From Novel to Film pt. 7: 58 Minutes / Die Harder

Novel (1987) by Walter Wager
Film (1990) directed by Renny Harlin and written by Doug Richardson and Stephen E. deSouza.
The movie is officially named Die Hard 2, I guess, with Die Harder more of an optional subtitle or poster tagline. But it will always be Die Harder to me, and that's how I will refer to it below.


"Challenge and countersign correct. The conversation immediately switched to Spanish, an exchange of short staccato phrases like bursts from an automatic weapon. After twenty seconds of curt communication, there was a brief silence while the mustachioed bomb expert studied his wristwatch."

That mustachioed bomb expert bit kills me.

THE PLOT: Mike Malone is a divorced NYPD cop waiting at JFK for his daughter to arrive from California to spend the holidays with him. He is briefed by the airport security team on possible terrorist drills and assured they are more than ready for any challenge. The Ex that Got Away just happens to be the woman in charge of the air traffic control tower. Meanwhile, a terrorist all star cell moves themselves into place and pirates control of the tower. All planes will crash unless their demands are met (the usual: political prisoners freed, fully-fueled plane, etc.) Several royals (including one whose personal assistant carries a painful torch for him) and other luminaries circle overhead in the worst blizzard New York has ever seen as the drama unfolds at the terminal. Malone must spring into action to save his daughter, the airport, the American way of life, and win back the Ex That Got Away.

Okay, things that are different in the novel from the events in Die Harder

The location. 
The main character. 
The supporting characters. 
The tone. 
The motifs. 
The villains. 
The plot. 
The ending. 
The dialogue. 
The countdown/ time frame.

So not only is this a sequel to a huge film that was itself based on a different author's novel with a different main character, we have a film that is based on a novel it barely resembles. I'm not saying that's unique in the movie business, just a curiosity. Why did anyone feel they had to secure the rights to 58 Minutes to make Die Harder? The only things the novel and the film have in common are that they involve terrorists taking over an airport on the eastern seaboard. That's not even close to proprietary content. 

58 Minutes was retained for the French release of the film, though. (58 Minutes To Live: Die Hard 2.)
My best guess is that some producers bought the rights to the book and sold it and re-sold it and it eventually ended up in front of the Die Harder folks, who decided to reshape it for a Die Hard sequel. Which again is hardly remarkable for Hollywood, but I couldn't help wondering why anyone even bothered. Was Walter Wager owed a favor? Did someone just want to kick some extra cash his way? Is this even legal? I was hoping for some answers in the Special Features on the DVD, but no luck.

The two works are  different enough that after 100 pages I started skipping and skimming; reading it pursuant to a "From Novel to Film" objective makes no obvious sense. 

I did read the last 30 or 40 pages to make sure no one threw a Zippo into a leaked gas stream and blew up an airplane.
And no one did. Yippee ki yay, muthafucker...
If you're looking for a suspenseful enough mid-80s action novel, 58 Minutes is perfectly acceptable. International cast of dozens, now-obsolete behind-the-scenes airport technical minutiae, family drama, lots of backstory, high stakes and explosive, you name it. 

As for me, let's get to:


Bruce Willis returns to the role that made him a bankable lead: 

John McClane
aka Leland / Malone.
The plot is similar enough to the first Die Hard to be sent up by McClane himself in one memorable aside: "Another basement, another elevator... how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" How indeed. Thankfully, though, it did, and Die Harder is probably the best action movie sequel outside of Rambo First Blood pt. 2. In the same way everything about the first Die Hard was widely-copied (most notably in Under Siege with Steven Seagal, but also Speed, The Negotiator, The Rock, Executive Decision, Jet Li's High Risk (released in America as Meltdown, Air Force One, Con Air, Passenger 57, and Sudden Death. Not to mention Under Siege 2 and Speed 2) Die Harder doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel. What it does is amp everything up by a factor of ten.

More (and grislier) kills:

More (and more lethal) antagonists:

William Sadler as Colonel Stewart, the leader of the bad guys.
And John Amos as Major Grant.

More convoluted political intrigue:

Franco Nero as General Esperanza.
Whereas in the first film the political objectives was merely cover for theft, in Die Harder, Colonel Stewart and Major Grant have hatched this plan to ferry a deposed dictator to a safe haven, sacrificing their military careers and citizenship for the cause.

