Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)

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I could waste time dissecting whether Die Hard, a candy-coated action thriller fusing the carefully orchestrated character arcs of The Birds and Jaws with the loud chaos of The Towering Inferno and Airport, succeeds because it’s such a masterful boiling down of stupid ideas to their barest and most exhilarating essence or if it’s all because of Bruce Willis. I lean on the latter option, but it doesn’t matter in the end. The movie is a crowd-pleasing, button-pushing delight, whatever the case, and given that it’s an action movie and over two hours, that’s some accomplishment even if the movie doesn’t, won’t or can’t leave much of a dent in the audience after it’s over.

One appreciates how Die Hard represents two lost genres: the sophisticated action film, and the unpretentious big-budget movie for adults. It’s directed by John McTiernan, creator of such abusive self-indulgences as Predator, Last Action Hero and The Hunt for Red October; for all his flaws he obviously knew something more about how movies work than most of the Hollywood action ghetto types. Die Hard is hardly great cinema and certainly not at all original, but it knows what tricks to borrow and how to use them. Trick #1 being Willis, an actor of the dependable sort Tinseltown used to build itself on; McTiernan builds all of the film’s audaciousness — stunt sequences and explosions so elaborate they barely make sense — and keeps it comprehensible, but Willis makes it credible and human. And Alan Rickman, as the capitalist terrorist who meaninglessly, randomly wrecks Willis’ Christmas eve, doesn’t hurt. The story barely matters; NYPD, LAPD, money, corporations, computer security, divorce, kids, watches — it’s the logistics of a big building with machine guns being fired in and around it that really drive our interest and nail-biting. The cast is rounded out by a number of interesting faces, most amusingly future sitcom star Reginald VelJohnson, who proves himself surprisingly capable of acting as Willis’ wingman and head cheerleader from afar.

This was Rickman’s first film and Willis’ first major hit; its widespread reputation as a movie Everyone Likes is fairly well deserved, though its continued cultural relevance is slightly surprising. Seeing the film today is fascinating because it embodies its era so wonderfully, as opposed to the many ’80s films that do the same but in a mind-numbingly depressing manner. It’s a populist film, a model of simplicity, the “roller coaster” Billy Wilder used to describe as the ideal movie. How could you go see it and not leave feeling elated? Nobody would complain about the cynicism and commercial hackery of Hollywood if all its films were as solid as this, and they’d make plenty of money off them too. Silly but elemental, formulaic but intelligent, this is 1940s studio system product with a “motherfucker” or two thrown in, and that makes it necessary.

[Edited down from a review posted in 2007.]

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