When it comes to the action movie genera, there always seems to be that special triumph that sets the gold standard for a generation to aspire from. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” set the high bar for the 80’s, “The Matrix” set the bar for the early 2000’s and “The Dark Knight” set the standard for the two-thousand-teens. For todays review, we’re looking back at 1988’s “Die Hard”, which was the action/adventure movie phenomenon that set the high bar for the 90’s, and subsequently inspired countless imitators along the way. No joke, "Die Hard" was one of those special cases in which an original idea had just about everything fit beautifully into place, and while several others would attempt to replicate the same formula, they just couldn’t capture the same magic. Over time, the premise of this movie has been referred to as the “Die Hard” action movie formula. It’s just such an easy concept to recreate, with the only real change to each film being the setting. Before I go any further, I should note that I’ve had an interesting relationship with this film over the years. The first time I ever saw “Die Hard” was after I graduated high school, and by that time, I had become all too familiar with the film’s formula. Thus, upon my first initial viewing, I didn’t care much for the film at all. Then everything changed on one magical December night, when I looked at “Die Hard” as more then just an action movie classic, it is in fact also … a Christmas classic!
Perhaps I should back up for a moment, lay out the plot, and then discuss all the fine details. The best way to describe this film is … imagine a disaster movie like 1974’s “The Towering Inferno”, but with an action hero like “Rambo” at the center of the cause. It’s Christmas eve, and a New York cop named John McClane is taking a trip to LA to visit his wife, who he’s been apart from for six months. He reunites with her at work, which just happens to be at the base of a giant skyscraper, and things are very heated between the two. The heat then reaches critical mass when the whole building is over-run by a group of terrorists, who soon hold the occupant’s hostage. John alone evades capture, and the venture is on, with our hero trapped in this massive skyscraper, and the only hope for his wife and the other hostages to escape the clutches of this sinister group of villains. This is the winning formula that made “Die Hard” such a smashing success, just have one lone hero in a larger than life setting, while battling waves of armed villains. Like I said in the into, I was very familiar with this film’s premise, and had already been exposed to several other action movies that recreated the “Die Hard” formula. These films for me included “Speed”, “Cliffhanger”, “Under Siege”, “Snakes on a Plane”, an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” titled “Starship Mine” and even an episode of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” titled “Hostage Crises”. My very first exposure to this kind of concept was as a child watching a little family flick called “3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain”. That film involved terrorists taking over a theme park, capturing the people inside, and lone hero’s within aiming to free the hostages. The setting was obviously different, but it was still the same concept, although, that was definitely the pre-school version of “Die Hard”.
As such, I wasn’t initially on board with “Die Hard”, as the premise was all too familiar, but over time, it’s only gotten better, and on each viewing, I notice something else that elevates this above any of the previously mentioned action flicks. I’ll talk about the Christmas elements of the film in a moment, but for now I want to single out the three main stars that make this film a smashing success. The first is the resourceful, wise-cracking and all-around heroic cop. The second is the suave, yet ruthless terrorist leader, and the third is the building itself. What a perfect location to set an exciting cat and mouse game of this size. The lift shafts, heating ducts and shattered glass become the setting for a catalog of violent confrontations, high-adrenaline stunts and huge explosions. It’s really one of those special cases when the setting becomes a character in of itself, and through the course of the film, the audience is treated to see it all gradually come undone around our principle characters. Part of the appeal really is watching this building slowly get demolished from the inside out. As one would expect, the film did earn four Oscar nominations for best visual effects, best sound design, best sound editing, and best film editing. The movies set-up also makes it difficult to single out an individual fight scene, when the whole movie plays out like one big action sequence. There’s also a great variety of gun play, and relentless, white knuckled, close corridor fighting. Yes, the action gets intense and brutal, but there’s also this healthy sense of fun that goes along with it. The movie never takes itself too seriously, and just invites the audience to go for an all-out roller-coaster ride.
