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Year of release
1988

Directed by
John McTiernan

Written by
Jeb Stuart
Steven E. de Souza

Starring
Bruce Willis
Alan Rickman
Bonnie Bedelia
Reginald VelJohnson


Die Hard


Plot - A New York cop, John McClane (Willis), arrives off the plane in Los Angeles with a fairly simple objective; to spend time with his kids at Christmas and attempt to reconnect with his wife, Holly (Bedelia). Things don't exactly go according to any such plan however. While visiting her at her offices; the large Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper, McClane finds himself in the middle of what appears to be a terrorist attack. The group, led by Hans Gruber (Rickman), comprises of individuals. They take all of the people remaining in the building, including Holly, hostage on the 30th floor, except for our man McClane. He manages to escape their clutches and goes about waging a one man war, picking the terrorists off one by one. Except are they really terrorists? Or is that all a front for a more basic desire - money?

Now we come to the ultimate and definitive action film. For me this film had never been bettered in terms of action movies, and still hasn't in the 25 years since Die Hard was released. And a whole lot of films have attempted it, many even mimicking Die Hard's template and just adapting it for a different location or setting; Die Hard on a Bus (Speed), Die Hard on a Navy vessel (Under Siege), Die Hard on a plane (Executive Decision) etc. None have succeeded quite as well as the innovator however; never mixing the ingredients of action, humour and character to such a high standard.

Most of the action heroes of the time where more of the testosterone-fuelled, muscle-bound variety (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, Lundgren etc) but Willis' John McClane came along and changed the mould for the action hero; more of an everyman who just happened to get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a relatable and vulnerable hero. I don't think it's any mistake that the first time the film-makers show us McClane we find him sitting on a plane looking nervous and uptight, suffering from the fact that he's not a good flyer. This is not an indestructible killing machine we're dealing with here, he's a flawed human with fears and a mess of a personal life. He doesn't go looking for trouble. All he wants to do is to try and heal the rift with his wife and spend time with his kids at Christmas. But when trouble finds him he tackles it out of a sense of right, and also just out of an instinct of self-preservation. The film takes its time to try and build the character and his situation, and it actually feels like the film cares. A lot of the time in an action film they just slap on the most basic, clichéd backstory for the character; seemingly desperate to just get it out of the way so they can move onto the explosions and the gunshots. It achieves this through little touches such as his frustration and pain when he discovers that Holli has discarded the McClane name and has been using her maiden name instead. The character really is about as far removed from the likes of Dutch (Predator) and Cobra (eh...Cobra. ) as possible. I imagine the biggest problem in their lives runs something along the lines of “I wish my gun was bigger and more deadly!”

Film Trivia - It may have become the role that defined him but Willis was far from the first choice. It was apparently turned down by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte and Tom Berenger. While before they settled on Willis the producers also considered Charles Bronson, Don Johnson and Richard Dean Anderson.
All of this isn't too say that McClane doesn't share some of the same qualities however; he could still kick ass and he could still throw out a joke or two at the same time. It's just that he was a more believable hero; he wasn't indestructible and he wouldn't just wade into a large group of guys and take them out, he would use his brain to try and outwit them as much as he could to make his task as easy as possible. He employed stealth tactics and wasn't afraid to just turn and run when the odds weren't in his favour. I'm sure that had it been Schwarzenegger starring in Die Hard the film would have been about 10 minutes long - “The villains are all cooped up in a single location and my character knows this? Well I should just go in guns blazing and kill them all!” And you get the feeling that the humour is more McClane just trying to defuse the situation and keep himself calm, than trying to be funny and cruel in the way a Schwarzenegger would. I love his sarcastic line, born out of frustration, when he's in the ventilation shaft, “Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs.” While he also uses humour to get inside the heads of the villains; never more so than sending them the dead body of a comrade with “Now I Have a Machine Gun. Ho Ho Ho” scrawled across his chest. McClane's character is further enhanced with the introduction of a sidekick of sorts in the form of Reginald Veljohnson's Sgt. Powell. Their scenes are responsible for a large amount of the film's humour and Powell also acts as a sounding board for McClane to discuss his fears and personal life. It's a really fun buddy pairing with Veljohnson giving a really likeable performance.

