The long lasting appeal of “Die Hard” really stems from so many sources. Most importantly though is the performance of Bruce Willis.
Watching it this evening in a theatre commemorating its 30th anniversary, I found myself still laughing and relishing the fantastic set pieces of editing for great sound and visuals from Director John McTiernan. Yet, tonight Willis is what stood out for me. There’s not much dimension to New York cop John McClane but there is a great transition from being a reserved nervous flyer to an estranged husband with feelings of awkwardness at his wife’s Christmas party and finally to deliriously unhinged and reckless when faced with going up against a superbly brilliant villain from Alan Rickman, his very first film role. Willis goes wild against Rickman’s team of terrorists that hail from all different nationalities and races. (Hans Gruber was an equal opportunity employer.) The mouth on McClane doesn’t hold back for any kind of authority. It’s fun. It’s hilarious and you can’t help but pound your fist in the air with a “right on!”.
Rickman is great as well. His well tailored and groomed persona is a perfect counterbalance to Willis’ lack of class and style. Both are at the top of their game but using different devices to fight with. The playing field of a high rise tower is equal for them. Yet their tactics are different.
McTiernan offers up plenty in side humor from ego minded FBI guys both named Johnson (love that joke) to conniving reporters, to a coked up yuppie hostage and henchmen who all carry themselves differently. McTiernan bravely stops the approach to action to allow his audience to realize the setting on Christmas Eve with great note reminders from a film score by Michael Kamen and even a run through the roses only to have a kick ass swat officer get pricked. A terrorist takes a moment to snack on a Nestle Crunch before a firefight. Porno pictures on the walls of a construction area give Willis an opportunity to offer a glimpse. Great lines as well are so celebrated (“Yippee Kai Yeah Mother Fucker”).
But Willis is the real fun stuff as he gets into hand to hand combat with terrorist Alexander Godunov, he offers a promise to “kill ya, and cook ya” with his “had enough” delivery.
Roger Ebert always took issue with naivety of the law enforcement officials in the film especially actor Paul Gleason as an dumb antagonist. That’s okay and he’s not wrong. However, this is “Die Hard” where an 80s Los Angelos offers gas for .74 cents and ever relies on their characters getting caught up in a scenario they never fathomed. Had “Die Hard” been made in post 9/11 it wouldn’t carry that smirk inducing charm. It wouldn’t be fun.
We were fortunate to get one of my favorite Christmas movies when it did come before the age of cell phones and social media.
There were action films long before “Die Hard.” Yet the original 1988 film set the standard by what most films of action offered in subsequent years. More often than not, they were all fun films in their own right but whether you liked those films or not, they often remain comparisons against “Die Hard.” That’s the best compliment any film could receive.
FUN TRIVIA: “Die Hard” is the first of McTiernan’s teddy bear films. Can you name the other one that shows a giant teddy bear with its hero?