A look back at the iconic action film and the landscape that it changed.
Let’s take a jump back in time, the year is 1988 and a little known actor, whose biggest role to date was in a comedic television series, the most unlikeliest of action heroes, was about to become just that. That actor’s name was Bruce Willis. The name of the film; Die Hard. To truly understand what makes Die Hard such an iconic film you need to think about the landscape of American action movies at the time of its release.
The biggest action films of the 1980s were vehicles for either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone about muscle bound heroes who don’t feel any real pain and gun down swarms of disposable baddies without even blinking. Die Hard changed that because it’s main character wasn’t a body builder, he wasn’t a Special Forces trained badass with unlimited bullets and the ability to be shot, stabbed and blown up and then brush themselves off as if they had just walked through a cloud of dust. John McClane was just a New York cop trying to reconcile with his estranged wife on Christmas Eve. This was not an action hero, this was just an ordinary blue collar guy, someone you could share a drink with at a bar. The list of actors who were offered the role of John McClane is extensive, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone turned down the role, amongst many others, by far the strangest was Frank Sinatra who the studio had a contractual obligation to offer the role to. To think we could have ended up with an action film that had a 72 year old Frank Sinatra in the role.
The screenplay was based on a 1979 novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, written by Roderick Thorp, a sequel to his 1966 debut novel. Several parts of the novel were altered such as Joe Leland becoming John McClane, Leland’s daughter, Stephanie, became McClane’s wife, Holly. The character Leland was much older than that of McClane and was actually a retired New York cop. Whilst there were other differences between the original novel and the film the general storyline remained the same. The biggest change to the storyline though was the villains, in the original novel they were just a group of terrorists, in the film they were changed into thieves.
The film was shot primarily on location at the, at the time, still under construction Fox Plaza. Thanks in part to Jackson DeGovia’s production design the building itself became a character on it’s own, the distinctive look of Fox Plaza made it iconic, to most people it is not Fox Plaza, but Nakatomi Plaza. The production design of the interior of the building is fantastic, a perfect meshing of Western and Japanese architecture which in itself tells the story of the Nakatomi Corporation, along with throwaway lines such as “Pearl Harbour didn’t work out so we got you with tape decks,” demonstrates the way the Nakatomi Corporation works in mixing Japanese and Western business philosophies into one Global business. Shooting on location at the corporate headquarters of the company that is funding the film caused its fair share of interesting problems. Director John McTiernan remarked about having to send people to apologize to Fox management and lawyers who resided in the building because they were about to fire machine guns and set off explosives. Even though there was a lot of production design on the look of the interior of the building there was also a lot of use of that actual building as it was. The elevator shafts were not sets built on a sound stage, they were the actual elevator shafts in Fox Plaza. It was this use of the real location that added to the sense of realism and created a real claustrophobic feeling in the film.
Hans Gruber, the gold standard of antagonists, was portrayed perfectly by the late Alan Rickman in his first feature film role. Rickman was primarily a theatre actor at the time and brought a real sense of believability to the role. From his discussions about men’s fashions to his general likeability, but there was also this coldness and a real sense of threat from the character. This is shown perfectly in the way he brutally murders Mr Takeagi. This sequence is almost a necessity as without it the audience would be rooting for Gruber to win by the end of the film. The villains are usually representative of the film they inhabit, Hans Gruber wasn’t a mustache-twirling bad guy. He wasn’t a man who considered himself a bad guy, he was just a man who would do anything to get what he wanted and anyone who got in his way was fair game. Rickman played him as the hero of the film and it shows, Gruber is as human as the hero and it adds a real sense of realism to the film. It’s crazy to think that studio executives wanted Rickman replaced after viewing rushes because they didn’t get what he was doing, they wanted a villain and what they got was a man who just happened to be on the opposite side of the hero. Without Gruber there would have been no “Welcome to the Party Pal” and definitely no “Yippie kay yay mother fucker” because he is the whole reason the film exists, without Gruber then Die Hard is just a story about an estranged husband and wife getting back together.
