Die Hard (1988)

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Director: John McTiernan

Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver (Fox, Gordon, Silver)

Writers: Roderick Thorp (novel), Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (screenplay)

Photography: Jan de Bont

Music: Michael Kamen

Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, De’voreaux White, William Atherton, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta, Alexander Godunov, Bruno Doyon, Andreas Wisniewski, Clarence Gilyard Jr., Joey Plewa

For action movie fans, Die Hard is a sacred textbook of the best the genre has to offer. It stands as the birth of the action film as we know it today, a dubious title to hold, considering all the junk that’s followed. But Die Hard did it first and did it better, a true credit to director John McTiernan, who cut his chops on the Schwarzenegger action flick Predator (1987) and went on to make The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999).

Die Hard has it all — a trailer-made title, renegade cop spitting catchphrases and taking names, a pack of killer terrorists with fingers firmly on their triggers, dozens of hostages, a 40-floor skyscraper, SWAT teams, RVs, missles, machine guns and “enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Swarzenegger.” In 2007, Entertainment Weekly voted Die Hard the greatest action movie ever made.

In a setup similar to The Towering Inferno (1974), Die Hard plays out in an explosive Los Angeles high-rise. It’s there that New York Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives to visit the company Christmas party of his long-distance wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who has just recently reverted to her maiden name. But McClane isn’t the only surprise guest. A group of terrorists, led by ruthless Russian mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his brutish henchman Karl (Alexander Godunov), overtake the building, execute Holly’s boss, hold the employees hostage and vie for $640 million in bearer bonds locked in the building’s vault.

It just so happens that Det. McClane was in the bathroom at the time of the attack, ironic considering Willis shoots John Travolta in the bathroom in Pulp Fiction (1994). Since he was busy flushing, he’s the only one the terrorists haven’t accounted for, and thus the only one who can save the day. Forming his own one-man wrecking crew, Willis begins picking off terrorists and keeping the death tally on his arm. He also orchestrates a rescue mission via walkie-talkie with local L.A. patrolman, Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), while the rest of the SWAT officers jerk around through bureaucracy down on the ground. Add Holly’s scumbag co-worker Ellis (Hart Bochner), a scoop-at-all-costs TV reporter (William Atherton), an always-wrong FBI director (Paul Gleeson) and McClane’s limo driver (De’voreaux White), and you have a night of complete chaos.

The film served as a career-maker for many, including Rickman, who would go on to play Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films (2001-2011), and VelJohnson, who would play Carl Winslow, the Mr. Wilson to Urkel’s Dennis the Menace, on TV’s Family Matters (1989). But none saw greater career impact than Willis, who boomed from familiar TV personality to superstar of the silver screen.

In 1987, Willis had won an Emmy for his role as wiseguy detective David Addison Jr. on the TV series Moonlighting (1985), but his transition to the big screen had failed miserably with the romantic comedy Blind Date (1987). Die Hard gave him a second chance and he ran with it, shouting yippee-kay-yay all the way to the bank. Though certainly not his best film (Pulp Fiction) or even his best performance (The Sixth Sense), the role of John McClane is certainly his most famous. Originally offered to Schwarzenegger, the part of McClane now seems impossible to imagine on anyone else. Willis is badass personified in his bloody bare feet, black slacks and dirty white wifebeater, so iconic as to be voted #46 in Premiere‘s 100 Greatest Movie Characters.

Not to be outdone, Rickman’s Hans Gruber placed #46 on a different list, the AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains, one spot ahead of Tony Mantana (Scarface). Every great hero needs a formidable opponent, and the film’s most memorable moments come when McClane and Gruber match wits. When Gruber orders his henchmen to “shoot ze glass,” it creates a broken glass obstacle for McClane’s exposed feet. And when Gruber mocks McClane as a dumbed-down American — “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child, another orphan of a bankrupt culture that thinks he’s John Wayne, Rambo, Marshall Dillon” — McClane runs with it. 

Of course, Gruber was not far off, as Willis played Tom Mix in the western Sunset (1988) that same year. But Willis embraces the modern cowboy concept, taking the alias “Roy,” as in Roy Rogers, duels Gruber in High Noon (1952) trivia, and unleashes the film’s most memorable quote — “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf*cker!” — voted #96 on Premiere‘s 100 Movie Lines. Throughout, McClane manages to drop little bits of humor amidst the giant destruction, pioneering the genre in that respect.

Needless to say, the film was a visual breakthrough, earning Oscar nominations for Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Film Editing and Sound. Die Hard is packed with edge-of-your-seat action stunts: a body flying out the window of a building and landing on a cop car; terrorists blowing up a SWAT RV with a rocket launcher; McClane’s makeshift explosive chair dropping down an elevator shaft; and the rooftop helicopter shootout, culminating with McClane’s dive off the side of the building using a fire hose as a waist harness.

Of course, some of these stunts are entirely unbelievable, as is the idea that a single man could defeat an entire terrorist group single-handedly,  but such things are more easily forgiven in the action genre. In a comedy, we wouldn’t say, “Chaplin can’t possibly be that clumsy;” we accept it because of the genre. And so, action flicks should be cut some slack when it comes to over-the-top explosions.

The problem is that too many focus so much on the big effects that they leave the rest of the film hollow. Die Hard may not be the most substantitve film ever made, but it does create compelling characters. Gruber does not come out and announce his dastardly plans like some Bond villain, but rather disguises his motives quite well and proves adept at thinking on the fly, right down to changing his accent. Likewise, McClane isn’t your typical action hero; he breaks the rules with vigilante justice. At one point, a terrorist says, “You won’t hurt me. You’re a policeman. There are rules for policemen,” just moments before McClane beats him to death.

Still, the glue holding the whole things together is the McLane-Holly relationship. Both characters are utterly sympathetic as parents of two children trying to hold together a long-distance relationship strained by the clashing lifestyles of a blue-collar male cop and a white-collar businesswoman. It’s the type of family conflict perfect for the late ’80s, when gender roles were really beginning to shift in corporate America.

Adding a little flavor to all this is the festive Christmas backdrop, a time when McClane and Holly want to resolve their differences all the more. Like Lethal Weapon (1987) the year before, Die Hard sprinkles holiday ornaments among the terror, and mixes Christmas tunes with the nail biting score (gotta love Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”). McTiernan also includes musical excerpts from action peers like Aliens (1986) and Man on Fire (1987), not to mention recurring echoes of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as an attempt to relate Gruber’s men to the gang in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). You’ll notice Gruber humming the tune as he first arrives to the high-rise.

The critical reaction was, and continues to be, extraordinarily positive. I dare you to find another action flick that polls this well with critics, including a 92% on rottentomatoes, #39 on AFI’s 100 Thrills and a coveted spot on Vanity Fair’s Top 50 of All-Time. The popular embrace was no less significant, as moviegoers ate up the tagline: “It will blow you through the back wall of the theater!” The pyrotechnic blockbuster raked in $83 million at the box office in the summer of 1988, and added another $419 million domestically across four sequels: Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013).

Aside from the third installment with Samuel L. Jackson, the sequels were largely a waste of time, dragging the once proud Die Hard name through the pop culture mud in the way that the Rocky sequels tarnished the reputation of a character who once scored a Best Picture upset. But sequels or no sequels, the original Die Hard will forever remain a landmark moment in the evolution of the action genre. When critics ripped Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down (2012), they used Die Hard as their measuring stick, calling both films, “Die Hard at the White House.” It’s the one action flick everyone can get on board with. As one tagline suggests, the film has “suspense, excitement and adventure, on every level.”

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