Die Hard (1988)
Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow
There's not a lot to say about one of the greats of Hollywood action cinema that hasn't been said already, so I'll try to offer my thoughts without being overly repetitive. If Lethal Weapon is among the best Christmas set action films to come out of Hollywood, then the following year's Die Hard could quite justifiably claim to be the best Christmas action movie (or even best Christmas movie - period!) ever made. I originally believed Die Hard was an original screenplay, until I discovered it was (quite closely) adapted from Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever - the film retains much of the novel's central premise, character names (although slightly altered or characters switched around), and a lot of the movie's memorable scenes and action sequences are also in the novel (source: Wikipedia). Nevertheless, Die Hard is arguably one of the most influential action thrillers ever made, and arguably kicked off the "lone protagonist in a highly precarious situation" action vehicle - for a while it felt like every movie was "Die Hard on a.....(insert mode of transport, location etc.)." Without Die Hard, we may not have had Speed, Under Siege, Cliffhanger, Air Force One, Passenger 57, Hard Boiled and countless others that I'm sure you don't need me to name check.
As with Lethal Weapon, Die Hard is on my list of endlessly watchable (never becoming bored with) movies. There was the odd moment where I also felt that it's starting to feel its age a little bit, but then a cool action scene or a McClane wisecrack would pull me right back in. I do feel the elements that don't work so well now include the appearance of inept Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) and the intervention of FBI agents Johnson (Big) and Johnson (Little). Whilst they have their moments, the characters seem like they belong in a different movie (say Police Academy or something similar). Hart Bochner's slime dripping yuppie Ellis is also infuriatingly smug (I realise this is the intention) - he'd be the first to be dispatched by American Psycho's Patrick Bateman.
Originally intended as a project for Frank Sinatra (the protagonist is much older than McClane in the book), Its seems hard to fathom now that the role of John McClane was seemingly passed * from pillar to post before ending up with Bruce Willis in what was to become one of the iconic characters of action cinema. Apparently, the likes of Richard Gere, Stallone and Schwarzenegger all declined it - isn't hindsight wonderful? You may wonder what the film would have turned out like with a different actor. Indeed, if it was one the latter two stars, we certainly may have got the wisecracks (well, maybe not Stallone at that time, not until Tango & Cash at least), but we wouldn't have got the level of vulnerability that Willis brought to the part. Could you see Arnie in a sh*tload of pain after running on broken glass, feet cut to shreds? Willis was perfect as the everyman cop (replete with obnoxious streak) caught up in an impossible situation. That is, until Len Wiseman turned McClane into another cop capable of superhuman feats (e.g. Jumping onto the back of a fighter plane) in Live Free or Die Hard, although it could be said McClane also gets away with some outrageous stuff in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Still, I shouldn't complain too much as the former is actually really good, especially when compared to the utter abomination that is A Good Day to Die Hard (and among the last of his films that Willis actually gave a damn about in his performance).
It could be said that everything fell into the right place for Die Hard: director John MacTiernan red hot off the back of Predator (1987), the huge risk of Willis paying off, thrilling action set pieces, Jan De Bont's sumptuous photgraphy, and also the one thing that gives it the edge over Lethal Weapon - Hans Gruber. Alan Rickman's mesmerising portrayal of the calm, calculating, ruthless Euro villain is high on the list of the best celluloid bad guys ever (and with a keen eye for smart suits too). Another of the great aspects of Die Hard is the razor sharp script that is full of wonderful dialogue and one liners easily as good as anything that Shane Black can conjure up. The adapted screenplay was a joint effort between Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. A quick browse of the screenwriting filmography of the duo suggests that the latter most likely (at a calculated presumption) had the over-riding influence in terms of the brilliant exchanges and wisecracks - E. de Souza's credits include 80s genre favourites 48 Hours, Commando and The Running Man. Everybody knows the classic zingers - the one that still gets me every time is McClane's sarcastic, exasperated response (making a 911 call):
LAPD Operator: This frequency is reserved for emergency calls only.
John McClane: No fudgeing sh*t, lady! Do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?!
When John McTiernan made his feature debut in 1986 with the startlingly atmospheric, eerie - and undeniably 80s in the same way that Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA is unquestionably a product of that decade - fantasy horror Nomads (starring Pierce Brosnan in also his first feature film), there was little indication of what was to come next from the director. The following year, McTiernan delivered an all time horror, sci-fi, action Arnie classic before striking gold with the success of Die Hard. It is incredible to think, then, that McTiernan to date has only gone on to make a further eight movies of varying quality, with his last being the Rashomon-esque military, mystery thriller Basic. Of those films, I'm extremely fond of The Last Action Hero and Die Hard With A Vengeance, whilst his Thomas Crown Affair remake was an interesting change of pace - reuniting with a debonair Brosnan still trading at the height of his 007 popularity. McTiernan's numerous off screen troubles are well documented - including lying to the FBI, serving a prison sentence and bankruptcy - and seem to have all but killed off his film career. As Hollywood fall from graces go, it must definitely rank as one of the most dramatic.
As with Lethal Weapon, I'll finish by making a couple of observations that are much more apparent now than back in the day. Again, you can tell its an 80s action movie by the amount of cigarettes that the protagonist smokes. Action heroes of the 21st century are much more health conscious. Something else I didn't really notice much before is quite how much Bruce Willis is doubled in the action scenes - this is most obvious in his fight sequence with Gruber's second in command, Karl (Alexander Gudinov).
*The article in this link may include a video clip with subtitled swearing!