The supporting cast are just as memorable as the major characters in the film. Anyone who has seen Die Hard remembers Al Powell, Argyle, Dwayne T. Robinson, Agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson just as much as they remember John McClane and Hans Gruber. Each of these characters have moments within the film that are just as memorable as the moments with the main characters. You have these moments from the supporting characters which you didn’t get in a lot of films of the time and don’t necessarily get from films today either. There’s Argyle telling the stuffed bear to shut up, Powell’s great speech about McClane being alone and tired, Robinson’s great line of “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys I guess,” and of course the great line “It’s Agent Johnson, no the other one.” All these little moments really fleshed out the supporting characters and built them up as integral to the plot. The bad guys weren’t just disposable villains there to be killed off by the hero either. They all had their own little nuances, what really hammers this home for me is the moment where Uli is waiting for the SWAT team and he notices the chocolate bars and then looks around to see if anyone is watching and then takes a couple. The next time we see his character he is eating one of the chocolate bars, then he does his job and opens fire on the SWAT team. But it’s those small moments that build up the characters that really sets Die Hard aside from the vast majority of action films.
The film makes fantastic use of setups and payoffs throughout the whole film, the very opening scene of the film is not some heroic establishing shot, it is a shot of our hero gripping the armrest on his seat out of fear. In that same scene the passenger next to him gives him advice that leaves him barefoot for the rest of the film which culminates in him having to walk barefoot across broken glass. There are many other examples of this throughout the film, it is this type of craftsmanship that makes Die Hard such a fantastic film to watch. Every re-watch is rewarded with moments of realization that they were setting up this moment or that moment from so early in the film. The direction and writing are near perfect and the editing and pacing of the film could not be improved. There is not one second of footage in the film that doesn’t need to be there. Sound effects have weight to them, gunshots and explosions were thundering, they actually recorded new gun sound effects specifically for this film because they felt the stock sounds available lacked the weight that was desired. Michael Kamen’s score has a bombastic and tension inducing quality that also culminates into a heart pounding action crescendo. Based partially on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy this piece is used to perfection. It’s impossible for me to hear Ode To Joy without thinking of the scene where the vault is opened, in fact as I wrote that I started to hear the music in my head.
The thing about Die Hard that made it such a classic film was that for the time it came out, although it was an exciting rollercoaster of a film, it was very much grounded in reality. The characters felt real, the situation was believable and you truly saw the damage and injury on the hero. One of my personal favorite scenes in the whole film is the scene in which McClane is in the bathroom on the radio to Al Powell, this was a scene that had to be fought for as the studio didn’t want to see their hero breaking down. McClane tells Powell, who is his only real ally in the film, that when it is all over to find Holly and tell her that he said that he was sorry. In this moment you can hear in McClane’s voice that he doesn’t think he is going to survive this situation. It’s a very powerful moment because in action films before this you had no doubt that the hero would survive, but here there is genuine doubt at whether or not McClane will survive. That is the legacy of Die Hard, it is not the story of a perfect hero who will save the day, but a flawed character who is placed in a situation where he has no choice but to try and save the day. Whilst yippie kay yay is it’s most recognizable element, the element that really makes it a genre defining classic is the way it changed action movie heroes from invincible supermen to everyday people like you and me. McClane is fallible, he is flawed, the reason he is not caught up in the initial takeover is because his attempt to reconcile with his wife ended up with them getting into another fight about the same thing they fought about 5 months previously. He is believable as a human being and is a hero that the audience can relate to.
Die Hard was such a successful film it even spawned a whole sub-genre of singular location action films which were dubbed Die Hard on a boat, plane, train, bus etc. Steven de Souza even remarks that in the 2000s he was given an opportunity to direct a film that was being sold as Die Hard in a building. Many have tried to imitate the film, very few have equaled it, none have surpassed it. 30 years later and people still place it at the top of action film lists, for me it’s one of my favorite films, I have seen it an embarrassing number of times, but I never get bored of it and I know that I never will.