With the imminent release of A Good Day to Die Hard (the fifth Die Hard film) this week, we’ll be be posting several features taking a look at the franchise, beginning today with the picture that started it all.
The original Die Hard is, without question, a masterwork. Yet I feel even that isn’t enough praise. We recognize that it’s had a tremendous impact on the action genre; we recognize that it spawned an entire sub-genre by itself and was followed by a steady stream of derivative works. It’s important an movie, then, but saying that doesn’t begin to touch on the film’s finer, subtler points—its virtually flawless design, its brilliant script, and its many other unparalleled qualities. I may be the only person on the planet that takes Die Hard this seriously, and that’s just fine. (Years ago I won a lucrative college scholarship on the strength of an academic-type essay I wrote that critically analyzed the film.) To pigeonhole Die Hard as a genre piece, as nothing more than a boneheaded action flick, is to do this film a tremendous disservice—and that kind of attitude is, I would suggest, simply intellectually dishonest. Die Hard is so much more than just gunplay and quips. Here are the seven things I like most about this wonderful film. (Incidentally, they are not ordered in any particular way.)
The film’s basic narrative beats are masterfully established
We only notice information dumps when they go wrong. How many two-bit novels start out with the character’s full name in the first sentence? “John Smith was running late for work, and his day was about to get even worse.” That’s information dumping—a lazy way of getting the basic facts of the story out there, in this case a character’s name. The film equivalent is similar. Character names are shoehorned unnaturally into dialogue; finer details are crammed into the short opening scenes. Die Hard communicates all its basic plot beats without actually telling us anything. All good films will do this, and this one does it simply and better than most.
How do we get the first hint that John and his wife Holly are separated? When Holly rings home and tells the maid to make up the bed in the spare room because her husband might be coming home tonight. John then goes into slightly greater detail about his relationship when talking with Argyle the limo driver, though he never explicitly says they’ve separated—we put two and two together. We only begin to understand the magnitude of their split when John looks up Holly’s name on the building computer and finds that she’s not listed under his name, McClane, but under her maiden name, Gennaro. It’s a cunning way of communicating to us how great the rift between them is without actually telling us through dialogue. Even the first mention of the protagonist’s name is done smoothly: at the airport, his limo driver holds up a card with McClane’s name on it, and McClane walks up and says, “Yeah, I’m John McClane.” It’s a natural way of informing the audience of his name—we’d all introduce ourselves that way if we were ever to find ourselves being picked up by a driver.
Finally, best of them all are the establishing shots of the high-rise (Nakatomi Plaza) during the limo drive in that begins the film. Director John McTiernan repeatedly cuts shots of McClane and Argyle chatting with long shots of the Nakatomi building. He never makes a big point of it—it’s done in a way that almost looks picturesque—but in the back of our minds he has already begun to construct an image of Nakatomi Plaza as this overbearing monolith that will in all likelihood be the death of our hero.
The cinematography is some of the best in film
The way the building is shot in that early scene is but the first instance of the superb cinematography we are treated to here. This is, quite literally, as close to a perfectly shot picture as one could ever get—McTiernan seems to have been imbued with the rather freakish ability to get precisely the right shot at precisely the right length, depth and angle for every second of film (it’s something that deserves its own article, and we just can’t do it justice here). But what really interests me is that McTiernan uses the camera not only as a storytelling device but also as a tool to delicately influence our responses to the goings-on.
A simple example of this is the way he uses the camera to affect the hero. McClane spends a remarkable amount of time on the periphery of the screen; specifically, McTiernan loves to cram him into either the far left or the far right of the frame, as visible above. The purpose is simple: McClane is to look miniscule compared to the environment around him, like a mouse trapped in a square-foot enclosure. Long shots of McClane have him boxed in, often in doorways or up against walls or other large objects (desks, for instance). When the camera pulls in it pulls in close, and even medium shots are tighter than they would typically be. McClane is rarely given room to move in the frame—he is swallowed by his world. This is claustrophobia manifest, and it makes McClane look weak, scrawny, and utterly ineffective. To call him an underdog would almost be too generous; the term underdog implies that he who is being called that might still have a chance at winning. Given the way that McClane is shown to us, and the way we look at him, there is the very real chance that he will be a bust—that he will not make it out of this alive. Yet gradually, as the odds remarkably tip in his favor, the camera opens up, his range grows, he is no longer constricted to the limits of the screen, and he eventually emerges the victor.
