Die Hard is a great example of the Hollywood studio system getting moviemaking right – the film is a perfect storm of story and talent coming together. It is hard to fathom that the action-thriller was such an unknown quantity when it was first released in 1988.
The set-up is simple: Bruce Willis’ New York Cop, John McClane arrives in Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). However, the Nakatomi Tower Christmas party is crashed by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his group of terrorists, intent on stealing millions of dollars worth of bonds from the company vault.
When Die Hard was released in the summer of 1988 Bruce Willis was known primarily as a comedic television actor, and he only won the role of John McClane when it was turned down by Arnold Schwarzenegger (it is often erroneously believed to have been developed as a sequel to Commando), Richard Gere and a slew of other stars. John McTiernan’s career was hardly noteworthy either, having only directed two films – one hit (Predator) and one flop (the Pierce Brosnan thriller Nomads).
However, there is much more to Die Hard than Willis’ star-making turn and McTiernan’s deft direction. The film’s script by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart (based on a novel by Roderick Thorp) sizzles, Jan DeBont’s cinematography is luscious and Michael Kamen’s score is pitch-perfect. The supporting cast is also a knock-out. It is hard to believe that this is Alan Rickman’s first film – his performance as the villainous Hans Gruber is flawless. Reginald VelJohnson grounds the film as Willis’ cop pal on the outside; Paul Gleason offers some comic relief as the bumbling Police Chief, while William Atherton and Hart Bochner add a touch of sleaze to the festive proceedings.
Unlike many modern directors, John McTiernan knows how to stage action. He sets up the geography of the film; we know where everything is and what is happening where. In fact, the Nakatomi Tower is as much of a character in Die Hard as any one of the above mentioned actors. The wear and tear that building undergoes mirrors the beatings that the shoeless McClane takes over the course of the film.
In many ways Die Hard is a modern western, a new take on the classic, High Noon. Both films feature a lone lawman trying to overcome adversity to enforce the law, and both men have to stand against evil alone. It’s worth noting that there are many references to westerns and the American fascination with television and films (including High Noon) throughout Die Hard’s two hour running time.
The success of Die Hard has led to four sequels, and numerous imitators. Indeed the ‘90s offered a variety of films pitched as‘Die Hard on a…’ bus, plane, train, boat – name your location. The film, alongside Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (released in 1987) saw a change in direction for the cinematic action hero, with both Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson offering a more human character when compared to the Teutonic likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
It’s a testament to great filmmaking that Die Hard still holds up today, 33 years after it was first released. The film never diminishes after repeated viewings, never waning in quality or thrills. Die Hard will always be the action-thriller to beat – and that will never be an easy task.