Films to see before you die: Die Hard

James Oliver

The action thriller launched Bruce Willis’s career and revealed a German-accented Alan Rickman at his very best. James Oliver wonders if this giant of the genre is one of the greatest thrillers in cinema history.

 

First things first: does Die Hard count as a 'cult' movie? It is, after all a mainstream action flick, rather than the smaller, more esoteric, films that usually get labelled as such. But it is a film with passionate support, support which goes well beyond the casual viewers for whom it is a decent shoot 'em up. And for its hardcore admirers, Die Hard is one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

You may well know the story but a recap won't hurt. It's Christmas Eve. A bunch of robbers posing as international terrorists have pencilled in a daring bid to make off with a substantial sum of money from a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. But there is a fly in their ointment.

Down-at-heel New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) has flown in to spend the festive period with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who just so happens to work at that self-same skyscraper.
 

Die Hard
Bruce Willis as John McClane. Image via 20th Century Fox

 

He's attempting a romantic reunion when those pesky robbers show up. Obviously, they have to be stopped and since he's the only person sufficiently qualified to launch a one-man resistance, that's exactly what he does—this is an action movie after all.

That plot, though, can only give the barest hint at why Die Hard is so special.

Simply, this is one of the very few Hollywood films where everything went right. Take the script, for instance, action films are not renowned for their literary qualities so it might sound odd to praise the screenplay, but that's to misunderstand the elegance and brevity that writers Steven E de Souza and Jeb Stuart (and uncredited others besides) show here.

Nothing is wasted. Character relationships and plot devices are set up so dextrously that you don't even notice them: first time viewers won't realise the significance of a knocked-over photograph or a pair of bare feet.

As the story escalates and multiplies, the writers even find room for quieter moments amid the explosions. McClane starts up radio communication with a lowly cop, Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Al knows he's no hero—he lost his nerve year's before—but he's determined to do what he can and discovers he's a much braver person than he knew. He's ultimately redeemed that seldom-welcome plot device 'salvation-by-violence', but it's a testament to the script, and to VelJohnson, that just this once it's not too obnoxious.

 

Alan Rickman Die Hard
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber

 

Of course, many a fine script has been mangled by indifferent direction. Not here, though, director John McTiernan rose to the occasion magnificently. His pacing and ruthless editing; the control od on-screen (and off-screen) space and movement, and how he layers the film. McTiernan's juggling of plot, character and tone is simply masterful here.

Mention too must be made of McTiernan's casting, for it is the final key to the film's triumph. Bruce Willis was the name above the title and he's a very likeable hero, more human than gym-bunny contemporaries like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. But the character everyone remembers, though, is the villain.

While (most) obituaries of the recently deceased Alan Rickman stressed what a fine classical actor he was, there should be no doubt that he was at his best here. His character, Hans Gruber, is menacing, smart and just a touch camp, characteristics Rickman brought to the role: McTiernan encouraged the actor to improvise and the result and, between them, they turned Hans Gruber into one of the great movie villains.

 

 

It took time for Die Hard to achieve the recognition it deserved: it didn't do especially well at the box-office and only found its audience on video. But it has been wildly influential since then.

Quite apart from the sequels (which can be ignored), generations of directors have studied how McTiernan staged the action here and tried to replicate it, rarely with the same effect. Even if Die Hard doesn't count as a 'cult' film, it most assuredly deserves to be called a masterpiece.