‘Die Hard’ stands up to the
most sobering test of time

A guy named John McClane wipes out international terrorists. No, it’s not a Republican theme of the 2008 election, but a bittersweet reminder of a time when presidential politics didn’t revolve around people in caves halfway around the world.

Once we could put international terrorists in a high-rise and enjoy a two-hour escape from reality while the heroes blew ’em away. Today it’s hard to watch a movie like “Die Hard” without subconsciously noticing parallels to a very real situation.

No one should feel the least bit guilty about catching “Die Hard” on cable. The post-9/11 suspension of terrorist genre probably ended in May 2002, when “The Sum of All Fears,” starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman, was finally released. That one was done, but not released, by September 2001, and was indefinitely shelved after the attacks. When it eventually did premiere, no one seemed offended, and it was rightly viewed as a modestly good, fairly forgettable big-budget production.

“Die Hard” has many characteristics of the well-known 1970s disaster movie genre. The difference is a human villain. And he’s a great one. Alan Rickman was more or less an unknown when he took the role of Hans Gruber. Even today, with an impressive resume and roles in such blockbusters as the “Harry Potter” series, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone on the street who recognizes him.

Gruber is not at all the type of thug one might see in a, say, Steven Seagal movie. Gruber is the terrorist version of Gordon Gekko, another late 1980s bad guy. In fact, there are a few parallels ... both are in it strictly for the money despite professing other motives, and both have to deal — only very briefly, in Gekko’s case — with Japanese businessmen, the big American economic fear of two decades ago, which now seems like a quaint idea.

And something else: Both dress impeccably. At one point Gruber correctly guesses that a key hostage is wearing a suit from John Phillips, London, where Gruber also shops for suits. “Rumor has it Arafat buys his there,” Gruber says in a remark that is clearly pre-Nobel. Rickman totally gets it. What he’s performing is standard thriller fare, but his bad guy is sooooo dislikable because ... he’s so arrogant. He’s educated, he’s dashing, he’s elitist and he’s even funny while he’s killing people. So we can gladly hate his guts without an ounce of Joker-esque remorse in which we might otherwise question if others are to blame for who he is.

A great villain alone goes a long way, but something else happened here: Bruce Willis arrived. Willis rose to prominence on television opposite Cybill Shepherd in “Moonlighting,” one of those shows (like “Desperate Housewives” or “Ally McBeal”) that hit it big for a year or two but probably had just about run its course by 1988. Willis’ resume today now looks like the Stan Musial of film. He hits for power, hits for average, plays forever, and regularly delivers another blockbuster.

Willis is certainly bound for some kind of Hall of Fame, but Oscar has never come calling, not even for a nomination. In fact, he has only had one Golden Globe nomination for film, in 1990’s little-known “In Country” (he lost).

This puts him in good company. Robert Redford and Sylvester Stallone each got one Academy nomination for acting; Clint Eastwood has gotten two, but only after turning 62.

Willis falls somewhere between that Stallone-Tom Hanks divide, an action figure type who also has exceptional dramatic charm honed by television. Why someone like Russell Crowe is regularly mentioned during Oscar season and Willis is not is one of life’s incalculables.

Maybe it’s because Willis has too much sense of humor. That makes him ideal for a role like Officer John McClane in “Die Hard,” where the absurdities fly as fast as the bullets. It’s a tough call as to which is worse, the depiction of the deputy police chief or the television reporters. They’re as insensitive as they are incompetent, and all they can add to this plot is a setback here and there, which inevitably leads to someone else getting killed.

If that weren’t enough, we’re given a loutish insider, Harry Ellis (played by Hart Bochner), whose remarkably phony, arrogant, sexist and harassing behavior is on par with the Richard Chamberlain character in “The Towering Inferno.” The fact Gruber actually takes this person at least partly seriously is not one of his better moments. This is one casualty of the evening that the hostages should’ve applauded.

For whatever reason, the movie opens with McClane on a flight arriving at LAX. This is used to convey that McClane hates flying and thus might have to overcome something like a fear of heights in the near future, and second, a very strange prophecy that he might be combatting these nerves barefoot. Still needed is the world’s longest-waiting limo driver to tell the backstory of McClane’s spousal relationship. The movie could’ve started more or less with McClane stepping out of a cab at the Nakatomi Plaza and lost nothing.

“Die Hard” was the third film for director John McTiernan, 37 at the time. He had previously scored a hit with the Schwarzenegger vehicle “Predator” and would go on to deliver solid, varied productions such as “The Hunt for Red October,” “Medicine Man” and the updated “Thomas Crown Affair.” His follow-up efforts with both Schwarzenegger and Willis, “Last Action Hero” and “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” were not big hits and lacked the mojo of the earlier works.

