Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Die Hard" (1988)

Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and Reginald Veljohnson
Written by Steven E. De Souza and Jeb Stuart
Directed by John McTiernan

"Die Hard" is the best Christmas movie ever.  It has rightfully cemented itself as a modern classic, an action picture that changed the genre entirely, set the stage for three successful sequels and made a career for its star, Bruce Willis.  Filled to the gills with suspense, action, humor and lively, memorable characters, "Die Hard" is just an all-around awesome movie, the kind of summer blockbuster that moves beyond simple, disposable fun.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York detective visiting his estranged wife and kids in Los Angeles for the holidays.  Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is now a high-powered executive whose job has taken its toll on their marriage, since John simply couldn't handle the fact that in order to further her career, she would uproot the entire family across country.  But with this visit, John hopes to patch things up and reunite with his family.  He's picked up at the airport by Argyle (Deveroux White) and driven to the Nakatomi building where Holly works.  The only people left in the building are the skeleton security staff and a bunch of employees having a Christmas party on the 30th floor, including Holly, her slimy associate Ellis (Hart Bochner) and her boss Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta). Not long after John and Holly's brief but tense reunion, the party is cut short by the arrival of a group of heavily-armed terrorists led by the classy, well-educated Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

John manages to grab his gun (but not his shoes) and evade capture by Gruber's thugs.  While searching the building for a way to get help, he stumbles across Gruber murdering Takagi after Takagi refuses to give up a code that control's the building's vault.  He also finds that Gruber's men are crawling all over the building, and have wired the roof to explode.  John finally manages to contact the police, and finds an ally in Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), a desk jockey with a tragedy in his past that ended his days as a beat cop.  Via radio, the two begin to form a partnership and even a friendship, without ever having met in person.  Soon enough, however, the out-of-touch higher ups in the department take over, and eventually even the FBI, but no one seems to appreciate McClane's input, except Al.  McClane realizes that he and he alone must stop Gruber's men, and save Holly and the hostages before everyone is blown to hell - either by the terrorists or the uncaring law enforcement outside.

"Die Hard" is just a thrilling picture.  Director John McTiernan brings all of his expert pacing and technical know-how that he displayed in "Predator" and applies it to a not entirely different kind of film.  The greatness of "Predator" lay in its slowly building sense of dread and suspense, an inescapable feeling that the creature in the darkness is going to get you.  "Die Hard," similarly, functions on an increasing scale of holy shit, now what?  McClane's situation is constantly getting worse, his scrapes with death getting closer and closer, his body taking a beating, and his friends and allies in short supply.  McTiernan and his screenwriters could easily have made "Die Hard" a thoroughly depressing, claustrophobic experience.  But instead, they crafted a film that knows just when to be serious, and precisely when to let off some steam.

McClane is a thoroughbred wise-ass, showing respect neither for Hans Gruber and his men or the asshole cops outside - save for Al, of course.  He refuses to play by either side's rules, bringing an element of complete unpredictability to the proceedings.  Couple that with his incredible one-liners, and you've got yourself one of the most fun action heroes to grace the screen.  Gruber accuses McClane of being "just another American who saw too many movies as a kid," calling him a cowboy.  McClane blithely responds, "Yippie ki yay, motherfucker."

Willis is the perfect man to bring such a character to life.  He'd previously proven his wit on TV in "Moonlighting" and a couple of small film roles, but "Die Hard" made him a mega-star.  His ability to throw out wild sarcasm and follow it up with sincerity, all while selling the fact that he's a regular guy in incredible danger is part of what helped set "Die Hard" apart in the 1980s, and part of what keeps it so fun and awesome today.  Willis has great chemistry with all of his co-stars, despite the fact that he spends the entire movie separated from them.  He converses with Gruber via radio for much of the film, only appearing together in person in two scenes.  And he only meets Al Powell in person in the very last scene of the movie.  Yet you forget this when you're watching the film because it all flows so incredibly well.

If there's a weak link in "Die Hard," it's that some of the supporting players ham it up a little unnecessarily.  Hart Bochner's Ellis is a douche, which is funny at first, but he kind of takes it a little far.  Also a total douche is Richard Thornberg (William Atherton) whose attempt to use the situation at Nakatomi to make a name for himself in the TV news business seems mostly superfluous to the film as well.  Ultimately, it's Thornberg who puts Holly in the most danger after he reveals on television that Holly and John are husband and wife, allowing Gruber to take Holly as his personal hostage at the film's climax.  But for much of the rest of the movie, Thornberg just kind of stands around being an asshole.

I said a the beginning of my review that "Die Hard" is the best Christmas movie ever.  And that's totally true.  Taking place during the holidays, there are a number of Christmas references throughout the picture ("Now I have a machine gun.  Ho.  Ho.  Ho.") and Christmas music sprinkled liberally about Michael Kamen's musical score.  McClane's journey is, essentially, a man trying to get home to his family for Christmas, when you boil things down to their most simplistic.  Indeed, in the final scene of the film, with papers falling down slowly on the gathered police and survivors, one might say that it's snowing.  So you can take your heartwarming claymation animals and do whatever you want.  When I think of Christmas movies, I think of sarcasm, explosions and lots and lots of gunfire.

Yippie ki yay, motherfucker.

See Also
"Die Hard 2"
"Die Hard With a Vengeance"
"Live Free or Die Hard"