John McTiernan’s career as a director is littered with some action films many cinfiles consider to be among the best ever, and others still that several people I know remember quite fondly. After the massive hit that was Predator in the summer of 1987, 20th Century Fox gave McTiernan some of the director’s spotlight with the story of a New York City cop named John McClane (Bruce Willis) who visits his ex-wife’s office Christmas Eve party in Los Angeles at Takatomi Plaza, only for the building to be taken hostage by a dangerous and vile group of so-called terrorists shortly after McClane arrives. When the employees are being huddled together at the point of some vulgar firearms, McClane manages to slip past the villains amongst the early chaos. Alone, he will do whatever it takes to secure the hostages and win back the woman he loves so much.
It is a simple plot, one that does not require the audience to think a whole lot, but that is not where the strength of the film lies. Whatever the shortcomings the film may have, the two elements of the film I am willing to defend to the death are the leading actors, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, the latter whom plays the ringleader of the hostage takers, a certain Hans Gruber, as well as the action set pieces. We never learn much about McClane’s past, other than that he was married with Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedalia) and they have kids who currently live in the City of Angels with their mother. What we get on screen as the movie progresses is more than enough for the audience to latch onto. He simply wanted to visit L.A. in the hopes of rekindling some fire with Holly. He isn’t an untouchable action hero who blows away villains without a drop of sweat or blood. He is the ultimate incarnation of a the reluctant hero, the man who we can count on even though his behaviour would have us believe that he’d rather be anywhere than right here savings our butts. A man has to do what a man has to do, like or not, and I think the character of John McClane, certainly as played by Bruce Willis, takes that saying to heart. He complains a lot, is often found whining about his predicament, but then again, why shouldn’t he? He’s forced to risk his life in a situation he never once asked for. Luckily, Willis has a gravitas that invites some empathy from the audience. I wouldn’t want to have people reading this review thinking that his John McClane is merely some grade A a**hole, because that would be an unjust assessment.
We know that ultimately, he is a hard working man who just wishes to have the women he loves in his arms once again. There is a great scene near the beginning of the film, just prior to the arrival of the criminals, in which he and Holly argue about their strained history. Holly walks off, frustrated with McClane’s machismo stubbornness, leaving the man alone. Rather than make some off handed comment about how his wife doesn’t understand, he scolds himself for being such a fool. The moment does not last very long, but it hints at enough to provide an extra layer of characterization to our protagonist. He may behave like a jerk much of time, but I still cheer him on because I know there is something humane beneath the tough skin. Willis is clearly enjoying himself in the role and so is the viewer watching him dispatch his enemies one by one.
However, a hero is only as good as his villain, and here again we are in luck with the smooth and devilish presence of the fantastic Alan Rickman. His followers are not the most memorable or the most interesting bunch, but Hans Gruber is a peculiar beast in that through all his villainy and ruthlessness, the actor brings a modicum of class to his plot. He is clearly a planner, and a rather intelligent one at that. He also refuses to give in to hysteria, preferring to remain calm and think quickly on the spot whenever a hiccup in the shape of John McClane makes its presence known. It would be easy to lump Gruber into the pile of ‘run of the mill’ action film baddies, but Rickman is such an accomplished actor and poses such great threat to the hostages and McClane (what with his mixture of calmness and ruthless methods) that I must place above him above the crop.
The action scenes are very accomplished throughout the film. From the elevator shaft explosion, to the rooftop bomb that sends an FBI helicopter crashing down, to the gun fights McClane finds himself engaged in with Gruber’s goons, there wasn’t a single one for which I could find any complaints whatsoever. The sense of geography is consistently solid as is the execution. There are a couple, such as that elevator shaft bomb, that really had a sense of wonder about them that impressed me greatly even though I had already seen the movie before. The mere fact that McClane gets increasingly battered and bloody with each onslaught of mayhem adds to the sense of danger about the entire situation. If officer McClane is going to succeed in his quest, he’ll have to pay for it in wounds and blood.
For all its obvious strengths, Die Hard does not attain a status of ‘perfect action movie’ despite what many claim. For the film to have earned my unconditional admiration, it should have been more economical in the amount of side characters it throws at the audiences and what the film does with those side characters. Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), Argyle (De’Voreaux White), the television news reporter, the Deputy Chief of Police, Harry Ellis, special agents Johnson and Johnson, etc. Notice that I wrote ‘side characters’ as opposed to ‘supporting characters’, because I don’t think even half of the ones I mentioned above perform any supportive duties as the story progresses. The lone exception would be Sgt. Al Powell, who goes with its instinct and chooses to assist McClane through radio communication from outside the Nakatomi Plaza, but even then the film chooses to give his character somewhat of an arc which I think the movie tries to pay off in the final moments, but I thought the moment fell terribly flat. The movie continuously insists on giving each of these characters there ‘moments’ throughout the film but such attempts rarely added anything to the story and quite frankly felt distracting. The single character whom I thought could have earned some special scenes is Argyle, the limousine driver who escorts McClane to Nakatomi Plaza at the start of the film, but once Gruber and the terrorists make their move on the building, we hardly ever see Argyle for the remainder of the picture even though he’s actually in the building, unlike all the other side characters who keep getting added onto the pile. The manner in which the film disposes some of these characters or concludes their story arcs, much like with Sgt. Al Powell, tend to disappoint. What’s odd about this situation is that I hadn’t remembered finding the side characters so uninteresting or idle. Then again, I hadn’t seen the picture in a few years, but I was still surprised at how I found myself sighing a little bit whenever we saw anyone other than McClane, Holly or Hans Gruber on screen.
Die Hard offers some rousing entertainment for those seeking some exciting action in their movies. For all his faults, the central character is quite lovable and the villain is a more than worthy opponent. If the script and direction had been more judicious in its use of multiple characters and story arcs I think I would be singing even higher praises for it, but suffice to say that is it indeed a very solid accomplish within the genre.