Everyone knows about Die Hard. Director John McTiernan’s 1988 smash made a bona fide movie star of its leading man, Bruce Willis. Some of its dialogue—particularly John McClane’s trademark “Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker”—became legendary, and did some of its setpieces. The film spawned not only two sequels, but a host of wannabes, very few of which came close to matching the original. But while the film’s showstoppers still dazzle, Die Hard isn’t a great film simply because it delivers bang for your buck; it’s great because its action is built atop a foundation of wit and emotion.
Die Hard is, in a way, three movies in one. Chiefly, it is a big-scale (admittedly overscaled) action spectacle, typical of the era where such films ruled the box office. But it’s also involving and even occasionally touching melodrama. And, most sneakily, it also manages to be a winking sendup of the action genre in general.
Movie No. 1: Action spectacle
Though most of the action is set in and around a Los Angeles skyscraper, the film manages to wring many convincing sequences out of such a claustrophobic setting, from one-on-one fights to an explosive last-act rooftop setpiece. Each action sequence is scaled larger than its predecessor, until, by the finale, Nakatomi Plaza experiences some serious property damage. The actual climax, though, isn’t the standard brawl-to-the-finish between hero and the villain. Instead, hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) and main villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) engage in a Western-style staredown with John’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) caught in the middle. The suspense is not in seeing who gets beat up or killed first; it’s in what trick each man has up his sleeve.
In fact, the entire film is less about escalating bouts of violence than about seeing who outthinks the other. The McClane-vs.-Gruber struggle is a classic example of brains against brawn, with both hero and villain possessing a fair amount of brains. But the hero has more brawn, and that, coupled with empathy and street smarts, ensures his victory over a coldly intellectual foe. To accommodate this interest in tactics, the film is structured as a series of waves: each action sequence is a peak, which is then followed by troughs of character development and more modestly-scaled suspense scenarios.
Movie No. 1 is what most subsequent Die Hard imitators have tried to emulate: the claustrophobic setting, the film’s general shape. But whereas imitators have focused almost entirely on the action, Die Hard places just as much of an emphasis—and an important one, in this case—on the people involved.
Movie No. 2: Character drama
In the 1980s, when most American action stars—Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, most notoriously—were jingoistic, macho supermen, Bruce Willis’s John McClane was a breath of fresh air: a real human being. He wasn’t some disillusioned war vet trapped into re-fighting a war, as Stallone’s John Rambo was in Rambo: First Blood, Part II. He’s simply an ordinary cop—albeit an improbably athletic one—trapped in a particularly undesirable circumstance. He came to L.A. to visit his wife and kids, only to be forced into action when Gruber and his band of terrorists seized hostages.
Screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. De Souza differentiate their hero from the other macho men of the era by making McClane fallible and vulnerable while being undeniably heroic. He is prone to making mistakes, whether in his relationship with his wife—who’s just as sassy as her husband—or in his various fights with bad guys. At an inopportune time, he brings up an old bone of contention with Holly; at another point, while trying to stop two terrorists from bombarding police with a rocket launcher, he drops too much plastique down an elevator shaft and causes a bigger-than-expected explosion inside the building. Through it all, the filmmakers keep reminding you of McClane’s desperation: how he’s trying to save the hostages while staying alive himself. As an actor, Bruce Willis contributes by allowing his character to seem sweaty and fearful at times: when the going gets tough, not only is does his tank top shirt get dirtier, he talks to himself. All of this deepens the emotional stakes of the action sequences. In such a context, the story’s violent crests aren’t mere “fun.” They actually seem to matter.
The film’s character drama doesn’t end with McClane. Die Hard is a rare action movie that gives even bad guys genuine personalities and motivations. Gruber makes an intriguing main antagonist, his villainy subtle yet unmistakable. A smooth, well-dressed intellectual, he’s crafty enough to try to fool law enforcement, the media and the hostages into thinking he has international concerns on his mind when he’s really just after money. He’s coldblooded, but at times he’s oddly charismatic; the filmmakers don’t turn him into a blanket object of hatred. (Contrast that with the way Renny Harlin approached the character of Eric Qualen in his 1993 action film Cliffhanger, going over-the-top in order paint him and other characters as purely hateful, the better to justify the film’s mean-spirited violence.) Hans’ favorite attack dog, Karl (Alexander Godunov), who pursues a vendetta against McClane for killing his brother early on, is also more complicated than you expect; while you’re never inclined to root for him, you are invited to see things from his point of view. Theo, Hans’ resident computer whiz, stands slightly apart from most other smartass sidekick-types because of the obvious enthusiasm he has for his job. (“You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality,” Theo says to Hans at one point.)
Then there’s Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), the L.A. policeman who becomes McClane’s confidant throughout his ordeal. In terms of script construction, it probably wasn’t necessary to give Powell a backstory explaining why he’s no longer a street cop (he shot a kid by accident, an incident which scared him off of guns…at least, until the end of the film, when he achieves a small personal redemption of sorts). Nevertheless, there is a genuine rapport between McClane and Powell even though they spend most of the film apart from each other, conversing only via walkie-talkie. Even bit players in this film have been written and directed to seem to have lives beyond the scene they’re in: the convenience store clerk who lightly teases Powell about his predilection for Twinkies, or the city worker who’s reluctant to shut down Grid 212 until pushed by an F.B.I. special agent.
These unexpectedly rich characterizations strengthen Die Hard and make it involving on a human level. Because the filmmakers take their creations seriously, eventually you do too.