What McTiernan is adept at is the blast. He can light up an office building like few others, whether it’s plastic explosives, bazookas or choppers crashing, another situation used in “The Towering Inferno.” But one area where “Inferno” is superior is its sense of height. We see victims holding onto a hair-raising chair lift, and later, taking a horrifying elevator ride from 100-plus stories down. “Die Hard” really lets us forget this duel is going on in a high-rise, save for maybe one moment when McClane is nearly pulled out a window or perhaps when the choppers approach the roof. Yes, there are some harrowing moments inside a vent or elevator shaft, but those are run-of-the-mill action scenes. The hostages aren’t in fear of any fire; they may as well be on the 3rd floor as the 30th.

“Die Hard” is among the unique collection of films, including “JFK,” “Back to the Future” and “Goldfinger,” that show characters studying a replica model of the building or territory in question. Jim Garrison’s was needed for his frivolous case; it is laughable to think Gruber would spend time creating one, but this is a movie that wants you to chuckle here and there.

And because “Die Hard” values laughter, we might become aware that no children are trapped in this building; the most trauma kids will see is from their TV set at home.

McClane’s story arc works, but it is canned disaster melodrama seen in the likes of “Airport” and “Airport ’75,” From the beginning, the hero is having marital/significant-other problems. All it’ll take to bring them together is a good little disaster. Bonnie Bedelia delivers a perfunctory performance as McClane’s estranged wife, but in fairness, the script doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. She can’t fly the plane home like Karen Black in “Airport ’75” and has virtually nothing to do with stopping Gruber, but at least he’s very, very impressed with how she asks for a group bathroom break.

She is useful, though, in delivering one of the movie’s signature lines: “Only John can drive somebody that crazy.” It’s far from certain, though, how the heroism at Nakatomi Plaza is going to resolve the separate career issues of John McClane and Holly Gennaro. He seems to be the problem, not her. He notices women on the plane, in the airport. She, by contrast, has to fight off the jerks while remaining hopeful John will come around.

Reginald Veljohnson, as Sgt. Powell, serves a couple of purposes. He is McClane’s outlet to the rest of the world, someone to absorb his observations. But he’s also the lone likable cop; surely the entire department and FBI can’t be such insensitive buffoons ... or can they? Veljohnson is likable, but this character is a train wreck. He investigates a terrorism site with ample evidence beforehand that something is not right there, yet incompetently walks away after a couple minutes inside apologizing to the doorman for wasting his time. But that only sets the stage for his big score, in a scene perhaps lifted from the “Friday the 13th” movies, when he is able to gain redemption for his biggest regret. When life hits rock bottom, the only place it can go is up.

There have been a few “Die Hard” sequels. It says here none was really any good, although defenders exist. The original is a great success despite mistakes, the biggest likely was in rendering Gruber, say, unusable for sequels. He should’ve been allowed to sneak out of the building — after all, these authorities are morons — and torment McClane from afar. Perhaps viewers would’ve found that unsatisfying. Instead, he journeys down the same path as John Malkovich’s “Booth” in “In the Line of Fire,” or the Joker (the Jack Nicholson, not Heath Ledger, version). That might draw cheers, but this would be one case of the audience not realizing what it’s just lost.

Gruber is asked, “What kind of terrorist are you?” He replies, “Who said we’re terrorists?” Gruber may be much more Gekko than bin Laden, but Gekko only destroys companies, not high-rises. An obnoxious TV reporter observes at one point, even before there is smoke and debris all over the place, that “Tonight, Los Angeles has joined the sad and worldwide fraternity of cities whose only membership requirement is to suffer the anguish of international terrorism.” At least it is a New York cop destroying an L.A. plot. Had Gruber picked the other coast, “Die Hard” might’ve been yanked from syndication.

The movie doesn’t care how Gruber got into the country or where the resulting war might be fought. It’s OK to cheer and laugh. “Die Hard” is an over-the-top reminder, in every sense, that international terrorism belongs on a screen, not in our cities.

