DIE HARD (1988)

HIGH STEEL RIDER

As a piece of filmmaking, this movie borders on the fantastic. John McTiernan directed it. In 1988, he was only in his mid thirty’s. This was his third directorial effort following NOMADS in 1986, and PREDATOR in 1987. He went on to direct HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1989), and one of my favorite art films, Sean Connery in MEDICINE MAN (1992). He has only directed a dozen films since 1986, remaking two of Norman Jewison’s classics; THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1999), and ROLLERBALL (2002). He has been able to build most of his career around big budget action films, kind of grafted to the success of the DIE HARD series. Presently he is working on DH4. It has been written about him,” he has a real eye for the aesthetics of film violence.” One aside, he seems to like big teddy bears. The teddy bear that Bruce Willis carried with him from the airport, a Christmas present for his kids, was reused by Alec Baldwin (the same bear) as Jack Ryan in HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.

The movie was based on the novel, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, by Richard Thorp; which was a sequel to his earlier novel, THE DETECTIVE. Thorp, as well as being a novelist was also an English teacher, and for a time, as a young man, he worked for his father at a detective agency. As a point of information, THE DETECTIVE was made into a movie in 1968, and it starred Frank Sinatra. Sinatra also played a detective in the film, THE FIRST DEADLY SIN (1980). Bruce Willis, in an unbilled cameo, made his film debut in that film, walking out of a bar just as Sinatra walked into it. Jeb Stuart and Stephen De Souza shared the screenplay chores for DH. Stuart has written the screenplays for ten films, including 48 HOURS (1982), and THE FUGITIVE (1993). De Souza has written dozens of screenplays, like COMMANDO (1985), DIE HARD 2 (1990), JUDGE DREDD (1995), and LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER (2003). His script for this movie was originally intended to be a sequel to COMMANDO, but when Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped out of the project, the script morphed into its present form. De Souza is one of only a handful of screenwriters whose films have earned more than two billion dollars at the box office.

Jan De Bont did the cinematography. He is a very creative energetic lenser, who has worked on 49 films since 1965. He is Dutch, so many of his early efforts were done on films in the Netherlands and Europe. He came to Hollywood in the early 80’s, shooting JEWEL OF THE NILE in 1985, DH in 1988, BLACK RAIN in 1989, and one of my favorite Sci-Fi films, FLATLINERS in 1990. In addition to all this technical artistic wizardry and achievement, he has directed five films; like SPEED (1994), and TWISTER (1996). Michael Kamin scored the music in DIE HARD, although much of it seemed like it was just the utilization of pop hits.

Bruce Willis played New York cop, Sgt. John McClane, who has flown to LA over Christmas to visit with his estranged wife and kids. His wife, Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia, has switched coasts in order to accept a great new job with the Nakatomi Corporation. Willis arrived late at the company Christmas party, and he hoped for some level of reconciliation or at least closure. Just a few minutes into the visit, while Willis was in the men’s room freshening up, the building filled up with Euro-trash thugs/terrorists. They had come to extort $600 million dollars worth of company securities and bonds. But why at the Christmas party, with all those witnesses? This was a lame plot twist; one of many. McClane managed to hide and elude them, armed with his service revolver. [It certainly seemed strange to see him on the plane carrying a shoulder holster with a loaded weapon for all to see. It was a different world in 1988.] Out of desperation, McClane was forced to take action against the terrorists, and the action he takes is astonishing; a thrill ride complete with huge gunfights and pyrotechnics that set the bar for all action films to follow it. The concept of gut-wrenching non-stop action paved the way for other excellent films of the genre; like TRUE LIES in 1994.

Willis has been a very busy actor for 25 years now, and he has completed 59 films. DIE HARD was only his third film, and his first dramatic effort. He had enjoyed his initial career success with his TV series MOONLIGHTING back in 1985. The role of John McClane was his breakthrough role as an action star. He muscled his way into the testosterone ranks of Stallone and Schwarzenegger immediately, and has outlasted both of them, maintaining his status for 20 years. He never was a strong dramatic actor, although I did enjoy his work in the movie IN COUNTRY (1989). He did prove to be a strong agile physical actor, and his thespian skills in drama certainly exceed say a Nicolas Cage. Willis as McClane was very likeable. He played a regular guy who was forced into heroics, who had to rise to the occasion. McTiernan allowed some improvisation here and there. Willis made up some of the lines in the scene where he was picking the glass fragments out of his feet.

