When the first Die Hard sequel was given with the green light, Hollywood plumped for the wrong Bruce Willis franchise. If they’d only waited a couple of years, the perfect vehicle for a series of movies with a wisecracking Bruno persona arrived, one Joel Silver professes lent its original title to this series: Last Boy Scout. Instead, we were treated to a – ultimately, with the promise of a fifth to come – slew of unnecessary sequels to an original that, for all its high-concept styling (and so lending itself to the spate of “Die Hard in a…” copycats), was entirely self-contained and complete.
So much so, that the only course open for Die Hard 2: Die Harder was to embrace broad self-referentiality, given the decision to bring over as many elements as possible regardless of their suitability (wife Holly, the Christmas setting, Sergeant Al Powell, journo Dick Thornburg). What all the sequels have missed (even the second) is that John McClane, central as he is, is only one part of the equation; every other factor, from the impressively-finessed bad guys’ plan to the multiple sub-plots and fine, broad-stroke characterisation (literally every character in this movie is memorably positioned, including some with no dialogue: what The Virgin Film Year Book Volume 8 surmised as “marginalising in astute stereotypes the peripheral characters”).
Die Hard is one of those Christmas movies that was lined up as a summer blockbuster (mid-July), a strange brand of thinking that seems to grip studios even now (The Conjuring 2), but I guess allows for potentially mammoth ancillary business when the rental window opens. Most mystifyingly, it garnered a February 1989 release in the UK, showing how fundamentally dense studios were about all things international back then. As Yuletide fare goes, though, Die Hard is remarkably successful. Where the aforementioned The Conjuring 2, for example, or Batman Returns, a few years later than Die Hard, have little beyond their set dressing to identify the seasonal aspect, Die Hard is infused with good cheer. And a surfeit of bloodshed.
Seasonal tidings are continually referenced in one of Michael Kamen’s very best scores, replete with tinkling sleigh bells (he also rather splendidly segues into classical, most famously Beethoven’s Ninth), and the soundtrack as a whole is sharp enough to take in everything from Run-DMC’s Christmas in Hollis to Vaughn Monroe singing Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (less festively, James Horner’s Aliens score is dropped in for Hans Gruber’s demise).
Meanwhile, the screenplay (credited to Jeb Stuart and Steven E de Souza, based on Robert Thorp’s novel) humorously riffs on festive tropes, from office Christmas parties to Santa Claus (“NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO”). One might even see it as a brawny variation on It’s A Wonderful Life, in which an all-American Joe regains everything that is most important to him but which he took for granted: his family.
Of course, one can legitimately argue that Die Hard is an entirely reactionary, Reaganite fantasy in which a good, honest, blue collar (or white, wife-beatered) disenfranchised male regains his masculinity through putting his wife in her place (back at his side, submitting to his patriarchal dominance) and beating some dirty foreigners into submission in the bargain; everything that makes America great has been restored by picture’s end. The movie seems to want to both embrace and comment on or mock this aspect, working through conscious and unconscious motivations at times, which makes for interesting if ultimately slightly unsatisfying character arcs.
Take McClane’s first scene with Holly – Bonnie Bedelia’s performance is perfectly judged, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit – in which he acts like a complete arse when his insecurities over her lack thereof (in terms of taking her career and running with it) come to the fore. Sure, the brush with death leads John to reflect on his own defects, per the memorable scene in which he recounts that Holly has heard him says he loves her a thousand times, but never that he is sorry, as he extracts glass from his bloodied feet, but the coding of their reunion is that she submits to his dominance.
He saves her, and she is returned to become the dutiful wife (come the sequel, her independence amounts to an unchaperoned plane flight, her career far from sight and mind). Notably, the entire validity of her job has already been undermined, partly by working for a foreigner (a Japanese boss, about to be executed by a German thief), but partly too by the simple fact of white-collar business being no match for good old-fashioned, gung-ho, Roy Rogers frontiersmanship.
