When 1988 began, this guy Bruce Willis was a popular enough TV star, known for his years on Moonlighting, but his two ventures into film were a pair of alleged comedies that had a negligible impact at the box office. At the same time, action movies had been in a creative black hole, full of invulnerable superman battling hordes of commies and terrorists. So, when Die Hard appeared with an unproven star, there weren’t a lot of expectations for its success. It certainly wasn’t expected to reinvent the entire genre. Well, Merry Christmas in freakin’ July, Hollywood.
Die Hard is a near perfect action movie while being a far from perfect film. The filmmakers were lucky that stars Willis and Bonnie Bedelia brought to their characters a level of humanity that was probably not present in the script. The producers and studio should have sacrificed a herd of goats to whatever pagan casting god brought them Alan Rickman, who made a better Bond villain than we’d seen in any Bond movie for the better part of a decade.
The film finds New York cop John McClane (Willis) visiting his estranged wife, Holly Gennaro (Bedelia) at her office Christmas party in Los Angeles. He doesn’t take kindly to the fact that she is no longer using her married name, but that’s nothing compared to how pissed he is when a bunch of mostly German terrorists, led by the drily urbane Hans Gruber (Rickman), crash the party and take his wife and the others hostage. John is able to elude capture, carrying only his service pistol but missing his shoes (Trust me, it’s explained in the first scene and very important later).
Strangely, the terrorists seem less interested in making their political points than in gaining access to the company’s vault, to the point of cold-bloodedly murdering the president when he can’t give them the combination. In the meantime, John tries desperately to stay alive long enough to alert the authorities. He finally manages to attract the attention of passing cop (Reginald Veljohnson), who realizes something is up when the body of a dead terrorist lands on the hood of his car.
It turns out, however, that Hans’ plan involves manipulating the police and FBI response to get what he needs. John’s efforts to stay alive are made more difficult when one of the terrorists he kills turns out be the kid brother of Han’s chief henchman (Alexander Godunov). He life isn’t made any easier by Holly’s self-serving co-worker (Hart Bochner), an unimaginative deputy police chief (Paul Gleason), two arrogant FBI agents (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush) and an unbelievably weaselly TV reporter (William Atherton in his stock “weaselly asshole” mode).
Like a lot of action movies, certain parts of this movie work better if you don’t think about them too hard and more than a few characters are lifers over at Central Casting. Paul Gleason’s character is a dickhead only because the plot requires him to be one and the two FBI agents, Johnson and Johnson (not related) are callous beyond any credibility. Local TV asshole, I mean reporter William Atherton is such a stock, unbelievable character that most of his scenes seem completely unnecessary.
On the good side, not only do Willis and Bedelia have great chemistry, but they make a believable married couple. This human dimension gives us a rooting interest in the story even when logic takes an occasional vacation. Of course, Alan Rickman almost walks away with this movie from his first scene on. His character’ intelligence and unpredictability makes him a worthy adversary for McClane, another element that raises this movie above the action crowd (and the movie’s own sequels).
It’s certainly no accident that almost every action for the next decade could be described as “Die Hard in/on a [fill in name of location or mode of transportation] here.” Some of them were pretty good, like Speed, some weren’t bad, including a couple of the sequels, and a lot of them sucked. None of them were Die Hard.
Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker, indeed.