Die Hard (1988)
I’ve never been big on action movies.
As a kid of the 80’s and 90’s, the mainstays of the action movie genre were Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, and to a lesser extent Steven Seagal. And outside of the Terminator movies, Predator, or maybe Judge Dredd (the ones with a sci-fi angle, which is my jam), not a single one of their efforts ever interested me.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate action or destructive mayhem (what kid doesn’t?), it’s just that I wasn’t into dumb and mindless action. I’ve come to appreciate certain 80’s action movies for their laughably dumb entertainment value (Cobra, Commando, Road House), but pretty much nothing from the big action he-men ever moved the needle for me in a serious, genuine way.
Thus, I never thought much about Die Hard (especially as it seems to have been in diminishing, self-fucking franchise mode for the past decade and a half). As an outside observer to action flicks, it’s been interesting to watch the revitalization of the original Die Hard’s reputation in pop culture and social media, especially around the holidays. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to finally visit the film during this holiday season.
Spoiler alert: This movie’s pretty awesome.
Ultimately, any successful film has to be about its characters. It doesn’t matter how elaborate or expensive an action set piece is if we don’t actually care about the people involved in said action. Die Hard certainly isn’t a deep or thoughtful film, but it’s as smart as an action movie needs to be, with a protagonist (and supporting characters) that is sympathetic and a memorable, effectively evil villain. With an array of action set pieces in varying degrees of scale – from hand-to-hand brawls and gigantic explosions – the rest of the film falls into place as a memorable and thrilling action adventure.
Weighing Bruce Willis against the big, bankable action stars of the period is appropriate, since Arnold and Sly were both offered the leading role in this movie but refused. Willis has been an action star now for several decades (and will conceivably be for several more), but it’s important (and difficult) to remember that in the late 80’s, he was not an action star, or even a movie star. Die Hard was not expected to be a huge success, and Willis’ name was not even prominent in any of the marketing materials prior to its release. Of course, Die Hard would prove to be a huge success, and the rest is history.
The main reason why the film works as well as it does is specifically because Willis (and ultimately, his character John McClane) is not an action star. McClane’s humanity is on full display throughout the movie in a multitude of clever ways that endear the audience to his struggles. Basically, Willis’ character is an actual human being, which can’t be said for many of the other 80’s action movie protagonists.
Although Willis’ physique is nothing to scoff at, he certainly doesn’t fit in with the hyper-masculine, testosterone-(and steroid) addled cartoon bodies sported by the likes of Arnold, Sylvester, and others. He’s about as everyman a character as is necessary for the plot. McClane is a New York City cop, but he’s not billed or mentioned as the best, or even particularly noteworthy. The entire misadventure is a great big fish-out-of-water scenario for him, as he is in an alien city (the kooky and exotic Los Angeles) and in an unfamiliar building to visit his estranged wife and kids. It’s these familial connections that further ground his character as a realistic hero to root (and fear) for.
One of the movie’s best and quirkiest choices is for McClane to spend the entire time barefoot. It’s a sublimely genius touch, as the shit hits the fan while he’s in the middle of freshening up in an executive office bathroom following an argument with his wife. Armed terrorists are storming the hallways and he is able to slip out in the nick of time, and the fact that he remains shoeless is a great and clever thematic undercurrent of his vulnerability and underdog status. Hans Gruber even cleverly exploits this weakness at one point when he and one of his henchmen make sure to shoot out all the nearby glass, forcing McClane to escape (and severely injure himself) through the broken shards.
John McClane may be a tough no-bullshit NYC cop, but he’s still a human being, and how the movie treats his first kill is telling. Willis gives a great and magnetic performance that oscillates between weariness, frantic panic, aggressive bloodlust, and genuine fear. He doesn’t even intentionally kill the first guy; it’s just the result of an unfortunate tumble down some steps. But it clearly takes something out of McClane; how could ending another life not? It couldn’t be farther from Arnold on god mode in Commando hilariously gunning down like 200 dudes without reloading or breaking a sweat. That’s just a live action murder cartoon, while Die Hard goes to painful lengths to depict the brutal reality of its violence (the early, bloody murder of Takagi sets a grim tone).
Speaking of, one of the movie’s other smartest decisions is the inclusion of Reginald VelJohnson’s character. The parallels between the two characters are subtle and their developing friendship throughout the movie helps further the emotional stakes of all the mayhem that’s happening. Like John, an unsuspecting Al is unknowingly thrust into a war zone (while also hoping to see his wife later for a quiet evening). Having accidentally killed a person himself, he’s self-exiled to desk duty out of fear of doing it again. Connecting McClane to someone on the outside gives the action scenes some room to breathe and establishes a satisfying rhythm to the film. Their scenes ultimately become the high points of the film and the dialogue approaches a certain delicious hamminess, but VelJohnson and Willis are able to sell it admirably.
