13. Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan

Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner

When I think of the perfect Christmas-themed movies for me to watch around the holidays, I am not interested in saccharin-heavy feel-good stories. I also don’t participate in the annual 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story.” It’s just not my thing. “Die Hard,” on the other hand, is right up my alley. But, why an action movie, and why THIS action movie? While most other heroic characters of the genre in the 1980’s were being portrayed as near superhumans, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is made to appear quite mortal. He makes mistakes, he fights with his wife, he gets injured, and he doesn’t save everybody. This makes him easily relatable.

For an action movie to truly succeed, you need an equally strong villain to challenge the hero. Although Bruce Willis was a relative unknown outside of the television series “Moonlighting” and was enjoying his first cinematic starring role, you’d have to be an aficionado of British TV and stage to have known who Alan Rickman was prior to “Die Hard.” More than a decade before he would entertain “Harry Potter” fans the world over as Professor Severus Snape, Rickman brings style and sophistication to the role of Hans Gruber, leader of a group of West Germans who project the false image that they are terrorists demanding the release of comrades in arms around the world in order to conceal their true, much more simplified goal of robbery. Unlike the bad guys in, say, “Commando,” you can’t help but like Hans, and that’s all thanks to Rickman’s performance. Hans is as intelligent as he is ruthless, a quality that is missing from most of the cardboard villains of the genre.

There are other notables besides Willis and Rickman. As Hans’s right-hand man Karl, Alexander Godunov is the powder keg that could threaten to derail Hans’ plans just as much as McClane could. Karl goes off the deep end when he learns that McClane has killed his brother. It’s no longer about the money for Karl, now it’s about revenge. Karl is scary in a totally different way from Hans. While Hans can chew scenery all while holding a gun to your head, Karl is all about brute force. As news reporter Richard Thornberg (truly a “thorn” in everyone’s side), William Atherton does what he did best in the 80’s, and that’s totally get under your skin. He never comes off as evil in his roles, just annoying enough that you can’t wait for someone to slap that ridiculous smirk off his face. More intelligent even than Hans, and quietly sexy is Holly McClane, played by Bonnie Bedelia. She’s never afraid to tell John when he’s full of it, and even as she’s among the hostages, she shows poise in negotiating small favors from her captors. Though it seems a role he is always destined to play, Reginald VelJohnson is wonderful as Al Powell, McClane’s LAPD friend with whom he relays the situation by way of a CB communicator.

The only misstep in characterization, one which several notable critics happen to agree on, are the stupid LAPD and FBI officers at whom our two hero cops can do little but sneer. Their only function is to show up and, through their rash decisions, allow Hans’ plans to unfold as he has predicted they would. I love actor Paul Gleason, and I really like the insults which his character takes from John McClane, but he sticks out like a sore thumb here.

There are several scenes which stand out. The fight between Karl and McClane is unlike any of the other action in the movie. It’s up close and personal. The two men tear away at each other like a couple of wild dogs. The first face-to-face meeting between Hans and McClane is great, too. You really get a sense of Alan Rickman’s range in this scene, as Hans pretends to be one of the scared American hostages escaping to the roof. But when picking out my favorite, I have to go with the scene where McClane is evading Karl and others by climbing down a ventilation shaft. Nothing else in the movie tops this scene’s level of tension. The only thing keeping McClane from falling to his death is a machine gun’s strap, and as it’s slowly tearing away I find myself encouraging him to hurry up, even though I know how it will turn out.

It’s the sense of claustrophobia that this and other scenes provoke that is sorely missed from the sequels to “Die Hard,” although “Die Hard 2” does its best to live up to that standard. Also missing from the later films is McClane’s ability to appear mortal. Part of it is based on what we already know him to be capable of, but mostly it is due to the unbelievable feats he accomplishes in “Live Free or Die Hard” and “A Good Day to Die Hard” (I’m surprised he’s not fighting Klingons in that one!) in particular. I think the idea that one guy keeps running into these impossible situations gets a bit hard to believe after a while, too, like with Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in TV’s “24.”

If they’d gone with a different main character each time, then I could see it working. Jan de Bont, who was the cinematographer for “Die Hard,” would go on to direct “Speed,” which feels very much like a “Die Hard” movie. Instead of Bruce Willis, you have Keanu Reeves who, like Willis before “Die Hard,” wasn’t really considered action hero material (despite his starring role in 1991’s “Point Break”). There’s tension and claustrophobia, along with an admittedly healthy dose of implausibility, and “Speed” also has that great villain that you need in Dennis Hopper. To that end, I consider the “Die Hard” franchise as a trilogy, consisting of “Die Hard,” “Die Hard 2” and “Speed.”

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