(about McClane)
Sgt. Al Powell: In fact, I think he’s a cop. Maybe not LAPD, but he is definitely a badge.
Dwayne T. Robinson: How do you know that?
Powell: A hunch, things he said; like being able to spot a phony ID.
Robinson: Jesus Christ, Powell, he could be a fucking bartender for all we know.

One of the jobs Bruce Willis had before his success as an actor was bartending.

Hans Gruber: You an American?
McClane: Only if New Jersey counts.

Willis, of course, is from New Jersey. The film’s dialogue crackled with crudity, and Willis delivered the lines an obvious gusto that later would become his trademark.

(McClane tries to call the police)
Supervisor: Attention, whoever you are. This channel is reserved for emergency calls only.
McClane: No fucking shit, lady. Do I sound like I’m ordering a pizza?

[Watching a fire truck approach the building.]
McClane: C’mon baby, come to papa—I’ll kiss your fucking dalmation.

He made a transition from that MOONLIGHTING glib-speak to a kind of R-rated hyper-driven street speak, and he seemed every inch just a guy from the streets, a New York scrapper, who decided to become a cop rather than robbing liquor stores.

Gruber: I thought I told all of you, I want radio silence until further—
McClane: Ooooh, I’m very sorry, Hans. I didn’t get that message. Maybe you should have put it on the bulletin board. I figured since I waxed Tony and Marco and his friend here, I figured you and Karl and Franco might be a little lonely, so I decided to give you a call.
Gruber: Ehh, that’s very kind of you—considering you are a mysterious party crasher. You are most troublesome, for a security guard.
McClane: Bzzzt. Sorry, Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change?
Gruber: Who are you, then?
McClane: Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass.

(Later)
Gruber: Mr. Mystery Guest? Are you still there?
McClane: Yeah, I’m still here. Unless you wanna open the front door for me.
Gruber: Uh, no, I’m afraid not. But you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he is John Wayne? Rambo? Marshall Dillon?
McClane: Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really dig those sequined shirts.
Gruber: Do you really think that you stand a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.

The yippee-ki-yay line has appeared in all three DIE HARD films.

Willis does have considerable comedic skills as an actor. They were very evident with his television series, and some of his first films, like BLIND DATE (1987), and SUNSET (1987). He returned to this fine comedic form recently in THE WHOLE NINE YARDS (2000), and BANDITS (2001). He also has been very brave, or very foolish, and he has appeared in several box office stinkers; like BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990), HUDSON HAWK (1991), and BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1999). One of my favorite Willis films was the modern dress version of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO; the 1930’s gangster film, THE LAST MAN STANDING (1996). His portrayal of a nihilistic smart-ass lethal womanizing con-man assassin was quite well done. The music and the plot stuck closer to pure Kurosawa than Sergio Leone did with his FISTFUL OF DOLLARS in 1967.

Roger Ebert liked DIE HARD, giving it 3.5 stars. He took exception to what he called,” the idiot-plot syndrome”, dealing with one of the subplots where Paul Gleason was playing Deputy Chief of Police, Dwayne T. Robinson. He felt that DH was a classic thriller, or should have been, and as such it should not have any wasted moments. Robinson , as a character, was comic relief, I guess, but it was a lame subplot and it did nothing more than paint the LAPD and the FBI as a Band of Nitwits, or a gaggle of morons. It did slow down the thrust of the narrative, and the breakneck speed of the action and the pyrotechnics. Perhaps it was unnecessary, but in some odd way it did provide a tiny balance and respite from the roller coaster of action.

Dwayne T. Robinson: We don’t know shit, Powell. If there’s hostages in there, how come no one’s come to us with ransom demands? If there’s terrorists in there, where’s their list of demands? All we know is that whoever shot your car up is probably the same silly sonofabitch you’ve been talking to on that radio.
Powell: Excuse me, sir. But what about the body that fell out the window?
Robinson: Well, who knows? Maybe some stockbroker got depressed.

Dwayne T. Robinson: Hey, I got a hundred people down here and they’re all covered in glass.
McClane: Glass? Who gives a shit about glass? Who the fuck is this?
Robinson: This is the Deputy Chief of Police, Dwayne T. Robinson, and I am in charge here.
McClane: Oh, you’re in charge? Well, I got news for you, “Dwayne”, from up here it doesn’t look like you’re in charge of jack shit.
Robinson: You listen to me, you little asshole.
McClane: Asshole? I am not the one who just got butt-fucked on national TV, “Dwayne”.