Hans is an enigma
Hans Gruber is almost the patron saint of the Die Hard franchise. He’s a villain, but we like him—or rather, we are impressed by him. It shouldn’t be that way. Action films typically don’t put us in cahoots with the bad guy, but this one does, and it does so because it handles its villain in a way that few other action films do: it handles Hans by never really talking about him. Most action films give us a clear definition of the villain. They give us background, motive, desires, capabilities; we must know, in other words, precisely what our hero is dealing with. Die Hard does none of this. For most of the film we lack an understanding of what Hans Gruber wants. He could want money, or he could just be a troublemaker. He would appear to be after money, but then he is legitimately offended at the suggestion that he’s just another common thief. This is a villain that has no manifesto. Other villains (including those in the Die Hard sequels) tend to lay out their plans early on, but all Hans does is talk in code: he wants the police to turn up, he asks for random terrorist groups to be released, he talks about detonators and electromagnetic locks... None of it makes sense until the end.
Because of that, we take him at face value—we define him for ourselves by what we see. And what we see is impressive. He is intelligent and capable, and would seem to fit more as a businessman or a politician than a terrorist. He doesn’t look like a crook and he certainly doesn’t sound like one. And yet he is chillingly evil—he kills in cold blood. We’re not quite sure what to think and where to place him, so we’re left in the uncomfortable position where we like the character but aren’t fully supporting him. In fact, we end up shifting the traditional ‘villain’ burden to another character. While we don’t loathe Hans, we end up hating the Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne Robinson. Despite the fact the he is (ostensibly) one of the good guys, he’s out to get our hero, and he does so in such a smarmy and petulant way that we can do nothing other than abhor him.
The film’s satirical elements are actually well executed
Though all the things on this list are, to varying degrees, rarely mentioned when Die Hard is discussed, arguably the most overlooked thing about this picture is its surprisingly successful satire of the media and law enforcement. The business with the blooper-prone anchors is a bit overwrought (my personal favorite is when the anchor places the city of Helsinki in Sweden rather than Finland), but just about everything else is on target and is mirrored in the way the media conducts itself today. Late in the film, correspondent Dick Thornburg appears at the McClane residence and interviews the two McClane children, who can be no older than five, about the current life-threatening predicament in which their parents are trapped. It’s crass—as crass as just months ago in Connecticut when reporters interviewed children moments after the elementary school shooting. I can’t say if the mainstream media was that obtuse in the days of Die Hard, but looking back at the film from our perspective now, Die Hard’s spin on the media seems almost prescient. The film also pokes at law enforcement, portraying the LAPD as utterly inept—which, as is the case with satire, isn’t too far from the truth—and the FBI as overly rationalized and easy to outclass.
McClane’s marriage is brilliantly written and is central to the film
My favorite dynamic in the film is John and Holly’s strained relationship. You might not think the status of a marriage would have a big part to play in an action film, but here it does. Most people overlook this because it is so straightforward. It is, after all, a redemption story: John is on the outs with his wife, he saves her, and they get back together again. That is what is happening at a superficial level. But beneath that, there are much more interesting forces at play.
John is an outsider in Holly’s world. Die Hard was made in and is set in the late 80s, and in that time peroid, Holly is a new type of woman: a career woman. She has taken off on her own and has entered a new and strange line of work in business, working for, of all people, the Japanese (cultural tensions between the U.S. and Japan were at their highest in the late 80s as Japanese-made products, most notably cars, flooded the U.S. market). Beyond that, she has the kids, who John hasn’t seen for months, though it feels to us (and to him) as if he hasn’t seen them in years. Most startlingly, Holly has not only become more successful than him, but she must also make at least two orders of magnitude more money than him. Her name is on a door. His name is on a badge that he keeps in his pocket. He has no idea what Holly is doing in Los Angeles—he cannot understand her work and her world because it falls well outside his simple reality of cops and robbers. Holly has long outclassed John. So, the tension derives from the fact that John is losing Holly and he doesn’t know how to get her back. But he’s not losing her to another man—he’s losing her to her career.
