While I won’t indulge in the seemingly endless debate of whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not (it totally is and fuck anyone who says it isn’t), there is a glaring fact that no one can deny and that’s that the shoeless misadventures of John McClane is the greatest American action movie in all of existence and possibly the best action movie ever made, period.
Towering accolades indeed, but when you take into account that director John Mctiernan crafted this masterwork in festive bullet flinging immediately after finishing Predator, you really start to see a genius at work – I mean, how do you top PREDATOR for God’s sake?
Well, apparently you start by taking a gritty novel about international terrorism (Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe) that features a lead character that had already appeared on screen once before played by Frank Sinatra and then you change virtually everything to be as awesome as it can be. Simple, right?
It’s Christmas Eve in LA, and New York detective John McClane has arrived at Nakatomi Plaza to spend the holidays with his estranged wife, Holly But fate has a different type of infiltrating Xmas vistor in mind in the form of a group of slick, gun toting terrorists who promptly hold Holly’s lavish Christmas party hostage and blow her boss’s brains all over the boardroom wall like so much crimson crimbo silly string. Led by the dangerously charismatic Hans Gruber, the terrorists miss McClane in their initial sweep who desides to be gigantic pain in their collective buttholes by first signalling for help and then whittling the terrorists down one by one by shooting them. Shooting them A LOT. Clad in only his trousers and a rapidly greying vest (air vents are filthy, don’t you know), all John wants is to protect his wife and go home to their kids, but as the situation gradually escalates and and things gets ever more desperate thanks to the FBI sticking their nose in, McClane starts to not only suspect these “terrorists” aren’t all they claim to be but a huge double cross may be on the cordite stained cards.
If you really need proof that Die Hard is worth every accolade hurled at it like a stun grenade is how convinced you become that everything you’re seeing is oddly feasible. McTiernen weaves such a compelling story that hooks you to such an extent that you buy pretty much everything that flashes across the screen thanks to the film breaking some pretty strict 80’s action rules to winning effect. The first is the hiring of Bruce Willis as our foul mouthed, quick witted everyman hero – you see, back in 1988 the vast majority of action protagonists were indestructible, infallible, indestructible man-beasts like Schwarzenegger and Stallone who seemingly could take out half a battalion of men with a single strafe of a machine gun the size of a Buick and could shrug off the nastiest of flesh wounds with a mere gritting of the teeth. McClane, on the other hand, didn’t look that different to us which automatically made him seem horribly vulnerable to things like shards of glass in the feet and organ flattening explosions. In fact, John seemed vulnerable full stop; I remember watching it for the first time many, many years ago and became utterly wracked with dread thanks to the scene where, bloodied and battered, he fights back tears when talking about his wife. Thanks to that moment I was utterly convinced he was going to die by the end of the movie and it made him so much more human than the bulging heroes of Commando or Cobra.
The second is the cinematic debut of the legendary Alan Rickman who, as the debonair yet dastardly villain Hans Gruber, is almost as likeable as our hero despite being very much a total bastard. In fact, virtually every character, be it main player or supporting role, is intelligently crafted and utterly memorable – take FBI special agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation), such small, seemingly insignificant roles are sketched out to wring maximum entertainment from every part. Virtually EVERYONE gets a moment to shine, with the film loaded with memorable characters that somehow never feels cluttered. Another thing that separates Die Hard from other such pretenders is that the hero + villain divide seems much more interesting than simply good and evil as McClain’s blue collar leanings collide with Gruber’s tailored suits to make this almost a battle of class as well as bullets and rocket launchers.
Speaking of bullets and rocket launchers: the action is magnificently brutal and completely thrilling with McClane barely scraping by from one violent encounter to the next with a sense of desperation that sells the set pieces completely from John blowing off an assailant’s knee caps only to send him flying face first through a pane of glass to his iconic leap off an exploding roof with nothing to break his fall but a fire hose and the pavement.
Literally every aspect of production is pretty much perfect, it’s reconfiguring of the distaster movie (hello Towering Inferno) bringing out superlative work from cinematographer – and future director of the magnificent Die Hard rip off Speed – Jan De Bont and composer Michael Kamen.
If the measure of success can be measured in how much your work is homaged (a.k.a copied) then Die Hard could be considered one of the most successful movies of all time, essentially creating a brand new action movie subgenre overnight with countless other movies repeating the formula with incredibly diverse settings (trains, planes, airports, ships, hockey stadiums and the White House to name but a few) that carried on long after the franchise itself abandoned the concept.
Name any column you want to file Die Hard in and you’re guaranteed that it’ll be at the top of the pile – even as a Christmas Movie: Home Alone is fun and all but not even Kevin McAllister takes out the Wet Bandits by shooting them in the dick through a conference table.
Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker indeed.