Paul Gleason has been a very busy character actor, appearing in 73 films. He seems to specialize in playing irascible types. I liked him very much in the role of Principal Richard Vernon in THE BREAKFAST CLUB in 1985.
Now as good as Bruce Willis was, much of the credit for the film’s success went to Alan Rickman, playing the nefarious but very charming, Hans Gruber; a worldly well-dressed intelligent villain. Rickman was so good, so unique, he seemed to pioneer the notion that the antagonist could be witty, intelligent, and mock well mannered. Actually, Richard Widmark had been doing it for decades; but Rickman broke new ground, and he seemed to mine a fresh lethal lode. I did read that director McTiernan had to use quick cutaways from Rickman’s face repeatedly, because he had the uncontrollable habit of flinching every time he discharged a firearm. He was actually dropped for twenty feet for his death shot, falling into a large airbag. The stuntman who was holding him let go on two, instead of three, to get the “proper” shock response on camera.
One of McTiernan’s trademarks is to have some of his characters speaking a foreign language, and not provide subtitles for the dialogue. In this film, some of Rickman’s lines were not spoken in actual German. They were nonsensical—like the comic patter that Ernie Kovacs or Sid Caesar would create. It the German versions of DIE HARD, the terrorists were called just “European”. Hans Gruber became Jack Gruber.
Alan Rickman, who is a classically trained British actor, went on to do two more delicious villains; Elliott Marston in QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER in 1990, and a marvelous turn as Sheriff of Nottingham in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES in 1991. He has well-honed comedic skills as well, exhibited in his Leonard Nimoy parody in GALAXY QUEST (1999), and DOGMA also in 1999. Actors like Christopher Walken have picked up a few tips from Rickman, and they are able to play much more charming and interesting villains; like Walken did in RUNDOWN (2003). Jeremy Irons, in DH3, played the villain as an almost carbon copy and a tribute to Rickman.
Gruber: “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept—for there were no more worlds to conquer.” The benefits of a classical education.

Gruber: Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there. Mr. Takagi, I could talk about men’s fashion and industrialization all day but I’m afraid work must intrude, and my associate, Theo, has some questions for you, just sort of fill-in-the-blanks sort of questions.
Takagi: You’ll just have to kill me.
Gruber: Okay.

Gruber: I wanted this to be professional. Efficient, adroit, cooperative; not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it this way, so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.

The lovely Bonnie Bedelia played Holly Gennaro McClane, the estranged wife who had come to Los Angeles, and had fought her way into the upper levels of management. She had chosen to use her maiden name, understanding the Japanese propensity for sexism—and she was willing to play the game. But obviously, she was conflicted. She still loved her husband, John, and their two children missed their father. She seemed to be a tough intelligent cultured and competitive woman. She and John McClane were an interesting match, his arrogance and crudity versus her strong spirit and IQ; somehow mingled with passion, sensitivity, and love. It seemed that their relationship was volatile, and probably their lovemaking had been mercurial. Bedelia, also, is a very seasoned professional. She has appeared in 61 films, but about 90% of them were TV movie roles. She has never been like Helen Hunt, and fully made that transition from small screen to large; for that matter like Willis himself. I remember her fondly in the role of Shirley Muldowney in HEART LIKE A WHEEL from 1983.

Holly Gennero McClane: I have a request.
Gruber: What idiot put you in charge?
Holly: You did, when you murdered my boss. Now everyone’s looking to me. Personally, I’d pass on the job. I don’t enjoy being this close to you.

Holly: After all your posturing, all your speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.
Gruber: I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I am moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

[Karl smashes a table of glasses]
Ginny: Woah. That guy looks really pissed.
Holly: He’s still alive.
Ginny: What?
Holly: Only John can drive somebody that crazy.

Reginald Veljohnson gave fine support in the role of Sgt. Al Powell. He, like most of the cast, has worked steadily as an actor for over twenty years. Mostly he’s played a lot of cops and smaller character roles, and he works a lot on television. Sgt. Powell was a big role for him and he attacked it with relish and great energy. He became connected to the DH series, appearing in DH2: Die Harder, and he worked on two of the VG Die Hard games. Sgt. Powell was delegated to a desk after a wrongful death shooting of a young boy. He had been in the shadows, and he was holding a toy ray gun. The Sgt. became a touchstone for McClane, keeping a running conversation going with him for the whole film. There were a few too many rah-rah Brotherhood of the Badge moments, but generally the relationship worked, and didn’t seem too corny.

