Review: “Die Hard”, and a 51st post “Thank you!”
Produced by: Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver, Beau Marks (associate) Charles Gordon (executive)
Written by: Steven E. de Souza & Jeb Stuart (screenplay)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Alexander Godunov
Music by: Michael Kamen
Based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
You wouldn’t know it today, but Bruce Willis wasn’t known for action roles back in 1988. Having spent most of his career up to that point being known for the dramedy detective series Moonlighting, where he played a wisecracking detective opposite Cybill Shepherd, Willis wasn’t necessarily the most obvious choice for the role of John McClane, despite the character sounding fairly similar as a wisecracking police officer from New York. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to modern viewers unfamiliar with the era, but when you consider the fact that the show featured a largely romantic story between two co-workers, putting the actor into a film like Die Hard, which, by the way, released only a year after his starring role debut in the romantic comedy Blind Date, maybe it makes more sense why people may have been a bit more skeptical.
Of course, the film was a huge hit, and has since spawned three sequels (with the fourth sequel, A Good Day to Die Hard, reportedly aiming for an early 2013 release), several video games, and a cunning crossover with another romantic spy-centric comedy TV series, Chuck. In fact, the film has gone on to find its way into many Top 10 lists, including those of the American Film Institute. Bruce Willis himself has gone on to do great things as well, including awesome roles in films like Pulp Fiction, The Sixth Sense, and Sin City. And yet, despite the 23 years past, it seems like nothing he or others have done has compared to the original action film that kicked his career in film into high gear, and no other role has seemed to rise above and influence his career path more than that of John McClane.
You might be wondering why I’m reviewing this film during Christmas Movie Month. Well, despite the fact that the film was originally released as a summer blockbuster, the film is, indeed, actually set during the Christmas season. (Also, shame on you for having not seen this classic.) Sleigh bells jingle throughout the Michael Kamen score, as does Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (a.k.a., “Ode to Joy), initially played during the Christmas party being held at the Nakatomi Plaza Christmas party. (Whether intentional or not, I have learned through tangential research that Japan has a longstanding tradition of playing this in celebration of the New Year. Also, a version of the song was also played during Christmastime after the fall of the Berlin Wall one year later. Interesting…).
The film also features some more popular Christmas songs, as well, including Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” “Winter Wonderland,” and ending on “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow.” So, yes, this is a Christmas film, even more so than the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”-giving Meet Me in St. Louis. (This also marks the second time I’ve been able to link those two films. Odd.)
What might be shocking to most modern viewers, though, is just how comparatively slowly paced this film is compared to the sequels and the expectations that are set up by those looking back on it with nostalgia. Though there is a lot of action, a non-stop action thrill ride it is not. The film takes its time in getting started, and, given its run time of about 2 hours and 10 minutes, it has no problem dedicating a large portion of the first half hour setting up its characters, plot, and setting. This being a Christmas film, there is even a bit of family drama thrown in, as John McClane tries to reconcile with his estranged wife, who is using her maiden name, and to be with his two little children again before Christmas comes. It’s not at all bad material and serves to humanize McClane, but more impatient viewers may start to wonder when the gunfire starts.
Of course, nobody did or ever does go into this film seeking a deep story about spousal and paternal redemption and reconciliation, right? We came for blood! Fans of ultraviolence rejoice — once the action does kick in, it continues to escalate, and pretty soon the barefoot-and-tanktop action hero is running over broken glass while firing a gun at a group of terrorists and launching himself over the sides of buildings to escape explosive blasts. Director John McTiernan treats the action like a meal with several courses, each one bigger than the last before giving us one grand and decadent climax for dessert. You won’t even know until the end that you’ve had more than enough of your fill, I promise!
Die Hard is a tribute to the action-first hero who doesn’t necessarily need to (or remember to) think everything through. For all their thought, planning, and armor, the LAPD, SWAT team, and FBI all prove to be either mostly useless or more of a hindrance to McClane’s mission, save for the lone cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson, the dad from Family Matters and the one who made the Chuck crossover possible), who believes in John and provides him with the only moral support from the ground level.
John, meanwhile (using the radio handle “Roy” after cowboy Roy Rogers) is a blunt instrument, using C4 to blow up a group of terrorists firing upon the SWAT team and, at one point, even using a blaring machine gun to herd a group of terrified and confused hostages down a staircase before the roof explodes. It’s not fancy or high tech, but it sure gets results. Bruce Willis lends John a boyish, every-man vibe, dropping cheesy one liners but making them work. He may not have been the obvious candidate at the time (in fact, the film was at one point a sequel to the book’s predecessor’s Frank Sinatra-starring adaptation and then intended to be a sequel to the Schwarzenegger-starring Commando), but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role any better than Willis, and the fact that he’s gone on to become one of cinema’s most recognizable and enduring action stars speaks to that.
The film’s baddie Hans Gruber, however, is essentially the antithesis to John McClane and the film’s embodiment of brains before brawn. Unlike the incompetent ground crew, Gruber, played by a surprisingly only half-dreary Alan Rickman, is sly, cunning, and ruthless where McClane is impulsive, average, but ultimately an all around good guy. And unlike McClane, you don’t imagine that this man has any plans or even aspirations to be with any family members over the holidays. The fact that Gruber stands as the film’s villain is essentially the thesis of the film: that mindless action (at least as far as escapist movies are concerned) is better. If the Grinch were a German terrorist with a gun instead of a green monster with a dog and a heart that refused to grow, he would be Hans Gruber, and Alan Rickman plays him like the sneering, sophisticated European villain all others wish they could be.
I don’t have to worry about telling you that John wins back his wife and family by getting into the Christmas spirit and giving the gift of kicking terrorist ass, do I? You already know what to expect from a film like this. Honestly, though, you probably only know what to expect from a film like this because you have seen so many films like this that were made because this film is a film like this. Die Hard may not have reinvented the action genre, but it certainly reinvigorated it. Like the Run DMC song that starts the film off, however, it certainly was a reinvention of what the “Christmas” label means to the medium it’s appended to. If you’re tired of every other Christmas film’s saccharine sheen, definitely gather the family around the TV and give this film a spin.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5
PS: This is my 51st post, which means I have made it past my first 50 already! Thank you again for everyone who has come to this site, supported me, and/or contributed to the site and making this possible for me to do. I’m often tired and sacrifice personal time and late nights to work on this site, and I appreciate every bit of encouragement I’ve received!
I admit, I do this for myself, but I also do it so that others may learn and teach me in return, and it is my hopes that this site and my writing career (however nonexistent it currently may be) will continue to grow and go on for as long as I can write (and hopefully, if that day comes, voice recognition and/or thought reading will be advanced enough that I can continue to do this via that).
I love movies, and I hope whoever is reading The Viewer’s Commentary will also grow in their appreciation for it, too.