Along with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, John McTiernan’s Die Hard defined a generation of action-adventure movies.
All three were wildly popular, enormously crowd-pleasing entertainments; but studios zeroed in early on Die Hard as the most repeatable phenomenon. Hosts of Die Hard imitators — as well as a pair of sequels — were pitched and marketed as “Die Hard on a train / plane / mountain / river / bus etc.” (respectively, Passenger 57, Under Siege, Cliffhanger, The River Wild, and Speed).
Unfortunately, few if any of these would-be “Try Hards” and “Fly Hards” (including the sequels) approached the original film’s level of wit, excitement, and interest (the notable exception being Speed, the first post–Die Hard action-adventure blockbuster to step out from the earlier film’s shadow and become something fresh).
Critics of Die Hard complain that the movie is manipulative and contrived, at times wildly implausible, and peopled by two-dimensional characters. So it is. But the manipulation works; the characters are on their own level thoroughly engaging; and concerns about plausibility are swept away like tumbleweeds before a freight train by the strength of the premise, the wit of the dialogue, and the rip-roaring set pieces. Die Hard may not be a great film, but it’s a corker of a movie. For an evening of edge-of-your-seat entertainment, you’d be hard pressed to do much better.
Another potential issue is the intense violence and vulgar, sometimes profane dialogue. The violence, though, is framed within a moral context — a police officer must use deadly force in self-defense and in defense of the lives of innocent hostages — and the experience of going through the hero’s crisis with him, vicariously passing through the valley of the shadow of death before emerging in triumph with evil defeated and hope restored, is a satisfyingly cathartic experience. There’s also an underlying moral subtext in the theme of the hero’s troubled relationship with his wife and their stumbling, awkward efforts to overcome their difficulties, and the reckoning that this event occasions for both of them (as well as others around them).
But all of this is in the background. Part of what makes Die Hard so different from earlier action blockbusters of the same era — from Star Wars and Raiders to Rambo and Aliens — is the fact that, unlike the heroes of the earlier films, NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis in a signature role) hasn’t set out on some quest or crusade to right some wrong, recover some great good, and/or destroy some great evil — to rescue the princess, recover the ark, find the POWs, destroy the aliens, destroy the Death Star, defeat the Nazis, pay back the Vietcong.
Instead, he finds himself unexpectedly besieged by an invading evil he wasn’t looking for, fighting for his own survival and that of others. And this insidious evil takes the form, not of exotic villains of another world or time — stormtroopers, Nazis, aliens, even Vietcong — but something much more immediate: terrorists and high-tech criminals.
No mystical artifacts or supernatural forces aid McClane: no ark, lightsaber, Force, or shekinah glory and destroying angel. The factors here are all mundane: guns, explosives, helicopters. And the authorities — the police and the FBI — who ought to be doing their utmost to rescue him and his fellow captives, are almost to a man incompetent buffoons or callous yahoos, in either case playing right into the villains’ hands. He’s completely on his own.
While some of these same observations could also be applied, for example, to John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in Rambo: First Blood Part II, as a hero Rambo was a strictly old-school figure in the tradition of characters played by John Wayne, Johnny Weismuller, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Cooper: stoic, fearless, impassive, awesomely capable, and (despite a scene of physical torture) practically invulnerable.
By contrast, John McClane is a much more human hero who gets overwhelmed, panics, makes mistakes, reproaches himself, hesitates, suffers brutal injuries, and tries desperately to think one step ahead. A few earlier leading men, notably Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart, played heroes with some of these attributes; but perhaps they were never pressed so hard as John McClane. Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard might have had to stand up to bullying Liberty Valance, but he at least had Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) backing him up. Nobody’s backing up McClane. He’s as completely on his own as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, but without that anonymous hero’s aura of invincibility.
Oddly, none of Die Hard’s many imitators attempted to duplicate this key trait: Steven Segal, Wesley Snipes, and the other action heroes who followed in Willis’s footsteps tended to be as impassively heroic as Rambo. (So for that matter did Keanu Reeves in Speed — but that movie cleverly compensated with Sandra Bullock’s delightfully down-to-earth commuter, who panicks and freaks out even more engagingly than Bruce Willis, but likewise rises to the occasion.)
Die Hard slyly acknowledges the way it’s playing with motion-picture heroism in a key exchange between John McClane and criminal mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, also in a signature role). This exchange is part of one of Die Hard key innovations: McClane has taken out one of Gruber’s men and captured a walkie-talkie, allowing him not only to eavesdrop on Gruber and his men but also to address him directly, taunting him like a prank caller in an effort to psyche him out.
