Director: John McTiernan
By Roderick Heath
For comics and satirists these days, an understanding of the 1980s action movie is as reliable a source of easy gags as the lexicon of Westerns and Tarzan movies were for Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and their generation. The send-ups of ritualised narratives, posturing, and pomposity get laughs because of the painfully personal dating of what once looked so cool and because so many of us watched those movies and can’t quite work out how life never worked out so freaking awesome. One irony is that a lot of ’80s action films were, at least tacitly, already comedies, made with tongues planted deep in cheeks and full of self-aware touches. The meta joke of Die Hard’s villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) mocking hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) as another American brat addicted to fantasies of John Wayne and Rambo echoes on and on in popular culture.
John McTiernan’s 1988 action-adventure classic was an adaptation of Roderick Thorpe’s pulp thriller Nothing Lasts Forever, from which the script was drawn with a degree of fidelity by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. They substituted McClane for Thorpe’s recurring hero Joe Leland, who had been played by Frank Sinatra in the 1968 film The Detective. McClane, introduced lugging around a stuffed bear upon arrival in Los Angeles and trying to roll with the tiny, proliferating perversities of the West Coast, is the archetypal blue collar guy who’s worked himself up to a post that would have once have garnered him great respect. But L.A. and the Nakatomi Plaza, where his estranged wife Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) works, is one gigantic proof of his irrelevance. From being picked up in a limousine casually whistled up by the company as a friendly gesture but one that feels like the worst form of patronisation imaginable, to the office with unctuous coke fiends like Ellis (Hart Bochner), a Nakatomi exec who’s the model slick-talking yuppie wanker, trying to make Holly, and discovering his wife’s readoption of her maiden name to assert her independence, Die Hard essentially lays out a long series of little ego deaths for John. He contends with them sporting a wry, cagey smile, but even the efforts of the sartorial CEO Takagi (James Shigeta) to put him at ease with offhand jokes about Pearl Harbour and too many reminders of his wife’s quality don’t work.
Then, like the most ironically grotesque of godsends, a team of heat-packing terrorists arrive, and, of course, John gets the chance to do what he’s capable at: the kicking of much ass. Up against a motley collective of international thugs led by Gruber, John turns the tactics of the terrorists back on them, using speed, agility, creative use of terrain, improvised weapons, and even psychological warfare to rumble his opponents. He’s sustained only by the support of L.A. police sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the first local cop to arrive on the scene after John’s signals for aid are all but ignored by officious locals. Powell talks John through crises by CB radio as the rest of the LAPD rolls up ready to charge in like the Rough Riders, playing right into Gruber’s Machiavellian strategy. Whilst Gruber waits for the inevitable moment when the FBI will cut the power to the building, giving him access to a super-secure vault, McClane’s efforts reduce the team of thugs one by one, inspiring the particular wrath of Gruber’s chief henchman, Karl (Alexander Gudonov), after John kills his younger brother, another of the crew.
I hadn’t seen Die Hard in quite a long time, and revisiting it now was all the more interesting for the passage of time. Although elements have certainly dated, it’s perhaps clearer now just how good a film it is. It has a theoretical similarity to many an old noir movie like The Desperate Hours (1955) or Split Second (1953), in which an assailed hero squares off against a kidnapping villain. But Die Hard also has big, gnarly explosions, superlatively filmed and edited action scenes, and a truly epic sweep. Certainly essayed in the broadest and most caricatured of terms, its rollicking, unceasing narrative flow nonetheless casts a lithe, coherent eye on so much of late ’80s culture. The golden years of Japanese business imperialism, yuppie excess, macho overcompensation, media saturation, the state of modern marriage and manhood, and the problems of the traditional family dealing with the effects of second-wave feminism, the alchemy of former radicals into enthusiastic capitalists, and even the alienation of technology, all come in for a volley in the course of the film. It’s also bracing to recall such a mixture of fantastically distorted reality and enthusiastically, viciously tactile violence.
