It’s always a breath of fresh air to witness an action movie not only great but one that turns out to be one of the most memorable films to come out, especially in the decade of the 80s. Even though it’s a tough job to compete with Raiders of the Lost Ark for the crowning achievement in the genre, there’s no question 1988’s Die Hard earns a place to why every person in the world loves this. Just know Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine-Nine would be proud to be talking about the greatest movie of all-time, in his opinion.
What’s the Story: John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York cop who travels to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) during a Christmas party, hoping to reconnect with her. But it doesn’t turn out to be the easiest night for him as a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) has taken over the Nakatomi Plaza and everyone hostage to steal money from a vault. With no escape and realizing he’s the only one who knows what’s going on the inside, it’s up to John to use his wits to take on the bad guys and save everyone.
Die Hard is the ultimate “guy’s movie,” and it’s definitely an action movie that’s one of my favorites of all-time. My first exposure to the series was because of two things: 1) I had the PlayStation game “Die Hard Trilogy” and remembered having fun playing it when I had a PS2; and 2) The first movie I saw in the franchise was Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment that’s underrated, and I saw it in theaters with my dad. But I was already aware of how everything in the past played out. So, I bought the DVD collection of the first three films because I wanted to see what the others were like. It took me a while to finally check out the one that started it all in its entirety, but I understood why it’s popular with everybody when talking about it.
Director John McTiernan, who was recently fresh off of Predator a year prior and originally turned it down a few times, was the best choice to take on a project like this that sounded like the most original idea to be based on. When the action wasn’t happening right away, it surprisingly turned out to be a beautiful-looking film with the help of Jan de Bont’s cinematography. In reality, it’s an adaptation of the Roderick Thorp novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, which is a fact that always slips my mind when I’m watching. If someone were to explain to me the simple premise of the film, I would watch it right away. But McTiernan did a fantastic job with how every scene is executed, and what I love about the screenplay by Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) and Steven E. de Souza (48 HRs, Commando) is not only did it brought the action and clever dialogue but non-stop tension in its entirety when they had to rewrite the script to make it even better.
Why this has become such a classic is because it has us paying attention and rooting for the main hero to stop these bad guys from killing people and getting away with what they planned on getting. I always like it when a story takes place during a single night, and it feels like we’re right away with them. This one guy is a cop, but you wouldn’t think he’s the lone wolf who could take them down; he uses his gun and the cleverness he brings to himself when the phones are down and everybody on the outside having no understand what’s going on. These terrorists thought it would be an easy job, but they did not expect someone still lurking around the building as well to be “the fly in the ointment” or “the monkey in the wrench.” We have somebody who’s at the right place at the wrong time, and that’s how the subsequent sequels have played. The story of his life.
Before there was a time where Bruce Willis became another one of those actors who stopped caring about the movies he’s starring recently, his iconic performance as John McClane made him an overnight action star in the making. Since this came out when the actor was the comedic lead in the ‘80s television series Moonlighting, he wasn’t an actor everybody thought of being an action star in the same vein as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, this proved everybody wrong, as he’s one of the many reasons why John McClane is one of the most likable protagonists in the history of cinema. Much like Indiana Jones, this is a person you know the basic information about around the first act, but when the action starts, we see him getting beat up and look like a mess, like an everyday guy. You honestly buy this guy who’s out of his element, who expected this to be any typical Christmas Eve, but switches into hero mode to save the night.
But with every great protagonist, an action needs a satisfying villain to be the challenging factor in all of this, which shows with the then-unknown Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber. Believe it or not, this was Rickman’s film debut, so what better way than to play the best villain in the entire series. I always knew him as Professor Severus Snape from Harry Potter, but this has always been number one for me in terms of his acting. Nothing says menacing with speaking in a monotone voice and dressing up with classy. It devotes most of the runtime to him talking with John through the radio in this cat-and-mouse game with each other, and they don’t meet face-to-face until the 90 minutes mark. That was rare to where we don’t see the hero and villain in the same scene together for a long time, but that was a challenge that worked out easily since you’re invested with what they say to each other.
And the action is some of the best from the decade because of how well-shot everything was. Being an action star is what every little kid wanted to be when they grew up, as soon they were old enough to watch this, that dream hasn’t changed. With little visual effects used to make them, they shot them live with real explosions and miniatures (the helicopter) to make them authentic. The sound design of the guns going off sounded incredible, especially on the rooftop shootout in the middle. And to think John went all bare feet the entire time. But it’s even better when the roof blows up and John jumps off with the firehose attached to his body to fend for his life. Probably the only scene that looks a bit dated was the shot in the elevator shaft when John drops the chair strapped with C-4’s.
For the rest of the supporting performances, they get their due with likable roles of their own. Before we knew him as Carl Winslow on Family Matters, Reginald VelJohnson as Sergeant Al Powell was McClane’s man helping him out, and their chemistry between them through their conversations through radio is believable. Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennero McClane didn’t have much to do except for sitting around, but I dug the scenes between her and Willis when it was there; Hart Bochner as the douchebag Ellis (“Hans, bubbe. I’m your white knight.”) and a shout out to De’voreaux White as Argyle, the limousine driver, because you know he’s cool when he has Run D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” playing.
Plus, it also gave us the most quotable catchphrase that represents the series perfectly, “Yippee- Ki-Yay, motherf-er.” When McClane needs a catchphrase, you can’t think of anything else. The best part about the line is that it was said in the middle of the film, where the following sequels have it said near the end of when he’s about to kill somebody. In here, it gave it to us quickly, and it made Die Hard up a notch.
There are other lines from this that are easy to quote on a daily basis:
- “Shoot the Glass.”
- “The quarterback is toast.”
- “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”
- No f-ing s–t, lady! Does it sound like I’m ordering a pizza?
- “Welcome to the party, pal!”
If there were any flaws to be had with it that almost makes it totally perfect, the pace becomes slightly off whenever it cuts back to outside the plaza focusing on the late Paul Gleason as LAPD Chief Dwayne T. Robinson or William Atherton as reporter Richard Thornburg. Neither of their characters wasn’t interesting when the action isn’t going on. Both of them are useless, in my opinion.
After it came out, it’s a film where everybody I know loves it. Ranked amongst the top ten of the year, it was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, and Sound. Because of its success, there have been so many imitations that have copied the premise with a different location, for better (Speed, Air Force One, The Rock) or worse (White House Down, Passenger 57). Occasionally, I can be in the mood to watch it, whether it’s on its anniversary or around Christmas time to get into the spirit. And yes, I consider it a Christmas movie since it’s set on Christmas Eve.
With the sequels in the franchise later on, just know Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2007) are watchable follow-ups, and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) is the worst excuse for a sequel that’s disrespectful.
To conclude, Die Hard is a knockout action movie that has every right to be called one of the greatest ever made. It delivered great action sequences by McTiernan, a realistic story that’s fun and thrilling, and Willis in the most iconic performance in his entire career. This was the movie where the genre was getting back to its roots without making it silly for its audience to enjoy. Over 30 years later, it’s still re-watchable and should be seen by everybody.