John McTiernan’s Die Hard marks the peak of the 1980’s action boom that made mega-stars out of the likes of Ah-nuld, Stallone and Van Damme. It’s a flick that is either very aware of itself or a collage of copycat scenes and over-the-top dialogue. Whichever it is, things go boom and the hero, Bruce Willis, runs around as a one-man army spewing off classic one-liner after classic one-liner. All this and it’s a Christmas movie to boot.
Willis plays John McClane, a New York City cop on his way to Los Angeles to see his two daughters for the holidays and attempt to reconcile with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). They split when the opportunity arose for her to move up in the corporate world. The catch was she had switch coasts. So now John is back, moseying into Los Angeles like a reluctant cowboy. He’s called into action when a group of terrorists take over the building where Holly and her company are celebrating their annual Christmas party. So John takes to the air shafts, elevators and all the other nooks of the skyscraper to take out the terrorists one by one while the LA police stand by idly trying to figure out what’s going on.
Although there’s a couple of great action movies that came after Die Hard, the genre was in a nosedive shortly after it was released. And the one big blow-’em-up movie that followed was Terminator 2, which was more science fiction than one man taking on many. And while many action movies exist for little more than face value, there’s a lot of subtext going on in Die Hard ranging from the realization of women’s right to a career, to commentary on the ills of corporate power, to flashbacks of Vietnam. But even if you don’t see any of this, Die Hard is a darned entertaining movie.
The perception of an action flick is that they have to be big. And most of them are. While the explosions are numerous, the majority of Die Hard takes place in a single skyscraper. Even still, McTiernan keeps the butt kicking fresh throughout. In setting the movie in a confined place it adds a sense of claustrophobia that in turn lends to the relentless nature at the heart of the action genre itself. In order to keep our attention, the action flicks go boom, bang and crash at every possible juncture. Story and character development are often limited. With all of the fire and toppling buildings, the viewer becomes stuck in a trance that won’t let up. Eyes become transfixed on the flames and other loud overturning objects that fly across the screen. It’s impossible to escape the escape the big screen brings. By leaving John to fight inside the walls and air ducts of just one place, Die Hard just confines it a little more, drawing attention to itself as a piece of genre entertainment.
While the repetition of sights might have become tiresome, things stay fresh throughout the movie. John is thrown into preposterous odds over and over, slowly making his way from the lobby and up the stairwells and elevator shafts the skyscraper has to offer, fending off all the wonderful villains and henchmen McTiernan can throw at John. Heading them all is Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), one of Hollywood’s truly great baddies. With a slick tongue, ruthless thought process and cold demeanor, Gruber outsmarts all of the human police types and manages to go toe-to-toe with the more super-human John. For a hero to work, the villain has to be good. McLean is a great hero who can not only fight and throw out great lines like the Terminator or Rambo, but is actually a rounded character at the same time. So to make him standout, Hans had to be one heck of a nasty guy with more in mind than taking over the world. Rickman is frighteningly good as the snake-like villain. Although a standout over everyone in the cast, Rickman does so in a way that doesn’t undermine the roles of everyone else around him.
Die Hard is a Christmas classic unlike any other. I doubt I’ll ever gather around the fire and watch it with my family on Christmas Eve, but that doesn’t mean I won’t thoroughly enjoy it on my own to relieve a little of the crowded mall blues I get after going through a rough day of shopping. The action genre might have died for a while, but it didn’t go down easy.
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