Saturday, December 24, 2011

Die Hard, My 2011 Holiday Movie

Everyone knows that Die Hard is set at Christmas, and, like Jaws 4 last year, it seemed a perfect choice for my holiday reviewing. Die Hard is one of the best action films ever, the picture that elevated Bruce Willis from rising popularity on a hit TV show to one of America's most successful movie stars. In short, being Die Hard means never disappointing anyone in the audience.

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.

Best of all, these actors and actresses run through a movie with good pacing, real stakes, and genuine tension. You can film great or visually-exciting action sequences, but the most effective ones make you feel worried or triumphant or relieved as someone is threatened. By rooting itself so firmly and completely in these unique characters, DH gives all the excitement a genuine purpose and weight that is lacking in other blockbusters.

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 soundtrack is nearly all instrumental and it's very good. Only three songs appear and they're all Christmas tunes - "Let It Snow," "Winter Wonderland," and (my favorite) "Christmas in Hollis" by Run DMC. The music used throughout the picture is fun to listen to, and perfectly supports the movie. Lots of what I call "the Walter Hill jingle" is used, and the music stings are perfect, never overbearing. Die Hard also has the best ever cinematic use of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy." The different ways that parts of it are included in the picture is really quite cool.

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 only makes this movie more awesome. John McTiernan did a superb "show-don't-tell-job" and should get his own day for his work as director - by which I mean "everybody should stand up and clap or pray or something for 1 minute every July 15th in honor of his contribution to society and film-making." Surely, similar love should be shown for writers Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stewart; in fact, I may read the basis for DH, Nothing Lasts Forever, a Roderick Thorp novel. My god, that man must be so proud.

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.

I could take all day discussing 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.


  1. Great review! Die Hard is really the quintessential Christmas movie for anyone who doesn't want to get stuck watching a claymation Rudolph on repeat. Bruce Willis is God. That is all. You hit on every awesome point, so I've got nothing to add, just that I'm definitely going to give this a shout out on my obligatory giving back for Christmas post. Good stuff!

  2. Thanks so much! But the embarrassing part is that you commented before I was done fixing the photo layout and fleshing out a few paragraphs.

    This is one of my favorites, and I hope I wrote a review worthy of it =)

  3. Ahahaha, even better! The sleazy jack-ass photo is brilliant--just that smile says everything you ever need to know about his character, really.

  4. Funny, my friends and I always used to refer to that guy as "the Huey Lewis guy." We also developed a cult fascination with the long-haired Asian thug, played by actor Al Leong. Al Leong shows up in that role in about 25 different movies.

    As you know I wrote about this on my blog, and I wanted to mention the one unintentionally funny moment with Alan Rickman, but forgot. Do you get a little chuckle out of the scene where he runs out of the office and fires the gun in the air, shot from about 20 feet above? It makes it clear exactly how un-macho Rickman is -- as he's pointing the gun in the air, he's unconsciously posing his body in such a way that it seems like he's a ballet dancer picking up a gun for the first time. I don't know, maybe I'm the only one who noticed that.

  5. I'm so glad I'm not alone in my visions of Lewis! Asian dude was in Big Trouble in Little China, along with a host of other pix.

    I liked your article! Yeah, it bothers me every now and then, depending on my mood. When it does, I pretend he was auditioning for Cats at the time. It's a very fey pose. What always stands out to me is the very euro way he holds his cig.


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