By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Reginald VelJohnson, Hart Bochner and Paul Gleeson.
Back in 1988, two things were on the cusp of exploding: the action genre and Bruce Willis’ career. Both of these explosions were caused by the brilliantly thrown grenade from that year: a little film called Die Hard. It is safe to assume without it, one or both these matches might have burnt out years ago. After all, the only thing Willis was known for at that time was starring in the TV show Moonlighting with Cybil Shepard. Sure, people could sink their teeth into consistent action output from the still thriving careers of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. But people were starved for something new. Something original. And when Willis goes from verbally squabbling with his wife to a life or death rescue mission within a matter of minutes, audiences were glued like Elmer’s and addicted like alcoholics. Watching it today, I can see why. Its thrills are fast & consistent and its action is smart & encompassing. But perhaps the most interesting thing that keeps people coming back is the fact that it has two of the most likable characters in the history of film. One of them being our hero John McClane (Willis). The other just happens to be the film’s villain (Rickman.)
Die Hard was different from most action films at the time in that it had a masterful script (by Steven De Souza, based on a book by Roderick Thorp) to work from. There are moments that the film uses to introduce situations, which later on build to satisfying conclusions. McClane making fists with his toes after a passenger tells him it helps with flight anxiety. Ellis’ Rolex watch gift to Holly. Holly and John’s marriage problems. It is a script that has pay offs, but doesn’t talk down to its audience. Most of these moments are established in the admittedly slow first fifteen minutes or so of the movie. But these character driven struggles are what helps us root for McClane. Of course, none of this would be happening if we did not have a likable star in the role. And that is what we have here. Willis is set apart as a guy who is not built like an ox or excels in martial arts. In fact, this is exposed in a fight that takes place near the end of the film. Godunov’s punches and kicks are thrown with grace, while Willis is all grit and adrenaline. It’s a subtle yet effective character trait that helps drill home he is in fact at a physical disadvantage. Perhaps most importantly though, it makes the story that much better.
Bedelia is perfect as Holly. Strong and stern, she is not the bimbo in peril that the majority of these movies carry. She is strong-willed, and when she steps up to the plate to face Gruber with demands for the hostages (of which, with the murder of her boss, she is now in charge of) you are right there in her corner. VelJohnson is terrific as Twinkie loving Sgt Al Powell, the only man who believes McClane is on the good side. Bochner is fantastic as sleazy coke head yuppie Ellis (‘you missed some‘) and you can’t help but smile when the FBI shows up and Powell asks his not as smart as he thinks he is boss Gleeson if he wants a breath mint. Too many characters? Maybe. However each and every one of them have their moment in the sun, which was a nice change of pace from Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s individuality. Hell, even Argyl the limo driver gets some guaranteed added at the last-minute heroics in. But as nicely as these characters are drawn, they all didn’t even come close to being the Picasso painting the film’s head villain turned out to be.
Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber may be the biggest thing that sets Die Hard apart from anything that had come before (or, I would argue, since.) While Stallone and Schwarzenegger were facing loud imposing dummies, Willis was busy going head to head against the smartest, easiest going bad guy to ever grace the screen. It still boggles the mind that this was Rickman’s major film debut, as his humming of ‘Ode to Joy‘ in an elevator and rattling off of powerful prisoners he saw on 60 Minutes as ransom almost endears you to him. Yet, his shooting of Takagi (Holly’s boss) and Ellis make you realize he means business. Rickman walks this line so well that, in my opinion, the tight rope act he pulls off still has not been matched. Yet, all of this would have been for naught if it had not been for the film’s direction.
Along with Predator the year before, this may be director John McTiernan’s finest moment. A film that takes place in a multi story building could have gotten redundant real fast. But McTiernan does a great job of establishing geography so that we know where we are at all times. From a blood splattered window on one floor, a locker of Playboy pinups on another and yet another one that is under construction, we always know where we are. He also sparingly uses things such as lens flares and vision-blurring steam very effectively, as they build an amazing amount of tension. McTiernan directs his action in a way that I had not seen before yet have witnessed many attempted duplications since. Scenes such as a shoot out on a roof and a slow motion kill that is preceded with red splattered pants & concluded by landing face first through glass were absolutely positively perfected by a master. Up and down, side to side, you will not find a better action film than Die Hard. The film’s action filled pay offs, Michael Kamen’s expertly done score and not a groaner among them one liners were genre changing. I have said it many times. Great scripts never age. And this is one film that, no matter how many years go by and how many times it is on TV, I will sit and watch it with just as much excitement as when it was first released. TV dinner in tow, of course.
5 out of 5