The Film: Die Hard (1988)
The Principals: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Robert Davi, William Atherton, Paul Gleeson, John Mctiernan (director)
The Premise: A New York cop shows up at Twentieth Century Fox headquarters and fights terrorists.
Is It Good?: It’s pretty good. Yeah.
Like a number of film nerds, I broke up my end-of-year catch-up marathon to watch some holiday classics, and Die Hard is a film I watch most Christmases. In fact, for the last two years, I’ve watched it by myself on Christmas Eve, and then with friends. As Hans Gruber would say “it’s Christmas!” And the movie.
One of the sturdiest action films ever made, John McTiernan is insanely on top of his game here. Watching it on Christmas I would tune in and out as it was my second viewing in two days, but I came back for a sequence where in the span of a minute of screen time two events happen: one is that the SWAT team is running up to the Nakatomi plaza and a member catches his hand on some thorns. The second is that Al Leong sees some candy bars. The first shows off what the film has been asserting: the LAPD are out of their depth, and in showing the guy getting his hand caught it turns their efforts into something already incompetent. These are guys about to get shot in the legs, but we’re mostly ambivalent about their progress because of the evidence of their inability (and the knowledge that Bruce Willis’s John McClane is a better solution). And then Leong has that moment looking at free candy. Like any good child, he finds himself going through a number of treats because he can, because he’s there. Already, we are more sympathetic with the bad guys than the nameless “good.” These are great moments of texture that help bring to life all the characters.
McTiernan has a number of characters in different settings, and he cuts between them masterfully. One of the things that makes the film feel modern is that everyone is communicating on open frequencies. McClane is monitoring the terrorists and they know he’s listening, while McClane talks to Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) as Hans (Alan Rickman) and company are also listening. When Paul Gleason’s Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson enters the conversation, he’s told to get out of it. And so you’ve also got Argyle the limo driver (De’voreaux White) following this while stuck in the garage. All the characters are at once connected and isolated.
Watching it again, one of the things missing from modern films are one dimensional but recognizable supporting cast members. Ellis (Hart Bochner) is a walking cartoon, but he feels lived in. There are a number of performances here – much like Bill Paxton in Aliens or Bill Duke (not single out Bills) in Predator - that might be large, but leave an impression. And here you’ve got a number of great character actors willing to play one note, but within context they hit that note brilliantly.
Another of my favorite sequences is when Karl’s brother is connecting wiring while Karl (Alexander Godunov) is getting the chainsaw ready. This is a great sequence because of a number of things. One is that it reveals character. Karl’s brother (who will die shortly) is a lot fussier, while Karl is impulsive, which – in a little way – sets up why he would choose (poorly) to beat the crap out of McClane instead of just shooting him. But also what I love about this sequence is that I have no idea what’s happening. All I know is that one character has a task (connecting certain wires, perhaps to not alert the phone company), which must be completed before all the wires are cut by the chainsaw. It’s a mini-sequence, but is staged so that you want the bad guy to succeed.
And that’s another amazing thing about this film. If you take McClane out of the film, you’ve still got an entertaining heist film, where the bad guys all have fascinating personalities, and are legitimately smart on screen. Because the police and FBI outside are portrayed as arrogant boobs, any time they go up against Hans and his crew, you’re rooting for the bad guys.
It’s also amazing that Alan Rickman at this point in his career hadn’t done much. This seems to happen, though. Brendan Gleeson, Ian McShane, and Ian McKellan also achieved great Hollywood success after having been around for years, and likely Rickman was well regarded as a stage actor, but this was a big role in a blockbuster, and he shows up and owns it.
Is It Worth a Look: If you haven’t seen Die Hard by now, get on that shit.
Random Anecdotes: The Blu-ray of this looks terrible for Blu-ray (early Fox hackwork). It’s funny watching the film now, as the scrims have never been more noticeable, but who cares? De’voreaux White was in 2000’s Shadow Hours billed as Second Transvestite.