An outstanding action/thriller film from 1988, whose power still serves as a benchmark for which other action films to be judged by today. Directed by John McTiernan, with writing by Roderick Thorp, Jeb Stuart, and Steven E de Souza; this 20th Century Fox film was made with a budget of $25 million but went on to gross almost $150 million world-wide. Just as good as the income though, this film became an instant cult classic, which is still shown on TV 30+ years after it’s release. This film has also created a much asked question in the world of film, that is; “Is Die Hard a Christmas film?”
It’s Christmas Eve, 1988. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is New York cop visiting his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) for Christmas in Los Angeles. She is working for Nakatomi Corporation and based in the new flagship skyscraper, Nakatomi Plaza. These days Holly, is going by her maiden name of Holly Gennaro – however, this is least of McClane’s problems. A European terrorist cell, headed up by German radical Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), infiltrates the tower and puts it on lock-down – nobody comes in, and nobody goes out. The intention of the well-orchestrated radical cell; is to rob Nakatomi Corporation of millions of dollars’ worth of bonds, but cleverly camouflage the theft by appearing to be an out-and-out terrorist cell. McClane wasn’t expected at the party and isn’t on the guest list so he is able to go missing without any suspicion being raised. With no help and no way for anyone else to gain entry to the building he is alone to face off against Hans Gruber and his men.
The film is tight, electrifying, and tense – while still having a heart and a good sense of humour. There isn’t much wasted screen time and the pace and feel of the film is top notch, which is a testament to the director and writers. There are some minor plot holes and mistakes (I’m not going into them here but you can read about them other places online) but these can quite easily be ignored due to the sheer magnitude of what is unfolding on screen. The film has an epic scale to it but also delivers some tight and claustrophobic situations.
While some action films rely on strength or bullets to find a solution (I’m looking at you guys Stallone and Schwarzenegger), this film makes its lead use brains, cunning and guile to advance through the maze of the tower. Bruce Willis is excellent as McClane, who isn’t an archetypal action hero in the conventional sense of what the 1980’s taught us to expect. He is more of an average Joe, and this makes his character more relatable and lovable. Played as a stereotypical wise-cracking New Yorker, McClane enjoys a beer and a doughnut as much as the next man; he likes to put bad guys away; and he’s never far away from a cheeky quip while doing his job. McClaine’s adversary, Hans Gruber, played by the great Alan Rickman has some similarities too. Like McClaine he’s clever and relies on brains rather than brawn; he’s also witty, in a cold kind of way too. Just when you think McClane has won a situation, it turns out the Gruber is one step ahead or has an ace in the hole. Obviously he has some uniquely bad traits too; he’s a murderer, he’s a radical and a terrorist; he’s sneaky and cunning; he’s everything you want from a bad guy. Above all, Gruber is extremely memorable. Both characters are in fact, which gives this film the license to have plenty of sequels made from it; all of which use McClane; and some of which use Gruber’s legacy as motivation. Delivered with sneering grit and hatred Gruber is a proper Machiavellian character, the kind is the perfect yang to McClane’s Ying. Instead of just telling people he’s smart, Gruber delivers on this and quite often out foxes McClane, forcing him to rethink and re-approach the situation. The casting of these two roles above everyone else in the film is fantastic.
I’ve mentioned already that Die Hard spawned a series of sequels, but it’s probably fair to say that despite all the riches that were thrown at the follow-up films, none of them are as memorable as this one. This Die Hard film didn’t just break the mold, it actually reshaped the mold and set the standard for other action films too. It’s the bar by which films these days are judged. It’s not unusual to read that this years new action blockbuster is “the next Die Hard“, or “this is Die Hard, in a submarine“, or “if Die Hard took place in a football stadium“. These kind of statements are a testament to the quality of this film which at over 30 years later, stands tall as one of the absolute finest action films of modern cinema.
It wouldn’t be fair for me to award anything lower than an 8 out of 10 for this epic. Also, in answer to “Is Die Hard a Christmas film?” The answer is yes, of course it is. The film takes place on Christmas Eve. The people at the plaza are having a Christmas party. Die Hard is a much a Christmas film as “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) or “Gremlins” (1984).
TIP: If you start watching Die Hard at 21:57:32 on Christmas Eve, you can start Christmas Day as Hans Gruber falls from Nakatomi Plaza, as is of course tradition!