The streets of Hollywood are littered with the corpses of R-rated action trilogies that once were, with their Terminators and Aliens and Rambos all hobbling around on canes and pulling oxygen tanks. So it's no wonder that as the release of the fourth "Die Hard" film, "Live Free or Die Hard," draws near, Bruce Willis finds himself reaching out directly to angry fans to avoid that fate.
To know why fans are up in arms, you have to go back to how 20th Century Fox tackled this question: How does a movie studio take a money-making franchise such as "Die Hard" ($740 million worldwide to date) that's been missing in action for more than 10 years and position it as a summer blockbuster that a new generation of moviegoers will clamor to see? If you're Fox, you take what was once an R-rated, foul-mouthed, thrill-ride of carnage and mandate a friendlier, gentler PG-13 rating from the start.
This decision — blasphemy to many fans — was made public in the June issue of Vanity Fair, in which Willis expressed his disappointment in the movie's new rating: "I really wanted this one to live up to the promise of the first, which I always thought was the only really good one," he said.
His comments and the fear that "Live Free or Die Hard," which opens June 27, might be sanitized, sparked an outcry on the Internet.
Ain't It Cool News, a popular website for movie news and gossip, lashed out at Fox. "Best case scenario, you make a ton of money on it. But everybody starts associating the real 'Die Hard' with this and thinking it's not as good as they remembered it. And then, your precious franchise is dead forever," one article said.
It was the rallying cry that launched debate late last month among fans of the original, soon devolving into a free-for-all that came to one conclusion: A film that wasn't true to its R-rated origins wasn't a film that was worth going to see.
Even as fans ranted online about the destruction of their beloved "Die Hard" franchise, the man who brought John McClane to life was reading every single word of it. Willis soon jumped into the fray to defend his upcoming movie sans publicist or agent.
Willis, in raw and often profane language, expressed his wish to "have an outlet to chat with people I seldom get to chat with." And because he was "getting ready to launch the longest shot of my career," he wanted to speak to the Internet audience "sans gossip."
Drew McWeeny, the West Coast editor of Ain't It Cool News, said he thinks that Willis (along with Sylvester Stallone, who also has participated in online discussions at the site) "has realized that the paradigm for how you sell a movie has changed. If you want to reach the audience directly," he said in a phone conversation shortly after Willis' online appearance, "you've got to shift the way you think. To their credit, the old dogs are trying some new tricks."
Willis spoke first to the ratings concern, clarifying to fans that while "initially, I was a little bummed, once we got shooting I never thought about it again. We shot a [tough] movie, not a rating. If you need swearing to make you happy at the movies, there are plenty of those out there."
But not all "Die Hard" fans were concerned with the rating itself. Some, like McWeeny, were more concerned about being true to the character of McClane. "In the first film, McClane's not looking to be a superhero. He really never wanted to be a part of it. That's what made McClane so human and special in a world of superheroes and spies. I want to see the real McClane again. I want them to be true to what they did right."
According to Willis, "all the intensity, the story flips and surprises, and most importantly McClane's dark sense of humor remain intact" in "Live Free or Die Hard" — "not compromised at all."
And though any Internet-savvy moviegoer could write off Willis' surprise online appearance as subversive movie marketing — perhaps not even with Willis himself at the keyboard — Willis' raw language and lack of self-censorship on myriad topics would indicate it was not a studio-sanctioned publicity stunt. (He did do such a planned online event last week for fans on Secondlife.com.)
"There is some suspicion that I would actually lie about the content or the quality of the movie," Willis posted to Ain't It Cool. "But I know as well as you all do that my words will be here long after the film comes out and I will stand by them."
And to further authenticate his visit, the actor chose one of the site's discussion participants to set up a video chat, streaming his unmistakable image as he discussed the movie.
Thousands of messages and online friends later, Willis had chimed in on a variety of topics, including how the new film compared to the others in (except for the milder language, saying "this film is way tougher than 'Die Hard 2 or 3'); working with director Len Wiseman; his experience with director Michael Bay on "Armageddon" ("It was a great crew but a screaming director does not make for a pleasant set experience"); and a few of the roles he had passed on ("I regret not doing 'Ghost' and passing on the part of Moose in 'The English Patient' . I passed on 'Ghost' thinking, 'a romance with a dead guy!?' ").
By the end of the chat, the "collective" embraced his opinion on the film with open arms.
But will one spontaneous online dialogue make any difference to the bottom line?
"I think there can be a kind of viral impact from that," McWeeny said. "After that experience, they were all reminded of just how much they like Bruce."