By contrast, these two unlikely heroes are surrounded by a bunch of uncaring and unsympathetic law assholes who only manage to bungle a very delicate situation. Although both John and Al are law enforcement themselves, their attitudes and actions effectively make them vigilantes and outcasts to the LAPD, and later the FBI when they show up. Of course the LAPD chief is played by Paul Gleason; his character is a generally clueless hardass who seems more suited to grumbling and assigning blame than actually leading (in one hilarious sequence, he repeats what Al is suggesting verbatim as if he’s coming up with it himself; VelJohnson’s eyeroll is priceless).
The FBI show up, and their two agents are a smidge more professional, but end up being barely concerned for the lives of the hostages, unknowingly give Gruber access to the vault contents, and get themselves killed in an ill-fated maneuver. There’s something sadly prescient about seeing the inherent, systemic difficulties in being a Good Cop play out here.
I’ve always found acute enjoyment in resourceful heroes, and watching McClane cleverly tackle situations is immensely satisfying. Bracing his weapon against the duct entrance and lowering himself into a bottomless chasm is a genuinely nail-biting sequence. The action does not disappoint, and director John McTiernan lends the same sweaty intensity he brought to Predator. None of it is especially mind-blowing creatively, but again, because we’re invested in the character even relatively mundane feats like hanging out on top of the elevator and jotting down the bad guy’s names on his arms with a Sharpie feel like genius moves.
The Nakatomi Plaza Tower makes for a dynamic and interesting setting. Just as the mall setting of Dawn of the Dead was a window into the accelerating consumerism in U.S. culture, the tower setting here (and in other movies like Gremlins 2) is an interesting landmark of the growing corporatization of the time. And much like the Gremlins sequel, Nakatomi Tower has a dense infrastructure of at-the-time futuristic technology (touch screen directory!) that the villains and heroes exploit. Centering in one general location heightens the tension in an effective way, and the movie visually communicates the claustrophobia that McClane feels effectively.
Again, McClane’s humanity and vulnerability are center stage as he becomes increasingly filthy and injured throughout. One of the most effective insights I’ve heard as far as fictional heroes is from Bruce Timm (creator of the Batman and Superman animated series in the 90’s). Speaking of Superman, he said that when Superman struggles, the audience struggles along with him. There’s no fun or enjoyment in watching an action hero effortlessly mow down nameless bad guys without taking on any physical or emotional damage themselves.
When dealing with the villains, McClane is all New York big dick tough guy energy, but the most effective scenes are him hurting and drained from the constant battles he finds himself in. It’s why his scenes with Al are a welcome reprieve from these bloody affairs – a sympathetic ear allows Willis’ character to express his vulnerability. The moments of physical and emotional weakness give the action scenes more punch, because we see how much McClane is having to gather and steel himself for the next task on diminishing reserves.
The most intense of these are when an emotionally exhausted and tearful McClane asks Powell to deliver a list of regrets and apologies to his wife. Willis is appropriately shirtless as he bares his soul to a virtual stranger on the other end of his walkie talkie, prepared to not make it through the ordeal. Showing the hero scared and nearly broken seems wildly out of place for an action movie of the period, which is totally a good thing. In fact, screenwriter Jeb Stuart had no previous experience writing action movies, and focused on the emotional stakes of the characters to the film’s benefit.
Of course, the late Alan Rickman is great as the devious Hans Gruber. His character proves to be as clever and resourceful as Willis’ is, as in the scene where he fakes being a hostage when cornered by McClane (it was a later addition in the filming process, inspired when Rickman was overheard doing an American accent). That these supposed terrorists all end up being uncommon thieves relieves the movie of any political implications or baggage, and makes for a simpler and more effective affair (and I like that the getaway guy with the loot gets foiled by the limo driver).
So ultimately, Die Hard was not what I was expecting of an 80’s action flick. The genre has always been tied to the idea of macho male power fantasies, where a physically and emotionally invulnerable hero can impose his cruel order on one-dimensional bad guys without consequence. Die Hard seems about as far removed from that as possible, while still being a violent (but entertaining) movie. As the 80’s were coming to an end, Hollywood seemed to be moving away from the emotionless musclemen that dominated action movies of that decade to more personality-driven properties like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon (another film and series I have almost no experience with).
Die Hard seems novel in that although the hero hurts (and kills) plenty of people like previous action stars, he can’t do so without getting hurt in the process. Much of the 80’s American culture is typified be a certain callousness and ruthlessness, a la the birth of high-earning yuppie culture (depicted in Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street) and Ronald Reagan’s war on everything decent and democratic. And copious amounts of cocaine! Die Hard even has an asshole yuppie cokehead character who arrogantly tries to Art of the Deal the villain and earns a bullet in the head for it. It’s a not-so-subtle signal that the amoral, debaucherous high of the decade was drawing to a close and would make way for a more sensitive and culturally-aware 90’s (I like that when finally meeting face to face, John and Al hug and laugh like old friends).
Bruce Willis’ John McClane hardly seems like a paragon of sensitivity, but compared to The Terminator or Marion Cobretti, he’s practically cuddly. McClane is a relatable human being thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and his affable charm is one of the reasons why I think Die Hard has endured so strongly in pop culture and become a holiday tradition. It may end up becoming one of mine.