Die Hard (1988)
D: John McTiernan / 131m
Cast: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, William Atherton, Alexander Godunov, Paul Gleason, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta
If, like me, you started watching action movies during the Seventies, then you had a plethora of riches. There was Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series, the stunt-heavy movies of Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson’s vigilante excursions, and occasional gems such as Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) and Vanishing Point (1971). These movies were often gritty and darkly humorous. The violence in them was often brutal. They did their best to reflect the times in which they were made, and often there were political overtones that couldn’t be ignored or missed.
This attitude carried on into the Eighties but the introduction of broad humour in movies such as Commando (1985), and the sense of a genre trading on old glories became more prevalent. For every Southern Comfort (1981) and First Blood (1982) that kept the flame alive, there was a Stroker Ace (1983) or a Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985). Action movies were becoming stale and unimaginative. It seemed the doldrums had set in, and we would have to wait some time for the genre to see a resurgence, and to reinvent itself.
Instead of a long wait into the Nineties, we only had to wait until 1988, and the introduction of a character created by author Roderick Thorp, New York cop John McClane. Die Hard came along unheralded and with a star in Bruce Willis who had no proven track record as an action hero. In many ways it was a risky deal for 20th Century Fox, but it paid off handsomely (even with parts of the script not having been finalised by the time filming began).
For my part, I wasn’t that interested in seeing it. I knew Willis from TV’s Moonlighting, but had the same feeling about him as everyone else, and the concept didn’t seem to lend itself to an exciting, two-hour thrill ride. And so I didn’t see it straight away, even when I saw the positive reviews it garnered, and even when friends who’d seen it did nothing but rave about it. It wasn’t until three weeks had passed that I finally went to see it, expecting to be disappointed, and not looking forward to it at all.
Well, we’re all allowed to get it wrong sometimes, aren’t we?
In fact, I was riveted. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so impressed by an action movie, by the twists and turns, by the cat and mouse games played out between McClane and Hans Gruber (Rickman), by the skill of John McTiernan’s direction, and the sheer exuberance of the action sequences. Here was a movie that didn’t short change the audience in terms of intelligence, thrills and well-judged humour. Die Hard was exciting. I remember still that classic moment where McClane drops the C4 explosive down the lift shaft and blows up one of the lower floors (and a couple of Gruber’s henchmen): not only was it an incredible moment, but it was topped by smarmy reporter Richard Thornberg’s quip to his cameraman, “Tell me you got that”. I wanted to see that scene again so badly, I’d already decided I was going to stay on and see the movie again.
Over the next two weeks, I saw Die Hard a further three times, and enjoyed it more and more. I became a majorly annoying convert, extolling the film’s virtues to anyone who’d listen (and a few who wouldn’t). Aside from the appallingly ill-judged Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson (Gleason), the movie didn’t put a foot wrong. The relationships were well handled, the characters believable, and the cast were all on top form (even the unfortunate Gleason). I loved the fact that John McClane was an everyman character, and that Willis imbued him with a vulnerability that the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris would have found beyond their acting abilities. His self-doubt was a nice change of pace as well. And, of course, he had the perfect adversary in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, a villain so urbane and charming his very sneer could probably cut glass. (Rickman steals the movie, as he would three years later in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
When I got my first surround sound system – and Die Hard on DVD – this was one of two movies I used to show how good the system was (the other was The Matrix). Over the years I’ve watched it countless times, and it’s still as fresh as ever. It’s also one of the most influential action movies of all time: even now, the Die Hard template is still being used – Olympus Has Fallen, anyone? And with one of the best catchphrases ever: “Yippie ki-ay, motherfucker”, it’s a movie that will keep on having a great reputation and winning over audiences with each new generation.
Rating: 9/10 – a tense, exciting, action movie that has a down-to-earth appeal amongst the gunfire and explosions; Willis and Rickman elevate the material and make it sing, just like Dean Martin.