I know it’s a bit cliché at this point, but Die Hard really is my family’s ultimate Christmas movie. The season hasn’t truly started (or, if we’re delayed, truly ended) until all of us have sat down on the couch and indulged in the seasonal spectacular. Even if you don’t quite buy into the “Die Hard as Christmas movie” argument, it’s still impressive how tall John McTiernan’s action movie stands when compared to the bulk of eighties action films. Like Nakatomi Plaza itself, it towers over the competition – and it’s not because it does anything especially or novel or innovative in a genre that has always been fairly conservative. Instead, I’d argue, Die Hard succeeds because it executes all the conventional action movie beats exceedingly well, and because it doesn’t treat any of its plot points as necessary items on a check list.
It’s easy enough to imagine Die Hard as a Sylvester Stallone film. In this alternate world, Die Hard might have been just another of the mid-level eighties action films that were pumped out by rote and forgotten by all but the most nostalgic of action fans. Indeed, the ingredients seem fairly standard. We have a cop who is flying in to town to see his wife and his kid, a hostage situation, a robbery, explosions, a familial grudge between our hero and the primary henchman, a British antagonist and a fellow police officer who is dealing with his own tragic past.
If they made cook books for producing a conventional action film, all of those would be staple “you can’t go wrong” ingredients. In a lesser script with a lesser director and a lesser cast, they’d feel forced – cliché plot points you have to check off the list before you’re allowed to indulge in the gun fights and the explosions and all that stereotypically exciting action movie stuff that you suspect most of the audience have paid to see.
Shrewdly, Die Hard works because it seems actually interested in each of the components in the mix. Although they are necessary for a solid action movie, there’s no sense of obligation. John McClane’s trip to Los Angeles to see his family isn’t just a plot device to get him to the action sequences, or to make us care about him a little. It’s actually endearing on its own terms. It’s little things that make the sequence work – McClane’s fear of flying, or the garish “I have no idea what to get my kids” giant teddy bear. In a way, these moments feel like they might belong in some cheesy family reunion drama, which lends them a strange air of sincerity that helps the film along.
And then there’s McClane himself. There’s no way around it, McClane is an eighties macho fantasy figure – the type of American alpha male that casting directors lament doesn’t exist any longer. He’s boorish, he’s aggressive, he’s adversarial and confrontational. He smokes, he’s dismissive of new age advice, and – the film suggests – a little bit sexist. When Argyle suggests that he was waiting for his wife to fail in Los Angeles and “crawl” home, he doesn’t deny it. “Like I said, Argyle… you’re fast.”
McClane’s masculinity is at the core of the story. Gruber repeatedly likens him to American icons like John Wayne, referring to him as “cowboy.” McClane’s obvious heroism inside the tower is contrasted with various less-than-subtle parodies of eighties masculinity. There’s coked-up yuppie Ellis whose condescending and belittling manner (“hey, sprechen sie talk, huh?”) gets himself killed and compromises McClane considerably.
There’s the bureaucratic posturing outside the tower, with the FBI and local law enforcement jockeying for power. The Los Angeles Police Department seem to do little but stand back and watch (“I hope that’s not one of the hostages,” the commander notes as a body is thrown from the tower), while the FBI have little or no regard for human life, considering the loss of 20-25% of the hostages to be acceptable. Outside the tower, the media is consumed with discussions of pop psychology nonsense like “Hostage Terrorist Terrorist Hostage”, and cynically exploiting the situation for all it is worth.
Gruber, naturally, manipulates all these external players for all they’re worth. He plays along with the textbook expectations of the powerless characters outside the tower, right down to demanding a list of international terrorists be released. When he ad libs off the agreed list, he notes to his henchmen, “I read about them in Time magazine.” His plan hinges on the FBI following the hostage crisis playbook to the letter, playing so firmly into his hands that he declares, “You asked for a miracle and I give you… the F… B… I…”
In contrast, McClane’s hyper-masculinity is the only thing Hans can’t account for or manipulate. He’s “the fly in the ointment, Hans, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass.” It is McClane’s refusal to buy into any larger nonsensical narrative cultivated by Hans or by the media, and his willingness to accept reality as it appears to him, that distinguishes him from most of the authority figures in the film.
It’s easy to imagine how this might have gone wrong. With a clumsier script, McClane could easily become so hyper-masculine that he’d work more as a parody of the action hero. Placing a more conventional action star in the lead role would turn the character into a shallow collection of macho clichés wrapped in a dirty white vest. It’s thanks to a solid script and a fantastic performance from Bruce Willis that we end up with a solid action hero.
Part of the reason that the script works is because while McClane is unambiguously the hero for this situation, he’s not best adapted to life in general. Other action movies might poke fun at this concept or play the classic “plays by his own rules/loose cannon” archetypes, but Die Hard is fairly unambiguous. It isn’t that Holly is being unfair to John, and it isn’t that nobody around him appreciates his qualities. John McClane isn’t a fantastic guy to live with, and the movie’s surprisingly candid on this point.