3.5 stars
(October 2008)

“Die Hard” (1988)
Starring Bruce Willis as Officer John McClane ♦ Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber ♦ Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennaro McClane ♦ Reginald Veljohnson as Sgt. Al Powell ♦ Paul Gleason as Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson ♦ De’voreaux White as Argyle ♦ William Atherton as Richard Thornburg ♦ Hart Bochner as Harry Ellis ♦ James Shigeta as Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi ♦ Alexander Godunov as Karl ♦ Bruno Doyon as Franco ♦ Andreas Wisniewski as Tony ♦ Clarence Gilyard Jr. as Theo ♦ Joey Plewa as Alexander ♦ Lorenzo Caccialanza as Marco ♦ Gerard Bonn as Kristoff ♦ Dennis Hayden as Eddie ♦ Al Leong as Uli ♦ Gary Roberts as Heinrich ♦ Hans Buhringer as Fritz ♦ Wilhelm von Homburg as James ♦ Robert Davi as FBI Special Agent Big Johnson ♦ Grand L. Bush as FBI Agent Little Johnson ♦ Bill Marcus as City Engineer ♦ Rick Ducommun as Walt, City Worker ♦ Matt Landers as Capt. Mitchell ♦ Carmine Zozzora as Rivers ♦ Dustyn Taylor as Ginny ♦ George Christy as Dr. Hasseldorf ♦ Anthony Peck as Young Cop ♦ Cheryl Baker as Woman ♦ Richard Parker as Man ♦ David Ursin as Harvey Johnson ♦ Mary Ellen Trainor as Gail Wallens ♦ Diana James as Police Supervisor ♦ Shelley Pogoda as Dispatcher ♦ Selma Archerd as Hostage ♦ Scot Bennett as Hostage ♦ Rebecca Broussard as Hostage ♦ Kate Finlayson as Hostage ♦ Shanna Higgins as Hostage ♦ Kym Malin as Hostage ♦ Taylor Fry as Lucy McClane ♦ Noah Land as John McClane Jr. ♦ Betty Carvalho as Paulina ♦ Kip Waldo as Convenience Store Clerk ♦ Mark Goldstein as Station Manager ♦ Tracy Reiner as Thornburg’s Assistant ♦ Rick Cicetti as Guard ♦ Fred Lerner as Guard ♦ Bill Margolin as Producer ♦ Bob Jennings as Cameraman ♦ Bruce P. Schultz as Cameraman ♦ David Katz as Soundman ♦ Robert Lesser as Businessman ♦ Stella Hall as Stewardess ♦ Terri Lynn Doss as Girl at Airport ♦ Jon E. Greene as Boy at Airport ♦ P. Randall Bowers as Kissing Man ♦ Michele Laybourn as Girl in Window ♦ Rick Bross as Cameraman ♦ Charlie Picerni as Dwayne T. Robinson’s Driver ♦ Gary Pinkston as Hostage ♦ Mark Winn as Police Detective

Directed by: John McTiernan

Written by: Jeb Stuart
Written by: Steven E. de Souza
Written by: Roderick Thorp (novel)

Executive producer: Charles Gordon
Producer: Lawrence Gordon
Producer: Joel Silver
Associate producer: Beau E.L. Marks

Original music: Michael Kamen
Cinematography: Jan De Bont
Editing: John F. Link ♦ Frank J. Urioste
Casting: Jackie Burch
Production design: Jackson DeGovia
Art direction: John R. Jensen
Set decoration: Phil M. Leonard
Costume design: Marilyn Vance-Straker
Makeup: Scott H. Eddo ♦ Wes Dawn ♦ Jim Kail ♦ Josee Normand ♦ Paul Abascal
Stunts: Charles Picerni ♦ Ken Bates ♦ Janet Brady ♦ Nick Brett ♦ Jophery Brown ♦ Kurt Bryant ♦ Brian Christensen ♦ Gil Combs ♦ Kerrie Cullen ♦ Kenny Endoso ♦ Andrew Epper ♦ Randy Hall ♦ Norman Howell ♦ Keii Johnston ♦ Henry M. Kingi ♦ Julius Le Flore ♦ Fred Lerner ♦ Michael Marasco ♦ Don McGovern ♦ John Meier ♦ Alan Oliney ♦ Victor Paul ♦ Charles Picerni Jr. ♦ Paul V. Picerni Jr. ♦ Steve Picerni ♦ Bernie Pock ♦ Chad Randall ♦ R.A. Rondell ♦ Benjamin Rosenberg ♦ John Sherrod ♦ Russell Solberg ♦ Steve Vandeman ♦ George Wilbur ♦ Glenn Wilder ♦ Dick Ziker ♦ Steve Ray

Special thanks: Dick Beving ♦ Patty Brewer ♦ Georgian Francisco ♦ Jim Gembala ♦ George Meehan ♦ Allen Pena

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