#592) Die Hard (1988)

#592) Die Hard (1988)

OR “McClane in Pain Brays Vainly at the Slain”

Directed by John McTiernan

Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. Based on the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp.

Class of 2017

The Plot: NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to join his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedilia) for her office Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza. During the party, the building is taken over by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), a German thief posing as a terrorist to distract everyone while his accomplices steal the company’s $640 million in bearer bonds. McClane escapes unnoticed and, with outside assistance from LAPD Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), must use his wits and whatever weapons on hand to thwart Gruber and his team. But the real question isn’t whether or not McClane will succeed, it’s whether or not you consider “Die Hard” a Christmas movie.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “slam-bang thriller”, praising its “[g]ripping action sequences and well-crafted humor”. Author and action-movie expert Erich Lichtenfeld delivers an appreciative essay on the film.

But Does It Really?: Yes, “Die Hard” is one action cliché after another, and yes, some of it has not aged spectacularly, but overall I had a fun time watching “Die Hard”. Action movies get a bad rap from film snobs like me, but it’s hard not to enjoy a movie this excitingly staged and shot, with great central performances from Willis and Rickman. With its iconic moments, quotable dialogue, and continuous sequels and spoofs, “Die Hard” endures, and has earned its spot on the NFR. 

Shout Outs: Musical allusions to “Singin’ in the Rain” and “A Clockwork Orange“, plus a real funny “High Noon” reference.

Everybody Gets One: This is the only NFR appearance for (among others) director John McTiernan and the late great Alan Rickman. “Die Hard” producer Joel Silver selected McTiernan based on his work helming the 1987 movie “Predator”, and wanted Rickman after seeing the actor perform in the original Broadway production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”. “Die Hard” is Rickman’s film debut!

Wow, That’s Dated: Primarily the major influence the Japanese were having on American businesses in the ’80s, plus fleeting references to VCRs, Magic Johnson, Run-D.M.C., West Germany, and the idea that you could carry a gun onto a plane. Bonus dated reference to Josée Normand, credited here as “Hair Stylist to Bruce Willis”.

Seriously, Oscars?: A surprise hit with audiences, “Die Hard” garnered four Oscar nominations: Sound, Sound Editing, Film Editing, and Visual Effects. “Die Hard” lost in the Sound category to “Bird”, and the remaining three categories to the flashier technological work of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“.

Other notes

  • Stay with me: “Die Hard” is based on a book, and is technically a sequel. Roderick Thorp’s 1966 novel “The Detective” centered around Joe Leland, a private detective investigating a mysterious suicide. This novel was adapted for film by Fox in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as Leland. In 1975, Thorp was inspired to write a sequel after seeing “The Towering Inferno“, and in 1979 published “Nothing Lasts Forever”. Fox owned the screen rights to the book, but nothing came of it. In 1987, writer Jeb Stuart was looking for work, and took an offer to adapt the long dormant novel into a movie. The script was remarkably faithful, with Stuart throwing in the heist plotline and changing John’s last name to McClane (a tribute to his own Celtic heritage). 
  • Because of its connection to “The Detective”, Fox was contractually obligated to offer the lead to Sinatra, who promptly turned it down (he was 71). The usual suspects like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger passed, and practically every leading man in Hollywood was considered before the offer was made to TV star Bruce Willis, still relatively new to film. An informal survey conducted by CinemaScore showed Fox executives that Willis’ participation would not have a negative impact for audiences, and Willis got the part (though Fox did omit his image from some of the early posters).
  • Before “Die Hard”, ’80s action movies were dominated by big guys with big muscles and bigger guns. Bruce Willis’ smaller physique, mixed with his natural smart-ass charm, turned John McClane into more of an everyman. McClane isn’t an unstoppable Superman, he’s an average Joe (albeit an average Joe with police training) in-over-his-head and making it up as he goes. Willis’ on-screen charisma helps us relate to the unrelatable.
  • The businessman on the plane who tells John to take his shoes off is played by Robert Lesser, who shows up in one of my favorite Christmas movies: “Ernest Saves Christmas“.
  • Oh Alan, you are sorely missed. As the most British German person ever, Rickman owns the film with a performance that could have easily been overshadowed by the action and effects. His Gruber is proof that some stories need a villain more interesting than the hero.
  • Shoutout to cinematographer Jan de Bont; capturing the action sequences in excellent compositions, as well as filming several scenes “in-camera”, giving them a better flow than quick edits would. De Bont would go on to direct a few action movies of his own, including “Speed” (aka “Die Hard on a Bus”).
  • Hey Carl! Yes, I know the character’s name is Al, but when Reginald VelJohnson plays a cop, he’s Carl Winslow from “Family Matters”. End of discussion.
  • Shout-out to my girlfriend Sarah, who correctly pointed out that Argyle the limo driver is listening to the same song (Steve Wonder’s “Skeletons”) every time we cut back to him, even when significant time has elapsed. How long is that song?
  • This may be the first movie to feature the “Chekhov’s C4 explosive” trope.
  • I’ve spent so much time watching older, Code-era movies that when an NFR entry features excessive violence and language, it sticks out. Speaking of…
  • “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” is a continuation of McClane’s fondness for Roy Rogers, who used the similar catchphrase “Yippee-ki-yay, kids!” on his TV show. Rogers was 77 when “Die Hard” was released, and I would love to know if he ever learned of his unintentional contribution to pop culture.
  • That’s two movies in a row I have covered that feature Paul Gleason as the kind of arrogant authority figure only he could play. I wonder how many weeks of detention Gruber is gonna get?
  • Is everyone in this movie a corrupt asshole? Between Holly’s coked-out co-worker, the LAPD officers, the FBI Agents Johnson, and the TV reporter, the only two morally just people in this movie are the rogue New York cop and the coldblooded murderer/thief.
  • Rickman’s giving that great a performance AND he does a flawless American accent? Where is his Oscar?
  • Kudos to this film’s sound mixers. I usually have to adjust the volume a lot when I’m watching an action movie, but “Die Hard” is pretty level for the whole runtime. The dialogue was coherent, yet the violence was not deafening. Well done, everyone.
  • McClane picking glass out of his bloodied feet is one of the more disturbing images in moviedom. This is either Quentin Tarantino’s favorite or least favorite scene.
  • With its skyscraper setting, fiery action scenes and helicopter finale, you can definitely see the “Towering Inferno” influence on this film. It’s just like “Towering Inferno”, but with boobs and swearing!
  • [Spoiler] Gruber’s fall from the top of the skyscraper is a memorable and extraordinary shot, albeit marred by the interjection of Gleason’s line “Oh I hope that’s not a hostage.” Not every scene needs snarky commentary.
  • [Mini-Spoiler] Ah crap, I forgot that Carl’s backstory is him accidentally shooting a kid. And I thought the casual racism and homophobia would be this movie’s most dated quality. Turns out it’s making the audience applaud because a cop finally mustered up the courage to shoot someone. Sweet Jesus.
  • Still, not the worst office Christmas party I’ve ever seen.

