Die Hard at 30
We all have that one film that shaped our childhood. It’s a film that spoke to us in such a way that we knew our lives would never be same. The kind of film that we knew would be a part of our lives forever, like meeting a lifelong friend or discovery a cherished relative. For me, that film was Die Hard. It may be hard to believe but it has been thirty years since John McTiernan’s action masterpiece debuted in movie theaters. It’s also hard to imagine the world of film without it considering its vast admirers and the countless movies that it inspired. Often imitated, never equaled, the original Die Hard remains timeless.
So, what better time than now to look back at this classic action adventure? I will review why it worked, especially for you poor souls who have never seen it. I will also take some time to discuss some of the film’s history, especially what could have been. I will do my best to dispel some of the rumors and myths. And I would like to try to examine why this film has had such a lasting impact, not just on me but on an entire generation of filmmakers and film lovers. I know I usually write about films that I feel have been overlooked but forgive me this week if I go on and on and truly geek out about a film I truly love and couldn’t imagine my life without having seen.
Recapping Die Hard
McClane’s plan is to initially signal for help but he’s ignored by both the fire and police departments respectively. He then improvises and begins a series of lightning strikes on the interlopers, using the building’s various barren floors as his rotating base of operations. Along the way, he catches the ire of both the group’s leader, Hans, with whom he communicates with via walkie talkie, as well as Hans’ chief henchman Karl (Alexander Godunov), whose brother he kills early on. Eventually, McClane receives support from a local LAPD Officer, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Vel Johnson), a self-described “desk jockey who was on his way home.” I hope I am not giving too much away when I reveal that John McClane, despite having the odds against him, uses his skills and wits to save the day and his marriage.
The film is expertly directed by John McTiernan, who was previously known for 1987’s Predator and would go on to continued success with The Hunt for Red October as well as the third film of this series, Die Hard With A Vengeance. McTiernan makes use of every space in the building creating plenty of suspense and surprises, and lots of claustrophobia. Additionally, the scenes of drama are given as much thought and skillful choreography as the action scenes e.g. McClane and Gruber’s first face-to-face. The production design of Jackson DeGovia is impressive, giving us interiors that are both lustrous and practical. The cinematography of Jan De Bont is sleek and surprisingly gorgeous at times. De Bont would go on to success as a director himself with 1994’s Speed aka “Die Hard on a bus.” And the screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. DeSouza gives us unexpectedly colorful and realistic characters along with a boatload of classic one-liners (many of which may have been improvised).
The performances are all universally exceptional. Bruce Willis became a bona fide action star with his gutsy performance as the vulnerable, blue-collar wiseguy hero. Alan Rickman inspired an entire generation of British villains with his breakthrough work as the lethally charismatic criminal ringleader. But I would like to highlight a performance that I believe has been overlooked through the years – Bonnie Bedelia as Holly McClane. What may have been originally conceived as a “damsel in distress” is given weight and authentic power thanks to Bedelia’s performance. Holly is initially described as “tough as nails” by her superior early on. Even John McClane himself implies he may have married above his station when he speaks of his wife as having “a good job, that turned into a great career.” Although they only have a few scenes together, Willis and Bedelia establish credible antagonistic chemistry in an early confrontation scene. This is a couple that has been through a lot and they love each other both stubbornly and passionately. And the fact that Bedelia is seven years older than Willis in real life doesn’t even distract.
Once the action commences, Holly becomes the de facto leader of her fellow detainees and has a tense meeting with Hans himself to discuss making certain concessions e.g. bathroom breaks. Hans is very taken by Holly’s strength, and so are we in the audience. Later on, sleazy reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) would also begrudgingly attest to Holly’s strength - #ColdCocked. It’s a great performance and while Bedeilia never achieved “super stardom” like her male counterparts I am glad she has enjoyed a sustainable career with notable work in films like Presumed Innocent and more recently in TV’s “Parenthood.”
The Road to Die Hard
As for the history of the film, Die Hard’s journey from page to screen took some interesting turns and has plenty of “what ifs?” To start, the original source material for this action classic is a novel by Roderick Thorp entitled NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. It sounds like a Harlequin romance. It was published in 1979 and is a sequel to Thorps’s 1966 novel THE DETECTIVE, which was adapted into a 1968 film starring Frank Sinatra. And while The Chairman of the Board was never attached to the newer adaptation it’s hard to not picture him running around Nakatomi Tower in a “wife-beater” T shirt exclaiming “Yippee Ki Yay!”
