Friday, January 15, 2016
Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1988)
With the feather of “Predator” in his cap, John McTiernan was offered the director’s chair on what Fox hoped would be their next big summer blockbuster. “Die Hard” did not have an easy production. Based off the novel “Nothing Last Forever,” the script was offered to every big action star of the day. Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, Don Johnson, Richard Gere and Frank Sinatra all turned down the lead role. The story was even retro-fitted for Arnold Schwarzenegger at one point, being pitched as a sequel to “Commando.” Bruce Willis, better known for light TV comedy than explosion-laden action flicks at the time, would win the part. Willis was filming both “Die Hard” and “Moonlighting” simultaneously, leaving the star exhausted. The film rolled into production without a finished script, the movie being rewritten on a daily basis. McTiernan and his team would beat the odds. Not only was “Die Hard” a huge hit, it has since earned a reputation as a masterpiece of the genre.
John McClane is a New York cop, a normal guy, headed to L.A. to patch things up with his estranged wife. Looking to surprise his wife at her job’s Christmas party, the meeting doesn’t go smoothly. Immediately afterwards, a team of German terrorists siege the building. They hold the occupants hostage, murder the building’s owner, and begin making unreasonable demands. It should’ve been a perfect plan. If it wasn’t for one thing. John is still in the building and, using his street-hewed skills, begins to take apart the villains’ plans as best as he can. It really pisses them off.
Watching “Die Hard” in 2016, it’s impossible to separate the film from its extensive legacy. “Die Hard” would go to become the most imitated action film of its day. Countless movies would copy its story. Over the next decade, movies about terrorist taking over stationary locations and a single hero fighting them from inside would become the default story for action flicks. The formula would be so widely copied that “Die Hard on a X” would become an accepted term. Die Hard on a Bus, Die Hard on a Battleship, Die Hard on a Mountain, Die Hard in a School, Die Hard in a Sports Stadium, and so many others would follow. Despite the many variations that followed, “Die Hard” has lost none of its thrills or power in the years since. There’s a reason it was ripped-off so much. This is a movie that gets it.
Perhaps the willing subversion of genre troupes wouldn’t have worked without the right leading man. Holy shit, Bruce Willis is cool. From the beginning, “Die Hard” rests upon his considerable charm. The opening scene has Argyle smoothly, concisely laying down John’s motivation. He’s here to win back his wife but it won’t be easy. Maybe the character could’ve been boorish but Willis’ easy-going humor keeps McClane likable. After the shit hits the fan, Bruce’s charm elevates “Die Hard” further. The dialogue is extremely sharp and often funny. McClane pleading with the cops, shit-talking with Hans Gruber, or chatting candidly with Al makes him immensely likable. This isn’t just a bad ass action hero delivering one-liners. This is a guy who uses humor to keep himself sane. That Willis would immediately become a superstar after this is no surprise. John McClane is a star making role, showing everything the actor excels at.
Alan Rickman has become such a beloved cinema fixture that it’s hard to remember that “Die Hard” was his debut role. As fantastic as Bruce is as McClane, Rickman is equally good as Hans Gruber. Rickman is totally controlled, delivering each line in a conceited, superior tone. Gruber is always thinking and plotting. This is best illustrated when he confronts McClane directly, a scene improvised on the spot. Putting on a realistic American accent, he convinces the hero that he’s not a bad guy. Rickman is a fantastically cocky, hatable bad guy. Yet Gruber subverts the genre rules as well. Unlike the villains of the eighties, usually indistinct bad guys in service of some evil cause, Gruber is only interested in himself. He pretends to be a terrorist, to cover his tracks as a petty thief. A whip-smart script, Rickman’s awesome performance, and some clever story turns make for a fantastic combination.
In some ways, “Die Hard” is a very small scaled story. The action sequences frequently focus on John’s pain, battling tough guys in tight corners. His first scuffle has him tumbling down stairs, his head smashed into the wall. This fight is mirrored near the end, McClane suffering even more punishment during more tight quarters combat. A notable moment has the hero hiding under a table, firing his gun inches away from his face. So much of “Die Hard” focuses on Bruce Willis’ face as he squeezes through tight corridors, air vents and elevator shafts. When the windows explode, he marches across glass in his bare feet. Unlike most heroes, who would shrug off such an injury, “Die Hard” devotes a squeamish scene to John yanking glass out of his feet. You feel the injury. You feel every punishing blow.
Bruce getting the shit kicked out of him isn’t the only thing that keeps “Die Hard” grounded. The film has a fantastic supporting cast, adding humor and humanity. Early on, McClane makes friends with Argyle, the laid-back limo driver. After the action begins, Argyle spends a lot of time sitting in the car, unaware of what’s happening above him. De’voreaux White is funny in the part and has a good time chatting with a big teddy bear. Argyle is swell but he’s not John’s best sidekick. Reginald VelJohnson, better known to a whole generation as Carl Winslow, plays Al. The friendly voice on the other end of the radio, Al helps John keep his cool as things get worst. VelJohnson’s incredible humanity makes a part that could’ve been one-note – the snack-eating, fearful cop – especially effective. When Al is discussing why he got demoted, it once again displays the picture’s humanity among all the bullets and squibs.
an impressive long fall to his death, is immensely satisfying in the way only awesome action flicks can be. “Die Hard” is both big and small, in equally remarkable measures.
Fantastic action, great characters, and clever writing count for a lot. “Die Hard” also never looses sight of the story’s heart. John and Holly really do care about each other. When he realizes the terrorists know who he is, John’s first thought is to worry about Holly. As his chances for survival grow slimmer, he delivers a painful heart-to-heart to his estranged wife. Yeah, he really does care about her. Yes, that is what’s driving him to fight. The villain taking the love interest hostage was a bit of a cliché, even back in 1988. Yet that’s where the movie’s heart lies. It makes sense to forefront that issue in the final minutes. As John and Holly lock lips before the end credits, it feels earned. They don’t get much direct screen time together but Willis and Bonnie Beleida have fine chemistry.
Any time a movie is really good, you start looking for deeper meaning, a subtext. Is “Die Hard” a political film? Casting the villains as terrorist certainly presents that possibility. That they target an international company, with roots in Japan, speaks of certain connotations. John is referred to as a “cowboy,” a symbol of an older, more isolated America. Yet both of these are smoke screens. The terrorists are self-interested thieves. John is as much a normal guy as he is a cowboy. The authority figures in “Die Hard” are not very good are their jobs. The L.A. cops aggravated the situation more. The FBI inadvertently further the villain’s goal. The media are portrayed as selfish and clueless. If there’s any moral to “Die Hard,” maybe it’s that things are more complicated then they appear. That the individual is better suited to handle such tense situations.
a pretty good Christmas movie too! [Grade: A]