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.
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.
NEXT REVIEW: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)