Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
Plot: New York cop John McClane flies to Los Angeles to repair his marriage, but when terrorists take over his wife’s office building, he has to use all his skills to foil their plan.
There can be few films that have made such huge, global stars from its relatively little known two main leads. Before Die Hard, Bruce Willis played wise-guy detective David Addison Jr. in Moonlighting along with a few small parts in various TV movies. Alan Rickman’s career had followed a similar path, with the only role of note being Obadiah Slope in the sublime Barchester Chronicles. Post-1988, Willis went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest action movie stars and Alan Rickman was similarly successful, having been recently discovered by a new generation as Professor Severus Snape in some small literary-based franchise that didn’t do too badly at all at the box office. The years may have been kind to Willis and Rickman, but does Die Hard stand up to scrutiny after nearly 25 years?
On Christmas Eve, New York cop John McLane (Willis) flies out to Los Angeles in an attempt to reconcile with his estranged wife Holly (Bedelia), who has moved to California for a new job with their children Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jr. (Noah Land). Limousine driver Argyle (De’voreaux) takes John from the airport to the Nakatomi Plaza building, where Holly and her colleagues are having their office Christmas party. After an awkward encounter with Holly and one of her workmates Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), John goes to change in one of the rooms, but at this moment, a group of mostly German terrorists arrive including Karl (Alexander Godunov) and computer expert Theo (Clarence Gilyard) and take over the building, taking the others as hostages. John manages to slip away and hide while the terrorist round everyone else up, singling out executive Joseph Takagi to interrogate him in order to get the code that opens the vault where $640 million in bearer bonds are kept. Takagi refuses to cooperate and is executed by the leader of the terrorists, Hans Gruber (Rickman).
Now on the run undetected but trapped inside the Nakatomi building, John sets off the fire alarm to attract the attention of the LAFD, but is thwarted by the terrorists who manage to dismiss the fire engines before they can arrive. He manages to kill Karl’s brother Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), takes his machine gun and sends his body down in a lift where Hans and Karl realise that they must have missed someone in the round-up. As Hans sends some of his men to find out who is roaming around the building, John makes his way to the roof and uses Tony’s radio to contact the LAPD. Initially sceptical, they send Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to do a drive-by patrol to check out if anything is amiss. Powell doesn’t find anything suspicious and starts to drive away – meanwhile McLane kills two more terrorists and obtains a bag of explosives, dropping the corpse of one of the men down onto Powell’s car, who immediately calls for back-up. With Powell on the outside giving John instructions, the two must work together to stop Hans from carrying out his plan, despite the meddling of Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) and the FBI.
Die Hard has all the ingredients for rip-roaring action film. A terrific central hero with a wry sense of humour, a plot that hits all the right notes and never lets up and also a bad guy who is both vicious and hammy at the same time. What sets it apart from your usual humdrum shoot-em-up, are the touches of comedy. As the body count increases, albeit mostly Gruber’s henchmen (they have families too you know!), the line between adrenaline-pumping danger and a clever quip is a very fine one indeed. It’s this sarcasm throughout which adds to the enjoyment – this must have been quite a tonic in the late 1980s after the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton years had slowly turned James Bond into more of a creep than a suave spy. Yet here John McLane is indeed the antithesis of Bond, donning only a white vest and (eventually) no shoes, having to pick out shards of glass from his feet in order to evade capture. The moments when we do leave the action and see what’s happening in the outside world, the media frenzy is given a humourous slant, especially when we learn about ‘Helsinki Syndrome’.
We don’t expect the acting to be top-notch, but it’s actually pretty close. Bruce Willis fits into his role as McLane brilliantly well and is perfectly cast. He brings both brains and brawn to the screen, but evidently it’s his physicality that is key in convincing us that he has the ability to take down so many terrorists by using his bare hands, most of the time. Alan Rickman’s Gruber is a bit of an enigma. At times, he plays the stereotypical German with ruthless efficiency and emotionless determination. As the film progresses, his accent begins to falter and there are one or two lines towards the end where he appears to have given up pretending and blatantly uses his native English tones instead. Even McLane quips to Gruber: “You should be on f*****g TV with that accent”. However, Rickman still manages to inhabit the character of Gruber with a touch of campness, although with much better restraint than Jeremy Irons who plays his brother Simon in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. As for the supporting cast, Reginald VelJohnson is fantastic as Sgt. Al Powell, McLane’s eyes and ears outside. William Atherton’s hack Richard Thornburg is effectively slimy and the late Paul Gleason may irritate as the useless Deputy Police Chief Robinson, but this means he’s done what was intended from the character.
Die Hard is an absolutely fabulous two hours of entertainment and it is easy to see why its blueprint has been copied so many times (even within its own franchise), but never bettered. Bruce Willis is starring in the series’ next instalment A Good Day to Die Hard, due for release next year, but it remains to be seen if he will ever recreate the character of John McLane in quite the same way ever again.