Friday, December 25, 2015

Film Review: DIE HARD (1988, John McTiernan)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 131 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Bruce Willis (BLIND DATE, HUDSON HAWK), Bonnie Bedelia (SALEM'S LOT, THE BOY WHO COULD FLY), Reginald VelJohnson (GHOSTBUSTERS, TURNER & HOOCH), Paul Gleason (THE BREAKFAST CLUB, MANIAC COP 3), William Atherton (GHOSTBUSTERS, BIODOME), Hart Bochner (TERROR TRAIN, SUPERGIRL), James Shigeta (Sam Fuller's THE CRIMSON KIMONO, Takeshi Kitano's BROTHER), Alan Rickman (ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, BOB ROBERTS), Alexander Godunov (WITNESS, THE MONEY PIT), Al Leong (LETHAL WEAPON, BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE), Dennis Hayden (MURPHY'S LAW, ANOTHER 48 HRS.), Robert Davi (THE GOONIES, LICENSE TO KILL), Grand L. Bush (DEMOLITION MAN, LETHAL WEAPON), Mary Ellen Trainor (LETHAL WEAPON, THE GOONIES), Tracy Reiner (A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, APOLLO 13).  Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp (THE DETECTIVE, DEVLIN).  Written by Jeb Stuart (LOCKUP, THE FUGITIVE) and Steven E. de Souza (COMMANDO, 48 HRS.). Music by Michael Kamen (TOP GUN, X-MEN).  Cinematography by Jan de Bont (FLESH + BLOOD, BASIC INSTINCT).  Casting by Jackie Burch (PREDATOR, THE BREAKFAST CLUB). 
Tag-line: "Twelve terrorists. One cop. The odds are against John McClane... That's just the way he likes it."
Best one-liner: "Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho."

How is it that I've been at this for eight Christmases and have never reviewed DIE HARD, a film that's certainly a prime contender for "Best Christmas Movie of All Time" (though originally released in July '88) and "Best Action Movie of All Time?"  It's probably because I felt that there was little I could write that hadn't already been written.

...But I'll say it all anyway: DIE HARD is a meticulously crafted work of kinetic perfection; the action movie equivalent of a Rolls-Royce, a Swiss watch, a Fabergé egg.  It has moments of subtle, white-knuckle suspense worthy of Hitchcock, but isn't afraid to juxtapose them with orgies of exploding squibs, sparks, and disintegrating sugar glass straight out of COMMANDO.


The set-up is deceptively simple; essentially a skyscraper chamber-piece.  "Twelve terrorists, thirty hostages, and one surly cop in the wrong place at the right time."  It draws us in with pedestrian scenes of airports, Christmas parties, and marital tension before snapping its trap shut on the flawed yet noble John McClane (Bruce Willis), our breezy-but-occasionally-tortured blue-collar everyman hero. We like him because he wants to ride in the front seat of the limo with the driver. We like him because he's naive enough to think the bigger the teddy bear he buys, the more of a hit he'll be with the kids.

Alec Baldwin later delivers the exact same teddy to his kid in McTiernan's HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.

We understand his apprehension at his wife's reverting to her maiden name


but roll our eyes at how he handles it later, mid-argument. We appreciate that he doesn't overreact when he's smooched by a man at the Christmas party,

but note that he can't resist muttering "Fuckin' California," afterward.

Within a three-minute span, he grapples with his impotence in the face of a female breadwinner, and then the impotence of his one handgun versus twelve machine-gunning terrorists.

In this––the key moment of fight or flight––he in fact flees the overwhelming odds in order to regroup and reorganize. John McClane is the human animal, warts and all.  As he describes himself, "the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench,"

and therefore he must react, adapt, create, destroy, and survive.  It ain't called DIE EASY.

By the time the shit hits the fan, we slowly realize that director John McTiernan and screenwriter Steven E. de Souza are actually chess masters, skillfully arranging the characters across the board of Nakatomi Plaza.  Our king is without shoes, and on the move.  There's a knight hiding in the parking garage, unawares.  And a pawn might just cross the board entirely to become a major player... 

In how it relays exposition, sets up spatial relationships, and allows the audience to occasionally know more than principals, DIE HARD ought to be studied in film schools as the quintessence of action storytelling.  Books could be written about how it accomplishes what it does, though unfortunately, I don't have the time.  So, without further ado, allow me to share fifteen of the (many) things that make DIE HARD so special for me:

#15.  Willis' schmacting.

Ohh, he's over the top.  And ohh, it works. Fresh off of MOONLIGHTING and BLIND DATE, he's usually overindicating, eyebrows furrowed, mouth agape,

and much of the film is him, alone, talking to himself, shouting things like "Think, goddamnit, think!"  Throughout this, he's effortlessly likable, and I'm not so sure Willis has figured that out yet.

...Which is a good thing.  See also: the latter-half of Willis' career.


#14. Argyle (De'voreaux White).  As Willis' kooky, teenage limo driver, Argyle rocks out to Run-D.M.C., enjoys an evening with the mini-bar (and the giant teddy), and is smoother with the ladies than Stefan Urquelle. 

Argyle shoulda had his own 80s sitcom.  Shoulda been called ARGYLE.


 #13.  Hart Bochner as Ellis, a coked-out yuppie wheeler-dealer and epitome of 80s L.A.  (I'll always  wonder if he was inspired by Hollywood execs McTiernan and de Souza had known.)

He delivers the film's best line, which is clearly "Sprechen sie talk?"

and in his selfish blundering is infinitely hateable,

though Bochner gives a tragic edge to his basic incompetence and short-sightedness.  His oily, low-rent hucksterism stands in sharp contrast to another man with a neatly trimmed beard and an expensive suit...



 #12. Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, who imbues his villainy with a serpentine finesse.

In his film debut, Rickman very nearly owns the picture outright.

And even with everything else going on, his fake American accent in one memorable sequence is worth the price of admission alone.


#11.  Alexander Godunov.  With (literal) balletic grace, he's the key heavy to Rickman's mastermind.

I'd like to see his character battle Gary Busey's from LETHAL WEAPON.  It'd be a true face-off between blonde, secondary villains of clever late 80s Christmas action movies who survive the climax against all odds to rear their heads again and be gunned down at the last second by our white hero's black partner. Whew.


#10.  Andreas Wisniewski as Godunov's brother.

He couldn't look more German if he was wearing a black Kraftwerk turtleneck.  He kinda looks like Heino, actually. Good show, guy.


#9. Stuntman and 80s mainstay Al Leong.

He probably gets the least amount of screentime of any of the terrorists, but in this moment (when he sneaks a free candy bar pre-firefight) he becomes a legend.


#8.  The rest of the terrorists.  Most everyone looks like they're on the way back from a male modeling shoot,

or perhaps an audition to become members of Tangier.

I like the idea that Hans Gruber made everybody submit headshots to join his crew, and only accepted the ones who'd fit in on stage at Glam Hair Metal concert.  In fact, maybe his original plan was not taking over Nakatomi, but instead infiltrating a Europe concert, mid-"Final Countdown."


#7.  Media commentary.

About halfway through the film, the local TV crews become involved in this clusterfuck, and it begins to play out sort of like a mean-spirited MARY TYLER MOORE spin-off, with soulless anchors David Ursin (HALLOWEEN 5, SPACE JAM) and Mary Ellen Trainor (THE GOONIES, LETHAL WEAPON) sparring with selfish producer/field man William Atherton.



In the end, it's Atherton, one of the great pompous 80s villains (who between this and GHOSTBUSTERS was often harassed by fans who could not distinguish the man from the fiction), who really crosses the line in a moment of quiet drama involving an immigrant housekeeper.


These miniature dramas, often playing out on the periphery, give DIE HARD much of its pathos and contribute to a real 'lived-in' quality.


#6. Schwarzenegger shout-out.

Whether this is a nod to Arnold for appearing in McTiernan's PREDATOR, or an attempt to create a Willis vs. Schwarzenegger rivalry (á la the well-documented Schwarzenegger vs. Stallone one), I welcome it.


#5.  Agents Johnson and Johnson.


It's sort of a stupid gag, but who cares?  It's ubiquitous 80s action players Grand L. Bush and Robert Davi, doing their thing as conceited FBI blowhards.

Their finest moment plays out during a helicopter assault with Davi reliving 'Nam with Bush as his foil:





#4.  Creativity and guerrilla warfare.  Outnumbered and outgunned, Willis must resort to guerrilla tactics of invention, theatricality, and psychological impact.  The greatest of these is his classic "NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO" stagecraft,

though elsewhere he McGuyvers his way through a number of scenarios involving office furniture, computers,
paper towels, walkie-talkies, Playboy centerfolds, fire hoses, and the like.


#3. Speaking of walkie-talkies: the peculiar dynamics of communication.


