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Entries in Die Hard [1988] (1)

Thursday
May122011

Die Hard (1988)

This Place About to Blow

Die Hard established Bruce Willis as a superstar; gave cinema one of its greatest villains in Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber; and birthed an action sub-genre in which a not-quite-everyman fights the forces of evil in a single, mundane setting.  In the twenty-three years since its release, the film has been imitated so many times that one can easily forget how great it is.  What John McTiernan's movie has over nearly everything that has come after it is a strong sense of story, characterization, and visual inventiveness that doesn't suffer from repeat viewings.

Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop who visits his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), at her workplace in Los Angeles.  Their plans for a family Christmas gathering are cut short when a group of European terrorists breaks up the office holiday party and takes control of the building.  In the confusion, McClane avoids being rounded up and begins a night-long game of bloody hide and seek with a small army of machine-gun-wielding mercenaries.

It's not long before the police and FBI surround the locked-down skyscraper.  As is typical in these movies, the establishment is inept and callous towards the forward-thinking lone wolf; the feds' refusal to listen to McClane and a beat cop on the outside named Powell (Reginald Veljohnson) leads to a series of spectacular fuck-ups, deaths, and explosions.  On the inside, McClane must repel down elevator shafts, cross floors littered with broken glass, and dodge all manner of weaponry as he attempts to pick off the terrorists one by one--and, hopefully, keep the hostages alive.

The film is essentially a mash-up of the mid-80s action movie and a Friday the 13th film.  In the heyday of beefy box-office titans like Schwarzenegger and Stallone (who get name-dropped in the film), it was not unusual to see lots of carnage and munitions fetishism, usually bolstering a message of Regan-era individualism, suspicion of authority, and desire to trounce anyone or anything not Made in the USA (a peculiar irony in the Governator's case).  Also popular around the same time was the endless stream of slasher movies, where a shadowy maniac would kill hapless teens in the most gruesome and creative ways possible.

Die Hard took the scruffy anti-hero and made him a vicious killer.  Of course, because of his propensity for one-liners and witty asides--delivered with the iconic Bruce Willis Pouty-lipped Smirk (TM)--it's easy to breeze past the odd little details that make John McClane a genuinely disturbing figure: Why, for instance, is he such an expert at using every type of weapon he comes across?  I'm not sure what kind of detective training went on in New York back in the 80s, but this guy has better survival instincts than the guns-for-hire that he's fighting.  Also, he makes reference to beind disciplined repeatedly by his superiors for not following orders.  This casts McClane less in the aw-shucks-gotta-save-the-day light, and places him in the realm of a sociopath who happened to have his vacation ruined by a gang of rival sociopaths.

That's getting way down in the weeds with a character I'm meant to root for.  And don't get me wrong: I love John McClane; but it's the kind of love you have for someone you think is really cool until he screams at his girlfriend at dinner because she didn't order him the right drink while he was in the can.  To make things interesting, McTiernan and screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (working from Roderick Thorpe's novel, "Nothing Lasts Forever") imbue Die Hard with a bit of the Lethal Weapon mojo that made waves the year before.  Willis and Veljohnson have a warmer relationship than Danny Glover and Mel Gibson did, but that element of crisis-based camaraderie fuels the middle of the movie and allows Willis in particular to showcase the human side of his character.

I don't know if this is the film that launched the saying, "A movie's only as good as its villain", but it might as well have been.  Hans Gruber is a suave, cold-blooded killer, but he's also got a great sense of humor.  He gets about as many funny lines as McClane does, but I think his work better simply because they're so unexpected.  Alan Rickman rarely breaks a sweat, even as McClane's plans encroach upon his own (turns out he's not a terrorist, but a thief who wants to steal the $640 million in corporate bonds in the building's digitally-encrypted vault).  This dark charisma would be enough to cement Gruber as a legendary foe, but the filmmakers take things one crucial step further.

In the middle of the film, Gruber breaks from his team to personally inspect the detonators that have been rigged underneath the roof.  He runs into McClane and immediately launches into the hokiest pseudo-Southern accent I've heard outside of a Larry the Cable Guy special.  Gruber convinces McClane that he, too, was separated from the group during the hostage-taking, and because neither man has ever seen the other, McClane plays hero to a frightened worker bee.  For the six people who haven't seen this movie yet, I won't spoil the thing that ultimately turns the tables, but it's a nifty bit of observation that I find lacking in a lot of modern action films.

In fact, there's a lot going on in Die Hard that action filmmakers seem to have forgotten in the last couple of decades.  McTiernan and company take the material seriously, and not as a disposable shoot-'em-up blockbuster.  All of the actors are top-notch; the stunts are well-thought-out and, as shot by Jan de Bont, play as perfectly orchestrated performance art (pay attention to the way McClane is absorbed by the light for just a second during the slow-motion roof demolition); and the screenplay takes care to cover all the intricate plots bases and leaves no doubt as to who the characters are, what they want, and why we should care.

In today's marketplace of CG-enhanced stunts and non-stop action extravaganzas, it's refreshing to go back and watch a movie that's so intimate in its scope and yet so ambitious in its desire to give the audience something they've never seen before.  It's also jarring--yet comforting--to see black performers in a mass-targeted movie who skipped Hell Naw University and went straight to acting school.  This is a recurring theme with me, I know, but I was genuinely surprised that Veljohnson and De'voreaux White (as a young limo driver) retained their cultural identity without plunging headfirst into easy stereotypes.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen this kind of class in a movie since 1988.

That's Die Hard all around: Classy.  It's the perfect action movie, which probably explains why nearly everything that followed it has failed to register on my excitement meter.

Note:  I was just informed by my friend Miguel that McClane's handiness with weapons stems from having been a marine before becoming a cop.  McClane has a marine tattoo on his arm, which I'd never noticed, even watching the film on blu-ray (I saw the tattoo, but couldn't make out what it was).  That changes everything, story wise, and it would've been nice for the screenwriters to include at least a line of dialogue explaining as much.