Movie No. 3: Light Satire
Die Hard is also known for its sense of humor, and while some of it is of the typically Schwarzenegger-ish gallows variety—after a bad guy taunts McClane by saying, “Next time you have a chance to kill someone, don’t hesitate,” McClane shoots him dead and says, “Thanks for the advice”—the entire movie has a mild satirical undercurrent that criticizes the very genre conventions it satisfies. McClane’s “Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker!” is such a resonant, funny punchline because of its context: the conversation that leads up to McClane’s first utterance of that catchphrase, in which Gruber accuses McClane of being “another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne, Rambo, or Marshal Dillon.” McClane never directly engages this point—indeed, he seems to proudly affirm the truth of Gruber’s taunts. But his response—that he was always partial to Roy Rogers—becomes a running gag throughout the film. McClane even adopts “Roy” as his handle during radio conversations with Powell.
Amid its typically busy strings and blaring horns, even Michael Kamen’s musical score has hints of this kind of humor. Its seemingly incidental use of a guitar gives certain moments—a rooftop shootout; the scene where Al reveals his troubled past to McClane—a Western-like flavor. At other points, it uses Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to both ominous (when Hans and co. are driving into the Nakatomi garage in a truck) and celebratory (when Hans is eyeing the money vault before and after it is successfully opened) effects—it’s as if the soundtrack is inviting us to share in the bad guys’ sense of wonder at their jackpot. Kamen’s score—which includes repeated snatches of “Let It Snow” as well as sleighbells to emphasize the Christmastime setting—plays an important role in clarifying both the film’s sense of humor and sense of drama.
But the film’s mocking sense of humor is most apparent in its treatment of the three buffoonish law enforcement characters: Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson (the late Paul Gleason) and the two F.B.I. Johnsons (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush). These three characters are often considered the most problematic aspects of Die Hard; in 1988, Roger Ebert dismissed the whole movie as a “mess” simply on the basis of what he thought was Dwayne Robinson’s needless stupidity. But these three are actually representations of the macho mindset run amok.
Robinson is too impatient to try to sit and wait for verified information about the situation—he immediately begins to suspect that McClane might simply be a terrorist pulling their legs—so he rashly decides to risk the lives of the hostages by trying to penetrate into the sealed building. Later on, the two F.B.I. Johnsons hatch a surprise plan that will “lose 20-25% of the hostages, tops,” the possibility of which doesn’t seem to bother them at all. “Kickass,” utters Robinson when he’s told the SWAT team is ready go in. “Just like fucking Saigon, eh, slick?” cries Special Agent Johnson, riding in a gunship en route to snipe at McClane on the roof. (“I was in junior high, dickhead,” his partner replies.) Compared to McClane, who is more concerned with saving the hostages, these three characters, despite their well-dressed appearances, are too eager to take out the bad guys, and either end up dead or discredited as a result of their excessive zeal.
Excessive zeal also infects Richard Thornburg, the slimy TV reporter played by William Atherton. Thornburg is a variation on the Hollywood macho-movie mindset embodied more obviously by the three law-enforcement buffoons: in his relentless pursuit of the news, he shows almost no interest in treating his interview subjects as human beings, only as a means to get the story. Perhaps one could extend this argument to suggest that his character is a commentary on one of the more unfortunate hallmarks of modern action films: the tendency to give humanity the shaft in favor of staging another big explosion or upping the brutal violence quotient.
Don’t get me wrong: for all its sense of humor about itself and its genre trappings, Die Hard isn’t a subversive film. It is, first and foremost, an action movie—one with more self-awareness than the usual genre piece, but one which more or less embodies the same macho mindset as similar ’80s movies. (It’s telling, for instance, that McClane’s reunion with his wife is outdone in emotional impact by the subsequent scene, when McClane finally meets his male companion Al in person.) But at least it’s less crass about its macho-ness than its predecessors; its sophistication was refreshing then and remains so today.
The scene that encapsulates what I admire most about Die Hard is the one where McClane stammers out an apology to his wife—to Al, of course, rather than to his wife in person—as he starts to fear for his life. It’s a sensitively written scene, poignantly played by Willis—you can tell McClane is not very good at apologies—but I think I’m most amazed at the fact that a modern action film actually dares to devote a full minute or so to such a seemingly extraneous scene. It’s the kind of scene that many action-movie producers fear will make men titter in their seats, but Die Hard includes it anyway as a touching demonstration of our hero’s vulnerability: a classic moment of emotional darkness before his strength and resolve are renewed.
Walking in the bootprints of cruder 1980s action spectaculars (Rambo, Commando), Die Hard didn’t need to add brains to brawn; the filmmakers could have simply bombarded the audience with a lot of noisy action scenes, and most viewers still might have felt they’d gotten their money’s worth. But this movie understands that a great action film shouldn’t just deliver action, but also construct an authentic emotional framework to support the action—to make us care about what is happening onscreen rather than just setting up the next sensory assault. For all its self-mocking humor, it’s a rare pyrotechnic blockbuster that dares to take its characters and situations seriously—a sense of conviction rarely seen in eighteen years’ worth of imitators.
Die Hard may not be a movie masterpiece, and I certainly don’t want to oversell its virtues to suggest that it is some kind of Ingmar Bergman film in popcorn entertainment disguise. But it is a superior Hollywood blockbuster that not only never seems to wear out its welcome, but actually offers a bit more with each viewing. How many modern action films since Die Hard can genuinely boast that claim?