GREG’S GRADE: A
For someone my age (33), it’s hard to imagine a world where “Die Hard” is not the standard against which modern action movies are measured, where Bruce Willis’s hard-luck cop, John McClane, always the wrong guy at the wrong place at the wrong time, is not the template for our action heroes, where “yippee-ki-yay, (expletive)” is not an instantly recognizable catchphrase.
Obviously, that world did exist, and when “Die Hard” was released in 1988, it was anything but a sure thing. A year earlier, when star after star (including, reportedly, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson) passed on the lead role before it fell to Willis, who was best known at the time for the TV series “Moonlighting,” few would have suspected the eventual final product would become one of the most beloved action films ever made.
Based on the 1979 novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp, with a screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, and directed by John McTiernan (a year after he scored with the Schwarzenegger vehicle “Predator”), “Die Hard” trades the nearly superhuman action hero that dominated the ‘80s for a working-class stiff who assumes the mantle of the hero because he has no other option. John McClane is a police officer, so he has training and skills, along with a sense of duty that goes beyond that of the average person. But that’s really what he is: an average guy. He gets scared, almost panicking at times; he tires and suffers injuries (he can barely walk by the end of the movie); emotion overcomes him, mostly during his conversations with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginal Veljohnson), who he begs to find his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and tell her he’s sorry. This emotional vulnerability is manifested physically by McClane spending the entire movie running, jumping and fighting the bad guys without the luxury of footwear.
In TV-speak, “Die Hard” is what would be known as a “bottle episode” -- taking place in a confined location, in a short period of time. At the movies, “Die Hard” became shorthand for describing that type of scenario applied in other films: “‘Die Hard’ on a boat! ‘Die Hard’ on a plane! ‘Die Hard’ on a bus! ‘Die Hard’ in a hockey arena!”
On Christmas Eve, New York cop John McClane arrives in Los Angeles, where his estranged wife, now calling herself Holly Gennaro, has been living and working for the past six months. During the company Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza (actually the then-unfinished 20th Century Fox office building), Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his band of heavily armed thugs seize control of the building under the guise of terrorism, though their real aim is the theft of more than $600 million. McClane hides out during the initial attack, and with little help from the LAPD, who eventually show up on the scene, it’s virtually up to him alone to save the 30-or-so hostages, including his wife.
“Die Hard” delivers the thrills when it comes to action, and that’s largely because of the work done before and after those scenes. Nearly 20 minutes elapse at the start of the movie before the first gunshot. McTiernan and his writers use that time and the other quieter moments to establish the characters and build suspense. When McClane comes face-to-face with Hans, who, adopting an American accent, claims to be an escaped hostage named Bill Clay, it’s all you can do to not yell at the screen as McClane hands him a gun -- one of the truly great movie moments. Even though it’s a movie and we know the good guy is likely to triumph, the filmmakers succeed in making us feel like, with the odds stacked overwhelmingly against him, McClane might not make it out alive.
Much of the credit must go to Willis, who makes McClane so human and relatable, even as the bodies pile up around him. He has had a long, successful career, with acclaimed work in movies such as “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Twelve Monkeys” (1995) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999), but John McClane is the role that made him a movie star and the one for which he always will be best known. He delivers one-liners with the best of them and displays all his emotions openly -- just look at the sheer terror on his face as he starts to rappel down the elevator shaft using the strap from his gun.
On the other side, Rickman made his big-screen debut as terrorist leader Hans Gruber. He comes off as polite, civilized, cultured -- and that only makes him more menacing. Long before he was Professor Snape, Rickman created one of the most memorable villains to ever grace the big screen, setting a bar future heavies in this series never quite matched.
“Die Hard” grossed $83 million at the domestic box office, good enough to be the seventh-highest grossing movie of 1988, and earned Oscar nominations for editing, visual effects, sound and sound editing. In addition to the many imitators, it has spawned four sequels to date, the newest of which, “A Good Day to Die Hard” (in theaters Feb. 14), should push the franchise past the $500 million mark in total domestic box office receipts. (The worldwide box office returns for the first four films top $1 billion.) Though the follow-ups have been entertaining, they owe most of their success to that first movie, which opened so inauspiciously, earning about $600,000 on 21 screens in mid-July 1988.
“Die Hard” has not one major weakness, no scenes where the attention wanders, no beats that feel false or inconsistent within the context it creates. It is a remarkably focused, masterful piece of filmmaking that is not only the best action movie ever made but one of the very best of any genre.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use. 131 minutes.