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Should I Watch..? Die Hard
What's the big deal?
Die Hard is an action thriller film released in 1988 and is the first film in the Die Hard series. Based on a novel by Roderick Thorp, the movie sees Bruce Willis play New York cop John McClane who finds himself trapped in a skyscraper by terrorists and forced into fighting back. The film also stars Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Alexander Godunov and Reginald VelJohnson. The movie was a smash hit worldwide and was also a critical success, launching Willis onto the Hollywood A-list and is often hailed as the best action movie ever made. Even after all this time, it is still considered the benchmark for action movies despite the increasingly sophisticated technology behind more modern efforts like The Matrix (1). The combination of humour, action, charm and old-school stunt work in Die Hard still make it an enjoyable blast today and it remains hugely influential.
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What's it about?
It's Christmas Eve and John McClanes flies into LA to spend the holidays with his enstranged wife Holly and his two children. He plans to meet her at her work in the newly-built Nakatomi Plaza and sure enough, they send a limo driven by unlikely chauffeur Argyle to meet John at the airport. Arriving at Nakatomi, John finds the Christmas party has already started although Holly is still working. Taking a moment to refresh himself after his flight, John takes his shoes off and starts changing out of his clothes.
Suddenly, a group of heavily armed and well-organised terrorists seize control of the building, trapping everyone on the 30th floor although John is able to slip away. Their leader, Hans Gruber, removes Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi away from the rest of the hostages which include Holly. Realising that he is outmanned and outgunned, McClane faces a choice - he can either fight them himself or try to alert the authorities outside but give his position away in the process...
Officer John McClane
Holly Gennaro McClane
Sgt. Al Powell
Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson
Jeb Stuart & Steven E. de Souza *
Release Date (UK)
3rd February, 1989
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Sound Effects, Best Visual Effects
What's to like?
On paper, this might have looked like any old generic shooter - the sort of low-brow shtick that Arnold Schwarzenegger might have had a go at. Luckily for us, Willis is a revelation and delivers a career-defining performance as the unluckiest cop in movie history. He is both tough-as-nails and eminently likeable, his off-the-cuff improvisations bringing welcome relief to the tension of the story. But I feel that McClane would have been nothing without Gruber and Rickman's feature film debut is equally as impressive. He is smart, charming and ruthless which makes him the perfect villain for McClane.
What really makes Die Hard stand out for me is that you rarely get the feeling that McClane is invincible. So many action movies (including every one of the sequels to this film) treat their heroes like indestructible superheroes - sure, they might get bruised and bloodied but you never think for a moment that any one of them is actually going to die. Not so here - McClane takes a real pounding and you do sometimes fear for him. The supporting cast, led by the steely Bedelia and the overly cuddly VelJohnson, prop up the action well enough but this is the Bruce & Alan show and there is no limit to how brutal and thrilling the action will get. I still gasp when the explosion at the top of the building forces McClane to jump over the side...
Another thing that isn't talked about so much is the underlying satire in Die Hard such as the coke-snorting businessman Harry who talks himself into a world of trouble. The media's reaction to the hostage crisis is completely believable with William Atherton delivering another cold, unsympathetic turn as journalist Thornburg who makes the unfolding crisis the story of the century only to further his own career. This also lifts Die Hard beyond just being a straight-up shooter - it has something to say about our apparent lust for blood and the media falling over themselves to bring it to us. The over-confidence of the FBI also raises a smile, seeing as it plays right into Gruber's hands. For once, these aren't just thugs with anger issues. These are dedicated and professional criminals with a near fool-proof plan.
- Technically, Die Hard began as a sequel to the 1968 Frank Sinatra film The Detective (2). Contractually, the studio were forced to offer Sinatra the role of John McClane, even though Sinatra was 73 at the time. Perhaps seeing common sense, Sinatra turned it down.
- The reason all of Bruce Willis's scenes were shot at night was due to the fact he was still filming episodes of the TV series Moonlighting during the day.
- Ironically, Willis is more German than either Alan Rickman (English) or Alexander Godunov (Russian). Willis was born in West Germany on the 19th March, 1955 to a German mother and an American father.
What's not to like?
The film's script has dated somewhat - nowadays, I imagine mobile phones and the Internet playing a much bigger role - but still offers enough thrills and spills for action fans to sink their teeth into. But it's actually hard to find fault with Die Hard, to the point where it feels wrong to do so. It is remarkable that a film that has spawned four sequels (to date), video games, countless imitators like Under Siege (3), Speed (4) and Sudden Death (5) and even a comic book still remains a great watch. You might have seen the action done better in other films and you may have laughed harder during other action movies but few can provide both as well as Die Hard. It really is the genuine article and remains the definitive action movie for the others to dethrone.
Should I watch it?
Without question. For me, it is still the film that all action movies have to beat and I think that's perfectly justifiable. Die Hard has the action, the comedy, the characters and the script to not just push the action genre forward but continue to be the yardstick well into the 21st century. The Matrix might have better tricks up its sleeve with Bullet Time and so on but are you seriously suggesting that Neo is more fun to be around than John McClane? I don't think so...
Great For: action fans, adults, Willis & Rickman
Not So Great For: children, people with a fear of heights, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
The other films in the series - Die Hard 2 (6), Die Hard With A Vengeance (7), Live Free Or Die Hard (8) which is also known as Die Hard 4.0 and A Good Day To Die Hard(9) - have mixed results but generally retain the same levels of carnage as the first. But none of them match it in terms of entertainment and the latter films rely more heavily on CG than traditional stunt-work, resulting in a decline in excitement. Sad but true.
Of course, Willis isn't the only action star out there. Schwarzenegger has The Terminator (10) and its long list of sequels while Sylvester Stallone has rounded up a whole bunch of stars/has-beens for The Expendables franchise. Keanu Reeves is almost as good in Speed as Willis is here but as I've said, there's not much to top the original McClane.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox