Die Hard (1988)
And then... along came Bruce.
No, not Bruce Lee. Unfortunately he had been gone for 15 years by the time this came out. It would have been interesting seeing him kick the butts of a bunch of bad guys taking over the fictional Nakatomi Plaza. Maybe in some alternative dimension. Still, I don't think even that particular Bruce would have made Die Hard as iconic and memorable as Bruce Willis.
At the time Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris were the big three, with Jean-Claude Van Damme and and Steven Seagal interesting newcomers. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, was the start of a television detective/romance drama called Moonlighting, which was still in production at the same time Die Hard was filming. Some of the big names were considered for the part of John McLane, but Willis had a certain everyman quality the others lacked.
Thus, we suddenly had another big action star on our hands, along with a major franchise and, surprisingly, a beloved Christmas movie.
It's Christmas Eve, and John McLane, a New York police officer, arrives in Los Angeles to visit with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their kids. While McLane stayed at his job in New York, Holly took a lucrative job with the Nakatomi Corporation, and is one of their rising stars - and also has started using her maiden name again. Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) is another up-and-comer at the company, hoping to get Holly in his bed.
To surprise Holly, her boss Mr. Takagi (James Shigeta) arranges for McLane to be picked up at the airport by limousine. On the way he makes quick friends with his driver Argyle (De'voreaux White), who offers to stick around while McLane sees if he can patch things up with his wife. Predictably, things do not go too well, and while cleaning up a bit he calls Argyle to let him know to hang on a bit longer. It's at this point that the phones go dead and a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) storm the building, taking the attendees of the office Christmas party hostage.
McLane manages to escape unseen, albeit barefoot and with just his pistol. Meanwhile, Gruber demands that Takagi be brought to him, and threatens him at gunpoint for codes to a safe in the building that contains $640 million in bearer bonds. Takagi informs him that he does not know the code, which proves fatal. McLane observes the exchange, but is unable to do anything because he is outnumbered. Instead, he makes his way by stairs a couple floors up and pulls a fire alarm. Unfortunately, that is quickly cancelled by Gruber's tech man Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.). Gruber sends his henchman James (Wilhelm von Homburg) to find him and get rid of him, but McLane manages to overcome James and get his weapon and radio. He sends James back down in the elevator, enraging James's brother Karl (Alexander Godunov), who demands that he take men to kill the (to them) unknown intruder. Gruber refuses, as Theo needs time to make it through the doors of his safe.
McLane immediately uses the radio to call the police, and is thought to be a crank call. Dispatch reluctantly agrees to send a car to check it out, and the call happens to fall in the lap Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). He arrives and is met by one of Gruber's men posing as the building's security guard. Finding nothing, he prepares to leave. Unbeknownst to him, McLane is at the time battling two more of Gruber's thugs. After surviving, and out of desperation, he throws the body of one of them out the window, which lands on Al's hood. McLane also fires on the police car for good measure, and soon a good portion of L.A.'s finest arrive, led by Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) and, following close on his heels, predatory reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton).
Negotiations begin with Gruber demanding the release of a number of revolutionaries around the world and helicopters to take him to LAX and give him and his band safe passage. Meanwhile, Gruber becomes increasingly frustrated with McLane. Ellis, in a bid to get in good with Gruber by giving up John (and look good in front of Holly), decides to give up McLane's identity as well as pretend to be his friend and talk him into giving up. The results go about as well as expected, and Gruber ventures onto the upper floors to retrieve the detonators he needs to fulfill the final parts of his plan. They just happen to be in a bag McLane took from James. Gruber runs into McLane and pretends to be another office worker, but the ruse fails. Still, McLane is cornered and Gruber orders his men to shoot all the glass in the room, making things difficult for the still barefoot John.
On the ground the FBI show up with agents Johnson (Robert Davi) and Johnson (Grand L. Bush), who decide to pretend like they are giving Gruber what he wants while instead flying in with helicopter gunships to take out the terrorists, despite what the cost in hostages may be. Gruber, now in possession of the detonators he needs to mask his escape, prepares for this ultimate move and to get the rest of his men out while murdering the hostages. McLane figures out Gruber's plan, and works to save the hostages and get rid of the rest of the terrorists cum robbers. Only problem is that, due to Thornburg's prying, Gruber learns that Holly is John's wife and decides to kidnap her for additional insurance.
Die Hard was almost impossible to get wrong. Director John McTiernan had just had a major hit with Predator, so the anticipation of this loose adaptation of Roderick Thorpe's novel Nothing Lasts Forever had some high expectations. It didn't disappoint, becoming one of the biggest movies of 1988, and spawning four sequels (two of which are almost equal to the original). There is very little external filming, with most of the action taking place inside of the building, which was actually the Fox Plaza and, like Nakatomi Plaza, still under construction. This allowed the effects crew to set off real explosions in some cases, while using miniatures in others. It also saved money on sets.
McTiernan uses the building to great advantage, just as he used the jungle in Predator. There are many shots following McLane through the various twists and turns of partially finished hallways and corporate boardrooms, giving a good portion of the movie a handheld look.
The decision to cast Bruce Willis, who at the time was thought to be a more down-to-earth choice than the bigger names that were considered, helped make the movie (exaggerated and over-the-top as it is) ground itself somewhat in reality. John McLane is no superman, but is instead just someone trying to do his job to the best of his ability in a situation in which he knows he may not come out alive. By the end McLane has been pummeled, had a number of hard falls and has literally walked over broken glass to rescue the hostages and his wife.
For every good guy there must be an equal and opposite bad guy. Whereas this was Willis's first major movie, it was also Alan Rickman's. Hans Gruber is, unfortunately for a number of villains to come after, up there with Darth Vader in how movie heavies are now judged. It was also the first in a number of similar roles that Rickman played in his career.
Reginald VelJohnson, rather than providing comic relief as one may think when he is first introduced, plays Al Powell instead as the one that keeps McLane going even when things look completely hopeless. The two bond as events pan out, with Powell being one of the few police officers on the ground that is willing to listen to McLane instead of following step by step the actions that Gruber hopes they will. While Paul Gleason's Deputy Chief is portrayed as a pompous idiot, he is quickly outdone when the Johnsons show up and truly start to make a mess of everything.
Other than its Christmas setting, I don't understand why this has become such a holiday film, especially since the second movie is almost as good and takes place in the same season, but is not regarded as the holiday classic that Die Hard is. I think it may be that there is a severe lack of enjoyable Christmas films out there, as most are wretch-inducing, and people were looking for something else to watch after they finished National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation but before they threw on A Christmas Story.
I won't complain, as it means that newer generations are able to enjoy one of the best '80s action films, as well as be reminded that it is not merely nostalgia that we look back on movies like this. They actually were better, even when it comes to something like this that was obviously a summer popcorn movie.
Die Hard (1988)
Time: 132 minutes
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginal VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia
Director: John McTiernan