Unbeknownst to this guy.

An angrier and more profanity-laden jackass authority-figure:

Probably Dennis Franz's finest hour.
"Hey, where the fuck is McClane?"
And of course, William Atherton returns (conveniently on the same flight as Holly McClane, whom you'll recall slugged him at the end of the first movie.)
Crazier set pieces

In addition to the shootouts at the terminal, helicopter drop onto the wing and fisticuffs, there's the sub-zero assault on the church.
And subsequent snowmobile chase.

But the most ridiculously awesome set piece is McClane's escape from the cockpit of Esperanza's plane.

That "Oh Shii-ii-it" is dialogue, not my ad-lib. Incidentally, Die Harder features the very first digital matte painting at the film's end, and this sequence above is an early (and extensive) example of sophisticated blue screen compositing. It amuses me to think of this being shown in a classroom of the future as a proud moment of technological innovation. (Which is not to take away from the achievement, of course.) 

More allies

Art Evans as Barnes, who delivers his lines in a way that lets you know his character is due for a hyper-coronary at some point after the end credits roll.
Fred Thompson as Trudeau. Stack 'em, pack 'em, and rack 'em.
It amuses me that the main character's love interest from the book becomes Fred Thompson in the movie. Gives all of his scenes with Bruce Willis some fun subtext.

And Sheila McCarthy as Sally Coleman.
A new sidekick:

Marvin "Just like IWO JIMA!" the janitor.
(Note: not in the slightest way like Iwo Jima.)
By the way, I've had "Old Cape Cod" in my head since watching this for this post. Can't say I mind - that song rules.

More One-Liners: Not only does McClane deliver more asides to the audience and quips to himself (and to anyone and everyone, really) some scenes are comprised almost entirely by one-liners. Removing only a few lines, here's the dialogue in the scene where McClane faxes the fingerprints of his first victim to Al back in Los Angeles:

"Take that Twinkie out of your mouth and grab a pencil. I want to send you something."
"You and faxes, huh? This is a first."
"Holly told me I should wake up and smell the 90s."
"What's this about, cowboy?"
"Oh just a feeling I have."
"Ouch. When you get those feelings, insurance companies start to go bankrupt. Are you pissing in somebody's pool?"
"Yeah. And I'm fresh out of chlorine."

And when the girl who is helping him send the fax flirts with him (naturally) McClane responds: "Just the fax, ma'am."

The whole film is like this. The pace and cadence of the dialogue/ endless one-liners becomes hypnotic, something greater than itself. Many films have gone for this; few succeed. Die Harder maybe isn't the all-time champion, but (for all of these reasons) it's a great object of action movie meditation.



You get the idea. Someone ran the first script through the Computron 5000 and it spat out a new version with everything amped up. I picture a nervous assistant reading the results, stammering "Surely we can't... this is a 70 million dollar movie..." before being barked at: "JUST GET IT DONE!"

I mentioned the Michael Scott comment last time about how McClane became a superman and the Die Hard franchise just a vehicle for crazier and crazier CGI stunts. Die Harder, while certainly veering in this direction, manages to stay one step ahead of itself throughout. Like Commando, the escalating absurdity and chest-pounding dialogue and quips keeps things moving at such a breakneck and pleasing pace that it never unravels. You end up rooting for things to go even more over the top. More than most, this film goes to eleven.

Speaking of that "Wake up and smell the 90s" line up there, there's an interesting progression that calls attention to itself in the first act. 

Much is made of the gizmos that proliferated in the 3 years between Die Hard and Die Harder. Here's McClane with his beeper.
Holly calls him from a skyphone and even makes an offhand comment about all the new devices being taken for granted.
And the aforementioned faxes.
All of this is prior to Colonel Stewart's setting up his operations center in the abandoned church:

The flipside of the same technology that is making our lives easier (or at least enabling easier communication) is that the more we rely on these things, the more vulnerable we are to a technological counter-attack or sabotage. Nice touch. (And all too timely in 2014.)

Oh, the humanity.
Final Verdict: Rather boiler plate action novel. As an adaptation, Die Harder might as well be based on The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Not that I care. As both a sequel and as an action film, it hits its marks and then some. Another essential Christmas movie for the McMolo household.


