Die Hard (1988)
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Gleason and James Shigeta. Directed by John McTiernan. From 20th-Century Fox.
NYPD Detective John McClane (Willis) visits his estranged wife in Los Angeles at Christmas time. Holly Gennaro-McClane (Bedelia) works for the Nakatomi Corporation – which is about to be taken over by “terrorists” lead by the erudite Hans Gruber (Rickman). Gruber and his team attempt to carry out their plot while McClane – one against many – attempts to thwart them at every turn.
Seems ridiculous to provide a synopsis for this movie – who doesn’t know what Die Hard is about? – but I thought I’d break it down quickly for the two dozen people who have never seen it. And let us dispense with formalities. Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It takes place on Christmas Eve and the plot does make use of the season but Christmas is not essential to the plot. However, because the events of the film do take place during the holiday season, that is when it is most often enjoyed. But we should consider that it may be as much a Christmas movie as Holiday Inn (1942), which depicts all holidays or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a tale that tracks throughout the calendar. Now that I think about it, perhaps the films best qualified as “Christmas movies” are the legion of Hallmark films that have Christmas at their very core. But are they watchable?
This film is truly an iconic and historic action film and how it plays out became somewhat of a template for many action films to follow. The story of Die Hard, though, begins with a middling novelist named Roderick Thorp and the greatest singer of all time.
Born in the Bronx, Thorp as a youth worked at his father’s detective agency before turning to authoring police procedural novels. His 1966 book, The Detective, charts the exploits of private detective Joe Leland, a former police detective and World War 2 fighter pilot. The Detective was made into a film in ’68 starring Frank Sinatra as Leland. The film was one of the highest-grossing of the year and is considered one of Frank’s better efforts. Later, in 1975, Thorp saw the film The Towering Inferno and afterwards had a dream in which a man was being chased through a skyscraper. This was the inspiration for Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever that the novelist conceived as another chapter in the life of Joe Leland, by now older, retired, divorced and slightly paranoid.
In Nothing Lasts Forever, Leland travels to California to visit his daughter, Stephanie Leland Gennaro. She works at the Klaxon Oil Corporation and they are having their annual Christmas party. During the party, a group of German terrorists, lead by Anton “Little Tony the Red” Gruber, take control of the building hoping to steal documents that will prove Klaxon’s nefarious international dealings. Stephanie has been having an affair with a fellow executive, sleazy Harry Ellis. Leland escapes being rounded up with the rest of the employees/hostages and – although barefoot and armed with only a hand gun – he attempts to circumvent the terrorists’ plans. Joe gets radio support from a police officer on the outside, Sgt. Al Powell. He kills off the terrorists one by one although there is a suggestion that, had he not got involved, no one would have been killed. Joe begins to believe that his daughter is involved in the company’s dirty dealing and he loses her when he shoots Gruber and Gruber falls out a window, taking Stephanie with him.
Because Thorp wrote this as a chapter in the life of an older, wizened Joe Leland, he wanted Sinatra to reprise the role. But by the time a studio bought the rights to Nothing Lasts Forever, Frank was in his 70’s. Sinatra’s contract where The Detective was concerned stipulated that he be offered the role in any sequels produced. At this point in his life, though, Frank wasn’t about to put himself through the rigors this film would call for – in fact, Frank Sinatra would only make one more proper film – and he declined. Having fulfilled their obligation by offering the role to Sinatra and having him turn it down, the studio was free to extract this sequel novel from it’s predecessor and forge ahead with the film, making changes to the story and characters and coming up with a new title; Die Hard.
The screenplay for Die Hard was co-written by Steven E. de Souza, one of the few screenwriters who’s films have grossed over $2 billion. He is also the scribe behind Commando (1985), The Running Man (1987) and Die Hard 2 (1990) and Hudson Hawk (1991) both with Bruce Willis.
The director was also a master of the action genre. John McTiernan had directed Predator (1987) and would go on to direct only a few more films, including The Hunt for Red October (1990), Last Action Hero (1993), the third film in this franchise, Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), The 13th Warrior (1999) and the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999). Producer Joel Silver has produced countless action movies including others starring Willis; Die Hard 2, Hudson Hawk and The Last Boy Scout (1991).
I’ll try not to ramble on about my love for Bruce Willis, who was born in West Germany, incidentally. When I was 15, one of my favourite television shows was Moonlighting starring Bruce and Cybil Shepherd. One of the few shows that I call my favourites that I actually watched while it was on the air, the show was an absolute treat for my young, imaginative mind. So, I’ve liked Bruce from the get-go and I rented on VHS and/or taped off TV two of his early film appearances, in Blake Edwards’ Blind Date (1987) and Sunset (1988), also starring James Garner. Sidebar: previous to these two, Bruce had been an uncredited extra in two films starring Hollywood heavyweights; 1980’s The First Deadly Sin – actually, the “one more proper film” I mentioned that Frank Sinatra would make – and The Verdict (1982) featuring Paul Newman in one of his 10 Oscar-nominated performances. Die Hard made Bruce Willis a star and one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. He’s still one of my favourites. David Dunn.
Alan Rickman portrays Hans Gruber as nothing less than the finest villain the action genre has ever seen. His performance is one of the enduring legacies of this film. Amazing to think Die Hard was Rickman’s first film. Predominantly a stage actor, Rickman would go on to appear in films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) before cementing his notability with a new generation of filmgoers with his portrayal of Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film franchise. Sadly, Rickman passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2016, aged 69.
