cheapest form of sequel: the “character reboot,” or taking a role uniquely associated with one aging actor and giving it to a younger star. There are multiple such plans in the works, with on-and-off chatter about an Indiana Jones reboot, perhaps starring Chris Pratt. Disney has also set a release date for a Han Solo film that focuses on his younger days. But these are no ordinary sequels: They’re savvy business ploys.
They date back to the decision Eon Productions made in the late ’60s to replace a disgruntled Sean Connery as James Bond with first George Lazenby and then Roger Moore, setting a pattern for a series that more than 50 years in shows no sign of flagging. But Bond was an established literary character—he was Ian Fleming’s creature more than he was Connery’s, no matter how iconic the actor’s performance became. McClane, on the other hand, is Bruce Willis. There is nothing else in the Die Hard franchise that feels particularly distinctive—the films are otherwise fairly standard cat-and-mouse thrillers between a lone-wolf hero and a new coterie of villains. The Die Hard model has indeed become so formulaic that the title is now established shorthand for describing the plot of a hundred action movies.
So whatever Fox might be thinking, it’s highly unlikely a Die Hard film centered on a young actor that features only a winking cameo from Willis will draw people back to the franchise. The film will apparently be directed by Len Wiseman, who made 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, the most financially successful entry in the franchise, although it underperformed relative to its softened PG-13 rating. In 2013 came A Good Day to Die Hard, which returned the series to its R-rated roots and cast the Australian up-and-comer Jai Courtney as McClane’s son. It made a weak $67 million domestically but cleaned up at the worldwide box office, where Willis is still a bankable star. Die Hard: Year One would probably muster similar success in foreign markets if Willis was involved, and the hope would be that his mantle would successfully be passed to whichever young star replaces him.
But to what end? No matter how many half-baked sequels are churned out, almost every franchise has to die eventually. The first Die Hard came out in 1988; Bruce Willis is now 60 years old. Its time is probably up. There’s certainly a new young actor waiting to be scooped out of relative TV obscurity, just as Willis was decades ago; why saddle him (or her) with a role so deeply tied to another star? It’s nice to be needed, as John McClane might say, but there comes a point when every action hero needs to confront the reality of retirement.