Dir; John McTiernan. Starring; Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia. 1988. R. Color. 132 min.
At the time of it’s release, “Die Hard” was expected to be a failure. Bruce Willis was a running joke after the awful TV series “Moonlighting”. Fox Studios owner Rupert Murdoch insisted on giving Willis a five million dollar contract, money that was almost unheard of for an actor at the time. American audiences had no reason to take this movie seriously. How could this man be the lead in an action movie? America was so wrong. Bruce Willis says to all of us “Yippie-Ki-Aye Mother Fucker”, and the rest is history. “Die Hard” is the greatest pure action movie ever made.
Like all action farce before or since, “Die Hard” is a chess match between the hero and villain. Before this film, chess matches were between a slick hero ala James Bond and a stereotypical bad guy bent on world domination. John McClane is a burnt out alcoholic husband trying to save his marriage. Hans Gruber, while he appears to care about issues in Russia, is strictly after a quick money grab. They are the ultimate anti-hero and anti-villain. This changed action movies.
Before Alan Rickman became famous for playing Professor Snape in the “Harry Potter” series, he was Hans Gruber. Director John McTiernan saw Rickman in a stage performance of “Dangerous Liaisons” and instantly knew that he had found his villain. Hans Gruber goes beyond the simple “Bond” villain archetype. He is menacing, smart, diabolical, yet never lacks a sense of humor. His plan is perfect, he just could not account for John McClane showing up.
John McClane is a washed up cop from New York. His wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) has moved across the country to Los Angeles for a better job with the hope that their two children will grow up in a healthier environment. John is desperate to save his marriage, and flies out to L.A. for Christmas. After a long flight, John takes a limo to surprise Holly at her work, only to find that she is enjoying the company Christmas party without her estranged husband. A bitter fight ensues, typical of any married couple on the verge of divorce. Just when things cannot get any worse, Hans Gruber and his team invade Nakatomi tower and hold everyone hostage. Everyone except our washed up cop.
Initially, everything is going as scripted for Hans. His crew is ready for the inevitable arrival of the police and F.B.I. This elaborate takeover is all a set up to buy time so that his main hacker can crack the vault and extract millions of dollars worth of Nakatomi stocks and assets. It will make national news of course. Before the police even realize what just happened, the bad guys will be “Sitting on an island making 20 Percent”. Too bad they messed with the wrong guy.
McClane instantly goes into action after the first gunshots are heard. He is in desperation mode, hoping to protect his wife first and foremost. As the plot thickens, John realizes he must stop these terrorists from blowing up a building and killing hundreds of people in the process.
John instinctually calls the police at his first opportunity. It’s Christmas Eve, so his 9-1-1 call seems like a joke. A chubby police sergeant named Powell (Reginald VelJohnson from “Family Matters” fame) is knee deep in doughnuts when he receives the order from dispatch to go investigate Nakatomi Plaza. Sgt. Powell enters the building, but of course Gruber already has men stationed as fake security guards to make everything seem normal. Powell decides the call is a hoax, shaking his head as he gets back into his patrol car. McClane can’t believe it, and as Powell is pulling out of the parking lot, he tosses a dead body of one of the terrorists 20 stories down directly onto his police car. “Welcome to the Party Pal!”
The police, F.B.I., and local media swarm the building within a matter of minutes. This is not quite how Hans expected everything to go down.
At no point does this film seem far-fetched or ridiculous. Obviously it is an action movie. Bad guys have an endless supply of bullets and explosives. Yet, In the context of this genre, you will never question what is happening in front of your eyes. Typical music cues or slow motion “look-how-cool-this-guy-is” tropes do not exist here. Believe it or not, this movie actually cares about the story it is telling instead of telling you how slick it is.
Established Hollywood archetypes state that ultimately every hero is smarter than the villain. John McClane is not smarter, wiser, or better than his adversary. He is, however, a driven human being. For the first time, the audience was asked to root for a regular guy as their hero. McClane embodies what everyone hopes they would do when placed in such a situation, and that is the brilliance of this film.
Numerous famous lines and scenes have come from “Die Hard”. You could say “Now I have a machine gun Ho, Ho, Ho” or “SHOOT THE GLASS!” or “It looks like the police have an RV” or the famous “Yippie-Ki-Aye Mother Fucker“. People will instantly know what film you are referring to. Fox wanted to make a big budget action picture. They had no idea they were creating an iconic masterpiece. Most classics don’t know that going in.
Several action series have tried to mimic this formula since its release in 1988. The “Fast & Furious”, “Mission: Impossible”, and “John Wick” franchises come to mind. None of these come close. “Die Hard” gave every guy who wanted to see a “guy movie” the argument to his girlfriend of how those types of films can actually be great if done well. The next time you are having a bad day, just think of John McClane. Picking glass out of his feet, off of a 12 hour flight, desperate for a cigarette, all the while being hunted by Hans Gruber. That is the hero we need and deserve.
Suck Factor: 0 out of 7 (7 means your movie really SUCKS!)
Written by Byrd
*The Suck Factor! – How it Works
I’ve flipped the switch on the standard rating system for film criticism. Instead of rating a movie with stars or letters representing how good a film is, I rank films from 0 to 7 to tell you how much a movie SUCKS! So if the film is a masterpiece, like “The Godfather” for example, then it gets a 0 on my scale, meaning the movie gives 0 SUCKS! If the movie is absolutely terrible, for instance every Michael Bay film, it scores a 7 so you know to avoid it at all costs.
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