John McTernan directs the film, and is just in peak form. In general, he’s one of my all-time favorite action movie directors, and put his stamp of quality on some of my favorite films including “Predator” and “The Hunt for Red October”. Now, let’s finally talk about Bruce Willis in the leading role of our hero John McClane, because no matter how you slice it, this is one of the all-time greatest action movie heroes. Most action heroes of this time were like polished, unstoppable, living supper men who could just walk through fire and never get burned. John McClane by contrast feels more grounded, he looks like he could be your dad, he’s relatable, he feels pain, and is just a plan good guy who putts his life on the line to protect and save as many lives as he can, even if that means putting himself though heavy injuries and danger. One of the films daring decisions was to deprive our hero of his shoes, which added another layer of tension to the situation as he’s forced to traverse all the rubble and shattered glass with his bare feet. Make no mistake, John McClane takes a serious beating in this film, but he still keeps pushing himself and pushing himself, just to save innocent lives. This was definitely the big break out role for Bruce Willis, as prior to this film, viewers mostly associated him as a smirking private-eye on the TV series “Moonlighting”. Bonnie Bedelia plays John’s wife Holly (yeah, like Christmas Holly), and she actually makes for a good role model in her own right. She proves that a female lead can play the part of damsel, yet still be very strong, and dominate, even in the face of her captives.
However, despite the rich cast of hero’s, my absolute favorite is the main villain himself … Hans Gruber, played by the late great Alan Rickman. I’ve always viewed Alan Rickman as one of the most charismatic villain actors to ever live, and this is the performance that stands in the Hollywood hall of fame as one of the absolute greatest. He’s suave, charming, laid back, yet extremely ruthless and unsympathetic. He’s also a villain who’s self-aware, as he knows he’s just a common robber, but wants to be viewed as someone of class and high stature. So, he puts on a show, dresses up, is well versed and postures like he’s a brilliant mastermind with greater ambitions then the situation would suggest. The back and forth between he and John McClain is one of the greatest hero/ villain relationships I’ve ever seen. The two don’t even meet face to face until the very end, and the majority of their conflict is conveyed through conversation on walkie talkie’s, yet it’s still extremely engaging. Just watching these two one up each other with their own distinct mannerisms and witty comebacks is highly entertaining, as well as brilliant film-making. Earlier in the movie, John kills a terrorist who just happens to have an older brother named Karl, who’s need for vengeance propels him to become an effective B villain in the picture. While Hans runs the show, Karl is the one who has the most physical confrontations with our hero, which are equally thrilling to watch. In most cases, a lead antagonist feels more complete with a good B villain at his side, so this is a perfect paring of bad guys.
Now lets finally talk about this films status as a Christmas movie classic, because this is where I really fell in love with “Die Hard”. Let me start by saying that countless other action movies have also taken place during the holiday season, including some of the “Lethal Weapons” films, “Batman Returns”, “First Blood”, “Iron Man 3”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “Highlander 4”, and even the sequel “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” are all set around Christmas, but none of them have ever been branded as classic holiday films the same way “Die Hard” has. So, why is that, what makes “Die Hard” worthy to be ranked on just about every list of greatest Christmas classics?
Obviously, from beginning to end the film is set on Christmas eve, and the characters are always making some kind of joking reference to the fact. There’s no shortage of quotable lines like “Christmas is the time for miracles”, “If this is your idea for Christmas, I’ve got to be here for New Year’s”, and a goon on the com references “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. My absolute favorite is when our hero leaves the body of a bad guy with a note saying “I have a machine gun now … Ho, Ho, Ho!” The film also knows how to keep Christmas decorations in plain sight throughout the film, including lit-up trees framed in doorways, decorative wrapping tape, and every desk or office room has some kind of decoration like a lit-up snowman, plastic Santa or mini-Christmas tree. One of my favorite little details is that near the end of the film, several office rooms are destroyed and as a result, lots of desk paper is falling from the building, which is meant to resemble snow fall. The film also makes great use of holiday tunes, including “Let it Snow”, a Christmas rap song, and there’s select action moments when popular Christmas tempos like “Jingle Bells” are woven into the action music. Michael Kamen composed the music, and while he supplies us with a riveting action score, I absolute love his composition of classical music, most especially his rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. Seriously, when that music kicks in, it’s officially a Christmas movie in my book.
Actually, aside from all the decorations and music, there is a genuine “feel good” nature to the movie that really puts me in the holiday spirit. Like many Christmas classics, “Die Hard”, through its own simplicity is a redemption story. All three of our main leads (not including the villain) start in a grey area, and it’s through the experience that they discover the errors of their ways, and all emerge as better people by the end. I already touched on the films fun factor, but it also has just enough of a heart at the center too. John’s wife being a hostage gives the film some emotional stakes, as well as a great payoff with the two coming back together after rough marriage times. So that’s all good, but for me, the real soul of the movie comes in the form of another police officer named Sgt. Al Powell, who stays in communication with John on the outside through the majority of the situation. At first, they just relay information to one another, but over time, the Sargent becomes Johns emotional life-line that supports him through all the may-ham and injuries. Even though the two never meet face to face until the very end, I absolutely love how their friendship develops over the course of the situation. They even go so far as to share their personal failures, regrets and mistakes with one another, and likewise encourage each other to move forward. The final scene in which the two men finally meet is one of those genuinely heartwarming moments that just gets to me every time I watch this film. It’s really these elements of heart, combined with the films fun factor that make it one of the best feel-good action movies I’ve ever experienced. That’s the real magic, which beyond the decorations and soundtrack make this a Christmas movie in my eyes.
