Directed by: John McTiernan || Produced by: Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver
Screenplay by: Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza || Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, De’voreaux White, William Atherton, Clarence Gilyard, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta
Music by: Michael Kamen || Cinematography: Jan de Bont || Edited by: Frank J. Urioste, John F. Link || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 132 minutes
What allegedly began as a sequel to the 1968 film, The Detective, and was later retrofitted to serve as a sequel to the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger feature, Commando, eventually transformed into Bruce Willis’ action-star breakout and is now regarded as one of the finest, most influential action movies ever made. The franchise’s name has since become a metonym for action pictures in which a hero fights against overwhelming odds, as well as action premises where most of a film is limited to a single location (e.g. The Raid , Dredd , Speed , Air Force One , Cliffhanger , and the earlier Assault on Precinct 13 ).
Die Hard is often referred to as the creme de la creme of the 1980s action canon, but in comparison to many of its popular genre-peers, the film stands apart in style in certain ways. Movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), the aforementioned Commando, Predator (1987, also directed by John McTiernan), or Bloodsport (1988) tended to feature physically imposing, larger-than-life heroes who blasted away enemies with relative ease and near infinite stamina (not to mention ammunition). When 1980s action films didn’t star former body-builders, professional wrestlers, or martial artists, they still pandered to physically augmented super-soldiers like Robocop (1987).
Die Hard, conversely, stars an Average Joe New York cop, John McClain, who also happens to be a perfect fish-out-of-water protagonist with regards to the film’s upper-class Los Angeles setting. Throw in an estranged, separated wife-love interest (Bonnie Bedelia) and a refreshingly sardonic antagonist (Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman in his first feature-film), along with an out-of-left-field Christmas setting, and you have not only one of the all-time great action films, but also one of the most entertaining, unforgettable Christmas-movies as well! What more could you want?
In a way, Die Hard boasts some of the best aspects of classic 1980s action films while also subverting and transcending them. On the one hand, it features unapologetic R-rated violence, with blood squibs, one-liners, over-the-top explosions, and intense stunts aplenty, but on the other hand, it also features subversive political commentary with regards to police overreaction and extrajudicial force, in addition to its distinctly average hero and smarter-than-average, humorous villain. It has great one-liners and pays attention to character development, taking time to develop connections between its protagonist and antagonist, between its protagonist and his love interest, between the protagonist and supporting character Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), and between said love interest and said antagonist.
Die Hard maintains its action spectacle in every act. Explosions are loud, proud, and practical, the camera takes time to linger on its characters’ blood, sweat, and tears (including a memorable sequence where Willis runs across broken glass), and McTiernan keeps his tracking shots fast and flowing, pulling back and letting us take in the entire affair on wide angle lenses and a broad canvas.
At over 130 minutes in length, Die Hard is a tad overstuffed compared to its 1980s peers, most of whom clocked in at under two hours. Perhaps it was the foreshadowing of today’s bloated, 2.5 – 3 hour epics, where editing seems to have been thrown out the window. That’s not to say Die Hard is poorly paced or boring — far from it — but it’s not quite the smooth action rides that Robocop or Commando are, nor does it blend genres to synergistic effect like Predator.
Put another way, perhaps Die Hard’s only true “weakness” is how it won’t reach beyond action aficionados or nostalgic Generation X’ers. Where as something like Predator appeals to both sci-fi and action fans, and has remained somewhat relevant into the 21st century, Die Hard is largely a relic of a bygone era. It superseded the shallow trappings of many of its 1980s cohorts, but in comparison to something like Predator, which was able to both embrace the most stereotypical elements of its action-generation and also genre-blend and transcend genre-limitations to its heart content, Die Hard hasn’t aged quite as well. Put another way, Predator starts out like Rambo and ends like Alien (1979), and somehow executes that versatile formula flawlessly, where as Die Hard perfected a premise that Assault on Precinct 13 technically invented, primarily through detailed screenwriting rather than inventive cinematography.
Die Hard remains one of the best and most entertaining films to come out of the 1980s, though, both including and beyond its action genre. It’s arguable whether Bruce Willis has ever topped his memorable performance in this movie, and it’s a shame that Alan Rickman remains more revered for his turn as Severus Snape in the bland Harry Potter adaptations (2001-2011), but as it stands now, Die Hard takes a tough stance with regards to potent action, visceral practical effects, and a story and characters who aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves while still taking the movie itself seriously. It may not blend genres or invent anything truly novel, but quite frankly, it doesn’t have to. Die Hard is just an awesome, unforgettable action movie.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: It’s not quite the Star Wars (1977) of action movies, but it’s up there. Die Hard nails a near-perfect screenplay of likable heroes, memorable villains, and a competent supporting ensemble. Its stunts and action sequences represent some of the best its decade had to offer, and it has a sense of humor that will leave you in stitches.
— However… it’s not as well paced as many of its lesser 1980s action brethren, nor even many of its later imitators. Die Hard’s “innovation” is mostly based in its perfection of formula pioneered by older, cheaper action films, and in all fairness probably gets too much credit for “reinventing” the action genre.
—> Either way you look at it, though, Die Hard comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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