Battered and bruised, ‘Die Hard’ changed action movies forever

Mark Ciemcioch
Jul 25 · 5 min read

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

Wide released July 22, 1988
Directed by John McTiernan

Let’s get this out of the way first.

This movie is about a lost man who goes to another place to win back his love and passion. Along the way he faces nearly overwhelming obstacles, but through his journey, he meets an outside guardian who inspires and saves him. At the end, he is embraced by his wife, white flakes are falling from the sky, and “Let It Snow” comes on as credits roll.

If you think “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a Christmas movie, then “Die Hard” is absolutely is as well. Sorry, that’s just basic cinematic math, so can we please never have to hear about this debate again?

The true greatness of “Die Hard” lies not in its relationship to Christmas, but its status as one of the best studio action films of all time. It features a great premise, brilliant set pieces, memorable quotes, a screwed-tight script and career-making performances from stars Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman (in his first film). Its influence is still felt today, with plots narrowed down to “Die Hard in a (insert location here).”

John McCain (Willis) is a New York City cop who flies out to Los Angeles to see his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and family, who moved out west six months ago. McCain has a prickly exterior, so when he comes to his wife Holly’s office Christmas party at the Nakatomi skyscraper, it doesn’t go as well as he might have hoped. Unknown to everybody, a group of European terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Rickman) are plotting to raid the building and capture hostages. In the chaos, McCain slips away from detection, using his wits to evade the terrorist group and doing his level best to stay out of the action. Again, that doesn’t go as well as he might have hoped.

By the late 80’s, the action heroes of Hollywood have evolved into supermen, minus the costumes and capes. Arnold Schwarzenegger played roles that suited him as the perfect action figure he physically resembled, all muscles and quips. Sylvester Stallone gained fame for his relatable, human characters, but they also gradually became more cartoonish and invulnerable as sequel after sequel was green lit.

Audiences felt ready for a change. A year prior, Richard Donner’s “Lethal Weapon” presented Mel Gibson as a strung-out copy with a death wish. It wasn’t a seismic change (Gibson still doing a lot of the standard action hero stunts of the time), but it gave a protagonist an issue to deal with that wasn’t external. In a sense, it was like reading years of mythical heroes like Superman and Batman in comics, and then being introduced to the early Marvel heroes like Spider-Man, worrying about getting a date or making rent.

McCain’s main obstacle is external, but he is unlike the Stallone and Schwarzenegger characters in that he has feet of clay. As he scurries around the building, avoiding and fighting his way out of trouble, McCain struggles with every confrontation and never makes it look easy. The only time McCain quips to his adversaries are when he’s sure he has the upper hand or safe from harm. These moments are rare, and maybe that’s why the wise cracks are so memorable.

Another key to “Die Hard’s” success is the efficient script that skillfully sets up, foreshadows and calls back from start to finish. A casual comment on the airplane at the beginning leads to McCain taking off his shoes and socks at the office, a decision that forces him to run around the building barefoot, even through shattered glass. The final confrontation between McCain and Gruber reminds us of an earlier conversation they had, as well as the gift Holly received from her employer. The film is loaded with payoffs and connections with nary a wasted moment.

McTiernan’s staging of the action is also approaching perfection. Keeping the movie set to a confined place gives McTiernan a wonderful opportunity to give the audience a visual sense of space and layout of the Nakatomi building. It’s an underrated talent, but when done right, can turn an action movie from a fun distraction to something great.

“Die Hard” is filled with memorable characters, which make the most of their screen time, from Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) guiding McCain through his trials on the outside, to William Atherton as an ambitious television reporter. But the best relationship is between protagonist and antagonist, as this film made Rickman a star and Willis a superstar. McCain’s gruff impulsiveness is matched by Gruber’s refined order, and the two make for one of cinema’s best hero/villain combinations. They say every hero needs a great villain, and Gruber’s absence in later “Die Hard” films bears that out as the series suffered from diminishing returns.

Perhaps the reason people debate whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie is because there’s really nothing else about the movie to argue about. It’s perfect for its time and place, and continues to endure today because few other filmmakers were able to catch lightning in a bottle as well as McTiernan and crew did here. So whether it’s July or December, come out and sit in front of a screen, we’ll get together and have a few laughs rewatching “Die Hard.”

The Legacy: The original film launched a sea of “Die Hard in a …” copycat movies featuring heroes battling terrorists in confined spaces. Meanwhile, the Die Hard sequels took the opposite approach, letting McCain move more openly as he later evolved into the almost invulnerable, quippy action hero that stands alongside those famous Stallone and Schwarzenegger characters referenced earlier. None of these held a candle to the original.

The Weekend: Admittedly, this is my one cheat of the year, as “Die Hard” actually came out in a handful of theaters the weekend before, and went wide a week later. Since it’s the weekend when most people saw the next action hero, I think it still counts. Historically, John McCain isn’t the only great action star to rule the multiplexes in late July. Matt Damon followed up his surprise action hit with 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” while Tom Cruise continued renewing his hero bonafides with 2018’s “Mission Impossible: Fallout.” Speaking of which …

Next Week: “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”


Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on July 25, 2019.

Mark Ciemcioch

Written by

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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