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Dissecting the Classics – Die Hard

December 23, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Die Hard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Die Hard

Wide Release Date: July 15, 1988
Directed By: John McTiernan
Written By: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever
Produced By: Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver
Cinematography By: Jan de Bont
Edited By: Frank J. Urioste and John F. Link
Music By: Michael Kamen
Production Company: Gordon Company and Silver Pictures
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Bruce Willis as John McClane
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber
Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennaro-McClane
Reginald Veljohnson as Sgt. Al Powell
Alexander Godunov as Karl

What Do We All Know?

Is Die Hard the greatest action movie of all time? Possibly. It’s certainly one of the best and unquestionably served as the turning point that shuts the door on a certain breed of action movie. The film was a huge success at the box office, and while there are notable exceptions, it was largely praised by critics as well. It transformed Bruce Willis into a new breed of action hero, introduced the world to the greatness of Alan Rickman, and created a template for almost every action movie of the 1990s.

But more importantly, the movie has aged phenomenally well. With a few notable exceptions, almost every action movie since pales in comparison to Die Hard. The film is as a nearly perfect version of exactly what it wants to be and it remains compelling almost three decades later.

What Went Right?

There is not a complicated answer to why Die Hard is a good movie. It has an exceptionally well constructed action genre screenplay that never wastes time and covers every base to make sure our lone hero stays a lone hero. The hero is likable and easy to relate to, the lead villain is magnetic and intelligent, the henchmen are memorable, and the supporting good guys are either lovable or gloriously incompetent. Every character is brought to life by talented and then fresh faced actors. This movie is the reason we think of Bruce Willis as an action hero and why we know the late Alan Rickman is the gold standard for slimy, charismatic antagonists. And the action is super fun to watch because the director, cinematographer and editors know how to construct engaging, easy to follow scenes and the action beats themselves are some of the best in the genre.

So yeah, basically Die Hard is good because every element in it is good. But what makes it more than just a good movie and instead a landmark for the genre is the casting of Bruce Willis and how he plays John McClane. In a decade dominated by Stallone, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger and other muscle bound action heroes, John McClane is a pretty regular guy who honestly comes across a little schlubby. But we also buy him as a tough guy and as someone who can pull off those stunts. He’s easy to relate to, but still a power fantasy. He’s capable yet vulnerable, cool but also charming, a serious asskicker but also very funny. And while he’s obviously experiencing culture shock in Los Angeles, he isn’t a dick about it. He is incredibly easy to like and worth getting behind. John McClane broke the mold and set a new mold that’s allowed everyone from Keanu Reeves and Will Smith to Liam Neeson and Robert Downey, Jr. to be action stars.

But if John McClane was the only good character, I don’t think this movie would have stood up. Reginald Veljohnson is note perfect as the good cop in McClane’s corner, De’voreaux White’s Argyle is fun when we cut to him, 1980’s asshole staples Paul Gleeson and William Atherton are perfectly cast, the FBI agents are fun, and Bonnie Bedelia almost makes Holly Gennaro an interesting character. But the real MVP is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber; the thief masquerading as a terrorist is just as perfect a bad guy as McClane is a good guy. His hair and suit feel just a bit wrong, he’s somehow sophisticated and trashy, and Rickman set the bar for his career here. Also of note; consider how novel it is that all of Gruber’s henchmen have names and personality quirks.

But I think what’s easy to dismiss is just how good the screenplay is. Consider the “Yippee Ki Yay, Motherfucker” conversation; that scene is all about Hans trying threatening McClane, and McClane showing he has the upperhand… and they are talking about westerns. McClane shows his superior knowledge of the genre before showing he’s on top of things. That’s good writing. Also, consider how John’s bare feet are set up at the beginning and how that thread affects the action beats. Or how the photo of John and Holly is used to convey information at key points. This movie may not be thematically rich, but it is very smart and that’s why we rarely ever get pulled out of the experience by out of place dialogue or bizarre plot holes.

What Went Wrong?

Die Hard has very few meaningful flaws. Yes, John’s wife could be a more interesting character and the whole career vs. husband thing feels sort of tacky. In fact, a lot of this movie has Reagan era politics baked into the narrative and presentation and I’m sure that rubs some people the wrong way. But you know… it doesn’t really champion any particular political viewpoint. After all, this is the movie where the terrorists are actually thieves because McTiernan and company aren’t interested in politics. They are only interested in a thrill ride. And to possibly belabor a point; John McClane being a New York cop playing cowboy who is weirded out by progressive Los Angeles does not mean he hates progressive LA. And I think that’s important when picking your battles. To me, attacking Die Hard for some its perceived social failings is grasping at straws…. most of the time.

There is one thing I think actually does deserve mention because it kind of dates the film. Sgt. Al Powell’s backstory about shooting the kid and how it’s framed just doesn’t play the same in 2017 as it used to. Yes, it works in the works of the context of the story. But it unfortunately brings up an uncomfortable real life issue that can’t help breaking the escapism. At least for me. For a movie that’s trying its best to make us not ask any deep ethical questions, this plot point can’t really avoid doing that. It’s not a deal breaker, Al is obviously remorseful and we could all use the other side of the story. But yeah, it’s just unfortunately a bit too real.

And In Summary…

Die Hard is one of the best action movies of all time, and that’s beyond meaningful debate. Perfect hero, perfect villain, and a screenplay conducive to putting them on a collision course with some of the best character moments and action beats the genre has to offer. The script removes any sense of dread from a terrorist hostage situation by letting the audience in on everything, creating a rollercoaster that is one of the most fun experiences in the movies. It changed the game on what we could expect from an action hero and launched two great careers. And it works as both a summer blockbuster and as counterprogramming on Christmas.

Speaking of; have a Merry Christmas readers. I’ll be back next week for my final column of 2017.

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Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi

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