40 STORIES OF SHEER ADVENTURE!
Where would Bruce Willis be without this film? In 1988, he had spent several years charming viewers as a private eye on the hit series Moonlighting. He had won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance, but didn’t really seem destined to become a big-time movie star. But then Die Hard came along and delighted audiences worldwide. I believe Willis’s smirk had something to do with it.
The story begins with New York detective John McClane (Willis) arriving in Los Angeles where his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) has been working for some time. She’s employed with a Japanese corporation, Nakatomi, whose American headquarters are located in a highrise. A Christmas party is about to take place, but John and Holly are not exactly in a festive mood; her moving to L.A. is a point of contention between them. Their bickering is interrupted by a heavily armed gang of terrorists who take control of the highrise by executing the sole security guard and cutting the phone lines (no cell phones here, kids). They are led by an elegant, smooth and icy German called Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who takes the CEO aside and tries to talk him into giving him the code key to a vault containing bonds worth over $600 million. You see, the terrorist thing is just a front to buy time. Unfortunately, the CEO refuses and Gruber shoots him. Now, his team needs to start working on cracking that code… and hunting down McClane, it turns out. He was in the men’s room when the bad guys rounded up everyone at the party, and now he has a chance to use his mind and every resource the highrise has to come up with a way to thwart the criminals’ plan and alert the police.
Taking advantage of every corner of the place
McClane sure is bad news. He doesn’t mind bending rules and fighting the bad guys with their own methods. That kind of character and the bloodletting is familiar from the previous year’s Lethal Weapon (1987), but director John McTiernan’s taut, explosive film also borrowed an older, highly effective formula where the story is strictly confined to one place. Howard Hawks, for instance, used it successfully in Rio Bravo (1959). The benefit of the formula is that it’s easier to generate and maintain tension by sealing the characters off somewhere and making them fight for their lives. McTiernan and his crew take advantage of every corner of the place, including the elevator shaft in one memorably intense sequence. There’s plenty of exciting shoot outs, explosions and bloody fights, all of it expertly staged. But there’s also a refreshing sense of humor; McClane has a few funny wisecracks (he is after all a Hollywood creation), there’s an obnoxious reporter covering the event… and Reginald VelJohnson is great as the friendly, rotund cop who gets the shock of his life when he first arrives at the scene. Willis works hard as our hero whose white tank top keeps getting dirtier with every shoot out; he manages to stay human, even though the character pulls a few superhuman stunts. Rickman is brilliant as the snarling, intelligent villain with a slight accent (funny how these parts always seem to require a distinguished British actor).
The highrise concept reminds me of The Towering Inferno (1974) and that whole trend of disaster movies. The drama of this film certainly is catastrophic in nature, and Die Hard would itself inspire many inferior films. Nothing is truly original, I guess. On the other hand, how many action movies can lay claim to being a Christmas classic?
Die Hard 1988-U.S. 131 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver. Directed by John McTiernan. Screenplay: Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza. Cinematography: Jan De Bont. Visual Effects: Richard Edlund. Cast: Bruce Willis (John McClane), Alan Rickman (Hans Gruber), Bonnie Bedelia (Holly McClane), Alexander Godunov, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason.
Trivia: Richard Gere and Arnold Schwarzenegger were allegedly considered for the part of McClane. Followed by four sequels, starting with Die Hard 2 (1990).
Last word: “I think that a big part of what initially went into the character of John McClane back in 1986, ’87, was the fact that I had only done a couple of films and a big part of my character was informed by my South Jersey roots, working-class background, South Jersey roots, a very healthy disregard and lack of respect for authority, and a pretty dark sense of humor. […] I never consciously thought that I wanted to play it as an everyman, but it just kind of turned out like that.” (Willis, IGN)