Ultimate 1980s action movie Die Hard – the Friday classic review
Yippee-kayee, etc. The film that took the growing audience for dumb, macho action movies and showed them how it should be done.
(John McTiernan, 1988)
Still the highpoint of the muscled, wisecracking, terrorist-baiting action hero genre, it’s Die Hard’s attention to such trivial details as character, wit, pace and mood that have maintained its levels of excitement as various pretenders to its crown have come and gone.
Ironically, considering the genre, it’s the limiting factor of the action’s enclosed location that brings out Die Hard‘s ingenuity – this is a film that’s almost Buster Keaton-esque in the way it uses the building itself as an endless source of narrative possibility. By concentrating the attention to such a degree on McClane’s labours against the terrorists (even to the extent that the rare forays to the outside are conspicuously designed as a comic, carnivalesque sideshow) the film gains in resonance as a contemporary, ironic riff on Herculean myth, with storeys in place of stories.
It helps that the screenplay is a work of structural genius, slow to start but quick to escalate, sketching in exposition and character quirks through swift, naturalistic conversations. Every detail counts, and it’s only in Powell’s story about shooting the kid that the hand of cliché comes crashing down.
Every nuance is enhanced by the thoughtfulness of John McTiernan’s direction, which has a superbly judged momentum that’s in sync with the narrative rather than the flash visual hyperbole so often associated with the genre. Never have cutaways been incorporated into the action so well, as McClane constantly zeroes in on props and exits to improvise solutions, and McTiernan refreshingly gives every shot the time it needs.
He’s well matched by Jan De Bont’s superb, steely camerawork – his Steadicam prowls where others might gallop – which gives the action scenes a machine-tooled perfection. Some might prefer something more organic, but it remains a rare thrill to see someone block scenes so well (whether the artistic lead was McTiernan’s or De Bont’s is a moot point; given their recent offerings, the taste and judgement of both has clearly wavered since 1988).
Action aside, Die Hard is also shot through with a sharp wit that makes it endlessly rewatchable. Its many imitators borrowed only the wisecracks and ignored the vein of absurdist humour inherent in a trained policeman hurting himself on a thorn or a terrorist stopping for a candy break.
It’s this mischievous, self-aware quality that permits the film’s ‘have its cake and eat it’ response to its 80s corporate milieu, simultaneously a celebration and satire: note how it’s the Rolex, dismissed initially as a symbol of vanity and excess, which ultimately saves the day. However many potshots Die Hard takes at yuppie culture (ably personified in the slimy Ellis), it’s worth noting that the multi-national Nakatomi Corporation is treated with restraint and respect and, if anything, McClane comes across as unreasonable about his wife’s career. The same applies to the film’s caricaturing of the ‘shoot first’ buffoons from the FBI, where the filmmakers seem slyly disingenuous of the fact that, just as they are criticising this, they are simultaneously endorsing McClane’s own brand of vigilante justice.
All of the film’s contradictions and evasions somehow coalesce in Bruce Willis’s iconic performance as McClane. Laconic where others are monosyllabic, determined where others seem immortal (his vest, famously, gets gradually muddier and bloodier as the film goes on), Willis makes a great action hero, clearly a cut above the humourless Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the world. Ultimately, it’s this comparative sparkle (aided by the equally laudatory strategy of casting a decent actor – a never-better Alan Rickman – as the antagonist) that disguises and even, perhaps, undermines the fundamentally right-wing cartoonery of the piece, making Die Hard as much of an intellectual treat as it is a visceral one.