One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Hard is the
movie that launched a hundred cinematic knock-offs or so, and the journey began on July 15, 1988, approximately thirty years ago.
McTiernan’s blockbuster so dramatically and thoroughly revolutionized the action genre at
the end of the eighties in fact that -- for at least half-a-decade -- virtually every
new entry in the genre was described as “Die
Hard in a (fill in the blank.)”
audiences soon saw Die Hard on a Bus (Speed ), Die Hard on a
battleship (Under Siege ), Die Hard on a Train (Under Siege 2 [1995), Die
Hard on a Plane (Passenger 57 , Executive Decision ) and even
Die Hard in a Hockey Stadium (Sudden Death ).
film is very closely based on novelist Roderick Thorp’s (1936-1999) literary
work, Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), which in turn was inspired by the
author’s viewing of The Towering Inferno (1974).
novel concerns a retired detective, named Leland, who visits the L.A. high-rise
HQ of a company called Klaxon Oil. He is there to visit his daughter Stephanie,
for the Christmas party, when a German terrorist, Anton Gruber, takes
elements in the film, including a barefoot hero, the gun taped to the
protagonist’s back, and the use of explosives in an elevator shaft, recur
directly from Thorp's written words.
in invention and humor, Die Hard (1988) succeeds on many
levels, and remains today much more than a thrilling fusion of disaster film
and thriller tropes.
and foremost Die Hard is absolutely dazzling from a visual standpoint, in large
part because director McTiernan eschews excessive and unnecessary cutting, and
preserves the space or geography of the action by utilizing tilts, pans, and
other, often extreme or sudden camera motions.
Not only is the space of the
action preserved in this fashion, but the rapid camera motion accelerates the film’s sense of
Our view of the action literally
banks, turns and performs barrel rolls. It’s as if we’re seeing through the
furtive eyes of the desperate hero, registering everything, everywhere, in an effort to
endure and survive.
for all its bells and whistles, Die Hard essentially boils down to a battle of
wits between two evenly-matched opponents, one ruthless, intellectual and
urbane (Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber) and one wide open: Bruce Willis’s John
times it actually feels like a realization of destiny that these two
resourceful, ingenious, determined characters should face each other, “mano
e mano” at the Nakatomi Plaza. No other place in the world is tall enough for
both of their egos and self-confidence, perhaps.
in terms of its pure, psychic appeal, Die Hard is actually something more
than a great and eminently satisfying action movie.
It is undeniably a primal male wish-fulfillment fantasy that was forged in a time when
masculinity was facing existential questions about its value and worth in
the larger American culture.
McClane’s battle in this film is not simply to defeat Hans Gruber or rescue the
hostages in Nakatomi Plaza, including his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).
his battle, as I hope to explain in this review, is to redeem himself as an
alpha “male” and showcase his viability as such.
might suggest that this leitmotif renders the film sexist in some way. I’m not here to make any particular conclusions
or social judgments about that notion, only to draw your eye and your intellect
to the argument the film crafts on both a visual and often sub-textual level.
a fly in the ointment, Hans, just a monkey in the wrench, just a pain in the
Christmas, the NYPD’s John McClane (Willis) flies to Los Angeles to be with his
estranged wife, Holly (Bedelia) and his two children, John and Lucy. A limousine delivers him to the high-tech
Nakatomi Plaza, where Holly works a successful and high-powered career executive.
John and Holly reunite, they argue about their marriage, and the fact that
Holly now uses her maiden name, Gennero, rather than her married name, McClane.
personal differences must wait, however, because a group of European terrorists
led by Hans Gruber (Rickman) invade the building, cut the power, and take seventy-four
Nakatomi employees hostage, including Holly.
seizes an opportunity to escape the offices, into the larger building. Almost immediately, he begins taking on the
terrorists, one-at-a-time, much to the irritation of the erudite,
also gets a call outside of the building for help, and ends up teaming via walkie-talkie with L.A. cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).
long, news crews, and the F.B.I. are also on the scene, but McClane is the only
man on the inside of the building, the only man who can stop Gruber’s plan.
That plan involves explosives, a bank vault and much deceit…
Christmas time, Theo. It’s a time for miracles.”
is plain to see how Die Hard adopts many key elements from The Towering Inferno.
There’s a rooftop rescue that goes awry in both productions, for example, a lot
of fire, and the same central location: a Los Angeles high-rise building. In both productions, helicopters are destroyed too.
Hard takes that setting and those creative elements, however, and creates something new
for the cinema, an action movie in which the hero is an “every man” who is
outnumbered, out-gunned, and cut-off from authority He is tested quite
egregiously, and must succeed based on nothing but his wits and his cunning.
McClane is a man alone.
highest plateau of film quality, for me, arises with the idea of visuals mirroring
or reflecting thematic and narrative concepts. We see this idea play out in Die
Hard as director John McTiernan deploys a kinetic, almost
constantly-in-motion camera. Objects -- like a whirring table saw, for example
-- loom suddenly in the foreground. Or the camera suddenly shifts on its axis, and goes plummeting down a basement staircase the viewer has not yet detected.
approach possesses two virtues.
