Edited June 2016
It is almost impossible to imagine a superior version of John McTiernan’s Die Hard. In addition to popularizing an entire sub-genre of action movies, it rightfully claims its place among the greatest films of its genre. Its premise is matched in its simplicity and lack of temptation to stray only by its ingenious precision and punishingly direct storytelling. Terrorists invade a building, take hostages, and remove any threats except, of course, one lone NYC cop (on vacation in LA to reconnect with his wife Holly) who must now save the day single-handedly. If it sounds trivial, well, this kind of film hadn’t really been done as often by 1988, and, either way, it’s really more about the species than the broad kingdom.
Among its laundry list of accolades lies virtually everything one could want from a high-octane action film; vertiginous pacing, nerve-frying direction, malicious editing that works like clockwork to hurtle the film forward in the bare minimum amount of time it could possibly take, and a human touch that slithers up on you when you’re busy being dissected. It is one of the few films made in the last thirty years that can legitimately claim to be an apotheosis of a form, insofar as it seeks to do one thing and does that one thing with a nigh-incomparable effectiveness. It’s a work of minimalist necessity, taking the form of a particularly pinpoint gear system. At the level of bare storytelling mechanics, it is stripped to the bone and almost psychotically elegant.
However, what elevates Die Hard to the apex of the pantheon of action cinema are two things: John McClane and Hans Gruber. These two individuals remain to this day one of the premier cinematic pas de deuxs. John McClane (Bruce Willis), an NYPD officer having recently flown into Los Angeles in the hopes of reconciling with his wife, finds himself trapped in Nakatomi Plaza with 13 terrorists led by the mysterious Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and McClane happens to be the only individual in the building that is in a position to do something about the situation at hand. Everyone else has been apprehended by the terrorists as hostages, and the police, although having surrounded the building, aren’t in much of a position to try anything due to the aforementioned hostages. John McClane has to think fast and act fast if he has any hope of saving the day, or at least, as he would refer to it, doing his job.
McClane is expertly played by a young Bruce Willis, who achieves the perfect mix of sardonic disaffection and endless exasperation necessary to convey just how reactionary his actions are, and how he never has the upper-hand. There’s a severe, wholly unexpected undercurrent of malaise in this film that ensnares the otherwise copious malevolence, a nervous sense of loneliness that cuts into the more ostentatious violence, and Willis is extremely effective at evoking an everyman at the end of his ropes. Less a rollercoaster in momentum than a character study in the flickering desperation of a lone wolf, Die Hard inverts McClane’s desperate one-liners, treating them not as weapons against the villains, ironic periods to conclude a violent sentence, but shields against the demise of his own sanity, as though he’s really only speaking to himself. McClane’s reckless desperation suggests the anxious apprehension of Willis’ perturbed, torn-down performance, his one-liners torrid ticks desperately attempting to abrogate the mortal terror of the situation. After a mid-film shootout where McClane cripples himself by running over glass, the film ices itself down to agonizingly tackle the glass shards in his feet. For all it’s mechanical precision, Die Hard is a nervous, highly fleshy, bone-crunching keg of subcutaneous dynamite below the surface.
To match McClane’s every-man, Die Hard needed a truly dastardly, cunning villain, and it got it in Hans Gruber, one of the most calculating, reptilian villains ever to haunt the silver screen. Gruber, played with a quiet intensity and a slithery edge by Alan Rickman, is developed as a figure perched somewhere between cripplingly human and vaguely otherworldly. As a result, we’re never quite sure what he is capable of, lending him a brutal effectiveness that, when stabbed into the ribs of McClane’s maniacal hopelessness, makes him a truly deranged foe. I won’t go so far as to claim that Die Hard is a dual character study, but the action, for all its rambunctiousness, is primarily sowed by character.
The film surrounding these two though is a real corker, a radioactive thriller set to kill. Other than a massive explosion in the middle of the film and a closing stunt involving a tether and at least two of the floors of the plaza, most of the action is played low-to-the-ground and so close-knit your spine curls up. These are down-and-dirty eruptions that vulcanize after slow, slithering buildups, with suspense and tension brokering a peace and leaving needless grandiosity at the door. Like McClane, they get the job done sans explication or show-boating. Despite a few more tender scenes of John discussing his flat feet and his wife with Sergeant Al Powell (endearingly played by Reginald VelJohnson), who remains John’s only friendly contact throughout the large majority of the film, Die Hard is a primarily relentless motion picture with a monomaniacal killer instinct. That’s fine though, because the action is almost exclusively an extension of the sparring, insidious interplay between Gruber and McClane, rather than hollow, explosive statements all their own.
Best of all, this film’s suspense is married to a sort of recklessness, even in the slowest of scenes, that captures the conflagration and constant internal bickering going on in John McClane’s head, turning the battened-down style into a sort of psychological architecture. It’s his sanity more than anything else that worries us, and it is this which positions the film on a more dangerous knife’s edge. Here, when McClane preps for a dangerous stunt, he manages to exhale only a nervy, pathetic, human “please don’t let me die”, desperately aware that no one is really listening. His voice cracking and heaving, it’s anything but funny. It’s as if he’s graced with the knowledge that he only really has himself, a subtle but sinister critique of action heroes and their individualist head-rattling self-aggrandizing ego-trips. McClane doesn’t speak to himself out of ego, but out of desperation and necessity.
The way the film abuses McClane also speaks to something a little more trepidatious in the waters, a sense of distance from the wanton destruction and uninhibited joy of other ultra-violence machismo films from the same time period. It’s a fairly masculine treatise all things considered, and it doesn’t have much place for women in the final analysis, but it does, at least, blame John for his relationship woes, rather than ganging up on Holly and fashioning her life-worth exclusively as an object of McClane’s sanity, as most films would have. In its most desperate moments, the film even intimates that John only functions in the world of action movies as an abode, with the normative world little more than a distant rumor to him.
Die Hard has been aped numerous times since its release, but never has the ingenious terseness and economic brutality of the film been suggested elsewhere. It’s a wonder of a film, exactly what it needs to be and operating simultaneously on levels both physical/organic and icy/mechanical and thriving off of the interplay between the two. Watching Die Hard is a must for anyone who has even a passing interest in craft in cinema, and most who don’t. Grafted from the mortal coil of works like The Wages of Fear and kindled by Mctiernan’s own inimitable knuckled-dusting perfection, it’s more than simply stern and supremely effective; nearly alone in its genre, it actually trespasses on genius.