Legacy

  • “Die Hard” was one of the biggest hits of 1988, propelling Bruce Willis from “that guy on ‘Moonlighting'” to bona-fide movie star. Caught slightly off-guard, Fox immediately put a “Die Hard” sequel into production. While the first two sequels were adaptations of unrelated books with McClane shoehorned in, the next two were original stories that – ironically – had more in common with the “Rambo”-type action movies the original film differentiated itself from.
  • A sixth film – a “Godfather II“-esque prequel/sequel titled “McClane” was in development in the late 2010s before being cancelled following Disney’s acquisition of Fox.
  • “Die Hard” helped create the entire ’90s action movie aesthetic: the jaded cop, usually estranged from his wife and family, pitted against a group of international terrorists with only an endless supply of machine guns and quips at his disposal. This trend was immediately retired in 2001 after being deemed insensitive following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • Like many modern movies on this list, “Die Hard” has had its share of media tie-ins. The film has countless video games, as well as a successful comic book adaptation and the inevitable tie-in with DieHard car batteries.
  • I absolutely adore the “Bob’s Burgers” episode in which the children write and perform the “Die Hard”/”Working Girl” musical mashup “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl”. They even got Carly Simon to riff during the credits!
  • And finally, when “Die Hard” was added to the NFR in 2017, Reginald VelJohnson commented on an AV Club article to celebrate his new place in the Library of Congress. Apparently he forgot he was in “Ghostbusters“, which was added to the Registry in 2015.

If you’re still reading, it’s because you are waiting for me to answer the million dollar question: Is “Die Hard” a Christmas movie? 

Yes.
But also no.

The real question is “How do we define a Christmas movie?” Is it a movie that focuses solely on the Christmas season? Or one that just features it? If it’s the former, would “It’s a Wonderful Life” count? It only features Christmas at the very end. What about movies that have nothing to do with Christmas, but that families have made their annual holiday viewing? (Looking at you, “Sound of Music“) It is this lack of a definition that has not only made “Die Hard” difficult to categorize, but also explains why people get so upset when you tell them “Die Hard” isn’t a Christmas movie: it’s based on their own definition, a personal choice that – when called into question – feels like an attack.

Do I think “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie? Yes, but not because of any strong attachment I have to it. The “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” conversation started as a joke; the irreverent choice for people tired of the same five Christmas movies year after year. But like any joke, if you repeat it too many times, it’s not funny anymore. “Die Hard” is no longer an ironic answer to the question “What’s your favorite Christmas movie?”, but rather a legitimate answer because we made it one. People died on that hill so many times that the conversation stopped being fun, and we collectively threw our arms up and said, “Fine. Have it your way. It’s a Christmas movie.” So in conclusion, whether we meant to or not, we have made “Die Hard” as much a part of our Christmas culture as Santa Claus and the Grinch. Now let’s never speak of this ever again.

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