1988 Hollywood: And the action genre said to Bruce Willis, "Welcome to the party, pal"
Die Hard is directed by John McTiernan and stars Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, and Reginald VelJohnson. The film is based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp and was the feature film debut for Alan Rickman.
Personally speaking, I refuse to believe that the action genre, as we now understand it in American cinema, existed before the 1980's, the decade where some of the most famous action stars of our time rose to prominence: Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Don Johnson. Sure, car chases, guns a'blazing, and fist fights all existed and had memorable moments in select films that some would argue fit into the action genre before 1980, but when we're talking about an action film: a movie that aims to provide exciting thrills with intense gunfire, fiery explosions, and blood and gore, I say to you, no, I do not believe that such a film exists in American cinema prior to the year 1980. When the 1980's finally did roll around, actions films, particularly great ones, were coming out almost every year. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mad Max 2, The Terminator, Predator, RoboCop, way too many to list.
And as acclaimed and masterfully crafted as several of the 80's action films like those just mentioned above were, it seems that none of them could quite reach the lofty heights of considerably the best action film of the 80's: Die Hard, a film whose inspiration and impact has molded it into one of the greatest and one of the most important action films of all time. Oh yeah, and you can throw in a film that has created an ever-growing pile of imitators, rip-offs, derivative works, whatever similar choice of words you'd want to use. Calling a film great is certainly a worthy complement. I want to think that every group of filmmakers working on a movie wish to make the absolute best of their project. Thing is though, great movies come out all the time, so I use the term great movie sort of loosely. But to call a movie important? Now that, that is an incredibly rare honor, and important is a word that I would only apply to a very select group of films.
To call Die Hard an important film requires a thorough understanding of the action genre and what its expectations are for us as viewers. To start with, the best actions films have a premise that will get your blood pumping and raise your excitement level to a fever pitch. Then, there's the matter of having cohesive and thrilling action sequences that aren't riddled by technical setbacks such as rapid-fire editing or earthquake-inducing shaky cam. But above all else, the best action films present to us a hero who isn't an invincible Superman who can take down all of the bad guys without blinking an eye. The hero is a flawed and vulnerable person, and when he/she finds themselves in a dangerous situation, we fear for their survival.
An exciting premise, top-notch thrills, and a vulnerable hero are all on display in Die Hard, and this leads me to the plot, which has quite a lot going on. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is an off-duty NYPD Detective who arrives in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to meet with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). John is hoping to reconcile with Holly, as their marriage has been struggling since Holly moved to Los Angeles. Holly works at the Nakatomi Plaza, a massive skyscraper building being run by executive Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta). Takagi has recently completed an important business deal and is holding a Christmas Eve party on the building's 30th floor. But Christmas Eve at the Nakatomi Plaza is also the site of a heist for a group of German terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). The terrorists seize the Plaza and take everyone inside as hostages, except McClane, who manages to evade capture during the takeover. McClane is able to alert the LAPD of what's going on, but with everyone else in the building being taken hostage, he must rely on his own wits to combat the terrorists.
The one unfortunate thing about Die Hard is how it's a victim of its own success. When you have a film that has such an incredible legacy behind it, there are of course going to be other, creativity-deprived people who look at Die Hard and say, "Hey, that was awesome. I wanna do that too!" This has led to the birth of the "Die Hard on a ____" phrase, because Die Hard's premise, a lone hero fighting against a group of like-minded enemies within an isolated setting, has been exhausted and exhausted to no end in the years since the film's release. But this begs the question: Why is Die Hard's premise so susceptible to imitation time and time again? What is it about a lone hero fighting a group of enemies within one location that has led to so many films that pretend like they aren't Die Hard even though it's painfully obvious that the director and/or screenwriters saw Die Hard at some point in time?
- My take on what makes Die Hard's premise so enthralling is that it's the ultimate example of a hero defying incredible odds to come out on top. Again, nothing enhances an action film like a vulnerable hero being placed in a situation where we seriously question if they can actually succeed. John McClane is by himself facing off against 12 fully-armed terrorists who aren't stupid in the slightest. His only form of support comes in the form of radio contact with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), a police officer who gets sent to investigate the Nakatomi Plaza after McClane calls 911. McClane throws a body onto Powell's car, leading to Powell calling in the LAPD for backup. McClane makes it obvious through his many radio conversations just how much of a stuck-up a-hole that he actually is, admitting to Powell later on that his jerk-ish attitude played a huge role in the unraveling of his marriage with Holly. One of the most famous scenes is McClane dragging himself into a bathroom after his feet get sliced up from walking on broken glass. By this point, McClane is completely worn out, and now, he can barely walk. McClane now has no choice but to dig deep inside himself and somehow pull through.
All of this and more is because of a carefully constructed script by writers Steve E. de Souza and first-timer Jeb Stuart. Anything that might seem like a negligent detail early on in the film, such as Holly putting face down a family photo of her and McClane, becomes a crucial plot element later on. The LAPD may be mere bystanders to all of the action going on inside the Plaza, but they try to take matters into their own hands, resulting in events that also propel the plot forward. The LAPD isn't there just because it makes sense for them to be there. They, along with McClane, affect the actions and decisions of Hans Gruber and the other terrorists. The plot is always moving, even if McClane seems to have stepped aside to take a breather.
- No one in 1988 could imagine that Bruce Willis, the guy who was only known as a comedic TV actor from the show Moonlighting, would go on to be one of cinema's most notable action stars. 20th Century Fox reluctantly gave Willis the role of John McClane after Frank Sinatra (yes, Frank Sinatra, because Fox was contractually obligated to give it to him) turned it down and Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to shoot the film as a sequel to Commando. Willis puts his all into the role, and complementing his terrific performance is Alan Rickman, who gives one of his best performances as Hans Gruber. Several of Rickman's reactions during the film are genuine (for the sake of spoilers, I won't share them here), and a meeting between McClane and Gruber during the film was unrehearsed, creating a better feeling of spontaneity between Willis and Rickman. The two work great together, and are easily one of the best hero-villain duos ever.
- I guess if I had to gripe about something in Die Hard, it's that some of the action/chase sequences between McClane and the terrorists are indecipherable, more from a mise en scene perspective. As McClane runs through the inner parts of the Nakatomi Plaza, it is not always clear as to where he is and what's around him. But this is being incredibly picky and these moments are far and few between that it doesn't diminish anything in the film in the slightest.
So to conclude, I want to bring closure to Die Hard being an important film, not just a great one. We can call Die Hard great by looking at its riveting action sequences, prodigious performances, and smart writing. But to call Die Hard important is to understand its ongoing impact on the action genre. The action genre, before 1988, never saw a film that so expertly portrayed a vulnerable hero who was stuck in one place and overcome seemingly impossible odds to prevail over his/her enemies. True, Indiana Jones was a vulnerable hero who had to overcome odds to achieve his goals, and Sarah Connor had to find a way to succeed against a seemingly unbeatable cyborg. But with John McClane, there were no gimmicks, recognizable outfits, or stuffy machismo. Die Hard is about one man, as much of a troubled human as you and I, who had no one but himself to save the day, and he had to do it without super powers or bulking biceps. It's the ultimate insight into how powerful the action genre can be, as a thrilling good-time, but more importantly, as a mirror into the struggles and resilience that drive people to go out and thrive. That is why Die Hard is important, and considerably the greatest action film to ever grace the silver screen.
Recommend? Absolutely. This is essential viewing for all film lovers.
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