It’s this intricate, reflexive sensibility that helps make Die Hard surprising, whilst it still manages to keep its focus squarely on the most important elements: McClane’s interactions with helpmate Al and nemesis Gruber over the radio and his despairing desire to get back to Holly and finish the conversation he was fouling up earlier. His war with Gruber’s team is the best way he can express his devotion whilst freeing himself from the humiliation of his wife’s business success. McClane’s a strong, focused, morally and emotionally simple man whose refusal to concede to forces greater than himself has made him the odd man out in a careerist, often willfully ignorant world. Such were fairly common character traits in ’80s genre flicks, and in his blue-collar resentment, unswerving moral core, and sense of waning masculine clout, he’s essentially a toned-down version of Mickey Rourke’s character in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1984). John’s only easy amicability is with commonsense, African-American characters Al and his chauffeur Argyle (De’voreaux White) who are still engaged in the aspirational struggle that is John’s defining background creed—one that had been blithely ignored by corporate triumphalism.
But the thing that was different about McClane as an action hero was that once he got started, he set about his business with a relish that unsettled his opponents. Taunting them with harsh humour, knowing only the roughhouse pith of Irish street-fighting, he has no time for playing the gentleman, and he turns his own lack of polish here into a fundamental asset. John, whilst being astounded by his own gall and ability to survive and think on his feet, carrying on his sarcastic, self-reprobating monologues all the while, nonetheless proves cocky, even ruthless, and innately equipped for such barnstorming heroics. “Only John can drive somebody that crazy!” Holly perceives in watching Karl smash things in frustration, understanding that not only is John still alive in the building, but that he’s finally found his metier. John’s defiant preference for the most ludicrous Western hero of all, Roy Rogers, inspires his profane kiss-off “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” angrily rejects cultural conservatism in favour of a rudely evolving sense of American iconography.
Time and time again, the characters around John are defined by blissful ignorance or arrogant stupidity. The paranoia of ’70s films involving politics and violence has given way to a general impression that most of the modern world is defined not by power and conspiracy, but by idiocy, marketing, and corruption. Bochner’s hilarious performance as Ellis contrasts John in his belief that words and style, as opposed to dedication and substance, can solve everything; he tries to make a deal with “Hans, bubby!” only to get shot in the face for his pains. Moronic pretty boys rule the media: the vignette of anchor Harvey Johnson (David Ursin) being corrected after stating that Helsinki is in Sweden, is as devastating as anything in Broadcast News and takes 1/500th as long to make its point than that smug film. And, of course, rapacious hack Richard Thornburg (William Atherton, at the height of his career phase of playing hissworthy assholes) finishes up endangering the whole McClane family by stooping to the lowest, most thoughtless kind of gutter journalism. People in authority and trusted positions repeatedly use their power to humiliate and threaten ordinary workers—it’s no wonder they’re all Johnsons.
The LAPD becomes hopelessly dedicated to simultaneously showing off and covering its own ass. John’s initial attempts to call in the cavalry can’t overcome officious call centre operatives, the Deputy Police Chief Robinson (Paul Gleason) puts down all of his efforts because they’re not under control, SWAT officers charge in to traps they’ve been warned about, and the blowhard FBI pairing Agent Johnson (Grand L. Bush) and Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi) strut in, oozing machismo and authority, to do exactly what Hans wants them to do in following their standard procedure whilst thinking they’re in absolute control. It’s easy to read Die Hard as reactionary fantasy—all-American tough guy takes out the Eurotrash and reestablishes the nuclear family; traumatised Al regains his gun-toting mojo right at the end when he kills a surprisingly undead Karl—but its instinctual resonances spread in many directions.
Special Agent Johnson’s whoop of glee when he and his partner ride Chinooks through the streets of L.A., hollering “Just like fuckin’ Saigon,” sets up a purposeful contrast: the arrogant, trigger-happy desire to avenge the failures of Vietnam amongst Reaganite officials is personified in contrast to John’s apparently messy, but actually highly focused efforts to deal with the problem. The tactics the police utilise reproduce Vietnam’s heresies, hurling obvious, militaristic tactics and hardware at a situation that instead demands brains and pinpoint force. John has a specifically personal, defensive, as opposed to unilaterally aggressive, motive at heart, and he’s characterised not as an inheritor of the Vietnam legacy but of the WWII GI spirit, as his discomfort at the spectacle of Japanese-American fusion is swiftly channelled to good use when the terrorists, belonging in nationality to another Axis enemy, stage their own Pearl Harbour sneak attack (the sequel, 1990’s darker Die Hard 2, explicitly characterised John’s adventures now as “Just like Iwo Jima!”).
