The 1980s were a special time. I was born! Hairstyles looked different, Bruce Willis had hair, and it was a great time to be alive. Then again, any time you’re alive is a great one, which is what the workers in Los Angeles’ Nakatomi Plaza are about to learn, thanks to a group of iniquitous but uncommonly intelligent thugs who storm the building, take hostages, and begin making demands. And just who is the best person to call on when the police and the government rarely seem to know what they’re doing and are being outwitted at practically every turn? He’s a family man (among many), a foul-mouth (among many), and a no-nonsense, all-around hero–ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the one, the only … John McClane!
Just like landing a plane – slow and steady
After our protagonist’s flight lands in California, the movie unfolds at a careful pace while John receives some foot-care tips. He will need them. Some important characters are established, like McClane’s estranged wife Holly, while others are simply everyday people gathering their luggage. Hopefully nothing got lost. As soon as Bruce Willis lights up his first of several cigarettes while still inside the airport, this movie shows itself to be a product of a very different era while nonetheless proving timelessly relatable. ‘Tis the season, and at this point life is going on as usual while workers and their families prepare for the holiday. John’s and Holly’s relationship is a well developed one that humanizes them and helps to make them interesting people before the shooting starts: both had diverging ideas of what they wanted and expected from their marriage, which legally is still going, and both love their young children and (to some degree) even each other.
Indeed, Die Hard is a simple story that takes a lot of time before throwing action at the viewer, while giving just enough foreshadowing–John’s holstered weapon–to maintain a thrill seeker’s interest. After John’s driver Argyle delivers him to the Nakatomi high-rise office building, John searches for his wife via a touch-screen directory. Were those common in the late ’80s? In any case, Holly’s begun using her maiden name again, making for a sobering moment. John walks into a party, grabs a drink, and gets Christmas-kissed by a dude. One of the executives, Joe Takagi, recognizes McClane on sight and helps him find his wife, who is at least somewhat happy to see him. Later, however, they begin bickering, which at least does a good job of explaining to the audience just what went wrong in this couple’s marriage. Both of them still have several issues to work through, and thankfully John’s bitterness comes with remorse.
Then a truck arrives. Some of its occupants begin killing isolated individuals on the ground floor–the party is many floors up, and people on that level probably wouldn’t be able to hear individual gunshots at that distance–and entering into the building’s security system. Then more thugs pile out of the truck, bringing arms and other matériel. Before long, the elevators are restricted, the escalators are disabled, and the door shutters are lowered. John, none the wiser, is doing stress-relief exercises with his toes on a rug before he looks at pictures of his children.
A film perhaps ahead of its time
How many action films have you seen where the villainous hordes feel more like an unending flood for the hero to mow down? Here, the comparably few enemies are generally very smart, and they all have names. Once the “action” finally starts, they immediately have the advantage as they begin firing shots toward the Christmas party. All of this unfolds from McClane’s perspective as he’s in a different room, and he has no idea of what’s going on. The atmosphere becomes much more creepy and tense when the viewer cannot see just how many people are being shot at, who is in what area, and who is still alive or dead. The first-person limited perspective is humbling and disturbing as dozens of people are taken captive, including one woman who was in the middle of a bath.
While John rushes up the stairs, wearing his gun but not a lot of clothing, a man coldly recites Joe Takagi’s life story before taking him away. While the bad guys reveal their basest motivations, one of them on the ground level relays his own needs and objectives to the group leader, setting the pacing for the rest of the story. John is not too proud to call for help, but he’s not going to get much of it. Plenty of films have heroic characters for whom simply keeping on going is an ordeal, but McClane must continually improvise his tactics (such as rappeling via a series of odd objects) while his aggressors continue proving themselves unnervingly predictive. Predictable? Not so much.
In the meantime, Holly proves herself one of the bravest of the hostages and willingly supports the man she married, even as a number of the people around her want him to give up and hand an increasingly desperate situation over to the local police, most of whom in this movie are either incompetent or naive. Want to get a cop’s attention? Apparently it takes tossing a body onto his squad car, though thankfully one of these people turns out to be friendly and helpful. Officer Al Powell is an asset to the force and is easily one of the most enjoyable characters in the movie. (Notably, several black characters, including him, John’s driver Argyle, and even one of the thugs, all have unique and memorable personalities.) Several officers rush the building. It does not go well.
Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
I must say that the special effects throughout this movie are fantastic. Like the previous year’s RoboCop, Die Hard saves many of its best tricks for late in the movie, and the numerous explosions and weapon-smoke effects are especially well done. Amusingly, at one point after John has created a huge blast several floors down, it rushes back up the elevator shaft he is next to, forcing him to narrowly dodge. This helps to make his actions feel consequential, both for him and for others, particularly when his best intentions eventually give very important people a very wrong idea about his plans, creating even more drama. The obviously unpleasant but superb blood effects, especially when John winds up having to pull glass out of his bare feet while another character details his rather emotional history, do a great job of swaying audience favor for the heroes and against the villains.
Speaking of the latter, as their plan becomes more and more complicated, the story gives way to extended sequences of action, with special mention going to an impressive and brutal fistfight, as well as a chaotic rooftop scene involving dozens of hostages. The battles are thoroughly engrossing, to the point where I was too busy watching to take notes and wouldn’t know what to write as is; moments like these simply must be witnessed. While John is truly a heartwarming fellow who ultimately desires more time to reconcile with his wife amid so much danger, he is also a consummate warrior who continually uses everything available in order to gain the upper hand on his foes. His combat endeavors are so successfully entertaining to watch, precisely because they rarely look easy (despite the occasional unnecessary opportunities he is fed), and even though John understandably can’t bring his assailaints in for questioning, he never forgets that his first priority in all the difficulty and tragedy is to save lives.
The acting is impeccable and never excessively dramatic, which is a surprise in a movie like this. McClane’s dry humor is a delight from start to finish, and even his profane outbursts greatly prove him a man who with genuine emotional vulnerability, as they do for some others. Alan Rickman is impressive whether as a heartless murderer or as Professor Snape, and his sheer capability as a villain and an actor makes the story, especially the ending, tremendously satisfying to watch unfold.
Conclusion: Happy trails!
I can easily see why this film is a classic. Though I wouldn’t call the story or setting particularly complex (watch RoboCop if you want more food for thought in those areas), Die Hard absolutely excels as an action movie, whether it’s letting audiences breathe or blowing them away. The fierce destruction never feels numbing despite its frequency, and the resolution to the surrounding character drama brings plenty of much-needed closure. This movie is extremely well polished, and for action-hungry viewers who can stomach lots of profanity and blood, this is a film that deserves its strongly positive reputation.
Movie poster is property of Twentieth Century Fox, Gordon Company, and Silver Pictures and is from here.