Die Hard (1988), Lookback/Review

Welcome to Die Hard: All Week Long.

Yippie-ki-yay! 

This week marks the fifth Die Hard flick and the return of everyman action icon, John McClane. With Bruce Willis and his fully grown, movie son battling Russian evils this Valentine’s Day (how sweet), we at Den of Geek are pulling out all the stops to celebrate the Die Hard legacy. So, what better place to start than with the film that launched TV actor Willis to superstardom and spawned a generation of copycats? It’s time to take your shoes off, make fists with your toes and hit the happy trail to the Nakatomi Building. 

Die Hard is one of the great examples of cinematic classics that almost weren’t. Few likely know that the screenplay for the film is closely based on the novel, Nothing Lasts Forever. Written by Roderick Thorp, it’s the tale of retired NYPD cop Joe Leland. If that name sounds familiar, then you are likely a fan of bad obscure star vehicles from the 1960s. Leland, the basis for McClane, appeared in another novel entitled The Detective. That book was adapted in 1968 into one of cinema’s first R-rated films…starring the incomparably stiff Frank Sinatra. That’s right, Ol’ Blue Eyes played a version of McClane before Willis did. Better still, Frankie was offered the starring role of Die Hard in the 1980s. Can you imagine the Chairman of the Board in his 70s trucking it around the Nakatomi building with shards of glass in his feet?!

After Sinatra wisely stepped away from the project, Fox struggled to find a new premise. There was talk of making it a sequel to Commando (1985), the film about Arnold Schwarzenegger killing every mercenary in South America with nothing but his muscles to rescue a baby Alyssa Milano. The thought of Arnold saying “Yippie-ki-yay…” still makes me giggle. But Fox ultimately (and wisely) opted for a standalone film called Die Hard. Many aspects of the novel changed, such as Leland’s hostaged daughter becoming his hostaged wife and the aging cop becoming a young detective on Christmas vacation. They even took away the political element of the building being owned by an evil 1970s oil corporation and changed it to a satirical 1980s Japanese one. Yet, it kept much of the book’s firepower and the adrenaline that attracted the studio for so many years. And can you really imagine anyone else but Bruce Willis as John?

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The movie’s simple premise has been copied and ripped off so much that to attempt a synopsis seems foolish. But, like the protagonist, I’m bullheaded enough to try anyways…NYPD’s John McClane (Willis) is in a bad place when he makes the Christmas Eve flight to the West Coast. His estranged wife took a great job, along with their kids, to LA and left her married name back east. Holly GENNARO (Bonnie Bedelia) is a career woman on the rise in Nokatomi’s American branch. Instead of meeting hubby at the airport, she sends limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White) to pick him up. John, still recovering from the stress of flying, can do nothing at his wife’s corporate Christmas party but argue. As he attempts to relieve all his pent up stress by taking off his shoes, some Euro trash Scrooges posing as terrorists run in and ruin the whole evening by holding everyone at gunpoint.

The leader of this posh group of villains is Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), an egotistical genius with literally killer deadpan. He claims this is a political ransom for some zany Eastern European cause. In reality, he and his rainbow coalition of thugs only want to rob Nokatomi’s safe and will kill all the hostages as a simple diversion. The only man who can stop them? A barefoot McClane who, hidden on the upper floors, is willing to go guerilla warfare on them to save his wife. With the eventual help of the LAPD’s one semi-smart cop, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), McClane haphazardly figures out Hans’s evil double-blind scheme and takes the so called terrorists out one at a time. Before Santa’s ride is done that night, John is going to light that building up brighter than the Griswold Christmas Tree and be painted with a festive red of his own making. All of this and more to win back the heart of Holly and bring some holiday cheer to Los Angeles.

I’m just going to come out and say what everyone should already know. Die Hard is one of the most awesome, entertaining and perfectly crafted action movies ever made. It’s simple premise of a lone everyman having to battle terrorists in a skyscraper is a clever, economical premise that we have seen a bazillion times in the last 25 years. Think Die Hard on a bus (Speed), Die Hard on a mountain (Cliffhanger), Die Hard on a plane (Con Air), Die Hard on another plane (Air Force One) and you get the idea. But nothing beats an original. From the opening shots of John McClane nervously taking in his Hollywood landing as the loud mouth next to him talks about toe fists, we are invested in this guy’s plight. The fact that he is willing to put up with annoying air travel and embarrassingly lug around a big teddy bear for his daughter immediately endears him to the audience and puts us in his shoes. From there, every small detail has a pay off somewhere down the line. Indeed, this movie could be viewed as an entire class on the storytelling concept of Chekov’s Gun, except that when the class ended, everyone would call it McClane’s Feet or Nakatomi’s Elevator.

A tricky thing about setting a film in a confined space is keeping everything visually interesting and unique. Director John McTiernan avoids boredeom early and often by subtly introducing aspects on each floor of Nakatomi. There is the one of all glass and pipes. There is another floor under construction, which has beams everywhere. When Hans kills Nakatomi head honcho Yoshinobu (James Shigeta), he leaves a bloody wall in his place. Later, when a scene begins with the camera focused on that cherry smear, we instantly can tell we’re on the highest floor without seeing the number or the cityscape view from the top. These simple creative touches keep things feeling fresh and actually make the setting intimately part of the movie. Each floor is a character and thus the audience learns a sense of where they are and never suffer from geographic confusion.

