The number of words written about John McTiernan’s Die Hard since its release in 1988 is likely innumerable, so I’ll add my two-pence as I have just been to a special Christmas screening of the movie at Guernsey’s Beau Cinema.
To many the notion of a Christmas screening of this potentially one-dimensional boys’ own action movie might seem odd, however, its entire plot hinges on the device of coming home for Christmas. Our hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis) of the NYPD, is heading to Los Angeles to attempt some kind of reconciliation with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and see their two children for the holidays.
Of course all doesn’t to plan as McClane becomes caught in the middle of a heist orchestrated by potential terrorist, certainly brilliantly accented, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) which leads, fairly inevitably, to a lot of shooting, some impressive explosions and a (mostly) heartwarming ending.
While this all sounds like a thousand other movies, what makes Die Hard work so well is a few things, but, primarily, it is that is the alpha point of this kind of ‘high concept’ action thriller.
While the likes of The Towering Inferno can be seen in the DNA of Die Hard, the genre that sees a sole ‘every day’ hero put into an extraordinary action situation can be traced back here. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lundgren, et al, who were the other action heroes of the time, Willis is a surprisingly believable, and essentially non-superhuman, character here (fresh of a stint on TV sitcom Moonlighting) and comes with little of the irony necessary to enjoy those other action stars work.
This lack of irony is accompanied some great ‘straight’ performances from the leads. Willis is the hero in every sense of the cliché, fighting for both his marriage and to save the lives of as many of the hostages as possible, while Rickman delivers an astonishing performance that could easily fall into self-parody (and has been much parodied) but in context remains genuinely excellent treading a line of suaveness and threat that James Bond has rarely matched.
The tension, of which there is much, is tempered by the antics of the LAPD and FBI outside the Nakatomi Plaza which could almost work as a satire of an ineffectual ‘machine’, but I’d never suggest it really goes as far as to genuinely make a point. Within this comes another of the great performance from Reginald VelJohnson as Al Powell, the first cop on the scene who bonds with McClane over their radios.
The other thing that stands out is that, as well as the actors; the major players in the crew are at their best too. Die Hard is, arguably, director McTiernan’s best film and he is ably assisted by Jan DeBont (who went on to direct Speed aka Die Hard On A Bus) as director of photography that leads to some genuinely well constructed moments of cinema, something often lacking in action movies, and increasingly lost in the world of robots/superheroes throwing each other through buildings we live in now. The moment here when Gruber and co finally achieve what seems to be their main goal remains majestic in use of shots, music and performance.
While what has come after in the series has become increasingly ridiculous, and reached a genuinely awful low in the painfully convoluted A Good Day To Die Hard, none of this can detract from the sheer exuberance, excitement and enjoyment that can be found here.
Seeing the film in a cinema for the first time, particularly the state of the art HD system of Beau Cinema, also added to the experience with the helicopters and air conditioning systems reaching almost deafening levels of bass that really built the atmosphere.