Bonnie Bedelia, for me, is an interesting choice to play Holly Gennero – in different sources and at different points in the film, the spelling of her maiden name goes between “Ero” and “Aro”. To my eye, she doesn’t seem to be the “type” they would get to play John McClane’s wife. She certainly is a fine actress, having garnered positive reviews for her portrayal of drag racer Shirley Muldowney in 1983’s Heart Like a Wheel. When I was a kid, my friends and I, instead of answering in the affirmative “yes” or “surely” we would sometimes say “Shirley Muldowney Heart Like a Wheel”. People who didn’t know us well wouldn’t have a clue. Holly appears briefly in Die Hard 2 but in the later films it is mentioned that the McClanes have not maintained their relationship and have separated. And who knew Bedelia was Macauley Culkin’s aunt?!
The rest of the cast is mostly known for their work in this film and some appeared in the sequel. Paul Gleason plays blowhard Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson. As a young man, Gleason was an extra in Winter a-Go-Go (1965) and I’ve also enjoyed him in Miami Blues (1990), the film that made me fall in love with Alec Baldwin. Most people will know him from The Breakfast Club (1985); “Show Dick some respect!” James Shigeta plays Mr. Takagi. Shigeta was in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) with Elvis Presley and he was also a singer of some note before breaking into films. He had been billed as “The Frank Sinatra of Japan”.
A search of the internet will find you many articles delving into the legacy of the Die Hard franchise and the first film’s status in the pantheon and there’s nothing I, a humble movie fan, can add to these astute assessments. But let’s talk about a few interesting things about this film anyways.
It really is one of the greatest action movies ever made. It became a template for how they should be made, particularly in a scenario where a lone man goes up against great odds. Bruce Willis became a highly-paid action star, sure, but he also became something of a good, old fashioned victim of typecasting and met resistance when he wanted to do something different. A lot of the action films he made later were unfailingly compared to Die Hard – oftentimes the film in question was referred to as “Die Hard in a…” or “Die Hard on a…”. Last Man Standing (1996) was set amongst gangsters in the 1940’s and was called “Die Hard in a Fedora”. But all the comparisons came because Die Hard is so good and even by the dawn of the 1990’s it had already entered the lexicon and was acknowledged as the high water mark of the genre. It spawned pretty good second and third films, a sketchy fourth and a terrible fifth. And many imitations.
Interesting to note that inside the first four minutes of Die Hard we see: a passenger packing a gun on an airplane, an announcement on an airplane exclaiming “Merry Christmas”, cigarette smoking in an airport and a pregnant woman drinking. Watch for Willis’ “chest hair buttons” and his many Addisonisms. Bruce played David Addison on Moonlighting as a smirking wiseacre and that comes through sometimes in McClane. This script is very tidy in many ways. McClane’s vulnerability is key to the plot. The very first image we have of John is not of his face but his hand fiercely gripping the armrest of his chair in the airplane; he doesn’t like flying and it makes him uncomfortable, even fearful. McClane’s trek through the events of the film is made that much more difficult by the fact that he is barefoot, another key plot point established nicely by a person’s innocent suggestion that he remove his shoes and socks to help with air travel stress. McClane is more than vulnerable and often scared and stretched to his breaking point which makes the audience feel it really could be curtains for him at any moment. The comedic moments work well but probably wouldn’t have even been attempted with another actor in the role.
There are many nice touches such as Holly’s toughness in her dealings with Gruber. And little things that help the plot like her seemingly impulsive and whimsical move putting the family photo on her desk face down. Sgt. Powell’s story line comes to a nice conclusion and the FBI agents in the chopper – one of whom is Licence to Kill‘s Robert Davi – are a comical touch. The dramatic score by Michael Kamen is well-suited to the action as it quotes “Ode to Joy” and “Winter Wonderland” throughout. As noted, Alan Rickman is perfect as Gruber and a joy to watch in every scene. There are many good lines as well including the iconic “Yippee-ki-yay” but I also like “Ja, I see him!” when one of the thieves lines up “the car” with his bazooka and Hans telling Karl to “Schieße das Fenster — shoot the glass!”. And doesn’t the member of the gang they get to sit at the security guard station look like Huey Lewis’ evil brother?
You might think I’m dumb but help me out. How does the FBI showing up open the vault? In case of a terrorist/hostage scenario, the power is cut – which releases the final lock? I’d like to have it spelled out in plain idiot-proof English.
Couple beefs/questions: what is up with the “girl in the window” that John looks at in the building across the way? Why does she get a credit? In the fights John has, the use of a stunt double is painfully obvious. Also obvious is why one was used but it looks bad; almost as bad as it used to look on Bonanza. But speaking of stunts, the first family of stunt work worked on Die Hard. Paul Picerni was an actor back in the day who is best known for his role of one of Eliot Ness’ team on television’s The Untouchables. He had two sisters who did stunt work in Hollywood and he had a brother named Charles. Charlie Picerni has been a stuntman since getting his start working with his brother on The Untouchables in 1961. Charlie has – wait for it – 367 credits to his name. Producer Joel Silver hired him to work on Die Hard and Charlie subsequently worked on many other action films like Road House (1989), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Basic Instinct (1992) and True Romance (1993). For Die Hard, Charlie brought in his sons, Chuck, Jr. (178 credits) and Steve (155) to work with the stunt team. Now, stay with me here; Charlie Picerni – he of 367 credits – has recently worked on films like Venom (2018) and Fast & Furious 9 (2020). Charlie Picerni was born in 1935 – he has just completed stunt driving work on a film in the premiere franchise of car racing movies at the age 84. C’mon! Tell me he’s not the godfather of Hollywood stuntmen! Hooper!
Christmas movie or not, Die Hard is one of the few films that lives up to the hype. Like First Blood (1982), it shouldn’t be assessed by the derivative films that followed. Die Hard is taut, well-paced and, perhaps the best thing about it, there are no lulls. You cannot miss a single scene. Particularly near the end of the film, there is one moment after another that has you clenched up and wincing. A perfect film? I dunno, but certainly magnificent.