Now I hate to spoil certain events, but I still have to comment on my favorite scene of the movie, in which John rescues all the hostages from the rooftop before it explodes. This is about as perfect and thrilling as action sequences get. While John succeeds in getting the hostages off the roof, the FBI mistake him for a terrorist, and open fire on him. So now our hero is pinned down, and that bomb is about to go off. So, in one of the most death-defying stunts ever put to film, John ties a fire hose around is waist and leaps to safety just before the roof is blown sky high. It takes my breath away every time I watch it, and it’s arguably one of the favorite explosions I’ve seen in an action movie. At last, John has his final confrontation with Hans, and we get one of my favorite little 80’s action movie details that I really miss. Hans has a good chuckle before he aims to kill John … then our hero starts laughing too … then our villain tries to laugh harder … and then they both just laugh together before they make their finishing move. It’s a subtle charm that gives a lot of character to both hero and villain, and I really miss seeing things like that in my action movies. My only problem with the ending is during the epilogue, the villain Karl seemingly comes back to life in an effort to gun down our heroes, only to be shot by Sgt. Al Powell. I get that it’s supposed to complete the Sgt’s arc, but couldn’t we have done it with a villain that we didn’t see die already. I mean that guy was hung by the neck with a steel chain, left there for several minutes, and was still there when the roof blew up, so seeing him comeback even for a second just pushed the limits of plausibility for me.
Now without going into a full-on review, I want to lightly touch on the 1990 sequel “Die Hard 2”. This was an interesting case in which I actually saw the sequel before the first movie, and initially I liked it more then the original.
That opinion has obviously changed over the years, as the first film is clearly superior, but I still have a great deal of fondness reserved for “Die Hard 2”, and I think it’s a better sequel then most people give it credit for. The action this time is set at an airport, which is a great location change, as it trades the high levels of the building with more spacious grounds to cover. This also allows more variety to the action, like a snow-mobile chase, and fights on the wings of an airplane. Once again, the movie is set on Christmas eve, making it another action holiday hybrid, even utilizing the same Christmas music. However, it’s all done without the same magic or even the heart of its predecessor. Truthfully, I would have liked this film more if it was set on New Years, which would have been a perfect follow-up to the closing statement of the first film. The one good thing here is that it’s set in a snowy environment, which gives the film a distinct winter atmosphere over the first film. In 1995, there was a third movie titled “Die Hard: With a Vengeance”, which broke out from the confined location of a single area, and didn’t take place around Christmas time. I don’t have as much to say about that one, but it was also perfectly passable. While more “Die Hard” sequels would emerge in the 2000’s with both positive and negative results, it’s these first three that are looked back on as the classic “Die Hard” trilogy, and all around one of the most successful action movie franchises.
In the end, I’m obviously aware that “Die Hard” is first and for most an action movie that can be watched during any season, but I just find myself enjoying it the most around Christmas time. It’s just an awesome offset from what I usually watch during the season, and it still somehow leaves me with the same warm feels like any classic Christmas special. I’m thankfully not the only one who thinks so, as just about every best Christmas movie list feature “Die Hard” ranked highly among all the other holiday classics. Also … this is a true story … once during my lunch break at work, a co-worker next to me asked, do you know any good Christmas movies, to which I simply responded with “Die Hard”, and everyone in the lunch room broke into applause. Even my manager, who was also on lunch pointed to me and said … “now that’s a guy who knows his Christmas movies”. In other words, call “Die Hard” a Christmas classic and you’ll be cheered on like a hero. Now, I truthfully can’t say that “Die Hard” is one of my absolute favorite movies, but it certainly has a special place among the rankings of both action and Christmas movies that I love to watch. If you haven’t seen this movie, and maybe feel your too familiar with the film’s formula already, I still highly recommend watching the action movie classic that started it all. It was a break out picture for its time, and still remains one of the best that the action genera has to offer.
I give “Die Hard” 4 ½ stars out of 5.