Well, the newest “Die Hard” movie is about to be released on DVD and Bluray, and if you know me, you know that I pretty much grew up loving the first three films. So, I thought I’d do a retrospective over the whole series, offer my review and my personal thoughts since the movies have been such an influence on me.
This will be the first of four reviews, so buckle up; this is E.J.’s “Die Hard” Retrospective!
The first movie is actually based on the novel, “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp. In that novel, the character who would eventually become John McClane is actually an older character, a detective named Joe Leland. He’s invited to his daughter’s Christmas party rather than his wife’s. And the terrorists are actually political radicals rather than thieves. The book has a darker tone and more complex themes, but a lot of it is surprisingly faithfully adapted on film. “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a sequel to Thorp’s book, “The Detective” which actually was adapted into a film starring Frank Sinatra as Joe Leland. So, if you’re so inclined, you can consider this Frank Sinatra movie to be a prequel to “Die Hard.”
The first thing people rave about this movie is how much of a breath of fresh air it was. Considering it was an action movie in the era where Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger ruled the cinemas, Bruce Willis’ John McClane was a different type of action hero. His physique isn’t that of a bodybuilder and he doesn’t plow through a sea of bad guys all at once without getting injured. It’s ironic because before being adapted into “Die Hard,” this movie was supposed to be a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando,” and if you’ve seen how ridiculously over the top that movie was, I can only imagine how this one would’ve turned out.
I feel the brilliance of the movie is in the pacing. A lot of people seem to think “Die Hard” is all about the action, and while I agree that the movie certainly features mind-blowing sequences, it’s actually more of a thriller and the suspense plays more of a key role than the action. Imagine if someone took an Alfred Hitchcock movie and inserted a bit of John Woo into it. There’s a good chunk of time before the terrorists show up where it almost seems like a different genre of movie. We meet John McClane as he first gets to L.A. He’s thrusted into a minor case of cultural mergence being he’s from New York and California just seems too out there for him. He sits up front in a limo, LA’s technology is trendy and he gets kissed by a drunk guy. So, wait does that never happen in New York on New Years Eve? John finally meets up with his wife at her new job in the Nakatomi Towers. It’s a somber occasion. The mood is awkward and they’re obviously still at odds with each other after she accepted the job relocation and John stayed in New York without the family. Right off the bat, John is proven to be stubborn and doesn’t waste any time arguing with his wife.
The terrorists finally show up and take control of the building while John is relaxing with his shoes off in an office bathroom. The phones are cut and John hears gunfire which springs him into action. He manages to sneak away, thus leaving John alone and is literally the hostages’ only hope for survival.
When the terrorists arrive, the movie basically becomes a “heist gone wrong” movie. Although, instead of following the thieves like most heist movies, we’re following the guy who becomes the factor that the thieves don’t anticipate. Here, we see immediately what separates John from other action heroes. He runs away, he gets scared, he doubts himself and most notably, he’s trying to pawn the situation off on someone else to handle. He goes the whole movie without shoes too which makes him so vulnerable to the action.
Every tactic John uses to get word on the outside that the Nakatomi building has been seized gives away his position. In response, the terrorists realize there’s a rogue person in the building and keep trying to rectify the situation. The cat and mouse game is really this movie’s charm and instead of normal action movies where bad guys fight the good guys in a chance meeting, the action scenes serve the story and everything in the script is based on action-reaction. John gives authorities information that exposes him, so he risks bad guys coming after him.
The main villain is Hans Gruber, played perfectly by Alan Rickman. This was his first major movie role and it’s no wonder why he became such a great character actor after this. Hans is such a charismatic individual, he’s a hard villain to hate. In interviews, Alan Rickman has even said he played the character, not as a villain, but as a man on a mission. It’s just that he’s willing to go as far as killing everyone to accomplish that mission. Despite his sociopathic nature, he’s the reason the whole villain plot becomes more fun as well as menacing. The rest of the terrorists mostly have distinctive characterizations which elevates them from being more than just a body count. And what makes this movie such an effective action-comedy is McClane’s attitude through it all. He’s such a New Yorker at heart that even in the face of danger, he can’t resist being a smart ass to the bad guy. This goes well beyond having one-liners for the sake of puns. Hans’ reactions to McClane’s attitude is just so funny!
When the police finally arrive and surround the building, they are very little help to John and even become another reason for McClane to maintain control. His only real ally is Sgt. Al Powell played by Reginald Vel Johnson of “Family Matters” fame. The dynamic is interesting here because they only communicate by CB radio which is monitored by the villains so they actually listen in on the entire genesis of their friendship. The police officer who is running the show on the outside is a quintessential 80’s asshole who is in great doubt of McClane’s status. Then, there’s the blood-thirsty news reporter who tries to exploit the situation and one of the hostages is a typical 80’s yuppie prick who tries to give McClane up and has a crush on his wife. I mean, have you ever seen an action movie with THIS MUCH characterization? Even if they’re a one-dimensional figure, they’re explored to their mass potential!
The movie was advertised and received in 1988 as a wall-to-wall action movie that’ll blow you to the back wall of the theater, but by today’s standards, the action doesn’t really ratchet up until the last half of the movie when there’s no more messing around. They just use brute force to solve all their problems!
Bottom line, I just can’t recommend this movie enough. I feel as though the sequels have cheapened its image, like the sequels have done for “Jaws” and “Rocky,” but if you ever see just one movie out of the entire series, make sure it’s this one.
FOUR OUT OF FOUR STARS.
Tune in next time where we look at its sequel “Die Hard 2.”
E.J. is just a simple man who loves movies. Don't judge.