[With A Good Day to Die Hard set to open this Thursday, we’ll be taking a look back at the first four Die Hard movies. These reviews will contain spoilers since the movies have been out for years.]
When I hear the words “best action movie”, I immediately think of Die Hard. No other film even comes close. It is pure action removed from sci-fi or any other genre. Even though there were plenty of blockbuster action movies in the 1980s, Die Hard is unique in how it constantly puts its hero at a massive disadvantage. To the extent that a blockbuster will allow, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is the everyman. Schwarzenegger and Stallone were the physically imposing heroes, but Willis brought a scrappy quality to McClane even though the character’s actions verged on superhuman. Although he’s very hard to kill, McClane is both the reluctant hero and the ideal 1980s American hero. From its unforgettable protagonist, Die Hard took on an identity that made it distinct and enduring.
In case you haven’t seen Die Hard, never admit this fact to anyone. Simply rush out to see the film as quickly as possible. There are far too many ways to see a movie in the digital age, so just set aside two hours and go watch it right now.
After quickly dealing with the necessary amount of exposition, Die Hard quickly moves to the action once Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his band of thieves storm Nakatomi Tower about twenty minutes in. Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza‘s screenplay puts McClane at a huge disadvantage by stripping of his shoes, which is both slightly comical and a set-up for a brutal payoff later in the film when glass rips his feet to shreds. Shoeless, shirtless, and armed only with his service pistol, McClane is hopelessly outgunned, and as we can see from some of the burlier henchman—most notably Karl (Alexander Godunov)—he’s physically outmatched as well. In fact, from the very first fight, we see him clinging on to Karl’s brother, Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), and able to come out victorious by basically falling down a flight of stairs.
While can’t forget John McClane’s big heroics in the film, it’s important to remember that McClane spends the first half trying to get help. He’s not macho in the conventional sense of, “It’s all up to me to stop this,” but being a professional that calls in the cavalry. McClane is even reluctant to be in Los Angeles. Strangely, the terrorist attack puts McClane back in his element. We see his New York personality completely out of touch with the freewheeling Los Angelinos, but once gets to be a cop, there’s always a sense of control no matter how crazy things get. He’s quick, he’s resourceful, he’s clever, and he’s got a dark sense of humor (“Now I’ve got a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”).
But he doesn’t want to be there. He’s panicked, he’s scared, but he pushes on anyway. That’s a key element to remember, and his fear (the very first shot is McClane gripping his armrest on the airplane), helps make him such a compelling hero. Repeatedly referred to as a “cowboy”, there is a rebellious side to McClane, but there’s also the sense of duty. We have no doubt that John wants to save his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), but he handles the situation like a professional so he can save all the hostages. Again, he doesn’t think the best way to do that is to charge in guns blazing. That’s for Rambo or Schwarzenegger (both are referenced by name in the film). McClane needs help, but his ability to keep fighting on his own is part of the individualism that exemplifies the American character.
The American Identity is fluid and changes depending on the time period, but the events of Die Hard speak to the conservative values of the Reagan era with regards to government intrusion. The film is the celebration of the individual in spite of overwhelming odds to succeed, and government only gets in the way. It’s good to have the honest cops like Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) on the streets, but idiot superiors Robinson (Paul Gleason) and the FBI agents Big Johnson (Robert Davi) and Little Johnson (Grand L. Bush) have no idea what they’re doing. Even fighting in Vietnam is a subject for ridicule when Big Johnson happily shouts to Little Johnson, “Whooo! Just like Saigon!” as they fly in a chopper over Nakatomi, and Little Johnson responds, “I was in junior high, dickhead.” Those bad times are over, and now it’s time to rely on an ingenious, hard-working American to take care of business (in the building of a global mega-corporation, no less).
Furthermore, in addition to Hans, most of the villains are European, and well-financed Europeans at that (“judging by their clothes and cigarettes”). Hans is the perfect foil for McClane since both characters are smart and charismatic, but whereas McClane is the hardscrabble American, streetwise, and uncouth, Hans is foreign, cultured, and refined. Most importantly, Hans is almost completely reliant on his plan and McClane is the one who improvises. It’s American ingenuity that will save the day over orthodoxy.
That’s not to say Die Hard is radically pro-business or a celebration of 1980s excess. Part of the film’s lasting appeal is how it has no patience for the indulgences of someone like Ellis (Hart Bochner) or the parasitic journalism of Richard Thornburg (William Atherton). But these characters primarily serve to highlight the character of McClane. He’s the outsider. He’s outside of Hans’ plans, he’s outside Los Angeles’ personality, and yet he’s the outsider we all identify with. Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s action heroes are mostly a hyper-fantasy ideal, but we want to see McClane as a real person.
Bruce Willis has acting range, but he will best be remembered as an action hero even though he got his first big break on the sitcom Moonlighting. That sense of comic timing carries perfectly over to Die Hard. Other action heroes may have the one-liners, but McClane gets the one-liners in addition to the quick-witted, wise-ass comebacks. Furthermore, his physique is perfect for the role since he’s muscular enough to be believable, but not imposing enough to be intimidating. Schwarzenegger and Stallone may have been the biggest action heroes of the 1980s and early 1990s, but the Willis’ model lives on today. The modern action heroes are fit, but they’re not giants.
Like the McClane-physique, the Die Hard model continues to be imitated but rarely recreated. For years after Die Hard came out, films were pitched as “Die Hard in a ____” to the point where one hapless soul probably suggested, “Die Hard in a building.” Even in 2013, twenty-five years since Die Hard hit theaters, we’re going to be seeing two “Die Hard in the White House” movies with Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down.
Even though the premise may be copied, they tend to miss all of the little moments that make Die Hard special. Obviously, the film works in its broad strokes, but I praise director John McTiernan for not only his mastery of the film’s action scenes, but for including quick shots like Al Leong‘s henchman grabbing a candy bar, McClane giving a quick hello to a topless calendar, Karl giving Theo $20 after losing the bet on Takagi giving up the code, and the SWAT member pricking himself on a rose bush. Some movies would cut these moments to reduce the runtime, but leaving them in only contributes to the film’s flavor.
For me, Die Hard is the best action film of all-time. The flick is fun to look at in historical context and its lasting impact, but above all, the movie is entertaining as hell. I watch it every Christmas, and could happily watch it throughout the year. It hits all the right emotional beats, has perfect pacing, and the technological throwbacks (A touchscreen! The limo has a VCR!) feel quaint rather than dated. Technological developments in filmmaking will continue to advance, and studios will go for safer bets (it’s worth noting that Die Hard is based on the Roderick Thorp novel “Nothing Lasts Forever”, but I’m talking about superheroes and other franchise-ready material), but Die Hard endures and will continue to endure. The film is as resilient and persistent as its hero.
[Tomorrow: Die Hard 2 and Die Hard with a Vengeance]