Sunday, 6 November 2016

ACTION-ADVENTURE: Die Hard (1988)

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Die Hard (USA, 1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia 

IMDb Top 250: #121 (6/11/16) 

We are rapidly approaching Christmas, and with it comes the usual slew of articles and listicles about the greatest Christmas films. And regardless of what film may top said lists - Whistle Down The Wind would be my personal choice - there is one thing of which you can almost be certain: Die Hard will be somewhere on those lists. In the 28 years since it first graced the silver screen, John McTiernan's tour de force has become regarded not just one of the definitive 1980s action films, but also the definitive alternative Christmas film.

It is tempting to presume, in light of all the inferior sequels featuring an increasingly uninterested Bruce Willis, that the original has become a victim of its own hype. We remember it as being great, not because it is great, but because everything that has tried to imitate it has paled in comparison. It is certainly true, with the benefit of hindsight, that it is not quite the best action film of the 1980s; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would take that crown, with Raiders and Mad Max 2 vying for second place. But it remains a really entertaining, well-assembled spectacle, with humour, bravado and efficiency to spare.
One of the little-known bits of trivia about Die Hard is that it was quite closely based on a novel. An awful lot of the structure and storyline of Robert Thorp's 1979 thriller Nothing Lasts Forever has survived in the finished film; many of the character names remain the same, the plot still revolves around terrorists attacking a corporation's headquarters at Christmas, and some of the setpieces are replicated exactly, including the sequence with the C4 in the lift.
Thorp had written Nothing Lasts Forever as a follow-up to his 1966 novel The Detective, and had hopes that any film version would star Frank Sinatra, who had played the titular character in 1968. Sinatra, who was 64 when the novel came out, declined the role despite the acclaim which the original film had received. The project was subsequently declined by Sylvester Stallone, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger (though stories of it being shaped as a sequel to Commando have been denied by co-writer Steven E. de Souza). The script was eventually retooled as a standalone and the studio took a big gamble on Bruce Willis, then best known for his work on the TV series Moonlighting.
One of the single biggest assets of Die Hard is the simplicity of its execution. While McTiernan's previous work Predator took a long time to figure out what kind of film it was, it's very easy to get into the zone with Die Hard. The good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, the action unspools at an efficient yet methodical pace, and the editing manages to keep things sharp while resisting endless fast cuts or needlessly complex camera angles. It is, as Mark Kermode once described it, "cowboys and Indians in The Towering Inferno" - a reference to the fact that Thorp's novel was originally inspired by the John Guillermin film, produced by 'the master of disaster' Irwin Allen.
In light of this, the phrase that springs to mind about Die Hard is that it "comes from a simpler time". The argument goes that it was made during the Cold War, when we knew exactly who our enemies were, and at a time before technology and digital surveillance superseded macho, hot-headed mavericks who could take down said enemies single-handed, a la James Bond or Riggs and Murtagh in Lethal Weapon. You couldn't make an old-school action film like Die Hard today, just as you couldn't make an old-school western after Unforgiven. Audiences are increasingly aware of how complex and nebulous the world and people are, and just falling back on lazy stereotypes isn't going to cut it any more.
This is an enticing line of reasoning, especially given the popularity of films like Skyfall, The Bourne Ultimatum and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which focus on infiltration, betrayal and the system turning on itself to justify its existence. But while the argument broadly holds up, there are certain aspects of Die Hard which remain relevant, if not forward-looking. The terrorists who hold up the Nakatomi Plaza are not after political power or ethnic cleansing; they have financial motivations, foreshadowing the electronic terrorism of Goldeneye or the rise of hacking in the internet age.
 
The film also teases the idea of such groups using politics as a means of leverage rather than a goal in itself. Hans Gruber makes demands regarding the freedom fighters (which he only knows about because of Time magazine) to distract the authorities - a tactic that could easily be employed by contemporary terrorists, using awkward relationships between states to buy time for their own ambitions. The clash between John McClane and Gruber is to some extent one of class and culture - the earthy, street-smart, lowbrow cop against the erudite, snobbish and book-smart criminal.
 
One of the most common complaints made about action films, both then and now, is that they come with such poorly-written characters that the audience has nothing to connect them to the pyrotechnics. Characters in such films are often written so closely to an archetype - the hero, the villain, the love interest and so on - that they lack distinctive personality traits, and with it the ability to behave in an empathetic, idiosyncratic manner. Die Hard may be structured as a straightforward fight between good and evil, but the characters feel three-dimensional, with flaws and foibles which keep them memorable and make the film all the more rewarding on repeat viewing.
 
German film critic Philipp Bühler said, very accurately, that McClane works as a character not because of his strengths, but because he is vulnerable. Writing in Movies of the 80s, he said: "He's scared of flying, and he's scared of a world that no longer has a place for men like him... What distinguished him from human tanks like Schwarzenegger and Stallone was his sensitivity and vulnerability, which helped make Die Hard an action movie for people who don't generally like action movies." I said in my review of Red 2 that Willis often betrays in his performances how much he really wants to be in a given film. Here, his performance is disciplined, responsive and very convincing, and besides Twelve Monkeys it remains his finest hour. 
 
Alan Rickman's career-making performance as Gruber is a similar indication of the quality of the script. Rickman's villainous turns often get lumped together in such a way that they have become a pastiche of the archetype, but there is a world of difference between Gruber and the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The Sheriff is nothing more than an over-the-top, pantomime bad guy, whose hilariously drawn-out death throes give Nordberg's calamities in Naked Gun a run for their money. Even when he's bellowing "where are my detonators?!", Gruber is a more complex, guarded and reptilian beast, who teeters between funny and terrifying thanks to a script which gives the character sufficient scope to explore motivations and pressure points in depth.
 
As far as its spectacle is concerned, Die Hard still holds up extremely well thanks to its use of physical effects. The set used for the Nakatomi Plaza was at the time the headquarters of 20th Century Fox, with several scenes being shot on floors which were still under construction. Not only did this give McTiernan the power to wreck things as he saw fit (captured by Paul Verhoeven's cinematographer-of-choice Jan de Bont), it also brings an organic sense of entropy to proceedings which CGI cannot match. The injuries McClane sustains are mirrored by the growing destruction of property, and all the setpieces connect and flow beautifully.
 
For all its good points, Die Hard does have a couple of flaws which somewhat tarnish its glowing reputation. Roger Ebert, who did not like the film, made a valid point about the role of the police as the action unfolds. The stupidity of Al's boss, and by extension the journalists and FBI, serve as a distraction from the central conflict and undermine the script's hard work on making the central characters relatable. Al himself is likeable enough, but he's still an unnecessary concession to generic convention, and the resolution of his arc is far too neat.
 
The other flaw with Die Hard is its ending. McClane's fight with Karl has such a fitting climax that to bring him back seemingly from the dead for one last jump-scare moment is cheap and unnecessary. After that, the film winds down into standard, American yuletide schmaltz; having held off for so long, it suddenly remembers that it's Christmas and gives us a jarring, sentimental ending, rather than saying true to the novel and letting McClane die. We forgive the film of these fumbles because of how good it has been up until then, but it's still a shame to finish things off so illogically. 
 
Die Hard remains one of the must-see films of the 1980s, being an action film with brains and heart rather than just brawn. Willis is excellent in the role which made him a star, ably supported by Rickman, and it remains as entertaining on the first watch as it does on the 50th. Aside from a few niggling flaws, it is both an easy film to relax into and a must-see for anyone interested in Hollywood cinema. Whatever happens to John McClane in the future, this will always be the gold standard.


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NEXT REVIEW: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

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