The 80s, of course, was the decade for the action/adventure film, but by 1987 it was in need of a major overhaul. The genre’s two top stars, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, were having mixed success by then: Stallone had just hit rock bottom with his arm-wrestling saga, Over the Top, and Arnold’s films, while still profitable, didn’t exactly requite a degree in quantum physics to follow.
Enter producer Joel Silver. Following the lead of pals Don Simpson and Jerry Brickheimer (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop I and II), he gave audiences Lethal Weapon. A reinvention of the buddy-cop drama, it was slickly produced, sure, and loaded with extreme action and violence, but yet it was expertly directed (Richard Donner) intelligently written, and featured villains that you wanted dead. It was just the shot in the arm the genre needed.
The following year, Silver gave us Die Hard, and his time we have one cop, a NY cop to be precise, visiting his estranged wife in LA. When her building is taken over by international terrorists, it turns out he’s the only guy that can stop them, and thusly, a subgenre is born. That premise of the unlikely hero – the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time – would spawn countless imitators, some good, some bad, and refuel the thrill-a-minute action flick for a god ten years or so.
Die Hard was a surprise hit. Dumped in August of 1988, no one expected fireworks. But I think it was such a wild success not simply because it was well-made but also because it filled a void in our appetite for action and suspense. Throughout the 70s, producer Irwin Allen made a cinematic name for himself with the Disaster Film, a new genre that touched the collective nerve of a populace skittish about a world changing too fast – supersonic jets, ocean liners, skyscrapers. Those fears never really went away; in fact they intensified in the 80s with the advent of faster planes, taller towers, and now a new threat: global terrorism. Die Hard exploited all these fears, and then some. And it gave us a new everyman hero for the changing times – Brice Willis – sort of the Steve McQueen for the MTV generation.
And he has a backstory. McClain’s in LA to see his wife, Holly, but he resents her leaving the marriage to take a corporate job on the East Coast. As he visits her office building, a towering skyscraper and home of the Nakatomi corporation, her company, it’s not long before trouble arrives – in the form of Hans Gruber and his 12 cohorts, a group of heavy automatic weapon toting-terrorists. They seize all attendants of the Christmas party as hostages, but McClane manages to elude them, and for the duration of the film he becomes the fly in the ointment of their plot: to steal the 640 million dollars in the company vault, using the brainpower of a tech wizard and the detonators and explosives they bought along. Only problem: McClain now has them, and all their efforts to get them back come to no avail. Oh, sure, the outside world steps in – LAPD, FBI, SWAT – but they’re no help; in fact they make things worse. Only a police sergeant on his radio seems to be of any assistance, right down to the end, when McClain pops off the baddies one by ne until he reaches, Gruben, whom he sends to his falling death after the half the skyscraper is a mess of rubble and ashes.
I think my salient reaction after seeing this now us the same as it was when first caught its original theatrical release nearly 30 years ago: how in the world did they make this? It’s a reaction I usually after seeing the more accomplished action flicks of someone like James Cameron, and, to a lesser extent, Jan DeBont, Renny Harlin and Andrew Davis. It’s two hours of pure adrenalin, gripping from beginning to end, with hardly a moment for the viewer to question any of the inconsistencies or implausabilities (and there are several). At he end, you’re breathing a sigh of relief, wonder what the hell just happened, and giddy that you can be so manipulated by he magic of the movies.
But directors like the one I mentioned, and the one who lensed Die Hard, John McTiernan, make it look easy. There’s clearly a lot of craftsmanship going on here, and a few key elements that are part of the equation. The first lies in he villains. Hans Gruber, along with associates, are some bad motherf**kers, but their equally as brilliant. The film spends the first 20 minutes or so showing us how insanely unstoppable they are. They’re a well-oiled machine, and Gruber never misses a beat in showing us how charming he is. So charming in fact, that we don’t much question his motives. He’s a West German (despite his British accent), so he’s not a communist, essentially after money but also seeking the release of political detainees from around the world, and opposed to Nakatomi’s imperialist profiteering. All this is for naught anyway, it seems, for Gruber just admits to his terrorist front as a smokescreen for the robbery (he plans to fake his own death in a rooftop explosion, which would kill all the hostages). Huh?
But we’re not going in to Die Hard for its politics, muddy as they may be. We want to see the protagonist kick some Euro ass, and that brings me to the next element: the audience’s identification with the hero. McClain isn’t some haighfallutin secret agent, nor is he a monolithic muscleman. He’s a regular Joe, with snappy one-liners and an abundance of street profanity to underscore the point. And the screenplay affords him some heart and soul, too – a few scenes, including his tearful “I’m sorry” letter to his wife lest he perish in the fray. Producer Silver knows this is key to a likeable hero; he did the same thing with his leads in Lethal Weapon.
The script has some clever surprises along the way, too. McClain doesn’t just use brawn to get ‘er done – he pulls a few McGuyver-esque students when he’s off own his own, like scaling down an elevator shaft using his gun as a rope support. Or rigging up a fire hose so he can swing down from the rooftop on the outside of the building. There’s also a clever scene where Hans finally meets his nemesis face to face, and pretends being a hostage as McClain isn’t yet aware of his true identity. The script only commits one major misstep: in the final, epilogual scene, when everyone’s on terra firma catching their breath, one of the assumed-dead thugs, Karl, blows out the front door with his gun a blazing, only to be brought down by that cop McClain had been talking to on the radio. This is one of those “not-so-fast” post-climax clichés, so common in horror movies, but completely unnecessary here. (It’s only thrown in to show that cop is able to fire his weapon once again.)
But Die Hard was a real game changer, and for good reason. It raised the ante on the action film, for better (Under Siege, The Fugitive) or worse (anything by Jean Claude Van Damme. I prefer to remember the better.