Sgt. Al Powell: The man is hurting! He’s alone, he’s tired, he hasn’t seen half of what we’ve seen down here—and you’re going to stand there and tell me that he’s going to give a damn about what you do to him, IF he makes it out of there alive? Why don’t you wake up, and smell what you’re shoveling.
McClane: Al, is the building on fire?
Powell: No, but it’s gonna need a paint job and a shit load of screen doors.

Alexander Godunov played Karl, Gruber’s lieutenant, the most heinous of the Euro-trash thugs. He was fairly effective, even though most of his lines were delivered as a snarl in German(ish). His one-note, always angry performance was not well received by the critics. One wrote,” he was a sight gag in a terrorist costume.” Interestingly, this was the same critic that had applauded him as the Amish character, Daniel, in WITNESS (1985). He did appear in nine films. He, of course, was a world-class ballet dancer, and a constant companion to Jacqueline Bisset. I read where he was an alcoholic, as well. In 1995, he died at 49 years old of “acute alcohol syndrome”. In the Soviet Union he had studied dance since he was nine years old, and he was a classmate with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He defected to the West in 1979, and he danced at the Amercian Ballet Theatre for a few years. His old pal, Baryshnikov, was the artistic director. They had a falling out and Godunov quit. His dance training was evident in DIE HARD, during his climatic fight scene with Willis. He could kick those high karate moves quite effectively.

The supporting cast was made up of several strong character actors. James Shigeta played Joseph Takagi, the CEO of Nakatomi Corporation. [Fox Plaza stood in for the Nakatomi Tower. After the film became popular, there was some trouble with the hordes of tourists who merged on it.]

John McClane: You throw quite a party. I didn’t realize that they celebrated Christmas in Japan.
Takagi: Hey, we’re flexible. Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so we assaulted you with tape decks.

Takagi: You want money? What kind of terrorists are you?
Gruber: Who said we were terrorists?

William Atherton had fun playing the ruthless TV reporter, Richard Thornbury; a selfish sleazy fellow who would cheat, or misrepresent the facts in order to get the credit for the “story”. This actor has been working steadily for over 30 years. He usually is cast as an unsavory or distasteful type. He reprised his role in DIE HARD 2. I liked him in one of his earlier roles, as Goldie Hawn’s husband in Steven Spielberg’s SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). Hart Bochner, another veteran thespian, played the would-be Lothario, Harry Ellis. His demise, brought on by his own arrogance and stupidity, was accomplished off-camera.

Harry Ellis: Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Eurotrash.
[Trying to get the terrorist’s attention--]
Ellis: Hey, sprechen ze talk?

Robert Davi, a film heavy in dozens of movies, enjoyed his comic turn as Special FBI Agent Johnson. He was a partner with a younger agent, also named Johnson, who happened to be a black man. The mix-up in their names was pretty silly, as were most of their antics. The FBI being portrayed as incompetent boobs, piled on to the stupidity of the LAPD, created a melodramtic feel to parts of the film; a kind of shallow burlesque that detracted from the total impact of the movie; preventing it from being tighter, stronger, and more significant.

Special Agent Johnson: [on the phone] This is agent Johnson.
[sighs] No, the other one.

Agent Johnson: Figure we can take out the terrorists. Maybe lose twenty—to twenty-five percent of the hostages.
Special Agent Johnson: I can live with that.
[Flying in the chopper toward to the roof of the Nakatomi Tower]
Just like fuckin’ Saigon, ain’t it, Slick?
Agent Johnson: I was in junior high, dickhead.

I liked this film despite its illogical plot flaws and cheap shot moments. It established Bruce Willis as the next great action star. It set a standard for crude quips and snappy dialogue that is rarely achieved in other action films. Willis has better comic timing than either Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Those one-liners, so prevalent in action films, were given a shot of adrenalin from the James Bond series. Bond was always ready with the deadpan aside. In this film, the performances, for the most part, were solid, and the action scenes were very well executed. I still cringe, though, through the scene where the LAPD brought up its armored vehicle. The police barricades were set up less than a 100 yards from the building. Initially the vehicle started up right behind them. Then we were treated to these long shots of the vehicle approaching the building, seeming to approach it for several blocks, with hardly any other police or police vehicles in sight. Far from building suspense, the whole scene seemed artificial and incongruous.

The film has been called,” a sure-fire big bucks major studio-style summer stunner,” and an,” often imitated, yet never duplicated, popcorn action cinema verite.” It did come at us at a pile driver pace. We were strapped in, and we careened through two+ hours of roller coaster thrills, bloody gunbattles, and excellent stunt work, coupled to stunning special effects. The film was once labeled,” a cross between TOWERING INFERNO and TEN LITTLE INDIANS.” I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004