“She heard me say I love you a thousand times,” he confesses at the height of the siege, “but she never heard me say I’m sorry.” It’s a nice honest moment, and it’s one that works because McClane acknowledges that the problems in his marriage aren’t simply down to his wife’s decision to abandon his surname or her refusal to acknowledge his commitments in New York – which is a nice handy plot (it stops Gruber recognising her immediately) and character (it tells us how their relationship is going) beat. When he flies across America only to start an argument with her, he almost immediately recognises that it is his own fault. He can’t bring himself apologise to her, but he can recognise his destructive behaviour.
In another nice touch, I like the fact that he scoffs at the “fists with your toes” idea suggested on the plane, but then actually concedes to himself that it really works. Die Hard does an excellent job acknowledging that McClane’s world view isn’t objective or flawless, and that makes him seem much more human than he might otherwise appear.
One of the things I really like about the Die Hard films is that McClane doesn’t really get a happy ending. Sure, he saves the day in each film, but there’s a fairly honest concession that his heroics don’t magically fix everything. By the time Die Hard With a Vengeance rolls around, he is divorced and washed up again. The ending of Die Hard might suggest that saving a building full of hostages has reignited his failing marriage, but I like the series concedes that waging a one-man war and saving a marriage are two very different skill sets.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Bruce Willis wasn’t an action star, but the fact that he came from a different background is part of the appeal of Die Hard. Willis is a stronger actor than most action stars, as demonstrated by his versatility in roles outside the genre, and the fact that his body weight isn’t disproportionately muscle mass makes him seem almost credible. Willis is fantastic here, and McClane is that perfect combination of hero and jerk, to the point where you can see that he doesn’t just mess up Gruber’s plan, he actually gets to him.
The entire production is fantastic. The script and director John McTiernan do an excellent job managing to build tension in a way that (admittedly very subtly) knocks the action movie conventions off kilter. When Tagaki refuses to cooperate with Gruber’s robbery, we expect a tense pause,a stare, a battle of wills. Perhaps a beating, maybe a threat to execute another hostage if he doesn’t comply. Instead, Gruber simply replies, “Okay.” And shoots him through the head. It’s a moment that’s inevitable, but still catches us a little bit off-guard because the movie doesn’t make a big deal of it.
Similarly, the scene between Ellis, Gruber and McClane works so well because McClane knows it’s really tense, but Ellis thinks it isn’t, even though he’s playing that it is. Ellis’ melodramatic overacting as he sips at his coke does an excellent job keeping us a little off-balance. There’s genuine suspense, and it holds up remarkably well. It works because Ellis is playing up the suspense even though he doesn’t buy into it, and Gruber’s practical approach to villainy means that we know he won’t run through the check list of evil villain clichés. The decision to keep the shot off-screen is a nice touch, as it means that we don’t get to see it coming. Again, it’s inevitable, but the exact timing of it seems a little off by our own media-savvy tension timers.
The direction and the set pieces are absolutely superb. McTiernan does an excellent job with large- and small-scale action. The combat choppers swooping through Los Angeles look amazing, but the pain that McClane feels after running through shattered glass also feels decidedly real. The final moment with desk jockey Sergeant Powell is an indicator of McTiernan’s skill. In any other film, that resolution would seem trite and cliché. However, McTiernan frames the shot in such a way that it seems almost epic and cathartic.
Rickman is absolutely superb as Gruber, who is easily one of the best cinematic villains ever created. There’s just something so delightfully aloof and confident about his villainy, from his sharp-suits to the fact that he’s subscribed to (and reads) all manner of American periodicals. What’s fantastic about Gruber as a villain, beyond Rickman’s amazing performance, is the fact that he has very little delusions about what he is and what he is doing.
While the outside world is keen over-complicate things and make political statements or generalisations, there’s never a sense that Gruber buys into it. He’s just an exceptional bank robber. The fact that he recognises this fact, and the fact that he never really lets anything else cloud his personal radar, is what makes the character so fantastic. He’s never obsessed with John McClane beyond the threat he poses to the immediate plan. Even when the building is falling apart and even after his henchmen are slaughtered, Gruber is very clearly more preoccupied with escaping with millions of dollars (“earning twenty percent”) than with killing that one thorn in his side.
There’s a reason that Die Hard has become an action movie standard, to the point where you can describe a lot of concepts as “Die Hard on a…” If I say Under Siege is “Die Hard on a boat” and its sequel is “Die Hard on a train”, you know exactly what I am talking about. Die Hard is, I would argue, easily among one of the very best action movies ever made, and one that still holds up. While the sequels might not always measure up to that (though I am very fond of the third one), I do think that Die Hard is a genuine classic.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Action film, bruce willis, christmas, Christmas by medium, die hard, Fox Plaza (Los Angeles), john mcclane, John McTiernan, los angeles, Los Angeles Police Department, McClane, sylvester stallone