Vault: 'Die Hard' (1988) Dir. John McTiernan
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Originally intended to star Frank Sinatra, this adaption of the novel Nothing Lasts Forever made Bruce Willis an international star and produced one of the greatest action films ever...
New York City Police Detective Lieutenant John McClane (Willis) arrives in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to meet with his estranged wife Holly (Bedelia), meeting her inside the Nakatomi Plaza where she works, as the office Christmas party is underway.
German terrorist Hans Gruber (Rickman) arrives with eleven men and seizes control of Nakatomi for a robbery of $640m bearer bonds in the vault. In the confusion, McClane manages to grab his gun and escapes from the 30th floor, as everyone else is rounded up.
With Gruber violently raising the stakes once the LAPD and FBI soon make their presence known, it becomes a race against time for McClane to save Holly and the hostages and stop Gruber and the terrorists before it is too late…
Featuring a relatively unknown movie star more known for his charming comedic turn in TVs ‘Moonlighting’, Bruce Willis surprisingly sets the bar for the everyday action hero who is placed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Amidst the heroes who were built like indestructible warriors, who traveled to fantastical places with an unlimited arsenal and expansive, death-defying stunt work and utter chaos following them (looking at you Schwarzenegger and Stallone), this was a drastic change in pace and tone.
Veteran action director John McTiernan set out to make a clever action film that delivered the thrills and excitement in a more focused setting with interesting characters who felt more applicable to everyday life than many that had come before. It was a “real life” action film with nothing that couldn’t be seen to happen in reality, and with Bruce Willis nailing the likable, world-weary police detective who is just as ordinary as the typical working man (but skilled with guns and explosives), it made for a highly entertaining and action-packed thrill ride.
John McClane really is a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this endearing acceptance makes him of the best action heroes to get behind; because he doesn't let anyone forget it!
Focusing on developing characters that are clear cut good and bad, we have a star turn by Bruce Willis in one of his best and loved roles, doing away with his current style of dead-pan, gruff and monotone style of “acting”, here he is the average Joe trying to patch up with his wife, worn out with the life as a cop but fuelled by cleaning up scumbags off the street. The fact he is thrust into the battle against the terrorists in just a vest, trousers and a gun speak volumes and make his look so iconic and unique to be labelled an action hero. We see him laugh, cry, wince, bleed, scream, panic, enjoy – a whole range of emotions during his bloody and bruising battle that make him much more human and relatable to viewers. We see him injured, and bleed, and it lingers during the whole film – they don’t disappear in the next scene and he certainly looks tough and all the better for it as a man you certainly root for to win.
It’s the fact that there isn’t an unlimited supply of guns and ammo that make this a clever film. The environment of the tower block is used just as much as the supporting cast to add a real sense of danger and tension to proceedings. It’s a cat-and-mouse game across all floors with thrilling twists and turns along the way. Will you run into an enemy when you step out of the lift, or have they heard you two floors down in the air-vents?
There isn’t really time to breathe as the terrorists hunt McClane, and vice versa, all the while trying to keep the police and opposing forces away. It’s brilliantly staged, making the most of all floors and settings to make it a memorable film that is so simple in style but totally unique because of it. One man vs a small terrorist group over one night in one building with the aid of only a few outside the building – you don’t get much stripped down and clever than that for your action films with brains and heart.
Alan Rickman is on fire as Hans Gruber in his first major feature film lead (hard to believe when you watch him) who is as stylish and cultured as he is deadly and intelligent. He’s like a charming snake in the grass, flashing a warm smile before calmly dispatching anyone in his way with a well-placed bullet. He’s not the usual terrorist who “defines” the image of a terrorist nowadays in cinema, and he comes across more as a businessman with a gun who talks the talk and uses his brains more so than violence to get the job done. It’s up the classic line-up of German hitmen to do the dirty work, and they do so perfectly.
Many are unknown actors, but that adds to their danger – we don’t place them in anything else except here as deadly terrorists who are fearsome with their violence and relentless with how much they push and push McClane in confrontation. They are mature terrorists with steely gazes and ruthless morals who have never been bettered yet as a terrorist unit in an action film without coming across hammy and clichéd.
Mix this with the bloody and balls-to-the-wall action and bone-crunching, gore-splattering violence and you really have a terrific, mature action film that caters for the older audience that is SORELY missed today in cinema. It only made just over $140m at the box-office, but back when numbers didn’t dictate a film’s success, it was the simple story, memorable characters, well-staged action and iconic settings and stunt-work that helped define this as an action classic where less really was more, and it didn’t shy away from swearing, shooting and blowing things up for a real gritty, exciting and dangerous feeling movie.
With the comic relief coming from the fantastic Reginald VelJohnson as the warm and likeable Al Powell (McClane's eyes and ears on the outside), young limo driver Argyle (De'voreaux White) and the pissy Chief Dwayne T Robinson (Paul Gleason), there is enough time to chuckle with McClane at the absurdity of the situation as well as face the darker moments when Tiernan reminds you at points that these terrorists do what they set out to do well - terrorise.
Simple, free from clutter, loud, dangerous, heartfelt and humane - this is action with practical effects and stunts at its best. They truly DON'T make them like this anymore.
'Die Hard' is a Gordon Company / Silver Pictures production