Die Hard (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
If a movie is only as good as its villain then “Die Hard” is exciting, amusing, always one step ahead, patient when necessary but more than capable of delivering maximum damage at a moment’s notice. Alan Rickman plays Hans Gruber, leader of a German terrorist group that seizes a Japanese corporation in downtown Los Angeles during Christmas Eve. When this well-dressed and enigmatic figure is introduced, he doesn’t say a word yet manages to communicate plenty. Those eyes are sharp, studious, polished, always in control. He commands the posture of a tactician, clearly an antagonist who is equal to our hero, John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, an NYPD cop with plans of spending the holidays with his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and two children. Unlike Gruber, McClane is rough around the edges, physically fit, charming and warm. Their single commonality is a high level of focus on getting the job done. Which one will prevail?
We know the answer and so that question is not compelling. Worthy of considerable attention, however, is how action sequences are setup and heat up to boiling point. Notice the surreptitious takeover by the villains, for example. We see their faces although their expressions are blank. When they kill, it is matter-of-fact, business as usual. Their experience lies in their confidence. Thirteen people manage to lock down a forty-story building in a matter of minutes. We do not hear terrified screaming until there is no hope for escape. This sequence, and others like it, would have been reduced to a typical shoot ‘em up in the hands of lesser filmmakers. But director John McTiernan understands the value of mystery and suspense in an action film.
The goal of the villains is not revealed until deep into the picture. No ransom is made; in fact, they do not wish for the police to be alerted of their presence. This paves the way for well-timed comic moments involving McClane’s desperation of getting the LAPD into the action. He knows he is no action hero who can bring down over a dozen men packing serious fire power. McClane bleeds, he is bruised, he gets tired. And he is not above being paralyzed by fear on occasion. (He doesn’t even have shoes on.) What makes the character relatable and worth rooting for is that he knows he is one person facing impossible odds. Still, he endures because he has a job to do. Key is Willis’ portrayal of McClane as an everyman, not an action figure.
But the tug-of-war between Gruber and McClane is not the only angle of entertainment. An LAPD cop named Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) forges a connection with McClane over radio, almost poetic in that these are two men of the law based on opposite coasts. They josh, reveal aspects of their personal lives, encourage each other when things turn grim, and do their bests to prevent the situation from spinning further out of control. Although McClane is married, unhappily for the time being, the relationship between Powell and McClane is the closest the picture gets to romance (“bromance”). Another source of amusement: bureaucracy from the LAPD deputy chief (Paul Gleason), FBI agents’ hubris (Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush), and scoop-hungry members of the media. Whether we are inside or outside of the seized tower, the film remains crackling.
What of the action scenes themselves? They are not repetitive. We are provided three or four shootouts but they do not last very long. Hand-to-hand combat between our hero and a brutish antagonist, check. But most engaging and fun are moments in which our protagonist must slither his way in and out of vents and atop elevators. We learn about his level of resourcefulness, that he himself thinks that what he is doing is preposterous. “Die Hard” is a prime example of an action film teeming with personality. And that is why it is memorable.