Written by Roderick Thorp, Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza
Directed by John McTiernan
I can remember way back in 1988, a friend of mine told me about this test screening he went to of the new Bruce Willis film. He described it as so awful, he didn’t see how it would last beyond opening weekend. That movie was Die Hard and not only did it last well beyond its opening weekend and make a ton of money, it also spawned a number of successful sequels, the last being in 2013.
Bruce Willis is John McClane. He’s a New York City cop estranged from his wife, Holly (portrayed by Bonnie Bedelia), and family who live in Los Angeles, where she has followed her career. He is on his way there for Christmas. Although his wife has the spare bedroom made up for him at the house, she is kind enough to send a limo to pick him up at the airport.
However, once they meet up at her office Christmas party, the arguing begins. Holly has moved on from their relationship in a way where John expects it to be the same. Hashing this out with a drunken party going on is not a good thing.
It gets worse when the bad guys take over the building. Despite the security, they manage to outsmart a couple of guards and overcome the computer systems. Eventually, they make it up to the party. John was in the bathroom still, freshening himself up after his long trip and trying to cool down after the argument with his wife. This is a lucky turn of events. Of course, if he hadn’t managed to stay out of the bad guy’s hands, the movie would have been over pretty quickly.
See, everyone thinks the bad guys are terrorists and treats them as such, including the FBI and those who eventually respond to the situation. Alan Rickman portrays the head of the group of criminals, Hans, and he plays law enforcement perfectly when they respond after John McClane managed to get their attention. These bad guys are nothing more than bandits; train robbers. Their methods may have become more sophisticated, but their overtaking the building is in the same vein as those who rode alongside the trains in the west and commandeered them.
What follows is action-packed and redefined the action movie genre. Willis is the central character, and he seems to be invincible. Bloodied, bruised, and barefoot he continually outsmarts these sophisticated bandits at every turn, as well as catching a few breaks, much to the consternation of head henchman Karl (portrayed by Alexander Godunov). His wife is savvy enough to catch on to what’s going on and her own quick thinking goes a long way toward keeping her alive.
There are some terrific comedic moments in the film as well, that provide much-needed relief from all of the bloodshed. Director John McTiernan had this film paced perfectly, drawing viewers in and keeping them on the edge of their seats, then taking it light before building to the next action-packed scene.
Die Hard comes off to me as something of a cartoon. No matter how many times he is shot at by these well-trained and well-armed high-tech thieves, he manages to escape. They pump more ammo at him than all the hunters in the state of New Hampshire use during deer season, and just continually miss. Yet he kills more of them than anyone else with a lot less resources. The violence might be off-putting to some, and I would recommend against it for children, but for those who love action movies that actually have a decent plot and not just violence for the sake of violence, this is a masterpiece.
The acting is terrific. Willis was just coming off of his success in the television show Moonlighting. Rumors abounded about the tension on that set between Willis and his co-star, Cybil Sheppard, making people nervous about casting him despite what appeared to be promising evidence of the ability to play both comedic and dramatic roles. Willis made this movie in so many ways. If another actor – say, Mel Gibson – had been cast in the role it might have worked, but it would have also felt like Lethal Weapon in a high-rise. With Willis in the role, McClane comes off as aggrieved, hardened, and quick-witted, rather than just insane.
Bonnie Bedelia more than holds her own opposite him which is refreshing. Despite being the victim held hostage, she’s no wilting violet. She’s strong and determined, and I was easily convinced why those two personalities would blend together in love and in fighting. She holds her own in scenes opposite the villains as well, becoming the de facto leader of the hostages.
Alan Rickman is an amazing villain. He brought so much depth to a role that could easily have been written off as one-dimensional. He displays Hans’s intelligence and translates his own acting into Hans’s acting at various times as well. Whether it’s his turn as a political terrorist to try to fool law enforcement, or pretending to be a scared yuppie to lure McClane out, he’s a sheer joy to watch on the screen.
Others may not be as impressed with Die Hard as I have been through the years. It holds up just as well in today’s world, although some of the themes may hit too close to home for some. Still, this is the definition of an action flick, and you can’t call yourself a true fan of that genre unless you have seen this film.
• Commentary by director John McTiernan and production designer Jackson DeGovia
• Text Commentary by members of the cast and crew
• Extended Branching Version