Also of note is that NOTHING LASTS FOREVER chronicles a retired police detective, Joseph Leland, who is visiting his estranged daughter and grandchildren at Christmas when a group of terrorists decide to make a statement. The group, led by Anton Gruber, are trying to expose the dealings of the Klaxon Corporation and plan to release $6 million of the company’s ill-gotten gains. This is a far cry from John McClane’s adventure.
Obviously, when Hollywood came calling in the guise of producers Joel Silver and Charles and Lawrence Gordon, changes were made. The chief one being that the retired detective character of Joseph Leland (who just happens to have counter terrorism training) would be made younger and trying to save his estranged wife, but the “terrorist” angle was kept intact. And while Jeb Stuart was charged with the preliminary screenwriting duties it became a typical Hollywood project that bounced around for a few years trying to find the right lead and director.
As for leads, legend has it that just about every notable 80’s actor and action star took a pass from Stallone to Schwarzenegger to Mel Gibson to Burt Reynolds to even Don Johnson. Eventually some traction was gained when director John McTiernan came aboard. Per McTiernan, the actor who originally stayed with the project the longest, a few weeks that is, was none other than Richard Gere. Just imagine the world of Die Hard and its sequels with the Pretty Woman’s actor’s take on John McClane.
At about the same time screenwriter Steven E. DeSouza joined the project, mainly to architect director McTiernan’s plot-based contribution: making the villains into thieves that are just using terrorism as a distraction. DeSouza has also been credited with adding a lot of the humor. In the years that followed, he became something of a “Die Hard expert.” The ensuing decade saw an explosion of “Die Hard” concepts which all seemed to find a way across his desk for approval and/or script doctoring.
But a star was still needed. Toward the fall of 1987 eyes turned towards the star of TV’s “Moonlighting,” Bruce Willis. At this time, it was considered a risk since there was a specific delineation between “TV Stars” and “Movie Stars.” But Willis was becoming something of a star in-the-making with his Emmy award-winning work as the wise-cracking but sensitive private detective David Addison and had recent mid-range box office success in Blake Edward’s Blind Date. Fate would also play a part when Willis’ co-star, Cybill Shepherd, became pregnant and production on their hit series needed to be shut down for twelve weeks. A window opened and the executives at 20th Century Fox pounced, procuring Willis for a then unheard of salary of $5 million.
The film went into production and all seemed well. Along the way, Willis was able to tailor the character to his liking with his trademark humor and well as making him more believably cranky. I am reminded of a line that Roger Ebert wrote about another Willis character, Jack Mosley from 16 Blocks:
"He gets that look in his eye that says 'It's going to be a pain in the ass for me to do this, but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't.' I always I believe that more easily than the look that merely says: I will prevail because this is an action picture and I play the hero."
To me, this is the essence of John McClane as well as the successful screen persona that Bruce Willis has built over the years: the reluctant hero who triumphs via equal parts skill, luck, and stubbornness.
Another interesting addition to the screenplay is the initial meeting between John McClane and Hans Gruber, which I mentioned earlier. McTiernan wanted to see these characters face-to-face before their climatic showdown, something more than just their verbal sparrings via Walkie Talkie. On set one day, he heard Alan Rickman fooling around with an American accent and an idea was born: Hans is checking on the status of explosives, runs into McClane, and pretends to be a hostage. It’s a brilliant and tense scene that gives their relationship a surprising level of depth. It also provides Hans knowledge of McClane’s lack of footwear, which he subsequently exploits.
Once filming was complete, it was time to start marketing for the upcoming summer season. Execs and producers knew they had something special and were ready to place the film and its success squarely on the shoulders of soon-to-be superstar Bruce Willis. They created a teaser poster that has a close-up of Willis’ face with a background of the LA skyline with the perfectly tinged sunset background. However, Willis had another film open first in May. It was another Blake Edwards collaboration ironically titled Sunset and it bombed, both critically and financially. The team at 20th Century Fox semi-panicked and created a new ad campaign built around the building itself. The new poster featured the fictional Nakatomi Tower, front and center, with just half of Willis’ face showing along with the catch phrase: 40 Stories of Sheer Adventure. It made the film look like a re-imagining of a previous blockbuster, The Towering Inferno.
Die Hard opened July 15, 1988 and was a certified hit with both filmgoers and critics alike. It earned $83 million at the summer box office which doesn’t seem like a lot in today’s terms but keep in mind it was just the cinematic introduction to John McClane and an entire series that would go on to earn hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. It was the 5th largest grossing film of a fairly packed summer behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, Big, and Crocodile Dundee II. In an interesting twist it almost made as much money as the combined action offerings of Sylvester Stallone (Rambo III: $53 million) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Red Heat: $35 million). A new action star was born.
