Logan’s Moving Pictures turns to an Action film that many have debated whether it is or isn’t a Christmas Movie. Either way, you fall – Hans Gruber style or not – DIE HARD is a stone-cold Classic.
I once read an interview with Bruce Willis (whom I’ve talked about here before) where he recounted his first day of filming on the set of Die Hard. They were shooting one of the movie’s most notorious scenes; John McClane jumps off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza to avoid the impending explosion, the fire hose strapped to his waist the only thing keeping him from falling to his death. Of course, it’s movie magic, he’s not really leaping from a forty-story building, and anytime you can’t see Willis’ face it’s likely a stuntman. But, there’s still a very real explosion going off behind him as we see him make what is still a very real leap off of a raised platform.
Willis, curious as to why they were filming a scene that comes much later in the script (towards the end in fact) so early in the shoot, asked one of the stunt coordinators about it. The answer he got was “It’s in case an actor gets injured or dies, that way they don’t have to re-shoot the entire film.”
I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s a pretty key ingredient in the recipe that is the greatness of Die Hard. Fear: one of life’s greatest motivators and the thing that makes John McClane one of cinema’s greatest heroes. For the entirety of this film, John McClane is a man afraid.
The first time we see him, his plane has already touched down but his fingers are still clinched to his armrests. In his brief conversation with the limo driver, Argyle, we find out that John didn’t move out to L.A. with his wife Holly, because he’s threatened by her success. Then, just as they’re reunited, things go bad. Really bad. And, it’s his fear that propels him through every increasingly ridiculous action set piece that follows.
One thing Die Hard does so very well is separate the ideas of fear and cowardice, because John McClane is no coward. When I say he is afraid what I mean is, he’s afraid he’s ruined his relationships, he’s afraid he’s lost his family, he’s afraid of being blown up, he’s afraid of getting shot, he’s afraid of falling off a building, or down an elevator shaft; he’s afraid that his wife will be murdered and that he’ll never see his kids again. Every single thing he does in this film is a direct result of his fear. But, his desperate actions in the face of those fears are what makes him a hero. A very imperfect hero, but a hero nonetheless.
From the beginning, John McClane is painted as a flawed man. He’s married, but he shares a brief moment of interest with a flight attendant as he exits the plane, he checks out a blonde as she jumps into some guy’s arms, and he’s a bit rude with Argyle the friendly limo driver; we even see his estranged wife slam a picture of them together down on a table, which is universal language for “He’s a jackass.” He picks a fight with her not five minutes after they reunite. He’s not content with just stopping Hans and his gang, he has to piss them off as well. And, since it’s not enough to just upset the bad guys, he’s got to tick off the LAPD and the FBI while he’s at it. He’s abrasive, rude, hard-headed, impulsive, a bit chauvinistic, and, well, an out-and-out jerk for the most part. Qualities that make him harder to kill than a cockroach.
When you’ve got an imperfect hero it only makes sense to pair him with perhaps the most perfect villain to ever grace the screen.
It’s hard to believe that Hans Gruber was Alan Rickman’s first on-screen performance. He was 42 at the time, 9 years older than his co-star Bruce Willis. Rickman was cast after director John McTiernan and producer Joel Silver saw him on Broadway in Dangerous Liaisons (he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance that year).
While Willis’ John McClane is very much a “man’s man” type of character, Hans Gruber is charming and charismatic. McClane is a man motivated by fear and Hans Gruber is absolutely fearless. He’s well dressed and well mannered, he’s reasonable (to a point), he is a man with a plan, and, despite his pretty sinister actions throughout the film, it’s impossible to dislike him. He is everything John McClane is not.
It’s Rickman’s performance, I think, that ultimately pushes Die Hard past standard action fare and into the world of cinematic masterpieces. In over a hundred years of motion pictures, I don’t think there has ever been a more likable villain. Hannibal Lechter and Daniel Plainview fall into that realm, but it’s Hans Gruber that paved the way.
But, what are great leads without a great supporting cast? Reginald Veljohnson, William Atherton, Paul Gleason, Robert Davi, Hart Bochner, Clarence Gilyard Jr, De’voreaux White, Alexander Godunov, and Hollywood action staple Al Leong (who never says a word, but gets maybe the film’s best laugh by just eating a candy bar), even brief cameos by Rick Ducommon and Mary Ellen Trainor. Oh, and Bonnie Bedelia of course. All turn in fantastic performances, true supporting players, with great chemistry, who each get their moment to shine.
None of it would be possible though without a great script and a good director. The thing is when you look at the credits for the screenplay writers Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, neither ever scored another hit as huge as Die Hard. It was Stuart’s first credited gig, outside of this his biggest films were Another 48hrs and The Fugitive (like Die Hard, he was credited with co-writing both with other scripters). Most of de Souza’s work has been in television, on a few high-profile genre shows, but his film credits are disheartening. He worked on the script for the first 48hrs film, the second Die Hard, and Ricochet, but beyond that, it’s all mediocre: Commando, Tomb Raider, The Running Man, Hudson Hawk, The Flinstones, Judge Dredd, Street Fighter…you get the point.
As for director John McTiernan? He’s directed eleven films, six of which might be considered at least good, and that’s throwing in Basic for good measure: Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard With a Vengeance, and The Thomas Crown Affair. His others? Nomads, Medicine Man, Last Action Hero, The 13th Warrior, and Rollerball. Not exactly Spielberg.
One director, and two screenwriters, none of which have managed to produce work as excellent as is on display in Die Hard. Given their track records, they probably shouldn’t be capable of even having turned out Die Hard, to begin with. But, some of the best moments in life result in just being in the right place at the right time. Why should Hollywood be any different?
So, I’m not sure why the script works, but it does. Even if you credit the actors solely with the realism they’re able to display on screen and the words coming out of their mouths (which, you can’t), you still have a pretty well-thought-out heist film. Granted, it’s based on an existing novel, but in the book, McClane is very much the super-cop (and isn’t named McClane). In fact, McTiernan is widely credited with the idea of retooling the character into sort of an anti-hero, the very flawed character that we see on screen.
And, while it’s very much an action film, there’s a lot of humor in Die Hard as well. A lot of 80’s action flicks relied on punchy one-liners and jokes at the character’s expense and, yeah, that happens a few times during the course of Die Hard, but overall the comedy comes from the situation itself. The previously mentioned candy bar scene with Al Leong, the dead body flying off of Al’s car as he speeds out of the parking lot in reverse, John’s trouble in summoning the police, etc.
Of course, there are the quotable lines too, but just like the comedy in the film, it’s not your typical 80’s action film fare.
It’s a movie that shouldn’t work. A flick that should have probably fallen in with the likes of Comando, Hard to Kill, First Blood Part II, Missing in Action, Cobra, and the entirety of Jean Claude Van Damme’s career. All movies that are best remembered, and not re-watched. But, it doesn’t. Somehow two mediocre screenwriters, a so-so director, and two unproven stars manage to craft a film that breaks the mold and becomes a masterpiece. A movie that every action film since has strived to imitate. A film with a flawed hero, a perfect villain, and a lot of heart. Beyond the bullets, the one-liners, and explosions, Die Hard is the story of a man who’ll do whatever it takes to celebrate Christmas with his family.
Which brings us to why we’re here, why I wanted to talk about this classic, and why this is coming to you in early December. Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. One that I’ll be watching with my Dad on December 25th as my family sits around the table, shoveling THE best pancakes you’ve ever had into our mouths, quoting our favorite lines, and thinking fondly of those who are no longer with us.