Is Die Hard a perfect movie? Well, it’s a perfect Christmas movie. As for an action movie, it’s as close to perfect as the genre is likely to ever come. John McClane is the quintessential everyman action hero. He’s the guy next to you on a subway who happens to know how to fire a gun and is trained to be a little more observant than others, but he’s not some muscled-up beef-head. He’s just a capable guy in a complicated situation, the right hero for the right moment.
It’s Christmas 1988 and John McClane (Bruce Willis), though he hates to fly, is headed to Los Angeles from New York to spend the holidays with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their two kids. Holly has recently accepted a high paying position with a west coast conglomerate of some unknown but expensive nature and the move has put a deep strain on the McClane’s marriage, so much so that in Los Angeles, it’s Holly Gennero and not Holly McClane at the office.
The Christmas visit is supposed to change things but when the couple reunites, the old tensions are still there and they fight. They don’t get a chance to make up because soon after Holly leaves the room angry, the office, on a high floor of the Nakatomi Plaza, is overrun by terrorists with machine guns. A highly capable leader and killer named Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) has taken over the building with his thugs and is aiming to pull of a complex heist.
John manages to escape while Holly is taken hostage and soon John uses his New York cop skills to throw a wrench into Hans’ plans. Can John, with no shoes and only a pistol slow down the terrorist scheme in time for the cops to arrive or will Hans pull of his heist and kill everyone, including Holly, to make his escape? That’s the basic tension of Die Hard but the story is much richer in detail and lively performance.
Die Hard was directed by John McTiernan though it’s difficult to give him much credit for the films’ success. McTiernan hasn’t directed anything nearly as well as he directs here but his contribution is mostly in his competence. McTiernan knows how to provide basic structure and how to shoot action in interesting, even witty fashion such as his homage to the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now that ends with a bang.
No, the credit for Die Hard appears to solely belong to the casting of Bruce Willis. Willis was famously not the first choice for John McClane. His biggest credit prior to Die Hard was the romantic comedy TV series Moonlighting. Sneakily, that show turns out to have been just the training that Willis needed for this role. Willis smartly scales down what undoubtedly was a role intended for a muscled up stud.
Having the smaller in stature Willis in the role makes John McClane relatable in a way that the Stallone’s, Schwarzenegger’s and Van Damme’s could never be. Unable to simply punch his way out, Willis’ McClane has to be crafty, witty, and street smart. These are qualities far more relatable than rippling physiques and mumbled macho posturing nonsense. Willis uses his comic instincts in concert with his action instincts and makes John’s wit as strong a weapon as any.
With Willis in the role, Die Hard becomes something of a critique of other action movies that rely on heavy testosterone and screaming to force audiences to pay attention. Watch the scene where the cops first arrive and Paul Gleason’s Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson comes swaggering into the scene. Immediately, he’s all macho posturing and immediately he screws up, even as McClane is doing everything to help him.
The same goes for the big swinging… guns from the FBI show up, oozing even more testosterone than Robinson. They too ignore our smart, resourceful hero in favor of the most macho answer, helicopters blaring Ride of the Valkyries, and wind up getting themselves killed. These characters aren’t explicitly critiques of the muscle head action stars of the late 80’s but they do function as a commentary on the shoot first mentality of too many other boring action movies.
John McClane doesn’t shoot first, he doesn’t have to. His wits and instincts are just sharp enough to even the odds with anyone he’s up against. He’s an action hero breath of fresh air, charming and tough, smart and savvy. He’s everything the muscle guys wish they could be but aren’t smart enough to pull off. Sure, Willis would eventually dumb himself down to the level of the muscle guys, but his first effort as John McClane is the indelible mark of the character, the antithesis of the typical action hero, not the exemplar.
Of course, Willis’ McClane is elevated greatly by getting to face off against arguably the greatest action movie villain of all time. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is an icon of fashionable, bad guy charm. He’s smarmy enough for us to know he’s evil but charming enough for us not to write him off. We want John McClane to get him in the end but we also can’t help but get a visceral thrill out of his witty capering.
Rickman’s best scene in the film comes to down to the most precise and ingenious facial expression and tone of voice. As Hans is talking with Hart Bockner’s weaselly 80’s guy, Ellis, Rickman’s barely concealed contempt is a masterclass of comic acting. Listen to the way he drips with contempt for Ellis, he sees right through him and yet knows he has a useful idiot in his hands. He’s decided to kill Ellis from the moment he enters the room but dangles him on a string to get just enough information to be useful in his battle of wits with McClane.
That may be my favorite scene in the film. I am definitely not rooting for Hans to shoot the innocent Ellis but I can’t say I am all that sympathetic when he goes. In fact, as guilty as I feel about it, I can’t resist giggling with delight as Rickman toys with Ellis and that seething scorn he’s just barely holding back as the yuppie arrogantly blathers on about negotiating with him to bring in John McClane.
I asked at the beginning of this review if Die Hard is a perfect movie. It’s not, there is no such thing. But, as action movies go, there may not be one better. Die Hard is a brilliant action movie with high tension, suspense, charm and thrills to spare. It’s the best of Bruce Willis before he gave up acting in favor of gathering paychecks. It’s an everyman’s action movie, a down to earth adventure that happens to have multi-million dollar explosions.