My brother, without irony, insists that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever made. My roommate in college has gone as John McClane for every Halloween that I have known him and he went as John McClane for a few days that weren’t Halloween as well. The same brother, when he moved to Los Angeles, made it one of his priorities to make a pilgramage to Fox Plaza, the building that stands in for the film’s Nakatomi Plaza. I understand the place Die Hard occupies in the psyche of the movie fan who likes silly adventure and stuff that blows up, two things, when done well as they are by John McTiernan in Die Hard, are some of the best things the movies can do.
It’s Christmas Eve and the Nakatomi Corporation is having a well-attended party for its employees who don’t mind not seeing their children or families on Christmas Eve (at the party, it’s mentioned that the CEO of the corporation is a Mr. Ozu, a head-tip to a director who would never have made this movie). Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), a Nakatomi employee, is awaiting the arrival of her estranged husband John (Bruce Willis) a New York cop who’s been separated from her while she finds success in business in California. The party is crashed by a group of German terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who have hijacked the builiding for the hundreds of millions in bearer bonds from the vault. Holly is taken hostage with the rest of the partiers and John spends the rest of the movie frustrating, harassing, and one by one killing the terrorists.
Execution separates Die Hard from its contemporary action pictures and keeps its plot, which has been done before, buoyant after twenty plus years. McTiernan takes the time to set-up every sequence, establishing the space of the building, making clear the parameters of the land. Tension is created by the masterful shot selection that provides the right amount of information at the right time, echoing the screenplay that also draws out details delibaretly and effectively. This is an action movie, but it’s not dumb. The deftness on display during action sequences are nicely matched with lighter moments, many lampooning southern California culture, or especially TV news. The screenplay, by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based from a novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp, is excellent in the way it introduces the terrorist’s plan and underlines McClane’s disruption of it. Every piece of information rhymes at some point in the movie, from a throwaway line about making a fist with one’s barefeet to conquer air travel anxiety to McClane’s wive going by her maiden name, to, perhaps most cheesily but still satisfying, the gunshiness of a LA cop played by Reginald Valjohnson. Motivations, while generally simple, are also abundantly clear. However, it must be said the worst aspect of the movie is generated from the screenplay which features two of the dumbest authority figures in the history of law enforcement in the persons of Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) and FBI Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi). The moronic cop in charge has a long history in actioners and McClane, as the Die Hard franchise goes on, will meet more than his fair share, but these two are so poorly written, so ridiculously imbecilic that they strain the credibility of a already strained narrative. They also fail as comic relief in a movie that has proven it has an ear for comedy amongst its thrills. They threaten to bring down the entire enterprise.
Bruce Willis’s acting talents, which are significant, are overshadowed here by his physicality, which is another reason the movie is so durable. Many action movies from the 80s featured superhuman heroes; Schwarzenegger, Robocop, Van Damme. In that company Willis doesn’t seem like much of a threat to highly armed criminals. I imagine that if a poll was taken to select the the everyman actor of the last 25 years, Tom Hanks would factor into the results, but my vote might go to Willis, who, in far more hostile material for everymen, brings a level of credibility to the incredulious. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Willis when I say that he achieves the same effect in action movies that Ron Jeremy does in skin flicks, he allows the middle aged, well rounded men in the audience to say “I could be doing that.” Willis is able to completely represent schlubdom without ever actually sinking into it. In Die Hard he is a New York cop but his tastes and additudes are more universal than that, encompassing blue-collar values from all over the country. Notice the way he says “California,” when reacting to behavior at LAX, or the way he returns a fruity drink at a party, or the wounded indignation he betrays when his estranged wife pokes fun at him for not understanding the distance between Los Angeles and Pomona. This man is every weekend warrior, every pent-up soccer dad, every frustrated mediocrity, except, of course, he’s smarter than the master criminals and cannot be killed. He’s even balding. He looks like a mix of Humphrey Bogart and Homer Simpson. In the famous moment when he’s in a ventilation shaft and he quotes his wife in mock voice about visiting her in LA, he might as well be complaining about taking out the trash. The only moment including McClane that feels false comes early in the film when a flight attendant gives him a sexual double-take, but naturally, all men feel like they command that attention. Contrast him with Alan Rickman’s sophisticated, educated villain. The man who reads Forbes, quotes Alexander and buys suits from the same place as business titans and world leaders. This is a man who speaks well, exudes confidence; he definitely knows where Pomona is. Doesn’t he stand in for all the people in front of you at your job, the guy who’s a little bit smarter, doesn’t play by the rules, had an unfair headstart to begin with and will always be better than you? Wouldn’t it be nice to drop that guy off a building? The guy that guys want to be is James Bond. The guy that guys already think they are is John McClane. Bond is much more like Gruber anyway.