DIE HARD (1988)

  • Director: John McTiernan
  • Writers: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
  • Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, De’Voreaux White, William Atherton, Clarence Gilyard, Hart Bochner, and James Shigeta 
  • Accolades: 4 Oscar nominations (Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with Subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.

Today I took out the trash in my slippers and it was uncomfortable when I walked on the gravel in our yard. Then I thought, “Hey, if John McClane can do it, so can I.” And therein lies the somewhat improbable appeal of Die Hard. At a time when the only bankable action stars were musclebound superhumans, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Die Hard is about a random dude who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets the absolute hell beaten out of him during the movie. I’m not as big of an 80s American action movie fan as you might think. I don’t really find big dudes firing machine guns at each other that inherently interesting, give me kung fu any day. Die Hard is so bombastic that it uses Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony unironically. It has its cake and eats it too. Then it still has the cake so it can blow it up and use it shoot down a helicopter.

Before I go further, I should probably address Die Hard’s inclusion in our Holiday Virtual Film Festival, which I fully admit is at least partially ironic. For those not especially plugged in to the internet, there is an ongoing debate (running joke?) regarding Die Hard’s status as a Christmas movie. The story is, for no particular reason, set on Christmas Eve, something that’s made reference to throughout (at one point, for example, McClane sends the body of a dead bad guy down to his comrades in the elevator, having written a note on his shirt reading “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho”), but this fact never actually figures into the plot at all. There have even been extensive, scientific polls taken on this issue, in both the US and UK, which both came to about the same conclusion when asking whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie: only about 1/3 of people answer yes, but that 1/3 is heavily weighted towards younger people. So it’s become kind of a weird litmus test in this meaningless distinction.

Most people in Hollywood seemed to think of Die Hard as a massive boondoggle throughout its production, which was very visible as the movie was entirely shot in and around the still-under-construction Fox Tower in Century City in Los Angeles. Having not had an action hit in several years, and unable to secure a big action star for their blockbuster (pretty much every actor you can think turned the role down), the studio shocked the industry by paying Bruce Willis $5 million to star in the movie. The problem was, at the time Willis was pretty much only known as the star of the TV series Moonlighting (he was only able to get away to shoot the movie due to a break in production caused by the pregnancy of his co-star, Cybill Shepard), and had never before been in an action movie. It would sort of be the equivalent of a studio a couple of years ago casting John Krasinski as the lead in their biggest action movie of the year. The movie’s villain, Hans Gruber, was played by even more of an unknown, Alan Rickman. At the time he was hired for Die Hard, Rickman was over 40, was primarily known as a Shakespearean stage actor in the UK, and had never before appeared in a movie. But the movie struck a chord with audiences, became a big hit, and both Willis and Rickman became major stars as a result.

I’ll review the story for the uncultured. John McClane (Willis) is a New York police officer visiting his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) at her office Christmas Party in Los Angeles at the state-of-the-art Nakatomi Tower (you can tell it’s high-tech because the building directory is on primitive 80s touch screens). He happens to be out of the room (though without his shoes) when a bunch of German guys with machine guns attack the party and take everyone hostage. Hans Gruber (Rickman) has led the attack with an elaborate plan taking into account everything the police and FBI will do in response, but has failed to figure on one persistent dude climbing around in the parts of the building that are still under construction. It is not, in fact, a terrorist attack, but an attempted robbery of $600 million. McClane proceeds to pick the bad guys off in ones and twos in a series of action scenes, all the while chatting on a CB radio with Gruber as well as a sympathetic LA cop (Reginald VelJohnson, cast as the police officer dad on the sitcom Family Matters on the basis of this role) outside. Numerous bouts of machine gun fire, impressive explosions and a couple of helicopter crashes later, the day is saved, McClane gets his wife back (she even is going to use his name again), and in one of the great pure stunts in the movies, Hans Gruber falls out a 30th story window to his death. According to director John McTiernan, he achieved the famous shot of Rickman’s shocked face as he lets go by convincing Rickman, who had never done a major stunt before, to do the fall himself into a large cushion (something a lot of stunt men wouldn’t even have tried), then not telling him exactly when he would actually be dropped.

Die Hard has developed something of a reputation as a “perfect” action movie, at least in construction. I think there may be something to be said about the weird character arcs in this movie that you wouldn’t necessarily see today. McClane’s big thing he’s learned at the end of the movie is that maybe it’s OK that his wife has a career (ya think, dumbass?), she has learned that she should take his last name again (OK), and Reginald VelJohnson’s police officer has gotten over his fear of firing his gun (um). Though reviews were not universally raves at the time (Roger Ebert, for example, thought it was OK but derided how “aggressively useless” most of the characters not played by Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman are), its popularity led to action movies being pitched for years as “Die Hard in/on a” blank. Speed was pitched as Die Hard on a bus. Under Siege is Die Hard on a battleship. Air Force One is Die Hard on a plane. Sudden Death is Die Hard in a football stadium. And so on. Bruce Willis claimed to have been pitched “Die Hard in a skyscraper” years later, to which he replied, “I think someone’s done that already.” This seems like a joke, but I think that person may have eventually gotten to make their movie, as 2018’s Skyscraper, starring Dwayne Johnson. 

This was also the biggest hit in the career of its director, John McTiernan, who was one of the biggest proponents of those brawny action flicks Die Hard was, at least in some measure, rebelling against. Most of his movies are cut from the same cloth (i.e. involving copious amounts of machine guns), but some were extremely successful (Die Hard, Predator, The Hunt for Red October), while others were massive duds (The Last Action Hero, the 2000 re-make of Rollerball). McTiernan’s directing career ended abruptly shortly after the release of Basic (starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) in 2003 when he was sentenced to prison for his role in illegal wiretapping of a number of individuals by a private investigator, including both his ex-wife during their divorce proceedings and a studio executive with whom he was having disputes about the creative direction of Rollerball. He was released after about a year, but has not found himself back in Hollywood’s good graces… secretly wiretapping your boss will do that, I guess.

But I digress. This is an extremely fun movie that has aged pretty well over the years. I don’t think it’s controversial to find Willis’ somewhat more human action hero a major improvement over the literal bodybuilders who were getting these roles prior to him. Launching both Willis and Rickman career’s would merit Die Hard’s inclusion in Movie Valhalla all on its own, but that it’s also a ridiculous blast doesn’t hurt.  

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