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Ah, the '80s: Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald Veljohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Gleeson, De'voreaux White, James Shigeta, William Atherton, Alexander Godunov, Hart Bochner
The title Die Hard might be a gross understatement for this 1988 action movie classic. It is, of course, in reference to the hero of the story, a guy who climbs down an elevator shaft using the strap of a machine gun, runs bare foot across a floor riddled with broken pieces of glass, and jumps off the roof of a skyscraper (just seconds before it gets blown to hell) with nothing but a fire hose tied around his waist. It isn't hard for New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) to die, it's downright impossible, although granted, Die Impossible doesn't sound nearly as catchy as Die Hard (I can just imagine the title of the sequel if this was named Die Impossible: Die Impossible 2: Die Impossible-er.)
With the hero surviving all that (and so much more), you would think that the one thing Die Hard would be lacking in is suspense, but this is one of the most exhilarating and nail-biting action movies ever made. Much of the film's success has to do with the its amazing special-effects, which haven't aged a day in the 26 years since the movie's release. Just look at the effects used during the scene where a helicopter explodes and crashes into the side of a skyscraper, or the scene where McClane sends a chair full of explosives down an elevator shaft. Those special-effects are just as thrilling now as they no doubt were during the film's initial release.
Of course, the special-effects alone are not what make this movie as compelling as it is. Even big-budget blockbusters like this need a strong story to make us care about the characters in front of the spectacle, and Die Hard has a whopper of one. By now, everyone should know what it is. Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp, the movie tells the story of New York City cop John McClane, who flies out to LA to see his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who's director of corporate affairs at the Nakatomi Corporation, for the Christmas holiday. Not too long after he arrives at her office, a group of heavily armed terrorists seize control of the building. McClane manages to escape and wages war on the terrorists in an effort to save his wife and the other hostages.
It's a fairly simple premise, and the reason it works so beautifully is because writers Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart give us a fully human and richly developed protagonist. Bruce Willis, who was known more for his comedic roles at the time, is perfectly cast, bringing an every-man quality to his character that makes him someone we can care about and root for, even when he's performing impossible feats. His John McClane is strong, resourceful, and is given many witty one-liners (including one which has become this franchise's trademark), but he's also intriguingly flawed (look at an earlier scene where he ruins a potentially tender moment with his wife by starting an argument with her) and given some relatable characteristics (we learn in the opening scene that he has a fear of flying).
The movie keeps the hero's humanity front and center by giving him a contact on the outside he frequently opens up to. The character is LA sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson). He was sent to the Nakatomi Plaza to investigate a disturbance call McClane made, and gets drawn into the plot by after McClane drops the corpse of a terrorist on the roof of his police cruiser. The addition of the Al Powell character is genius. Instead of sending our hero through an endless series of action scenes, the movie makes time for a number of surprisingly well-written quiet moments between the two men, like when Powell confesses to McClane a horrible incident from his past that caused him to want to work a desk job.
If the heroes of Die Hard are three-dimensional and compelling, then the villains are equally so. While not all the villains are given their own backstories, the movie gives them enough to make them more than just interchangeable targets in a shooting gallery (two of them are brothers, one is a wiz at computers, etc). Leading the band of terrorists is Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, and from the moment he comes on screen, we know that he's no ordinary bad guy. Educated, intelligent, and quite menacing with his gentleman-like demeanor, Hans Gruber is one of the all-time great movie villains. He's charming and sinister, and Rickman turns in such an immersive and magnetic performance that it's criminal that he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar.
The supporting players are all very strong as well. The late James Shigeta has a number of memorable scenes as Holly's boss Joe Takagi, as does De'voreaux White as the friendly limo driver Argyle, who picks up McClane from the airport at the beginning of the movie, and William Atherton as a slimy tabloid journalist. Some have criticized the late Paul Gleeson's Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson as an aggressively annoying character, and while that's certainly true, it would be false to say that Gleeson's performance is bad (and he's not in the movie long enough to ruin it, as the great Roger Ebert claimed). Perhaps the most memorable side character is Hart Bochner's coke-snorting Ellis, who puts our hero in a very unfortunate predicament during one particularly engrossing scene.
The movie is directed by John McTiernan, who had made the Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller Predator one year earlier, and had easily topped himself with this one. McTiernan directs the movie with such a breathtaking energy that there's not a moment of the movie's 130 minute running time that feels wasted (and to be honest, the movie doesn't feel like it's over two hours). He also never lets the film's style overpower the story. The special-effects are always at the service of the narrative, which makes them all the more exciting.
Die Hard set the bar for terrorist themed action movies, and spawned a number of clones, which included Under Siege (which was described as Die Hard on a battleship) and Passenger 57 (which was described as Die Hard on an airplane). Some of those movies were really quite entertaining, but none of them were ever as heart-stoppingly terrific as the movie that inspired them. Die Hard is a milestone in action movie filmmaking, a movie that has rightly been treasured since its release, and will continue to be so in the years to come.
Rated R for graphic violence, strong language, brief nudity, and some drug use.
Final Grade: **** (out of ****)
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Other Thoughts on Die Hard (1988)! :D
- Die Hard Movie Review & Film Summary (1988) | Roger Ebert
- Die Hard (1988) Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia - Three Movie Buffs Review
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- Die Hard | Reelviews Movie Reviews
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