  1. I don't think I've seen the movie since it came out. I don't recall thinking much about it, but this post makes me think a revisit might be in order.

    I'd forgotten all about William Atherton being shoehorned back into the proceedings. And Bonnie Bedelia, too, for that matter. On the one hand, those sorts of things can't help but spark eyrolls. But on the other hand, isn't that sort of stuff exactly what audiences -- me included -- want from dopey action movies? (I type that and automatically wonder if it means that I in any way have to soften my anti-Michael Bay stance. Tentatively, I think it doesn't.) It certainly feels like it was at the time.

    1. I don't think I've ever met anyone who has only seen this movie once! And not in over 20 years at that. Remarkable.

      No, don't soften that anti-Michael-Bay stance. If anything, intensify it.

      Willis has said there is going to be a Die Hard 6 and he wants the reunite everyone from the first film. Like you say, it's the sort of thing that is forgivable, perhaps even preferred, in dopey action movies, but I immediately got a bad feeling about that.

      But, at this point, the DH franchise is just silly, so I'm sure any DH6 would just be an extension of that.

      Instead of a DH6, Willis should spearhead a Moonlighting reunion.

    2. * to reunite, not "the reunite."

    3. I suppose I wish Willis well in his Die Hard 6 plans, but he can count me out. I didn't even bother with 5.

  2. "Note: not in the slightest way like Iwo Jima" and "An angrier and more profanity-laden jackass authority-figure" gave me a good laugh. Much appreciated.

    William Sadler played his part perfectly. One of the better cookie cutter bad guys.

    1. Agreed 100% on Sadler.

      (Ladies and gentlemen, the man I saw Die Hard 2 in the theater with himself! Now we both feel old.)

  3. The one jarring bit that really cast a pall over the film for me, that seemed to me to be too grimly brutal, was the crashing of the British plane by the bad guys. I mean, I get that stakes needed to be raised, but Good Lord, showing us the passengers, including grandmas and little kids, skews over into the territory of a different kind of movie. It was difficult for me to feel an exhilarating sense of triumph at the end a la Die Hard (or Commando) when the aftermath included what would have been at the time the worst terror attack on American soil, replete with tattered Teddy bears on the tarmac. It still unsettles me. Like I said, I get the idea of why it was done, but man...in the first movie, executing Takagi was horrific enough, but in this one, 200+ people just seems like (and I'm gonna say it) overkill. Sure, Commando had a huge body count, but those were a bunch of scumbags and mercenaries, not innocent holiday travelers. Anytime children are involved in something like that in a movie, I find it tends to put me off the movie. It's a tribute to how well-made DH2 is that I still think it's fantastic despite that, enough so that I considered it the best Die Hard movie for a lot of years.

    That said, it's a helluva fun movie if you remove that horrific part. The quips and asides come near to breaking the fourth wall at times - and made me determined to adopt the same basic attitude if I ever find myself in a similar situation. Because I think about that kind of thing, how I'd comport myself in an action-movie scenario.

    It always makes me laugh when Sadler is doing his "tai chi in the nude" routine. I'm almost tempted to say it was a bit of tweaking the nose of a genre often filled with homoerotic imagery while also containing gratuitous female nudity, to have the only nudity to be a lingering exploration of a guy's ripped body. Sort of like a wink at the audience saying "let's cut to what you guys REALLY want."

    1. That's funny about the naked tai-chi. I love how that scene ends with the most dramatic macho turning off the tv via remote control ever.

      I don't have the same reaction to seeing the real-world consequences of the kind of terrorist action the movie depicts, but I certainly agree it's unsettling. Without it, the movie would be start-to-finish power chords; crashing the British Airways plane is the minor-chord-progression in the middle 8, rounding it out. The point you raise is an interesting one, though, as the exhilarating sense of triumph we're meant to feel at movie's end is certainly a compromised one. I don't think people reflect on that as much as they should. The movie is content, perhaps, in our accepting that horrific loss of life is going to occur unless we stop shackling the John McClanes/ Jack Bauers of the world. Which is problematic on its own.

      It's all very interesting discussion to me - not sure if I'm quite getting it across the way I should.