It’s an incredibly thoughtful dynamic, one that many would place outside of the realm of a film like Die Hard. But here it is, and it is the driving force behind the entire film. Just how John gets her back is something that falls under our next point, but before we move on, I’d be remiss if I did not stress how well acted and directed the scenes with John and Holly are. See, for instance, the crushing way in which Holly slowly edges away from her estranged husband after embracing him when they first meet. You’d expect a reunited couple to hold onto each other, and at least stand beside one another; Holly gives him a quick kiss and then recedes five steps, almost into the opposite corner of the room. When you next watch the film, pay careful attention during those early scenes. The back-and-forth between John and Holly is underestimated and unappreciated.
McClane can only solve his problem through violence
John McClane, then, is a tragic character: alienated from his children, separated from his wife emotionally and intellectually. While he’s not run down—he appears to keep well—his work is basic and unglamorous. He doesn’t belong in a city like Los Angeles, and he doesn’t belong in the corporate space his wife occupies. How does he get his wife back? Add another entry into the ledger of things that make McClane a flawed character: the only way for him to make good is through bloodshed. In saying this, I’m not referencing his past (of which we know nothing) or his future; I mean to say that, presented with the situation he finds himself in, the only way he can redeem himself and start over is to destroy. Not exactly the most auspicious foundation for a new beginning.
But it is what he destroys that is important. Of course, he takes down Gruber’s terrorist troupe, but in the process he is a party to the destruction of Nakatomi Plaza which is, again, the hub of his wife’s world. In order to save their relationship, John must drag his wife back to his side—a baser place, where things are simple and binary, black and white. It’s an interesting twist on the abovementioned dynamic, and it certainly isn’t an affirmative way of going about things. In this world, he is the hero.
McClane is the hero we want but don’t have in reality
Is he the type of hero you want, though? Shoot first, ask questions later... He doesn’t carry handcuffs, but instead carries two or three extra magazines of ammunition... In the film setting, there’s something romantic about that. It works here because morality is oversimplified: these people are out to kill McClane, so his only recourse is to kill them first. There’s something logical about that from an evolutionarily standpoint, something that we can all recognize: if you are being threatened with extinction, your immediate drive is to kill off the thing that’s targeting you. McClane is in a position where he can commit that ultimate act and save himself and his significant other. There’s no mistaking how rewarding that is to watch: there’s something inherently pleasing about that on the screen, even if, when faced with such a scenario in the real world, we might otherwise cringe and wring our hands and prefer for justice and morality to be observed over one’s instinct to simply pacify the opposition.
That’s all a bit high concept you might say, so here’s something more basic: McClane is the archetypal romanticized police officer; he is the policeman we want but don’t necessarily have. He is a hard worker, he is capable, he is intelligent, he is resourceful, and he puts others before himself. As much respect as we have for the boys in blue, we often find those qualities lacking in the real police. We might envisage our officers constantly busting down doors, catching perps and taking names. While there is some of that, the reality is more dull, and often more irritating—they’re hiding behind bushes with speed guns and handing out tickets for jaywalking. Hardly romantic. Hardly as heroic as saving the day all on your own. McClane is a fiction. He can be something that isn’t.
Bonus: The finest moment in Bruce Willis’ career
As a final beat to part on, I encourage you to go watch what I sincerely believe to be Bruce Willis’ greatest scene across his long and varied career. It's the bathroom scene, right after he's escaped from Hans and Karl. The FBI has cut the power to the building, his feet are bleeding, and he seems to think this might be it. He asks Sergeant Powell to pass on a message to his wife should he not make it out of the building alive. As his character breaks up, Willis does a superb job trying to hold back tears. Pay attention to his eyes and his mouth—for instance, at one point he gives a little smirk (as some people do right before the wetworks start), as if he can’t believe he’s about to cry. It is so convincing that I wonder if this was some type of method acting—maybe Willis was thinking about something personal that was making him emotional. He also makes it sound like he’s coming up with it off the cuff, at least up until the final line (“She’s heard me say I love you a thousand times...”). In any case, it is a great scene and it is, as far as I’m concerned, Bruce Willis’ finest moment as an actor. (I wish I could include it for you here, but I couldn't find any way around YouTube's copyright protection system for this clip.)