A serious contender for the title of “Best Action Movie” – if not the contender – Die Hard now looks like the last furious hurrah of the pre-CGI genre, a time when stuntmen & women risked life and limb in pursuit of bigger and more outlandish sequences. That it’s tied to one of the most economic scripts, full of meaty dialogue, decent characterisations (either refining or establishing the tropes that the genre would use for the next twenty years) and a collection of performances ranging from hugely charismatic through to genre defining is just the icing on the top of the cake. Die Hard succeeds not only as an action movie but also as a tight thriller and even a Christmas movie – it may even be the Christmas movie as well. It’s one of those rare movies that if you flick across it on late night TV then that’s it, you know your stuck watching it until the very end – after all, no matter what your moods like it’s going to be better when you’ve finished watching it. Die Hard is pure entertainment from start to finish.
The story is stripped own to the barest of concepts – terrorists take over a building on Christmas Eve and a lone cop, visiting the building to try and reconcile his marriage has to deal with them, fighting the authorities along the way and making sure no one knows why he’s there. It sounds cliché ridden these days, but it’s important to how fresh this was nearly twenty-five years ago. The characterisation takes familiar tropes and builds on them, the refined & educated criminal (nearly every major Hollywood villain would be played by a Brit from this film on), the desk-bound cop who knows more than the captain and (most importantly) it defined the maverick cop not as a one man killing machine (although he undoubtedly morphs into one during the course of the film), but one who’s smarts put him at odds with the authorities. McClaine doesn’t survive because of his combat skills, he survives because he can think on his feet. Only Indianna Jones has anywhere near the same level of smarts, but here it married to a more adult persona rather than a pulp one, McClaine feels more human, more vulnerable.
At the time of its release attention was focussed on Alan Rickman’s villain as the scene stealing role of the film, and even today it’s a glorious act, veering between Ealing-level villainy and pantomime scene chewing. It never feels hammy, and (in contrast with many villains at the time) he’s not a rag bag of psychological ticks and neuroses (he’s clearly neither a psychopath or sociopath, none of the terrorists are). However the success of the film rests solely on the (not oversized) shoulders of Bruce Willis as the everyman hero of the film, slowly and surely becoming more bruised and battered as he tries to do his job. Willis is interesting – every few years he emerges from a stream of useless films to deliver a fantastic performance that makes us fall in love with him again before returning to a series of genre disasters that make us wonder why we hoped things were different this time. Here he successfully blends both the genre role and (actually) acting with something hugely charismatic. The later sequels would up the wisecracking nature of him, but here it’s a defence mechanism. Die Hard is a film that is at times painful to watch (I still wince at the scene when he pulls a large sliver of glass out of his foot all these years later, despite knowing its coming, it just looks so damned painful).
Which brings us to the reason that it’s the film it is – John McTiernan realises that the most important rule of any action film is that each sequence must raise the stakes on what has come before or people won’t wonder what is going to happen next. The huge explosion at the centre of the film? Many directors would use that as the climax to their film, McTiernan uses it merely as a means of starting the roller coaster ride properly – he knows that come the end we’ll be too busy holding our breath to remember it properly. The classic frame work of tension – action – recovery is used throughout, once again reducing the recovery period as the film progresses, but here it is married to an increase in spectacle as well. He also creates a hugely physical film – as commented at the beginning this was the pre-CGI days – relying on what his stunt co-ordinator to deliver the sequences he’s created and the trust of his actors that they won’t be hurt (that really is Alan Rickman falling from the building at the end). Clever framing (the film should be seen in it’s original widescreen compositions – the director uses the full width of the frame at nearly every opportunity) helps to raise the tension and the film is edited within an inch of its life, no scene lasts for longer than it need (despite its simplicity, this is a film that expects the audience to keep up) furthering the sense of it being a huge roller coaster.
At the end of the day Die Hard succeeds because it makes sure the audience is having a good time, dragging them along on a breakneck speed ride towards a ludicrously over-the-top finale that matches spectacle and pathos. It creates characters that we wish to spend time with (something many later action films would forget) and puts them into situations that make us care about them. And sometimes, that’s all a film needs to be a bone-fide classic.