In celebration (or dread, realistically) of the impending release of Live Free or Die Hard, the time is ripe to revisit the other three films in the series. In the spirit of great thieves, I’ve blatantly stolen Devin’s 10 Days of 13 format to celebrate John McClane’s previous excursions into octane. So for the next few days, leading up to our review of the new film on Wednesday, join me for this look back at the series that redefined the Great American Action Movie.
Kills: Desk security slagged for two points; a hockey puck flashbang and silenced double-team; Takagi’s head goes splat; Heinrich takes a shot; Marco gets it from underneath; Ellis learns about dead air; Longhair gets some elevator action; MarcoTwin gets weak in the knees; Uli gets ventilated; Johnson and Johnson get all Icarus; Tex, a John Woo fan, gets a bullet to the head; Hans learns to fly; Karl falls victim to magnum force.
Best Kill: Obviously the death of Hans Gruber is iconic as hell, but I get the biggest kick out of Marco’s twin getting kneecapped by bullets while running, then taking a face dive into a glass partition.
Non-PG13 Moments: Ellis snorting coke; a flash of tanlined ’80s breasts; Playboy boobies; Marco’s swan dive; Hans’ attempt to out-do Marco in the eyes of the East German judge; 50 ‘fuck’s, a nice round number, plus a few grunted half-fucks foor good measure.
Best Non-PG13 Moment: Oh, this one is tough. But I think it has to go to McClane during his fight with Karl. Try to beat the line “Motherfucker, I’m going to kill you, I’m going to fucking cook you, and I’m going to fucking eat you!” For a runner up, just because I love Robert Davi, I’ll go with the famous exchange in the helicopter:
Special Agent Johnson: “Just like fucking Saigon, eh slick?”
Special Agent Johnson: “I was in Junior High, dickhead.”
The shot that’s both beautiful and functional: This one, at 41:59, where the camera points up at McClane riding the elevator. Obviously there’s an argument to be made for shots of Hans and Theo when the vault opens, too.
The Movie: Even if you weren’t there when Die Hard opened in 1988, I don’t see any way a fan of film could minimize its importance in the timeline of popular movies. I almost wasn’t there — if it wasn’t for my mom, I might never have seen the streamlined action flick movie starring the guy from Moonlighting.
See, in most families the father guides son through the action movie gauntlet, but I guess my mom wore the pants. When I was 12, she and I demolished an afternoon with Rambo: First Blood Part II. That led to a pretty great discussion of Vietnam and the cultural aftershocks, so it worked out. The only thing I remember from when she and I saw Cobra a year later was talk about how fucking crazy it was.
So I got home from visiting a friend in the summer of 1988 and the first thing mom says when we’re in the car is ‘if you and Craig didn’t see Die Hard, you need to do that right now.’ I did, of course, and like everyone else who saw the film then or years later on cable, VHS or DVD, I was blown away. I’d seen action films before, but never one that so perfectly integrated a heist, comedy and characters that balanced believability and mythology.
Watching it again now – it’s actually been a couple of years – I’m able to focus on how well the heist is put together, and the ways in which John McTiernan offers pure action and comedy beats while maintaining tension as tight as the best pure heist movies.
Yet this is a story where the hero spends long scenes waiting or hiding, hardly working according to any cinematic playbook past or present. It’s a rare hero who comparably spends so much time waiting and improvising. Furthermore, we’d seen tough but vaguely vulnerable male stars before, but McClane, with genuine fatigue and his feet full of glass, gave Willis license to create a new archetype.
His work with McTiernan here is so frequently casual and effortless that Willis has rarely topped it. Some emotional scenes have him pushing beyond his limits at the time, and lines like “think, think!” can’t be acted or directed well. But those are balanced by his easy work with the action beats and believability during the plentiful downtime. And I always grin when McClaine greets the Playmates taped up in the upper floors. “Girls.”
There’s nothing to complain about in the rest of the cast, either. Lethal Weapon defined the buddy cop flick, but Reginald VelJohnson is the best of the sidekick cops, obviously surpassing the ‘sidekick’ status at the film’s conclusion. Bonny Bedelia also manages to transcend somewhat, especially with the ingrained ’80s sexism all around her.
I still love Al Leong stealing the candy bar, and Alexander Godunov handing Clarence Gilyard Jr. cash, evidently losing a bet about whether or not Takagi would talk. As Theo, Gilyard Jr. is my favorite cinematic hacker. And Alan Rickman – the series never had a nemesis to match him. Rickman would never have ignited a fan frenzy when cast as Snape without this performance as an introduction for most. The way he goes from grin to grimace as he shakes Takagi’s hand before he’s led away is fantastic.
And with Jan de Bont providing what might be the best action cinematography outside of a James Cameron film, Die Hard quickly establishes a look and the willingness to follow through and develop it. The aesthetic is clear and just realistic enough, with a little bit of flash as lights flare into the anamorphic lenses. Die Hard is amazing at creating a sense of place (the first three films are all successful at this, to varying degrees) largely thanks to interiors that are obviously designed but just as evidently functional.
(de Bont and McTiernan, with crew, also make surprisingly few mistakes. One of the few really obvious ones is the window breaking both times the RPG is fired at the police ‘RV’. But compared to most action films, this one is airtight. There’s also that terrible Translight forming the view out from Holly’s office, but that’s forgivable.)
Now, Die Hard is also a clear window back to the late ’80s. Cheap gas ($.75 regular!) and casual sexism (Thurnburg calling his assistant ‘baby’) are hardly as entertaining as the vision the movie offers of our response to crime and terrorism. At a time when urban centers were still plagued with crime – New York and LA still had neighborhoods avoided by non-residents – a terrorist threat is casually dismissed. The naive ’80s really were the good old days.
The media critique, meanwhile, is non-pointed. Thornburg is just a douche, and means more as a long setup to a decent joke than anything else. But you’ve got to love the asinine commentators and the “Helsinki Syndrome”, with Harvey’s pompous interjection, “as in Helsinki, Sweden.” Gets a laugh every time.
Finally, some of the lines that always stick with me, and have made their way into my
own lexicon and pronunciation:
Marco: “No more taaaable! Where are you going, pal?”
Captain Mitchell: “Rivers! Begin your reconnoiter!” (It’s all in the supremely serious reading.)
And, of course,
“Gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess,” because it’s the one moment where Dwayne T. Robinson stops being such a dick.
Four Exploding Nakatomi Buildings out of Four