If I were teaching a film class at a college (a shuddering prospect, I know), Die Hard would be studied the way Citizen Kane and Potemkin are. It’s a perfect action movie in every detail, the kind of movie that makes your summer memorable.
Unfortunately, star Bruce Willis, director John McTiernan and company couldn’t duplicate the heart-pulling thrill of the first one with two increasingly mediocre sequels. Die Hard 2 and Die Hard: With a Vengeance suffered because of stuffing thrills and spills in every crevice, to the point where I expected the Road Runner to make a cameo. Everyone involved seemed to forget that simplicity made the original so riveting. There’s one flawed New York City detective trapped in a skyscraper with only his wits and some firearms to stop a band of talented international terrorists.
That cop is John McClane (Willis), who visits Los Angeles at Christmas time to see his kids and hopefully make amends with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). When McClane drops in to visit Holly at work, they get into an argument.
As Holly and McClane make like the Bickersons, the aforementioned group of kick-ass terrorists led by the ruthless Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in a career-making performance) take over the skyscraper. Gruber’s request: The building’s namesake, Takagi (James Shigata), must hand over millions of dollars in bonds he has stashed away.
Everyone is accounted for and locked in, except for McClane, who is the only hope to save his wife and her co-workers. The phone lines are dead, terrorists abound like gossipy secretaries, and McClane is barefoot and alone.
Screenwriters Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) and Steven E. De Souza (Commando, one of my favorite Schwarzenegger movies) do a masterful job in detailing the McClane character, so he doesn’t come across as some robotic one-man wrecking crew. He crawls through the building’s air conditioning system. He grabs whatever weapons he can (including a bag of explosives) and he bleeds. We can root for him. Minus the killer abs and the extensive police experience, this guy could be any one of us.
Stuart and DeSouza make McClane additionally human by supplying him with some of the funniest dialogue in action movie history (Emergency radio operator: ‘Attention, whoever you are, this line is reserved for emergencies only.’ McClane: ‘No fucking shit, lady? Do I sound like I’m ordering a pizza!’). And Willis helps his own cause by giving a performance that blends comedy, heroism and pathos without preening or overacting.
And the supporting characters are amazing: Reginald VelJohnson (before doing a lengthy stint in TV purgatory with Family Matters) shines as the L.A. cop who counsels McClane via radio as he plots his next move. Rickman is so good here — he has the perfect combination of charisma and malice — that the other main villains in the two sequels (William Sadler and Jeremy Irons, both good actors) were about as vicious and threatening as my grandmother.
In all this talk about performance and cinematic theories, you might think I’m reviewing a Woody Allen film. But part of Die Hard‘s appeal is in its awesome action scenes: McClane running barefoot through shattered class, an overly eager terrorist trapping our hero under a conference room table, McClane jumping from the fiery skyscraper roof, tethered by a fire hose.
I have a feeling I’ll be watching Die Hard sometime again in the near future, as this summer’s crop of action movies don’t appear at all engaging. They don’t seem to offer something for everyone the way Die Hard does, which gives me all the more reason to start organizing that film class.