Die Hard (1988)
Release Date: July 20th, 1988 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John McTiernan Actors: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald Veljohnson, Alan Rickman, Robert Davi, Alexander Godunov
n Christmas Eve, New York police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) heads to L.A.’s Nakatomi Plaza to meet his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and hopefully patch up their relationship. But things take an unexpected turn for the worse when the building is taken over by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his band of terrorists, who intend on robbing the more than $600 million in bearer bonds held within its vault. What they didn’t plan on was rogue cop McClane eluding capture and craftily waging a one-man war in an attempt to both rescue his wife and save the day.
Whether it’s the first of its kind or simply the best, “Die Hard” turned Willis into an instant screen hero and punched several lasting staples into the genre – even though the early ‘80s already contributed instrumentally in shaping the principals of future action projects. The lone wolf motif, wherein the protagonist is faced with insurmountable odds and virtually no help (McClane’s sidekicks are on the outside and can provide very limited physical assistance), was perfected with a steady relinquishing of antagonistic control (little wins) over several seemingly inescapable situations. And the flawed lead character acting courageously, particularly when it goes against natural survival instincts, as well as the right-guy-in-the-wrong-place concept, are sharply implemented. Adding further to the setups are the cryptic motives of the villains, with deception playing a vital role in the takeover – despite expected interference and acknowledgement from the authorities (a theme carried even further in the third installment of the franchise). Just as Gruber never knows what McClane will do next, the antagonists’ preparations for law enforcement (and their handling of hostage scenarios) and ultimate escape strategy remain a mystery, forcing the detective to piece the clues together as he dispatches thugs. And the audience is very much along for the ride.
A refreshing dose of cynical humor, mostly through snappy one-liners and Gruber’s surprising formidability and adaptability, inserts itself between gunshots and bloody violence. With such a clever juxtaposition of wit and fiery explosions, oftentimes an adrenaline rush segues directly into a hearty laugh. And, of course, the inclusion of unrelenting action sequences sets “Die Hard” apart from less mesmerizing attempts at shoot-‘em-ups, including Schwarzenegger’s “Commando,” for which “Die Hard” was originally pitched as a sequel. Buildings erupt, helicopters crash, and police cars become Swiss cheese, all with Academy Award-nominated visual and sound effects, and editing. There’s also an obvious bitterness toward ineffective law enforcement hierarchy and the press, commenting simultaneously on the incompetency of federal organizations and the harmful interference and manipulation of the media – interesting thoughts to be inserted in this kind of film.
While many may remember “Die Hard” for its nonstop intensity, the truly unique foundations that elevate it above any other in the genre are the careful development and added eccentricities of the characters. The protagonist is an antihero of sorts, as he defies orders and, in true vigilante fashion, disposes of the gunmen in a manner befitting the title. However, through his talks with ally Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), viewers are introduced to a man with a very relatable life. He has two kids he rarely sees, marital problems exasperated by a quick temper, and jurisdictional conflicts through authorities that neither want nor respect his efforts (the FBI, stereotypically exemplified by an amusing supporting performance by Robert Davi, is at times more callous than Gruber and his cohorts). McClane is also smart, inventive, and quick on his feet (even when the floors are covered with glass), and suffers physical damage during the ordeals – quite unlike many of the competing action roles of the time. In many ways, he’s moderately realistic instead of bombastically larger-than-life.
Of course, action heroes can’t exist without villains, and one of the finest bad guy performances ever to grace the screen emerges with Alan Rickman’s ingenious portrayal of Hans Gruber. He’s suave, sophisticated, cracks jokes, quotes literature, and can even sport an American accent when it suits him. He does kill ruthlessly, but with a cleverly sardonic air (“I’m going to count to 3. There will not be a 4.”). As much as McClane toys with the terrorists, Gruber jibes back, creating a devious contest of repartees and wills. In a mass of mindless movie villains that serve only as obstacles to be defeated, such a scathingly intelligent nemesis grandly stands out.
Director John McTiernan has crafted a spectacularly thrilling film, possessing enough brains to match its brawn. High-octane showdowns, quotable catchphrases (“Yippee ki-yay…”), and an enthralling basis for claustrophobic adventure (adapted closely from Roderick Thorp’s “Nothing Lasts Forever,” a novel that was actually a sequel to 1966’s “The Detective”) easily allow “Die Hard” to reach the upper echelons of hard-hitting entertainment. As one of the most influential actioners of all time, spawning a lucrative blockbuster series, it also serves as a bible of sorts for every subsequent explosion-filled epic. And it’s also a surprisingly appropriate Christmas (or anti-Christmas) flick for the holidays.
– The Massie Twins