Yes it’s a Christmas film. It has snow, a Christmas tree, bringing of a family together and the murdering of a group of evil dudes. Everything Christmas is fundamentally about. I’ve argued this point multiple times. One year on Christmas day no-one would believe me that Die Hard is a Christmas film so I put on Sky Movies and BAM! Die Hard 1 & 2 being shown back to back. I watch the film every year at Christmas because I’m pretty sure that if I don’t I’ll have to hand in a man card. If you don’t watch it you’ll have to hand in one too. Anyway, Die Hard…
During the early 90s there was two predominant trends in the promotion of action movies. One was that every other film seemed to be produced or from the makers of Predator 2, the other was the tag line “It’s Die Hard on …”. As in Die Hard on a bus (Speed) or Die Hard in a plane (Passenger 57) or it’s Die Hard on Christmas Eve (Die Hard 2). That was lazy marketing of course. These days rather than just use tag lines like that the studios just make near identikit films instead. What it shows though is just how successful and influential Die Hard was. This is the archetype that all modern action movies are based on. Sure there were other one man vs many films before this but none brought the grit and drama that Die Hard did.
One thing Die Hard has that a lot of it’s imitators fail to have though is an excellent script by Jeb Stuart, who was responsible for scribing a lot of those Die Hard on a… movies in the 90s, and Steven E de Souza, who has to be honest, written a lot of shit over the years. What holds this script above the average action film is that it takes it’s time, it has genuine character depth and the relationships between the characters are played out for maximum effect. There’s no big flashy action sequence in the opening 10 minutes of the film. If this were a modern film it would start with John McClane (Bruce Willis) foiling some unrelated villainy in action packed style just to make sure the audience is aware that he is the hero. That isn’t how Die Hard starts at all.
Here John McClane is sat on a plane. He makes idle chit chat with a fellow passenger who gives him some jetlag advice that John will regret taking up later. We learn he’s a cop. John checks out a hot girl at the airport noting that he’s in California now, showing he’s an out of towner.. We see a woman named Holly (Bonnie Bedella) who works for a Japanese business firm in LA, she is on the phone to her maid telling her to make up the spare room just in case it’s needed. As the camera pans we see a photo of her with John in the photo signifying that they’re married but estranged. John finds that he has a limo waiting for him at the airport, he sits up front rather than at the back showing he isn’t one for luxury or pampering. He arrives at Nakatomi Plaza, the office Holly works at, and finds that she is using her maiden name. This is all within the first few minutes. No bullets fired. No-one shouting. No action sequence to tell us that John is a hero. But we know so much about him already. There’s actually even more information than this fed to us. This is what good writing is all about. Feeding us info with subtlety and care that can inform later actions. John removes his shoes as is the advice of the guy on the plain, later he regrets it after having to run through glass. A double pay off as earlier, after being told people outside are covered in glass, John has shouted “Who gives a fuck about glass?!”. He certainly does by the end of the film. You’d be amazed how many films these days are so concerned with following the studio formula and getting from one scene to the next that they forget to layer elements of character and events that will pay off later. Next time you see a character pull a gun in a film ask if you remember where they got that gun from. Or any object or tool they may use. Ask if what they’re doing now has a precedent in the film to explain why it is there.
The film also knows where to breath. Where to take a break from the gunfights and the violence to spend a little time watching McClane struggle and how the hostage situation is effecting his wife. There’s layers upon layers of character interplay here. A street cop that won’t pull a gun. A slimy reporter that is willing to exploit a family for a story regardless of the danger it could pose. If there’s any character issues it’s that all the LA police and the FBI barring McClane’s radio contact AL (Reginald VelJohnson) are portrayed as incompetent idiots who serve as nothing but a hindrance to the situation.
The centre of the film may be John McClane but a hero is nothing without a good villain. By God does he have a great one here. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is one of the all time greats. Intelligent and a master tactician. Able to adapt to the situation as well as McClane. He is also ruthless and makes no bones about cold blooded murder. He never falls into cackling villain territory and never explains his masterplan to John when he thinks he has him trapped. When something doesn’t go right for him he very soon adapts and is aided by a team of actual competent henchmen. Not a single one of them is a bumbling fool there to give our hero a easy victory at some point and to later turn up in the sequel as our hero’s accomplice and token comic relief. Hans Gruber is portrayed as a villain so well that Alan Rickman has become very vocal about how hard he finds it to get non-villainous roles these days. It’s the kind of role that dominates a career.
The film is shot by Jan De Bont very well using a lot natural shades and lighting that manages to be effective for the scene whilst never seeming out of place. For some reason these days lighting seems to be all about bathing characters in various colours of light. It used to be about setting a scene and mood without betraying the location or theme of the film. To add to this John McTiernan’s direction is efficient and steady. No shaky cam or slow mo here. I’ve always liked his action direction. He keeps all the elements in frame and doesn’t make it all look like some videogame. He also directed Die Hard With A Vengeance which was a lot of fun and had some very memorable action sequences. The better of the 3 sequels for sure. Michael Kamen provides the score here utilising a lot of Beethoven’s 9th and even Singin’ In The Rain to good effect as themes for the villains and McClane. He even chucks in a few sleigh bells to remind us that the film is a Christmas film.
My praise for this film will always be undying. It never ages. It never stops being relevant. It will never stop being influential. It is the blue-print that all good action movies follow. At least the ones that aren’t big super hero cartoons that is. I hear they’re making Die Hard 5 over the next year. That’ll mean it’ll be out around the 25th anniversary of this film. I saw Die Hard 4.0 a while back. I didn’t like it. It looked too fake, had a messy story, a forgettable villain and wasn’t a Die Hard film. They had better get it right. Die Hard is such a huge film for Bruce that it’s clearly become his crutch to fall back on whenever his career falters. Obviously he feels the franchise dies as hard as it’s lead does.