CINEMA CLASSICS: Die Hard (1988)

It’s almost Christmas. When are you planning to watch Die Hard?

Who made it?: John McTiernan (Director), Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza (Co-Writers), Joel Silver, Lawrence Gordon (Producers), 20th Century Fox.

Who’s in it?: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner.

Tagline: “Twelve terrorists. One cop. The odds are against John McClane… That’s just the way he likes it.”

IMDb rating: 8.3/10 (Top 250 #106).

Die Hard is often cited as the Greatest Action Movie Ever Made.

There are few films to compete for that title, especially when so many disregard finer points like acting and dialogue. These are hallmarks of John McTiernan’s 1988 classic. It was also noted for creating a hero that was fallible, a fresh idea in a genre that gave us cartoonish saviours like John Matrix and John Rambo, who could obliterate entire armies without so much as a skinned knee. This John, with the more likely surname McClane, barely makes it to the end credits alive. By that point, he’s bloodied, bruised and barely conscious. He’s the anti-Schwarzenegger.

It’s safe to say that McTiernan was critiquing the action formula with Die Hard, effectively biting the hand that fed him. His previous film was the testosterone-addled Predator (1987), also considered a masterpiece by some. It’s still a supremely entertaining popcorn flick, but nothing more than that… almost a warm-up. Die Hard is the real thing, and the closest you’re ever going to get to a perfect Hollywood ‘splosion-fest. It’s also one of the funniest R-rated shoot-em-ups in history. If you were to stand outside a cinema screening Die Hard, you’d swear the audience was watching a comedy. For every spent shell, shard of glass or bloody squib, there’s an expletive-ridden retort performed by an actor best known for a sitcom and a serious British thespian making his silver screen debut.

Amidst the gory gun battles, McTiernan also finds the time to comment on everything from sensational media coverage to the corporate greed of the 80s. On top of that, Die Hard was a Christmas film released in July. This is a pretty strange movie when you get right down to it.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that this middle-finger to the action films of yesteryear began life as one. The script was originally intended as Commando 2, the sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lovingly infantile one-man-army extravaganza. McTiernan would have directed the film but the Governator withdrew from the idea. The helmsman retooled the project, offering the lead to every Who’s Who in 80s action cinema. All of them turned the script down. The last person anyone ever expected to win the part was the dude trying to get into Cybill Shepherd’s pants on Moonlighting. The man who taught us to respect ourselves:

Bruce Willis was the inspired choice in a sea of uninspired choices. Just imagine the opening scene as if it was Schwarzenegger as McClane. His co-passenger on the flight to Los Angeles imparts a bit of wisdom that suggests there really is something to defeat jet-lag. It’s been a while since I’ve taken a long flight, but when I do, I’ll be sure to “make fists with my toes” afterwards. Arnie would have reacted to this golden nugget with a blank expression and have no doubt delivered a “witty” comeback. Willis, with his blue-collar attitude, takes it in his stride and even gives it a go… a first indication that jet-lag and stress is something McClane knows very well. Willis is just more convincing as a supposed Everyman than Schwarzenegger, although it’s fun to imagine the big oaf stepping off the plane and bemoaning, “fucking California.”

It’s therefore expected that this salt-of-the-earth NYPD cop faces a threat that will truly test him, making this is a David and Goliath battle of wits. Whoever had the idea to cast stage actor Alan Rickman as thieving terrorist Hans Gruber deserves a lifetime achievement award. Cast against the all-American Willis, the droll Rickman managed to turn what should have been a run-of-the-mill genre exercise into something damn near operatic. And while this is, on the surface, an opulent game of cat and mouse, the film is also a love story. A love story between a movie studio and a building.

Bear with me.