But Gruber, unflappably suave and sophisticated in his Armani suit, is not so easily thrown off balance. “This is very kind of you,”? he says in measured tones when McClane first begins baiting him. “But you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshall Dillon?”?
“I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually,”? McClane banters, tacitly acknowledging his status as an offbeat cowboy hero. Later, asked via radio by a sympathetic outside cop what he’d like to be called, McClane responds, “Call me… Roy.”?
This direct, anonymous interaction between the hero and the villain is electrifying, and is a crucial element in Die Hard’s success. (This device was widely copied in later movies, for the most part unsuccessfully, the exception being In the Line of Fire, where the role of the phantom caller reverted to the villain [John Malkovich], who taunted the hero [Clint Eastwood] over the phone.)
Another major element of Die Hard’s appeal lies in watching John McClane figure out how to solve each new problem that comes his way. There’s a unique appeal to stories of of problem-solving in extreme circumstances, like the one about that Vietnam POW who managed to slip a hidden message into a Vietcong propaganda film by blinking his eyes in Morse code to spell the word “torture.”? Chronicle Books publishes a small volume called The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook that offers pointers on how to survive if trapped in a sinking car, attacked by a bear, jumping from a moving train, and more. Even if you never anticipate being in any of those scenarios, it makes fascinating reading.
Die Hard has a similar appeal. It’s “How to Survive Being Taken Hostage in a Corporate High-rise by Deadly Terrorists”?; and if some of McClane’s techniques wouldn’t be recommended by the Worst Case Scenario experts, they’re none the less entertaining for that. Step by step, McClane has to improvise ways of evading the terrorists, summoning the authorities, surviving machine-gun assaults, alerting an unsuspicious cop to the presence of trouble, and so on; and his solutions are often clever, even startling.
Still another component of the movie’s power is its tightly focused setting (a single skyscraper). The second Die Hard movie occupied a more expansive setting (a large airport and surrounding area), while the third one sprawled across Manhattan. As the series progressed, the physical space occupied by the plot increased, but the dramatic energy dissipated. The first film is the most tightly circumscribed, and still packs the biggest wallop.
Die Hard also pleases by allowing small but
satisfying opportunities for heroism and triumph to its likable
supporting characters. This applies to McClane’s lone ally on the
outside, the heavyset, Twinkie-loving Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald
VelJohnson), and even to Argyle (De’voreaux White), the funky limo
driver who likes
“What idiot put you in charge?”? he mutters without looking up when she first approaches him with a series of requests. Her response gets his attention: “You did. When you murdered my boss.”?
In doing her part, Holly has a kind of secret solidarity with her phantom husband, though she knows she’s also playing a dangerous game: If Gruber finds out she’s the wife of the mysterious troublemaker, she’ll be in serious jeopardy while also becoming a liability to John.
Die Hard isn’t beyond criticism, nor is it for everyone. The violence, though in principle justified on the part of the hero, is extreme and sometimes bloody, and not for the squeamish. It might be argued that the film glorifies violence, but the violence generally serves the plot rather than the other way around (the sequels, especially the third one, are another story). The language is problematic, but not too unreasonable given the characters and their milieu; still, it’s not appropriate for impressionable young viewers likely to be positively impressed by McClane’s swaggering use of obscenity.
It’s possible to criticize the movie on other fronts. Many have felt, for instance, that the character of Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason, then best known as the principal from The Breakfast Club — a role he recently reprised for Not Another Teen Movie) is too broadly caricatured, too ridiculous. The FBI agents are likewise unredeemed swine.
Still, as you watch the film, its strengths have a way of steamrolling over such criticisms. McClane is smart and gutsy and likable, Gruber chillingly reserved and dangerously soft-spoken, and the interplay between them is riveting. The bad guys’ master plan is clever and elegant, their preparation and competence formidable. The action is fast and furious, but never random or chaotic. To top it all off, virtually all the characters who matter get what they deserve, from liberation from guilt to a punch in the nose.
Almost fifteen years later, Die Hard remains the standard by which action movies are judged.
Wisely, Live Free doesn’t try to replicate the paranoia or intimidation of the first film. Twenty years later, battered by life, John can no longer be that panicky, brash cop, and Live Free shrewdly uses his history to advantage, establishing him as a dogged, world-weary old warrior who may still get mad and even desperate, but can’t really get all that frightened any more.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.