As such, Die Hard is getting in a late-stage swipe at yuppiesm and corporate malfeasance while shooting in the Fox building, of all places. None of the suits here are to be trusted. They’re either calculated, nefarious or idiots (Ellis – “Hans, booby” – a masterfully sleazy Hart Bochner, is the classic coke snorting yuppie, callous, calculated and slimy; the police and FBI hierarchies are incompetent or oblivious, and Hans himself is suave and styled but entirely sociopathic). It takes real men to show how it should be, and this is a lesson to Holly (who summarily punches one of the suits, Dick, in the final scene).
The good, honest guys take America back to when it was great by doing what needs to be done, eschewing red tape and confronting the bad guys – and, most of all, by refusing to negotiate. McClane is essentially conservative, wary of Californian liberalism (he shakes his head at the woman in tight leggings throwing herself at her boyfriend at the airport and recoils in bemusement when a man kisses him at the Nakatomi Christmas party). But, he’s emphatically not racist (he befriends Powell and Argyle) and notably pro-immigration (at least, when it comes to employing illegals as home help; although, one wonders whether Holly offers them minimum wage).
The fantasy of family values-regained reaches a holding pattern in the sequel (literally, with Holly circling overhead), but is then rudely disabused in Die Hard with a Vengeance; in its way, this instalment is as cruel a blow as Alien 3, destroying the nuclear unit Cameron worked so hard to assemble in Aliens. Possibly more so, since Ripley was alone before she a daughter and husband and funny uncle dropped in her lap.
McClane’s whole arc is about being restored to his rightful place as head of the family, yet with A Vengeance thrusts a more realist (although probably borne of logistics rather than a desire to make a statement) vision of the cop’s chances of making a go of his marriage outside of the arena of high-testosterone thrills. It serves to underline why Die Hard should never have been granted a sequel, and it’s evident in every one of the follow-ups that the characters are thin as thin can be (even the racial tension between McClane and Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus in Vengeance is manufactured rather than astute and considered).
Hans Gruber: Just another American who saw too many movies as a child?
The movie brings in a lot of smart material at every stage, not least in repositioning the very framework of assumed realism in respect of its action peer group. Willis references “enough plastic explosive to send Arnold Schwarzenegger into orbit” at one point, and one of the célèbres of the picture at the time was its bruised, battered, bloodied hero, as a counterpoint to the impenetrably sculpted musculature of Sly and Arnie.
There’s no doubting this was a gift of a role for Willis, as he reels off McClane’s dialogue with the casual confidence of one versed in improv; it’s a smooth transition from his Moonlighting persona, which is doubtless one of the reasons the picture became such a hit. As has been noted, he spends much of the proceedings acting alone, perhaps not such a remarkable achievement in and of itself, but the energy he brings to the performance never dips, nor does his concentration (he’s also responsible for making smoking seem really cool for a whole new generation). It’s a stark contrast to the grim-faced, somnambulant turns we’ve become used to over the past two decades. Lest we forget, Willis was only 33 when Die Hard came out, but he has the kind of face that could have been ten years older; indeed, he’d appear much the same for the next fifteen years or so, only balder and less and less fun (barring the odd Letterman appearance).
And his chemistry with his stars is palpable too; he and Bedelia share only three scenes, but you completely buy everything about their relationship, good and bad. Similarly with Rickman; they have just two scenes, but their verbal sparring forms the dramatic core of a movie that is essentially an OTT action yarn, making the achievement even more impressive. Rickman has been more than dependable in movies since, and often memorable, but he’s never found a role quite as perfect, even if his American accent is even more suspect than his German one (who are we trying to kid: Hans Gruber is a British guy leading a bunch of Germans).
Willis’ other conversation partner is Reginald VelJohnson’s Sergeant Al Powell, and this is this element that possibly ages least well. Powell is there to feed McClane all the character-boosting moments, and rarely in anything other than unsubtle ways. As such, there’s the whole sad tale of how Al shot a kid and as a result, unable to fire his weapon, has become a desk jockey; he isn’t quite impotent (Mrs Powell is expecting their first, unless the postman done it), but may as well be in terms of an inability to kill.
