It’s 1992. Young martial-artist and actor Brandon Lee – son of the legendary Bruce Lee – has just impressed Fox executives with his charming, highly-physical turn in the moderately-priced action picture ”Rapid Fire”.
Even those in-front of the camera are singing the praises of then-unknown Lee. Co-star Powers Boothe, also in the Dwight H.Little (“Halloween 4”) directed picture, is impressed – and this is a guy who has shared the curtained stage with such theps as Sally Field, Al Pacino and Richard Dreyfuss. “There’s lots of people out there who can do great wheel kicks”, said Boothe, “But that’s not what it’s about.”
Lee’s charm and personality bounced off the screen, but more so, the actor’s effortless ability to do action sequences – and largely, without the aid of a double – had Fox seeing dollar signs in their pupils.
The studio – just as Warner did a couple of years earlier when they cast him to play opposite big-name action star Dolph Lundgren in “Showdown in Little Tokyo” – knew they had a star in their “Rapid Fire” lead, and were now prepared to place the actor in something bigger.. something more ambitious. The studio who had made Bruce Willis an action movie star a decade earlier, and who’d taken a punt on newbies like Charlie Sheen (“Platoon”) and Sigourney Weaver (“Alien”), ultimately pathing their careers, had unwrapped a golden ticket.
Fox decided , off the back of “Rapid Fire”, they wanted to be in the Lee business for a long, long time. They agreed with the media, this kid was the next big thing in biffo cinema.
Jonathan Hensleigh, a screenwriter whose biggest claim to fame at the time was writing for Lucasfilm’s “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”, had written a script on spec called “Simon Says” – it would be a smart action-thriller, one that called for a good performer as much as it did on-hand emergency crews.
One glance at its contents and Fox were confident this would be ideal for Brandon Lee.
It was off-the-market. Sold. Gone.
The story – about a law-enforcer who is sent on a wild goose chase by a villain with a penchant for playing games, literally – would require someone with some great physical, action abilities coupled with charm and humour, and Lee would be perfect.
With “Rapid Fire” climbing the charts (despite mixed reviews) – opening at No.3 – Fox started developing “Simon Says” and a sequel to “Rapid Fire”.
While that was happening, Lee was prepping for a film he’d committed to do before New Line, a feature film adaptation of the classic “The Crow”.
Feb 1, 2993. On his 28th birthday, Lee emerged in front of the camera as Eric Draven.
A month or so later, and…. well, we all know what happened next. We lost a truly gifted shining star.
While Hollywood mourned for a fallen star, Fox placed “Simon Says” back in mothballs (at one stage Warner – and Joel Silver’s huge wallet – considered giving it a home, retooling it as a “Lethal Weapon”).
Some time passed and the script found its way onto “Last Action Hero” director John McTiernan’s desk. Fox had been considering doing another “Die Hard”, and McTiernan, who directed the 1988 original, was warming up to the idea of returning to the franchise (he passed on directing “Die Hard 2” because of his clashes with producer Joel Silver) – if only because he needed a hit after the huge stinking turd he’d just made. If Bruce Willis was willing to come back – and nobody was really sure he was, after all, he’d already passed on a couple of scripts for “Die Hard 3” – as ‘everyman’ John McClane, it’d be a go.
Bruce was in. John was directing. Fox (Hensleigh had essentially no involvement at this stage; the moment the film became “Die Hard” he was fundamentally told ‘seeya, thanks again!’) wanted to make the movie, but had to retool the film from a ‘Brandon Lee vehicle’ to a ‘Die Hard sequel’ (The first half of the script – besides the fact that ‘Zeus’ is a woman in the ‘Lee’ incarnation – was essentially left untouched, but the plot involving the robbery was added in to better suit the film to a “Die Hard” mould.)
And aside from the little casting hiccup that would occur when McTiernan didn’t get the responses he’d hoped for when he went out to Sean Connery (his “Hunt for Red October” villain) for the role of bad guy Simon and Laurence Fishburne (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”) for McClane’s sidekick Zeus, everything went smoothly. “Die Hard With a Vengeance” went on to gross $22.2M, which would be roughly $40M at today’s prices, on it’s opening weekend.
Any excuse to remember the terrific Brandon Lee is a good one; do so, when you revisit the third “Die Hard”.