Simple enough premise: John McClane, an everyday-joe NYC cop, flies out to LA. Arriving at the skyscraper his estranged wife works in, he's surprised by her company's holiday party. He's hoping to reconcile and see their children, but blunders into a tense fight instead. Alone, cooling his heels, McClane hears gunshots from the hallway. Everyone else is now a hostage, so John hides and does whatever he can: contact the police, stop the well-armed invaders, and protect his wife.
The appeal of DH is pretty obvious: the action is tense, visceral, and inventive. The cast is, from the 10-second roles to the main players, full of vivid characters that have a real impact on the viewer. The dialogue is smart, playing the situations with appropriate gravity and successful humor. The music and acting and camerawork are all great. The word "success" might have a picture of the Die Hard poster next to it.
It also has a minor bad guy who I swear looks just like Huey Lewis.
I hum a Lewis tune during Dennis Hayden's every scene.
Every aspect of the movie works. John McClane is at once a proud guy-off-the-street who we're all supposed to relate to, even as he gets pissy with his wife (she dropped her married name on the corporate directory). He's funny, handsome and charming, he's smarter than he looks. He handles a fight with bravery and heart, yet thinks about "smart tactics," not "macho bull@#@#." It's impossible to not be pulled in by his nerve, his problems and his rapidly-declining physical condition.
This is another key aspect to Die Hard - the lead will get kicked, dragged, shot, and nearly blown up. The movie's treatment of its hero is the explanation for the title - you have to be "die hard" to take the beating that this guy's got in store for him. It's something that wasn't seen so often in pictures before (like Scream did for clumsy slashers chasing their victims), and I'm not sure that any other 80's actor could carry that as well as Willis did.
Fortunately, this hero is matched by equally-appealing antagonists. Alan Rickman is great as Hans Gruber, a slick, charismatic, highly-intelligent villain. DH wins by making Hans and his multi-ethnic henchmen into vibrant and unique characters who are each funny, clever, and/or interesting in their own right.
What's shocking is the amount of charm that Rickman puts into his sociopath. His intelligence is established early on and it never really fails him, which is to the movie's credit. He's a bit scary, and it's neat to see him switch tactics, or suddenly kill. Better still, his team is not a collection of rock-dumb baddies; they're cocky, they have their own distinct personalities, and they're used well.
This 80's film connects with moviegoers because it has such a fun, foul-mouthed, wily, flawed hero. The relationships, however, help a lot - they pull people in perfectly because the roles here connect with each other. This not only helps to develop the world of the movie, it immerses the audience in the events and dynamics that occur on the screen.
John and Hans don't simply snarl cliched lines at each other, they play life-or-death games amid their banter and bullet casings. The authorities sent to rescue everyone are filled with all types, from the kind, mature Sgt. Al Powell (VelJohnson) to the self-important, politics-obsessed deputy police chief (Paul Gleeson) and the haughty, ice-cold FBI agents.
What this all boils down to is that, unlike the Star Wars Prequels, you actually care about what's going on. A real masterstroke is the cleverness of the bad guys - it creates tension and piques your interest all the more. The criminals' plan is truly impressive, unfolding to great effect as the picture goes.
Bonnie Bedelia is pretty representative of all the support cast. Bedelia's Hollie Genaro is distinct - she's smart, tough and pretty. She engages the viewer because she keeps her head on in a crisis, she has a sense of humor and she isn't a whiner or nagger; she's fleshed-out enough to be credible and to invest the audience in her role.
Hollie is also given enough to do that she never feels helpless or useless. She's no damsel-in-distress or living-plot-point. From William Atherton to Robert Davi, every actor gets something good to do. Even Argyle gets to shine, and he's a limo driver who spends the whole film in his car.
|Best sleezy jack-ass ever! He inspires more emotion than some entire movies.|
The only complaint I have here: the music for the very last action sequence is taken from Star Trek II; the volume is actually too loud, but the cue is also really overblown, so it feels wrong for this scene. And it always pulls me out of the film - "why are they playing that tune from Wrath of Khan?"
It's fortunate that this pic was early in Bruce Willis' career. He was new, and this particular sub-genre of action was new. Bruce has played this role so many times now they blur together; perhaps DH was bad for him, as he could do (and possibly has done) these roles in his sleep. In 1988 tho, he was minty-fresh. It's a cops-and-robbers movie that takes place in The Towering Inferno building, and yet Willis is really acting!
Since really everything about the picture is perfect, I should highlight the humor. From little wisecracks and quick asides (the reporter flubbing Sweden's capital) to downright satirical jokes or Bruce's curse-laden insults, the film goes to the comedy well pretty often. All of them land. Playing any one note, anything can get boring fast - DH doesn't stick to one thing, and it does everything well. Try not to laugh at the lines given to Paul Gleeson; I dare you.
Another aside I should make is that about 15 years after its release, I learned that Reginald VelJohnson (y'know, the dad from Family Matters) is gay in real life. It's not a problem for me, but it adds this phenomenal subtext to the growing relationship between his Sgt. Powell and Bruce's John McClane. It's especially true given how supportive and friendly Al is:
(comforting John, over the radio) "I love you; so do a lot of the other guys." (planning to introduce his children to John's kids) "It's a date!" (Al has just met Hollie) "You got yourself a good man. You take good care of him."
|I hope my wife's looking at the dead guy and not our hands.|
It's no surprise that this work inspired so many knockoffs. You remember Under Siege, the film where Steven Segal is a Navy Seal who's also a chef? I'm not the only who person who calls it "Die Hard + Water." Remember Passenger 57, a Wesley Snipes film with the most ridiculous dialogue? ("You like cereal?" "Yeah." "Well I always buy Count Chocula.") I call it "Die Hard + Air." The formula has been done to death now, and I can't think of a movie that did it better than this one.
Die Hard. I could spend 20 minutes talking about my favorite lines and scenes. The best things to say then: If you're looking for a thrilling action film, watch Die Hard. If you're looking for a funny action film with great characters and a totally distinct style and premise, watch Die Hard. If you want to watch a Christmastime movie that's got gunplay, humor, and a battle of wits that rivals its own onscreen violence, watch Die Hard.
I strongly recommend DH as a movie to watch anytime, with anyone (anyone who's over 12 or 14, I guess). This movie is nothing less than a national treasure, and it's all the sweeter that this counts as a Christmas film.
Wow, let's look at that trailer, huh?
Don't worry, the music here is not used in the movie.