So, in the final scene, not only does John get his back wife, but Al triumphantly, stirringly, rousingly, kills Karl (Alexander Godunov). It’s a pretty rank sentiment, frankly. It was also fairly par for the course at the time, and there have been a number of movies since concluding with similarly unappetisingly regressive sentiments (Falling Down, Last Boy Scout). Nevertheless, it can’t spoil how impressive almost every production aspect, and otherwise of the script, of McTiernan’s picture is.
Karl: Asian Dawn?
Hans Gruber: I read about them in Time Magazine.
And as for the other characters, well, I’ve mentioned Hans and Karl, but one of the key elements of Die Hard’s success is that the villains have an intriguing scheme, and one you’re invested in seeing them, if not pull off, then get far enough down the road that their genius is satisfying. The idea of making the most of the defenders of the law’s arrival has been done since, invariably less well (The Silence of the Lambs did it creatively, although that was even more mimicked).
The joke that the presumed terrorists are actually common (I mean, exceptional) thieves, and that it’s really money that makes the world go round, is both of its time and appropriately cynical (and might be suggested to pre-tap a vein in respect of those who believe certain prominent terrorist groups today are merely a mechanism for spreading dominion by the hidden powers that be. And that’s quite apart from the quest for financial dominion being based on a terror plot involving a stricken skyscraper).
Joseph Takagi: You want money? What kind of terrorists are you?
Hans Gruber: Who said we were terrorists?
Making the bad guys German is an easy (lazy?) route to take, since Germans always make good villains, and it doesn’t matter if you offend them – they have it coming, and they can take it – but there’s a sharp, pleasing verisimilitude to the way they are depicted, from Karl mourning his brother, to Marco gloatingly telling McClane to shoot someone when he gets the chance (“Thanks for the advice” quips John as he retaliates, emptying a round into him from under a table), to Uli (Al Leong, a Joel Silver and John Carpenter regular) pausing to steal a snack bar as he awaits an assault from the SWAT team.
Dwayne T Robinson: What do these pricks want?
Al Powell: Well, if you mean the terrorists, sir…
One of whom, of course, reacts like a girl when he is grazed by a thorn bush; it’s the kind of detail that makes Die Hard so consistently immersive and rewatchable, and which, again, is almost entirely absent from the sequels. Some of the best characters here are those outside of Nakatomi Plaza. Leading the way is Paul Gleason, who makes Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T Robinson his signature role (along with Vernon in The Breakfast Club). The very definition of a guy who isn’t part of the solution but is part of the problem, Dwayne puts his foot in it from the moment he appears, but his brazen incompetence is, contrary to Roger Ebert’s view that he successfully “undermines the last half of the movie”, hilarious.
Ebert’s charge is bizarre, and one I’ve never come across elsewhere: that what might have been a passable thriller (he should have said exceptional thriller) is left in a mess by Dwayne’s stupidity. But how can you not love a character who dismisses Al’s suspicion that McClane is cop because he knows how to spot a phoney ID with “Jesus Christ, Powell, He could be a fucking bar tender for all we know!”, deduces a body falling from the tower is “Probably some stockbroker got depressed”, who surmises “We’re going to need some more FBI guys, I guess” when Agents Johnson’s helicopter is blown up, and who utters “Boy, I hope that’s not a hostage” as Hans plunges from the tower. Best of all is his exchange with our hero (“Glass, who gives a shit about glass?” retorts John pointedly), ending in McClane pointing out that he’s “not the one who just got butt-fucked on national TV” (much to the eavesdropping Argyle’s mirth; such devices of surrogate audiences can be iffy, if they’re telling the actual ones how to respond, but they absolutely work here).
Agent Johnson: I’m Agent Johnson. This is Special Agent Johnson. No relation.
Agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson also make the most of their screen time. I expect Ebert didn’t like them much either, as they’re also idiots, albeit more of the macho brand. It’s such an appealingly daffy idea, that they both have the same surname, that you’d think Shane Black came up with it. And the references throughout (“This is Agent Johnson… No, the other one”) show how much fun everyone is having with the conceit. Davi, in particular, extols a kind of kneejerk, moronic quality that comes straight from the decade’s cynical attempts at Nam glorification (“Just like fucking Saigon”; “I’ll bag this little bastard”).