Why It Worked
So, why does Die Hard endure? Well, the easy answer is that it’s a truly kick-ass movie. But let us a take a look beyond the obvious.
First, it came at a time when audiences seemed to be hungry for more than the typical “action hero” ala Stallone, Schwarzenegger or other icons like Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris. John McClane represented the everyman in an extraordinary situation. He was alone, not by choice but by circumstance. McClane was far from perfect. We see him fallible early on when he hesitates and seemingly allows Hans Gruber to kill a critical hostage, something for which he immediately accepts the blame. He gets tired, frustrated, takes a hell of a beating and keeps his own spirits up via numerous quips. He’s a blue collar kind of hero, you can imagine yourself having a beer with him. As mentioned earlier, this is Bruce Willis’ signature character full of heroics, humor, and heart. And while the successful Die Hard film series continued and we saw our intrepid hero become more of an invincible super soldier, the original John McClane from 1988 gave us a truly original and lasting hero.
Second, in addition to giving us a memorable and sympathetic hero in John McClane, Die Hard gave us one of the all-time great villains thanks to Alan Rickman’s genre-enhancing work as Hans Gruber. On paper, I’m sure Gruber seemed like the standard Eurotrash mastermind whose own ego does him in. But Rickman makes Gruber so much more. While the “Die Hard concept” got exploited for the next decade or so, it was Rickman’s performance that became the standard for all villains. Yes, he’s diabolical and established as a murderer early on but he does it with so much ruthless charm. Rickman’s Gruber is the polar opposite of Willis’ McClane in terms of education, style and leadership and yet they seem to be kindred spirits with the same self-deprecating humor and little tolerance for the incompetence of others. And strangely, the audience actually finds themselves even rooting for Gruber, if not for his success at least for more screen time.
Hans Gruber and his plans are both intimidating and fated to succeed in the film. Per the DVD commentary from the 2001 edition, an unnamed Fox executive mentions that Die Hard tested through the roof, for obvious reasons, but the number one reason that test audience members enjoyed it is because they didn’t see how John McClane could succeed. Die Hard had found a way to make the hero winning an actual surprise. In the same commentary, McTiernan mentions that he was intent on making Hans Gruber as imposing and daunting as possible, that way when McClane defeats him he is seen as even more heroic. A hero is only as powerful as the villain they face. And in Hans Gruber, John McClane had his ultimate foe and Die Hard fans were the grateful benefactors.
Third, Die Hard has a newfound adoration as a Christmas film. Hard to believe that a such a renowned film set during the Christmas season has taken so much time to attain this recognition but Die Hard now gets mentioned in the same select company with holiday classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street. This lack of seasonal appreciation has happened for a number of reasons:
Die Hard is an action movie and such movies usually stay strongly defined in that genre. For example, the original Lethal Weapon took place during the Christmas season as well. Like Die Hard, it is recognized as an action classic, and yet it also rarely gets any mention as a “Christmas Movie.”
While the film has plenty of decorations and traditional holiday signifiers it’s missing the most crucial element: snow. The film takes place during a typical Los Angeles holiday season which is sunny and without a flake on the ground. And while Die Hard 2: Die Harder takes place in the midst of a Washington, DC snow-stormy Christmas, it does pale in comparison to the original.
Films tend to stay attached to the time of year in which they were released, be it Valentine’s Day fare or Oscar season contenders. Die Hard was released in the summer of 1988 and in many eyes will always be seen as a “Summer Blockbuster.”
But, we have all evolved and we should all be able to agree that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and a kick-ass one at that. If you’re still not convinced, just think of Die Hard as the story of John McClane, a long suffering saint looking for meaning and fulfillment who gets a second chance when he comes across disgraced elf-leader Hans Gruber and his not-so-merry band of thieves looking to wreak havoc and spoil Christmas for all. There’s your Christmas movie!
30 Years Later
So, that’s my take on Die Hard and what it has meant to me and millions of fans. As much as I think I know about the film I may have only begun to scratch the surface, it has so many other layers to be discovered. For example, McTiernan gave an interview where he believes that his changing the terrorists into thieves and having the local cops (specifically Deputy Chief Robinson) and the FBI be equal parts bumbling and ineffective make the film a sort of modern retelling of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. There’s probably a paper in that angle.
In the end, despite the sequels (mostly successful) and many, many inspirations and imitators, there is only one Die Hard. Great films like it only come along once in a generation. Thankfully, my wife agrees and its now a staple in our home every Christmas. HO-HO-HO.