Meanwhile Hans and crew, whilst defined as former German radicals (a theme so touchy that in Germany they were recharacterised as Irish), have actually dedicated themselves to Mammon, their true purpose to rob a fortune in bearer bonds, and then cynically dynamite all the hostages to fool the authorities. This depoliticised touch was reputedly an element McTiernan insisted on, and it was a smart one, for it not only provides humour—Hans’s phony list of political prisoners to be released, picked willy-nilly from magazines, is very funny—but also extended John’s conflict with business and bureaucracy. Hans and team have merely taken business warfare and thoughtless consumption to a limit in deciding to play that game. Holly’s anxiety about showing weakness in her place of business has demanded she assume the persona of dissociated toughness, and Hans’s discovery of her true identity is the most painfully extreme version of her anxiety. John’s final battle with Hans demands the Rolex watch the company gave to Holly, a symbolic wedding ring to the new age of rootless money-worship, and to be unclipped and discarded, causing Hans to fall to his death.
Although Die Hard, like many of its breed, is deliberately funny, what was clearly proven by Len Wiseman’s sanitised, plasticised Live Free or Die Hard in 2007, in which McClane couldn’t even get the whole of his signature catchphrase out lest it get the film a prohibitive censor rating, was that the Hollywood action film has lost its balls. In Die Hard, great gobs of blood spurt out of bodies when they’re shot, huge explosions rip apart bastions of capitalism, salty language drops from many a mouth, and even the most ludicrous action scenes still look and feel somehow, vaguely real. McClane took the exasperated, but brutality-absorbing normality of Indiana Jones and placed it in a squarely contemporary context. The final images of McClane reveal a man caked in blood and sweat, barely able to stand because of the gashes, gouges, and scorch marks all over his body. His suffering to a degree of physical punishment that had rarely been received by a screen hero before, evokes an almost martyrlike cleansing as the necessary catalyst for John’s return to home and hearth.
Die Hard is not a flawless film. McTiernan’s desire to take the edge off the violence with humor provides a bit too much comic relief, and there are at least four or five characters too many vying for attention. But as both entry and exemplar in the action movie stakes, it stands effortlessly tall, and always in that hyper-efficient, unself-conscious tradition in Hollywood filmmaking that has a recognisable link to the work of Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. McTiernan, who had only two feature films to his credit before this (1986’s moody, bizarre Nomads, and 1987’s standard-setting Predator), provides direction so sleek that you almost don’t notice it; it takes a real effort to sit back and watch how he builds shots and scenes, like one marvellous tracking shot on the roof that swings from one group of terrorists flushing John to Karl, who treads forth carefully like a true predator (Godunov’s physicality exhibits his background as a dancer, and he died tragically young), with the nocturnal cityscape behind it all—context as well as excitement beautifully delivered. McTiernan’s later bad habit of blocking his action too tightly is rarely in evidence. The look of the film, courtesy of Jan de Bont (who went on to direct Speed, 1994), with its glittering surfaces and carefully diffused shades of silvery blue blotched here and there by the flashing police lights, flames, and floods of blood, is ’80s cinematography at its definitive. Kudos, too, to Michael Kamen’s thrilling score.
Rickman, strutting through the film like a leopard in a suit, is more charismatic in his villainy— still often voted some of the best of all time—than the heroics of most leading men. It’s almost impossible to believe that Rickman, then 42, was making his feature film debut. The contrast between his silken threat and John’s blunt, blustery persona is one of the most indelible contrasts in the history of genre filmmaking. Willis has grown a lot as an actor since his breakthrough here, but it’s so easy to perceive why this remains his most associated role. His terse, faintly exasperated tension in the early scenes is redolent of withheld emotion and compact force turned inward at the outset, and builds to the moment when he cuts his latent savagery loose on Karl with rampant, animalistic fury. Bedelia, whilst cast in a passive role, nonetheless delivers a terrific performance as she contends with Hans. “Frankly, I don’t enjoy being this close to you,” she articulates with exact, fearless acidity, making it clear why she’s the kind of woman John would brave all the terrors of the world to get back.