The highrise locale is great, but what really made Die Hard a classic is its three waves of narrative. The first and most important is the way it constructs its hero. Bruce Willis as an action star today is a no-brainer. But once upon a time he was the romantic lead of TV’s Moonlighting. The idea of him carrying an action movie was a risky move in 1988, especially in the last days of Reagan. Around the time political ads convinced voters that it was “Morning in America,” action movies became the sole realm of the muscular Übermensch. U.S. He-Men, whether homegrown Sylvester Stallone or imports like Schwarzenegger, invaded multiplexes with their impossible to destroy biceps. Their villains were not so much menacing adversaries as disposable target practice that should run from the awesome red white and blue light that their fetishized bodies exuded. But BRUCE WILLIS?! ABC’s supposed Cary Grant? Sure, he was not unfit, but he was just a regular schmuck with a receding hairline. 

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And that’s the beauty of John McClane in his inception. He’s a New York cop who has nothing but contempt for these LA phonies. He mumbles disdain for those in the west when he sees the beach blonde bunnies at the airport. Fast talking, snake oil salesman Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) might as well have a tattoo on his forehead that hisses HOLLYWOOD. Ellis, as Holly’s coworker, would be competition for the estranged hero if he didn’t remind viewers of slime. McClane, along with his wife and Yoshinobu, is the only authentic person in this building. Hell, even the terrorists are more likable than most of the hostages. There is nothing extraordinary about Willis or McClane. That relatability makes him so much more interesting than Ahnold or Sly. When he is fighting for his life against the terrorists, it’s not a foregone conclusion he can win. This creates something called tension or suspense. While it should be obvious that they are required, it had been at least a decade since the genre had thought to include them.

The next most important aspect of the movie is a villain who seems so much more powerful than the hero. For you younger Geeks, long before Alan Rickman was branded as Snape, he was Hans Gruber to a generation of moviegoers. There’s a reason he’s included in AFI’s 50 Greatest Movie Villains. Everything from the cartoonish German accent down on this guy reeks of malevolent fun. Unlike his contemporary villains, Hans is just as well developed as the hero. He listens to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as he cracks the safe. He surrounds himself with competent professionals who are there for the money and not bloodlust. When the LAPD finally shows up, he sends them on a wild goose chase by making a list of fake demands from the Time Magazine he is disinterestedly skimming through while on the phone. He is just so deliciously ambivalent about his evil and classically educated that he seems to be 20 moves ahead of everyone, including a working stiff like McClane. McTiernan and screenwriters Steve de Souza and Jeb Stuart are also aware of these characters’ fun contrast as most of the middle of the film consists of them having playful banter back and forth via walkie-talkie. There is still that sense of American jingoism that pervaded Hollywood movies of that decade, but it’s done in a much wittier and subversive way. Hans views McClane as a dumb American cowboy and constantly compares him to John Wayne. “I was always partial to Roy Rogers,” McClane counters. Hence his famous yippie line. They are such a joy to watch that arguably the movie’s best scene is when they finally meet. Hans, knowing the cop ruining his plans has cornered him, puts on a very poor accent that mocks how he views annoying Americans. Seeming to lull McClane into trusting him, he nearly kills our hero with the ruse. When John does escape, Hans now knows that he is barefoot and shoots the glass out under his feet. These kind of mind games would make Rambo’s head hurt, but they make Die Hard a rollercoaster.

The third most important aspect that really sells the movie is, when viewed in the right light, it’s a quirky romantic comedy. Sure, a few hostages die (who’ll really miss Ellis?), but at least John and Holly can work things out. The more terrorists McClane takes out, the more Holly realizes why she loved him in the first place. There’s one especially great line in the movie when she sees how infuriated Hans has become over what’s going on upstairs. “He’s still alive,” she says. When a friend asks how she can know, Holly responds, “Only John can drive somebody that crazy.” 

There is a fair feminist reading of this movie that argues it’s very regressive. John travels to LA because his wife and kids have left him behind in New York. By giving up the name McClane, Holly creates a dangerous situation by choosing a career over her man. And yes, at the end she takes John back after he has done a very masculine thing for her by killing the other major male in her life at that moment, Hans (he literally keeps her from going out the window with him by taking off her company watch). However, I would suggest she is depicted as equally strong willed and street smart as her husband. She hides her family picture when the terrorists start looking for John and uses her maiden name of Gennaro to conceal their connection. She is the one who barters with Hans to get bathroom privileges for the hostages and is clever enough to help a pregnant woman caught in a bad situation. She also can stand up to Gruber when she calls him a common thief.

Overall, these many elements combine to make a crackerjack action movie. Again, there is no line in the screenplay or pacing beat that is left unresolved. At the film’s end, every side character, including Sgt. Al and Argyle, gets to take down a terrorist and go through a mini character arc. The smaller notes of Beethoven’s 9th at the beginning are paid off when “Ode to Joy” triumphantly roars as Hans and co. break into the vault. Most of all, audiences never once believe McClane has things under control, so that when he stumbles into his final showdown with Hans, covered in his own blood, we know he’s lived up to the film’s title. Holly, like us, cannot believe it’s the same man from the beginning of the movie who stands before her now laughing deliriously. He literally walks on broken glass and jumps off a skyscraper for her. By film’s end, the audience is as exhausted and exhilarated as John is when they get into Argyle’s limo. His victory feels hard won and not preordained. Hell, it even feels a little bit festive when “Let it Snow” plays in this final scene. I’ll just go ahead and say it: Die Hard is one of the most feel good Christmas movies ever made. That I can say this about a movie featuring a protagonist who jumps off an exploding roof is an ode to joy in itself.

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Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars