It may seem hard to believe today, but this film was once considered the anti-thesis of the action genre. In the Eighties, these movies were the domain of muscle-bound strongmen who would travel cross-country, or across the world, to battle with their arch-nemesis. Now, Die Hard is the standard by which its peers are judged – it’s the definitive action blockbuster.
Police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) has flown from New York to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their two children. Holly holds a prominent position with the Nakatomi Corporation, and is celebrating Christmas Eve with her colleagues in the newly-constructed Nakatomi Tower. McClane is chauffeur-driven to the work gathering, there meeting with Holly and attempting to reconcile their differences.
Predictably, McClane’s attempts to patch things up don’t go well. Worse still, a group of terrorists enter the building soon after, taking a number of Nakatomi employees hostage – Holly included. McClane narrowly manages to evade capture, and tasks himself with thwarting the terrorists’ plans. That proves to be harder than anticipated, with McClane’s only weapon being his standard-issue handgun, and his repeated calls to the emergency services proving futile.
Soon though, McClane does gain support in the form of street-smart L.A. cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). As McClane struggles to overpower his enemies, Powell is there on the CB radio, helping to put McClane’s mind at ease. And yet, things aren’t much better for Powell on the ground. His obstructionist superior, Deputy Chief Robinson (Paul Gleason) is making the situation much more difficult, openly questioning McClane’s character and ability.
Taking inspiration from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the film was initially developed as a sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster Commando. After the intended star dropped out of the project, the producers changed tact and chose Willis as the lead. Willis was known for his roles in comedy and drama at the time, and his casting came as a surprise to many. Some even doubted his ability as an action hero.
This scepticism proved unwarranted, as Willis is perfect in the role of John McClane. He’s an incredibly charming protagonist, throwing in witty one-liners when necessary, yet looks just as comfortable in a gunfight. More impressive is how McClane’s character never come across as cocky or arrogant – he’s plagued with fear and uncertainty, unsure as to how to act next. Such characteristics make his personality more relatable, drawing the audience further into the story.
Casting of the primary antagonist, and leader of the terrorist group, was also nailed by the producers. Selected to play the role of the well-spoken, well-dressed Hans Gruber was the late Alan Rickman in his debut feature film. Gruber is a perfect adversary for McClane: level-headed, informed and cunning, he represents everything our hero isn’t. Rickman played the role so well that he was sought out as the villain for other projects, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the Harry Potter movies.
These (at the time) bold casting choices are supported by the incredible amount of tension coming from the movie. Unlike other action films, where the characters tend to come out guns-blazing, Die Hard plays out like a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, keeping the conflict confined to the Nakatomi building. In one of the best scenes showcasing this philosophy, McClane climbs through the ventilation system to avoid being caught by the terrorists. It’s not all tense moments though, as there are plenty of explosive thrills, too.
And the positives don’t end there! Cinematographer Jan de Bont frames every shot perfectly; the plot flows at an ideal pace, never being too fast nor too slow; Michael Kamen’s score, using elements from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, goes well with the action; and the practical, not special, effects (this is before the days of Terminator 2’s CG-imagery, folks) are just brilliant. The standards here have been set so high, not even the film’s sequels could match them.
Made all the more enjoyable by its festive spirit, Die Hard is as close as a film comes to being perfect. What was once a dark horse of the action genre is now the finest example of such craft, with a well-cast set of characters, great combat scenes and a plentiful amount of suspense. A merry time will be had by all who watch it.