One of the most iconic action movies from the decade of the action movie, Die Hard made a movie star of TV actor Bruce Willis and has thus far led to three sequels with a forth on the way. A critical hit upon its release and an enduring cult hit, Die Hard has been immortalised in popular culture thanks to its lone hero central character, gritty action and signature quote “Yippie-ki-yay motherfucker!” Even a quarter of a century on I’m able to watch Die Hard with the same joy and enthusiasm as it was first greeted when I was a mere toddler. The story is simple. New York City Cop John McLane (Bruce Willis) is on his way from New York to L.A to be with his estranged family at Christmas. He is dropped off at his wife’s Christmas party in the Nakatomi Plaza building but soon finds the office has been taken hostage by a group of mostly European terrorists lead by the masterfully camp Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). With just his wits, a vest and handgun, McLane must take back the building, save his wife and save Christmas.
It’s hard for me to believe that this film is close to twenty-five years old but there are signs of ageing. In the opening two minutes for instance McLane is seen with a gun on a plane and then smoking in a Los Angeles airport. If there are two things that will date a film…. Another sign of ageing include Bruce Willis’ hairline. By that I mean he has one. Some of the technology though is nicely dated. I quite like to see old computers and phones in action films. It routes them firmly in reality. I also love the 1980s style American Police Cars. Almost like Travis Bickle’s cab, they are iconic to me and look more ‘American’ than their modern counterparts. Die Hard is also the sort of film which wouldn’t be made today. Post 9/11 action films have generally avoided the overt use of skyscrapers. For Die Hard though it is the perfect playground.
John McLane seems to have a lot of fun using the building as a sort of Jungle Jim or maze in which he can confuse and kill the terrorists. Due to the various levels and spreading out of the terrorists he is able to pick them off a couple at a time while remaining mostly hidden. It feels like there is more strategy to McLane’s plans than the traditional Arnie style of throwing trucks/poles/trees at bad guys. The terrorists themselves are quite typical 1980s cannon fodder. Mostly blonde, mulleted Germans with a camp super villain leader, they are given little personality but lots of chances to kill McLane. I was interested to read that in the dubbed German version of the film the terrorist characters had their names Anglicised so that for instance Hans became Jack and Heinrich became Henry. Whether this helped to avoid Germany becoming offended, I’m not sure. The central character of John McLane became an instant fan favourite and is still popular a quarter of a century later. He has an All American feel to him but is also an everyman, just an NYPD Cop trying to get home for the holidays. His costume too is instantly recognisable; his white vest becoming slowly darker and more tattered as the film progresses until the stage that he loses it entirely. The lack of shoes also adds an edge which can be exploited by the filmmakers and terrorists alike.
Over the years the film has got a reputation as a Christmas Movie, the sort of film that people watch at Christmas. Although perhaps from the outside it seems a bit anti Christmas, its message is sound. McLane is visiting his family for Christmas and will stop at nothing to halt the people trying to stop him from spending the holiday with his family. The action and violence has also helped it to become the Christmas Movie for people like myself who don’t really like Christmas and especially the vomit inducing, overly sentimental, wishy-washy, ‘ooh isn’t everything lovely’, always snowing, Vince Vaughn, woolly jumper, sing along, child pandering sort of films which usually fill the multiplexes and TV schedules during December.
As much as I like Die Hard it is not without its faults. My main concern with the film is the ineffectual Police and FBI at the scene. Paul Gleason plays the Deputy Chief of Police, a character who is entirely unbelievable. He is a bumbling fool who knows nothing and always jumps to the wrong conclusion. I can understand how he is the opposite of McLane and acts as a stumbling block to the central character but I find him really annoying and implausible. The FBI characters are equally as stupid and ridiculous. They seem to have had no hostage training and treat the situation like a practice exercise or warzone. Their comments about loosing 20-25% of the hostages are also totally unrealistic. Thankfully though to combat some of the more implausible characters, the film is dotted with some great ones. Reginald VelJohnson plays Sgt. Powell, the first Cop on the scene and John McLane’s unofficial partner. The two of them have a great relationship and I enjoyed their camaraderie and closing scene together. De’voreaux White plays cocky young Limo driver Argyle and provides some humour to the piece. The standouts though are Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. The two characters are towering icons of 80s Action and along with the stunts, sharp dialogue and basic premise are what make this film what it is. Great fun.