And in the role of the relatable John McClane you've got Bruce Willis on top form. He may have given technically 'better' performances (Unbreakable and Twelve Monkeys for example) but this is the iconic performance and character for which he will forever be associated with, and my personal favourite performance of his. His perfectly pitches McClane between the type of heroes a Schwarzenegger would play, and his own character of David Addison from the classic TV show Moonlighting, which he was still filming for during the making of Die Hard incidentally. He takes ingredients from both camps and gifts the character with a great deal of charm and vulnerability, while using his spot-on comic timing to maximise McClane's appeal. Willis also walked that perfect fine-line for the character in terms of appearance, being attractive enough to fulfil the role of 'movie star' but not in a pretty boy kind of way; more of a blue collar, regular joe that we could identify with.

If you're to have a truly classic action film, then every great hero needs a great villain. And in Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman created an absolute cracker. Switching from charming gentlemen to psychotic nutter at the drop of the hat, the character is an absolute treat. And incredibly it was Rickman's feature film debut. Talk about coming out of the gates strong. He gives a wonderfully over the top, boo hiss performance that just oozes sleeze and menace. And his line delivery is just impeccable; “Mr Takagi won't be joining us...for the rest of his life.” He really did make Hans Gruber into one of the all time great screen villains. The film goes the extra mile in terms of its villains, not content to merely settle with just building up the character of Hans. It instead makes a number of Hans' goons into memorable characters in their own right, and not just the faceless henchman/cannon fodder they frequently are in films of this type. On a very simple level it differentiates between the characters in terms of their appearance, making them distinct in your mind. You've got the black techy guy (Theo), the Nordic Thor look-alike (Karl) and the Asian looking henchman, Uli. The latter there being played by Al Leong, a bit of a cult legend amongst action movie fans having almost made appearances in Big Trouble in Little China, Lethal Weapon, Death Warrant, Rapid Fire and Black Rain to name just a few. It's hard to imagine anyone else could have inspired such a following when they only play characters with names like Wing Kong Hatchet Man (Big Trouble in Little China), Asian Revolutionary (They Live) and Car Mechanic (Beverly Hills Cop III)

Film Trivia - Die Hard has some wonderfully translated titles around the world. In Spain its title meant “Crystal Jungle”; in Poland the title was “The Glass Trap”; in Germany it was “Die Slowly”; n Serbia, Croati and Bosnia it was translated as “Die Manly!”, while the pirated VHS was "Skupo Prodaj Svoju Kozu" ("Sell Your Skin At High Price"). The Hungarian title came out as “Give your life expensive", the title of the sequel is "Your life is more expensive", and the third part is "The life is always expensive"
All this talk of character building and establishing a new action hero template is really just me padding out the review and attempting to look smart. Because above all of it, Die Hard remains an action-packed thrill ride of a film and in my eyes still the best offering that the action genre has at its disposal. It kicks some major ass! A feat even more impressive given the limited scope that the film saddled itself with of having a single location, and a fairly dull one at that, the film deserves a lot of credit for being able to mine such variety for the action. We are presented with numerous different forms of action and combat; the hand to hand battle with Karl, big shootouts and running gun battles, massive explosions, large scale vehicle-based destruction and thrilling stunts. All of which are staged throughout a series of locations, whether it be plush executive offices, on the rooftop, in the elevator shaft, in the ventilation ducts or on floors under renovation. It may be resigned to a single building but it keeps things fresh with a constantly shifting backdrop for proceedings. It really does utilise every single inch of that building.

And with John McTiernan at the reins the whole thing flies along at a terrific pace and very little of the running time is wasted in any way whatsoever. In amongst all the action any break we get serves a purpose, whether it be to provide comic relief, build character, enhance the tension or create emotion. Tremendous!

Conclusion - In the classic sitcom Friends, Die Hard was the favourite film of the three male characters - Joey, Ross and Chandler. I remember an episode where after their umpteenth viewing of it Chandler says “Die Hard...still great!” And you know what, it kind of is. With some enthralling action, lots of humour, an iconic villain and a hero to really root for this is a fantastic film.