Gail Wallens: Author of Hostage Terrorist, Terrorist Hostage: A Study in Duality. Dr Hasseldorf, what can we expect in the next few hours?
Dr Hasseldorf: Well, Gail, by this time the hostages should be going through the early stages of the Helsinki Syndrome.
Harvey Johnnson: As in, Helsinki, Sweden.
Dr Hasselforf: Finland.
If the authorities aren’t painted in an overly flattering light, the media are even less so. Tabloid, ambulance chasing, facile and intrusive, their main figurehead is William Atherton’s Richard Thornburg, who contrives to be as loathsome as he was in Ghostbusters a couple of years earlier. The difference with Thornburg is that he is actually good at his job; too good, as it endangers McClane’s anonymity (if this were a modern situation, the press wouldn’t get round to doing any investigative work and quote their stories verbatim from the FBI).
Although, structurally, the movie couldn’t be more different, thanks to its fly in the ointment, its monkey in the wrench, Die Hard’s character ensemble gives it more in common with ’70s disaster movies than immediate action fare, something that also marks it out from its successors (Die Harder uses the template too, but with zero versatility).
There are sometimes as many as seven different subplots spinning at any one time (the terrorists, John, the hostages, the FBI, the police, Argyle, the media) and they’re attended to in an entirely seamless manner. What distinguishes the movie from its disaster predecessors is the wit and inventiveness, and for that, the real bow should be taken by director John McTiernan. It’s a shame that, almost as soon as he’d made a name for himself, he’d begin a decline – the first half of Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Thomas Crown Affair remake are really the only post-Die Hard pictures to show off his chops consistently – but here, he’s on fire.
Supervisor: Attention, whoever you are, this channel is reserved for emergency calls only.
John McClane: No fucking shit, lady! Does it sound like I’m ordering a pizza?
His calling of the shots is supremely confident, his camerawork precise, clean and crisp, his sense of geography within the frame, during fights, and within the building itself, is masterful, and he stages switches with astonishing deftness, be it McClane going from hunter to hunted, or a talky scene transitioning into an action one. He knows the ideal place to put the camera in any given scene, to maximum effect (often using low angles, or emphasising widescreen space by guiding characters, particularly McClane, from the right of the frame), and his action hasn’t aged at all; it’s still top notch. Just replay the rooftop plunge, leading directly to a further trial by counterweight. Indeed, in the era of post Bay-freneticism and bad, Greengrass-imitating shaky cam, you could argue the genre has been pushed too far into hyper-kinetic, tension-disintegrating edits.
Whether it’s McClane plummeting down an elevator shaft, leaping off an exploding roof, or the chain reaction of blowing up the SWAT team leading to the aforementioned shower of glass, McTiernan is a master of the form. He also is at his most playful (in some of his later efforts he’s either dreadfully starchy or simply tone deaf, it seems). There are some marvellous juxtapositions borne of contrary editing, such as John hoping Argyle heard the shots, cutting to the latter sitting in the limo oblivious, with loud music playing, or Hans’ claim “We have left nothing to chance” just as the lift door opens to reveal Tony’s corpse. And then there’s the false confidence of the FBI on turning off the power – “Those bastards are probably pissing in their pants right now” – when it is exactly what the terrorists want.
If you’d asked me for a list of my favourite movies at the end of the ’80s, Aliens and Die Hard would have been near the top. The former has fallen somewhat in my estimation since, although James Cameron admittedly pulls off a number of superlatively conceived and executed sequences. Die Hard retains the majority of its lustre, though, chiefly because very few entries in the action genre since have managed to juggle the demands of strong characterisation, solid plotting and virtuoso directing with such consistency and so satisfyingly. McTiernan may have been shut out of Hollywood for his indiscretions, but it’s as much the industry’s loss as his, leaving a terrain where none of the new lights come close to matching his talent. And yes, this is one of the very best Christmas movies, although granny might not be able to get past all the swearing and the violence. HO-HO-HO.