June 2024

Die Hard (1988)

DIRECTOR: John McTiernan


Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Alexander Godunov, Hart Bochner, William Atherton, Paul Gleason, Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush, De’voreaux White, Clarence Gilyard Jr., James Shigeta


While the two movies’ tones are markedly different, Die Hard is in the same class as Raiders of the Lost Ark as action-adventure that shows the other innumerable wannabe action movies how it’s done.  Both also share another asset: an everyman hero who’s not superhumanly buff, gets beaten up, and (almost) seems like a real person we can identify with.

New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting Nakatomi corporate headquarters in LA for Christmas to try to patch things up with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), but his strained marriage turns out to be the least of his problems. An international band of terrorists (unsurprisingly mostly Germans; Hollywood loves evil Germans even more than evil Russians, but not quite as much as evil Arabs) led by the urbane Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) stages a swift and brutal takeover of the building to get at the $600 million stashed in the computer-controlled vault. Unfortunately for them, there’s a monkey in the wrench, named John McClane.

The plot is certainly simple, even generic (or does it seem generic now because Die Hard has been imitated by inferior films, including its own sequels, so many times?): terrorists take over building and hostages, cop wages one-man war to take out the bad guys one-by-one in lots of cat-and-mouse games. It’s been seen, with variations but the same basic plot structure, in everything from Die Hard 1-3 to Under Siege 1-2, to Air Force One, White House Down, and Olympus Has Fallen. What elevates Die Hard above all imitators is how solidly every single familiar element is put together. We’ve got one of the most memorable everyman action heroes ever, pitted against one of the most delicious villains ever, dynamic action that still stays semi-realistic, and characters who, while action thriller types, actually somehow manage to come across as distinct individuals.

Bruce Willis has been the wisecracking butt-kicking hero for so long that it’s strange to think that before the original Die Hard, he was best-known for the comedy series Moonlighting, and was considered a dubious choice for action hero material. Willis proved doubters wrong, slipping as perfectly into John McClane’s skin as Harrison Ford did with Indiana Jones, getting bloody and torn, rattling off R-rated wisecracks, and riddling baddies with bullets. While John McClane is hardly the most challenging of acting tasks, not only is Willis a better actor than most of the more familiar action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Steven Seagal, he has an everyman, average Joe quality that makes McClane seem more like an actual character.  It’s not Oscar-worthy acting material, or even the most acting ever required of Willis himself, but it’s impossible to see anyone else other than Willis in the lead role. It doesn’t hurt anything of course that he’s offset by the ever-delicious Alan Rickman in his best villain role ever as Hans Gruber, who is just about the perfect bad guy for this kind of movie: intelligent, quick-thinking, and suavely ruthless (although he makes little or no attempt at a German accent).  Rickman hits the perfect balance of just enough restraint crossed with just enough sly scenery-chewing to be a delight to watch every second he is on the screen.  Prior to Die Hard, Rickman had done some theater and TV movies in his native Britain but was unknown in the United States, but with Hans Gruber, he made an immediate and lasting impression.  The scenes between Willis and Rickman are the best in the movie.  Innumerable action thriller villains have aspired to the heights achieved by Rickman here, but none have reached them. For an action thriller, Hans Gruber is as good a bad guy as it gets. Reginald VelJohnson is effective as the cop who becomes John’s link to the outside, with Bonnie Bedelia getting a couple feisty moments as John’s wife, Hart Bochner apparently enjoying himself in one of those ‘character you love to hate’ roles as an obnoxious hostage who makes the ill-advised decision of trying to negotiate a deal with Hans, and since Hans is bigger on brains than brawn, we have a suitably menacing Alexander Godunov as the token vicious henchman who’s onhand to supply the inevitable eventual hand-to-hand fight with the hero.

Not only is the action crackling, Die Hard also has a surprising amount of humor, mostly provided by intentionally cliched side characters like Paul Gleason’s token moron police chief (who makes a couple hilariously less-than-brilliant observations), William Atherton as a pushy reporter determined to get his scoop no matter what, and Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush as a pair of gung-ho FBI agents (‘Agents Johnson and Johnson, no relation’). Even De’voreaux White’s limo driver who gets trapped in the parking garage is somehow a distinct individual.

What can be said about the action? John McTiernan shows the same crackling tension and blood-pumping action in the cat-and-mouse games here that he did in Predator, and hard-core action fans will get all the blood-splattering, wisecracking one-liners, guns blazing, and explosions they could ask for. For R-rated action thrillers, you don’t get any better than Die Hard.