Through the simple plot device of terrorists, cops, and McClane using the same frequency to communicate, de Souza orchestrates some of the most well-constructed scenarios in the film; Rickman communicating to his men without tipping off Willis and the cops, Willis trying to win the trust of cops on the ground without Rickman learning too much, and bungling municipal bureaucracy led by THE BREAKFAST CLUB's Paul Gleason,

playing the fictional embodiment of every frustrating, self-centered, tone-deaf boss who ever lived, trying (and failing) to sell his department's party line on the (walkie-talkie) party line.  All of this allows for expanding the scope of the story without undoing the essential claustrophobia of the premise.


#2.  Carl Winslow, er, I mean Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).

From the moment we meet him (loading up on Twinkies and bullshitting with a convenience store employee), he's the film's moral core. He mostly plays an "audience member" to the carnage at Nakatomi, exuding pathos and support throughout, piecing together the story and characters, and processing it emotionally.  At the end, when the ordeal finally comes to a close and Willis' and VelJohnson's spheres physically intersect... why, it's movie magic!

Best friends!

#1.  The transformation. Time passes.  The human animal endures.  The scrapes and scratches and gouges multiply.  The number of cigarettes dwindles.

When we first meet John McClane, he's casual and confident.  His mind is focused on things like reconciliation and sleeping arrangements.  By the end, he's practically been through the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or DELIVERANCE.  He's bruised and damaged, lurching around like a Universal monster, nigh unrecognizable.

He's found his footing (no matter how bloody) and has endured.  The battered animal is brought back to Earth with the love of his wife and (new) best friend.  It's a Christmas miracle!


Five stars.  DIE HARD, ladies and gentlemen.  Merry Christmas!


––Sean Gill

7 comments:

Mike Bradley said...

Hear, hear! As a late comer to Die Hard myself, I have to say that at first, I laughed out loud at the Godunov last-minute pop-up at the end -- so over the top it played more like a parody of that type of scene! Then I recalled one day when I was working at the record shop ling ago, and someone threw on an old Deep Purple record. There was this one guitar solo where the guy goes into this little repeated classical-motif flourish, the sort of thing I'd heard a thousand times from a thousand slicker yet more generic metal bands. The few of us working that day marveled at how clunky it sounded! But over time, I was able to see how much cooler that Deep Purple track was than its legion of imitators, simply because, in all likelihood, nobody showed Richie Blackmore or whomever how to do that -- he had no template. What I'm getting at here is that the Die Hard pop-up scare might appear clunky not because it became common in the intervening years, but because it became SO common that it could be parodied in such a way that the parodies actually resemble the original. Maybe McTiernan just had no template! Although, 1988 is kinda late in terms of action classics, so maybe I'm all wrong here. Or maybe I've just had too much egg nog!

DustinC said...

It's not officially Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi tower.

Don't mess with the LAPD young man, you'll get the horns...

-D

John Guedes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Guedes said...

Glad to see we share the same DIE HARD sentiment, like most guys our age. I used to watch it religiously every Christmas Eve.

Bravo on the review, I would only add one thing to your list: Jan de Bont's cinematography. It perfectly captured the shine and glint of every twinkle light to major explosion. Lens flares galore!!!

Sean Gill said...

Mike,
Glad you enjoyed, and agreed re: the Godunov pop-up––and, hey, it works! Hope you got enough egg nog, bud!

Dustin,
And it's not New Year's till William Sadler does naked yoga? (Though I do have a soft spot for DIE HARD 2, despite the overall diminishing returns.)

John,
Yeah, it's been a tradition for, say, ten of my last sixteen Christmas eves? Glad you enjoyed, and I must also tip my hat to Jan de Bont, who apparently parleyed that DP's eye into such luminous directorial work as SPEED 2! (There's plenty of other shout-outs that I missed, too, including Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Kamen, Clarence Gilyard Jr. and many more...)

J.D. Lafrance said...

I too have a soft spot for DIE HARD 2, which looks like a masterpiece compared to the last two DIE HARD movies but, of course, the first one is where it's at for all the reasons you so eloquently and entertainingly mentioned. It is the little details that make this film so good and Bruce Willis so relatable. He's not an invincible one-man army that Schwarzenegger and Stallone were at the time but someone who is prone to doubts, fears and actually gets hurt! Good point about McClane looking like he walked out of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE charnel house at the end of the film. Hah. I hadn't thought of that.

I'm so glad you mentioned Bochner's awesomely coked-up yuppie scumbag. He is so entertaining to watch that I always feel a slight twinge of sadness when his character is bumped off.

Sean Gill said...

J.D.,

Thanks, bud––and agreed re: Willis' everyman relatability. Bochner really lends his yuppie scumbag an undercurrent of the pathetic; his final scene is a mini-masterpiece of comedy flowing into tension flowing into horror!