Screenwriters Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart based their script on a novel by Roderick Thorp, who achieved success with best-seller The Detective in 1966. The sequel, Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), was inspired by a dream he had after watching Irwin Allen’s disaster classic The Towering Inferno (1974). He imagined a man being chased through a skyscraper by goons with guns and crafted the idea to fit his Detective character, Joe Leland. A cursory look at the synopsis reveals the novel’s clear ties to Die Hard, with Leland visiting the Klaxon Oil Corporation’s headquarters in LA, where his daughter, Steffie Leland Gennaro, is working. After he arrives, a German terrorist team led by Anton “Tony” Gruber takes over the building. Leland remains undetected and fights off the terrorists one-by-one, aided outside by LAPD Sergeant Al Powell (played in the film by a rotund Reginald VelJohnson).

The similarities to Die Hard are obvious, with only superficial changes: Tony became Hans, the daughter became a wife, Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), and the oil corporation was ousted by Japanese conglomerate Nakatomi (in reality, the newly-completed Fox Plaza). The director sets up the location well, introducing it via a colourful limousine ride with Argyle (De’voreaux White) that tells us everything we need to know about McClane. He’s clearly having problems with the missus, he’s got a “backlog of scumbags” to deal with in New York, and trying to get along with people frustrates him. This is a man who attracts trouble on a daily basis.

His arrival at Nakatomi continues the macho characterisation with McClane butting heads with Hart Bochner’s coked-up yuppie Ellis (a reference to Bret Easton Ellis?), as McTiernan dutifully lays out the geography. It’s always important to know your surroundings in an action movie. Set-pieces tend to become incoherent when the battle ground isn’t clearly defined, so a good portion of the opening is devoted to establishing this monument of glass and steel, which suit Mr. Takagi (James Shigeta) informs us still has “several floors under construction.” A company in the midst of setting up shop is certainly more vulnerable than one long-in-the-tooth with tightened security. It’s therefore no surprise that Gruber assumes control of the building with ease… the logic of this movie is (mostly) air-tight. McTiernan cuts between McClane having a domestic spat with his wife and Gruber’s team, who unbeknownst to the party-goers upstairs, are slowly severing the building’s connection to the outside world. It sets in motion a feeling of anxiety that doesn’t let up for the proceeding ninety-minutes.

This isolation is also the key to why the original Die Hard works as well as it does: McClane doesn’t want to be the hero, at least not to this extent, and he is forced to save the day (and his wife) because he has no means of escape. It is only when his attempts at calling the cavalry fall flat that he decides to take on these “terrorists” single-handed. The subsequent sequels have lost sight of this important character trait. This iteration of McClane would have bailed during Live Free or Die Hard and let the professionals do their job. He’s a good cop with a strong moral code, but the last thing he wants to do is kill a load of people… even if he is sharply efficient at it. What makes this characterisation even better is the fact that he takes on his mission sporting a vest and no shoes, giving him a sizeable disadvantage. The screenwriters throw all manner of obstacles in McClane’s path, never venturing too far outside the realms of plausibility (well, except for that climactic leap off the roof perhaps). These close calls are often timed beautifully, such as McClane’s nail-biting tumble down a ventilation shaft, or his encounter with an oversized fan. He’s one hell of an underdog, which is precisely why he resonates with viewers and why we follow him to the bloody end. His atypical vulnerability only ratchets up the suspense. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t deliver the odd wisecrack to lighten the mood.

Having set-up their hero’s imperfections, McTiernan and the screenwriters proceed to make those outside look stupid in comparison. Headed by the ridiculous Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (The Breakfast Club‘s Paul Gleason), the police response allows the director to inject some much-needed levity into the film when things get nasty. And Die Hard is definitely nasty. After more than a decade of watered-down PG-13 rubbish, it’s sort of bracing when you see bullet hits in a movie that look realistic, and deaths that might be considered overkill now (my favourite being the moment when a henchman’s legs are blown out from under him, sending his head through a sheet of glass). The violence is so convincing that the humour is needed to stop it from becoming grim, and while LA’s finest (and later, the FBI) are depicted as unrealistic fools, the writers do allow McClane one positive connection to the outside world –  Al Powell. He’s sort of McClane’s opposite: a good man at heart with a chequered past who was also in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s clever is that this friendship is developed over walkie-talkies, leading to several sequences that bring unexpected warmth to a cold film, such as Powell’s heart-felt “confessional” to McClane about a dark moment from his past. Their situation and contrasted struggles almost make the experience a cathartic one for the characters.

