Classic Movies: Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
Screenwriters: Jeb Stuart & Steven E. de Souza
Based on “Nothing Lasts Forever”, a novel by Roderick Thorp
Cast: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman, Paul Gleason, Reginald VelJohnson, Hart Bochner, William Atherton & James Shigeta
Runtime: 131 min // Certificate: 15
Let’s be absolutely clear about this; not only is Die Hard one of the greatest action films of all time, it’s also one of the greatest Christmas films of all time. I know there are people out there – strange, scrooge-esque little characters – who would argue that Die Hard isn’t actually a Christmas film, despite the fact that it takes place on Christmas Eve. These people are wrong. Die Hard is a film about a man who is forced to fight against the odds to ensure that he gets to see his kids on Christmas Day. It is a film about a man whose marriage has hit a rough patch, and it is a film about a man who doesn’t realise just how much he has to offer the World until everything starts to go wrong. It’s got humour, it’s got charm and it’s got a soundtrack that includes the classic hit ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ Now, if that doesn’t sound about as close to It’s a Wonderful Life as one can get then I really don’t know what does. The fact that it also involves Bruce Willis single-handedly taking down a bunch of highly-trained vault robbers with a couple of machine guns and a fuckton of plastic explosives is neither here nor there…
The story of Die Hard is both simple and effective. New York detective John McClane (Willis; Pulp Fiction) is in Los Angeles to see his estranged wife Holly (Bedelia; Salem’s Lot) and their two children for Christmas. He pays a visit to the Nakatomi Plaza to attend a Christmas party, to which Holly has invited him. After a heated exchange with his wife, John goes to get changed. Before he even gets his dinner jacket on, the plaza is overtaken by a bunch of Eastern European terrorists, led by a man named Hans Gruber (Rickman; Dogma). The terrorists take the partygoers hostage whilst McClane escapes to the floors above. From there on out, McClane must use his wits and his physical strength to take down the terrorists, rescue his wife and ensure that everyone gets home safely for Christmas. It’s a heart-warming story of human strength in the face of adversity, complete with just the right amount of festive cheer.
Now, of course, by the late eighties the action genre was going into complete overdrive. You could barely move for sweaty blokes in vests taking on entire armies with their bare hands and it was all becoming a little bit too predictable and dated. It was always tough to really care about any of the characters because the majority of them had nothing to lose, and those that did took such a flippant attitude towards their loved ones that you never really feared for them. Die Hard broke that trend in a big way. Whilst John McClane is obviously a very tough character, the film shows him at his weakest and most vulnerable on a number of occasions. It’s easy to forget, amongst the carnage and the mayhem, that the only thing he’s interested in is rescuing his wife and that much of his bravado is an act. The glimpses that we get of McClane the man, rather than McClane the action hero, are incredibly effective and help to make the character one of the most relatable and realistic that the genre has to offer, even when he’s jumping down elevator shafts and dodging fifty bullets per second. Bruce Willis, in one of his earliest film roles, gives a fantastic performance as McClane, delivering the gags like a pro but also coming up trumps when a more nuanced and dramatic approach is required. His interactions with Gruber, who is played with a slightly dodgy German accent by Rickman (quick point: whilst Rickman’s German is a little bit off, his impression of a German man trying to do an American accent, when he is pretending to be Bill Clay, is genuinely amazing), are fascinating and the two men bounce off each other effortlessly. Whilst McClane is forced into strenuous and violent bouts with Gruber’s men, his battle with Gruber himself is a battle of pure wits… and it works spectacularly.
With such strong leads, there’s always a danger that the supporting characters would be less interesting but this certainly isn’t the case with Die Hard. Holly is not the damsel in distress that we’ve come to expect from the action genre but rather she is a strong woman who knows her own mind and is just as determined as her husband to see that justice is done. She gives as good as she gets when it comes to the terrorists and she always seems to be one step ahead of them, just like her husband. Gruber’s men, meanwhile, are a varied and intriguing bunch. Some of them bring emotional attachments to the proceedings, whilst others seem reluctant to put faith in their leader and often question his plans and his motives. I’m not suggesting for a second that all of the terrorists are fully-fleshed creations or anything like that, but all twelve of them have obvious and distinct personalities, which is very nice to see. And let’s not forget all of the characters outside of the plaza, such as the Deputy Chief of Police (Gleason; The Breakfast Club) and Sergeant Al Powell (VelJohnson; Ghostbusters), the man McClane makes contact with via the radio, all of whom add something different to the film and have their own backstory that helps to push the drama along.
However, it is the little things that truly make this film a classic of the genre. I’d never noticed the significance of Gruber’s death before, despite watching the film many times, but the use of the Rolex is a fantastic touch and goes to show just how well written the film actually is. The action scenes are brilliantly choreographed and despite all of the gunfire and the explosions, they’re very easy to follow. The script is a tour de force in epicness and McClane’s cheeky persona, particularly when it is pitted against Gruber’s no-nonsense attitude, is immensely enjoyable to watch. The villains are frightening, rather than camp, and whilst there is a lot of humour in the film it never loses sight of the fact that it is primarily an action drama. The Christmas backdrop is an inspired touch and the ending is immensely satisfying, not just because the heroes win but because the non-terrorists who also turn out to be bastards get their comeuppance too (I never fail to cheer when Holly decks the news reporter in the film’s final moments).
I don’t care what anyone says, this is both my favourite action film and my favourite Christmas film. It is thoroughly enjoyable and instantly quotable and should be near the very top of everyone’s festive movie lists. It might not be the greatest or the most subtle film ever made but my God it’s certainly one of the most entertaining. If only the series had taken the same approach to things as Gruber did when he stated “I’m going to count to three. There will not be a four…” (or a five) then perhaps we would still look back on the entire franchise with the respect and admiration that it truly deserves.