Compounding matters is the fact that the good guys face a threat that is smarter than all of them (“benefits of a classical education”). Hans Gruber has more or less become the definitive Euro villain because his vast intelligence is matched by his ruthlessness. He’s ahead of the game at every turn and quick to eradicate anyone who gets in his way. Gruber goes about his scheme with supreme confidence, so much so that it’s hard not to secretly root for him. I defy you not to smile when he finally breaks into Nakatomi’s vault… he’d have pulled it off if it wasn’t for that pesky detective! Rickman was born to play Gruber and walks away with the film, such as the famed sequence when he finally comes face-to-face with his prey. Caught red-handed by McClane, the crafty bastard pretends to be a hostage and feigns a Californian accent. This is a man who literally rolls with the punches – when Gruber notices that his nemesis is barefoot, he orders his cronies to “shoot the glass,” which leads to Willis’ best scene in the picture. McClane, his feet shredded and his outlook bleak, tells Al to find his wife if he dies. For a brief moment, the bravado is dropped and Willis reveals that he was once a fine dramatic actor. I, for one, miss this more human approach to the character.

The cast is so good that you frequently forget that you’re watching a far-fetched genre film, even when the archetypes are obvious. The bodies pile up frequently and it all builds to an explosive conclusion that directly references the film’s debt to The Towering InfernoDie Hard gives us exactly what we want without ever insulting our intelligence. From top-to-bottom, this is a tightly conceived blast of escapism that is as laudable for its technical credits as it is for its sheer entertainment value. And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s other fine attributes, such as Jan de Bont’s claustrophobic cinematography, or Michael Kamen’s instantly recognisable score. You know a film is a masterpiece when you never run out of complimentary things to say about it.

I’ve seen Die Hard so many times that it’s kind of impossible to view it objectively. No screening over the years has revealed a significant flaw, however, making this the rare action flick that truly deserves its reverential following. Die Hard is as good now as it ever was, standing tall as that wondrous example of what can be done with uninspired material and actors better than the genre deserves.

Sometimes, all the right pieces just fall into place…

Best Scene

“Geronimo, motherfucker!”

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The film version of The Detective starred Frank Sinatra, who later played a cop in The First Deadly Sin (1980), which featured Bruce Willis as an extra.
  • The original release poster for the film did not feature Willis’ likeness, just the building. The producers originally thought it might deter non-Willis fans from seeing the movie. Posters were later altered after the early box office success.
  • Willis was the sixth choice for McClane. The original list included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson.
  • The German that the terrorists speak is sometimes grammatically incorrect and meaningless. In the German version of the film, the terrorists are not from Germany but from “Europe.”
  • At the suggestion of director John McTiernan, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy (Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement)” is the musical theme of the terrorists. Gruber even hums it at one point in the movie. Composer Michael Kamen at first thought it was a “sacrilege” to use Beethoven in an action movie, telling McTiernan: “I will make mincemeat out of Wagner or Strauss for you, but why Beethoven?” McTiernan replied that “Ode to Joy” had been the theme of the ultra-violence in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Kamen, a Kubrick fan, then agreed.
  • The LAPD officer who gives medical attention to Sgt. Powell following the terrorists shooting up his car is actor Anthony Peck, who also plays NYPD Detective Ricky Walsh in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995).
  • The teddy bear that McClane buys for his daughter can also be seen in McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990).
  • Deputy Chief Robinson says that McClane ”could be a fucking bartender for all we know.” Prior to becoming a well-known actor, Willis was a bartender.
  • The line “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!” is used in all of the Die Hard movies. It also translates in Urdu to “here, eat this.” The quote placed #96 in “The 100 Greatest Movie Lines” by Premiere in 2007.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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  1. castingcouch says:

    Just watched this again for the hundredth time. Still brilliant. One moment I love in particular is when McClane is setting up the chair bomb with C4. He plugs a single detonator into the explosive, then rethinks it and says “Fuck it” and stabs in a few more. They sure don’t make them like this anymore.

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