The first is that this brand of camera motion preserves the space of
the battlefield, to adopt a war metaphor. Were the film to feature an
over-abundance of cutting, the space (and time) would feel fractured. But by
whirling to register objects, or tilting and panning to see things, McTiernan makes us feel like
we are trapped in the building with McClane.
second virtue is connected to the first. The camera’s movement -- always “discovering” new objects, rooms, and
enemies -- recreates the mental state of the film’s characters. Around
every corner could be a threat or an opportunity, and the camera work expresses
a kind of nervous energy as Gruber and McClane both harness the (same) environment
to win the day.
camera-work also is adrenaline-provoking. We are never sure what we will see
next, and so we start paying attention to every detail, every moment of the
action. This is reflected in the character dynamics in so many ways. Hans picks
up that McClane is walking barefoot, and in the next moment, orders his henchman to
shoot out the glass from a nearby pane, creating an impediment for his opponent. The camera and
the characters learn things at the same time, and seize on that learning for
their game of chess.
the camera moves brilliantly to reveal the proximity of danger. At one point, for
example, cinematographer Jan de Bont's camera tilts up from a smoldering bullet-hole in a vent
shaft to a close-up of a vulnerable McClane, perched inches away. The director
could have cut to a reaction shot, instead, of his hero. But that simple tilt tells us just
how close McClane came to death.
whole movie is filled with anxiety-provoking moments such as that one. As a result, Die Hard is
fun to watch -- a veritable roller-coaster ride of a movie -- and that’s primarily
because of the ingenuity and efficacy of so many compositions. The visuals engage us, and demand attention.
I noted above, Die Hard is also a primal male fantasy.
It is about a man who
grew up with heroes like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers and James Arness
(Marshal Dillon) discovering, as an adult, that men like that are no longer called for in
Those cowboys were protectors and patriarchs, but Gruber dismisses
them all as products of a “bankrupt culture.”
Even other 80s male icons such as Rambo are name-checked, and Lee Majors’
The Fall Guy is seen on TV at one point. The
idea, I suppose is that American culture has changed radically in the 1980s, but no one has bothered
to tell the movies about that fact. We still
raise our boys into men thinking they can be cowboys. They still kill the bad guy, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset.
just consider for a moment the shift in demographics and the economy that
occurred in the eighties and how they changed the picture for masculinity in this
1985 half-of-all college graduates were women, and women with outside-the-home
careers jumped to 49%. Women moved successfully into traditionally-male held
jobs in banking and white collar management too.
one hand, movies like Working Girl (1988) epitomized the
era. On the other, efforts such as Mr. Mom (1983) dramatized the
opposite side of that equation: a stay-at-home Dad raising the kids.
simply, concerns a man, John McClane (Bruce Willis) who doesn’t cope well with
this shift in cultural expectations, and what that change means for his ego and self-respect. His journey in the film involves a successful attempt
to re-assert his role, value, and place in the American family when he is no
longer the primary bread winner or the "hero."
opportunity occurs at the workplace of his wife, Holly, who has moved out of
John’s home in New York with his two children, and earned kudos as an executive
at a Japanese-run corporation. Holly is a complete success, and is so confident
in that career success that she goes by her maiden name, “Gennero” instead of her
married name, “McClane.”
Several times, the film gives us visualizations of that name, Gennero. We see it in the building registry and on the door to Holly's office. In a very concrete, visible way, then, Holly has separated herself from her marriage, and her husband.
then John ultimately saves the day, and Holly introduces herself to Al Powell not as Holly
Gennero, but as Holly McClane.
That, right there, is the the punctuation of the whole movie. That’s
the whole wish fulfillment aspect in a nut-shell: the idea that John can bring his wife around
to his “idea of what this marriage should be.”
He doesn’t do this by being a good listener, by being a shoulder to cry
on, by being a good dad, or by being a partner in the work-force, an equal
does it by being just like those predominantly cowboy heroes of yesteryear. By besting the bad guys, getting the girl, and riding off into the sunset.
sub-text, of course, is that John McClane and other men have been somehow
emasculated by the rise of women in the workplace in the 1980s. John is rudderless and alone,
and must re-assert himself and his male-ness.
gets a surprising amount of visual play in the movie because of a nifty little bait and switch trick. John keeps seeing gorgeous,
often naked women, and though he registers them, he doesn’t act on his sexual
impulses to conquer them.
type of shot or sequence or shots recurs in Die Hard quite frequently?
Well, it is a shot of a beautiful woman who is “seen” by McClane either in the same shot, or in cutaway reaction shot. Then, he kinds of sighs, and moves
on, with resignation, after noticing her allure
happens again and again in the film, and one must ask why. Why does this composition recur?
Let me give you the examples before I answer that question.
the airport, McClane sees a women in tight-white pants leap effortlessly into the
arms of her boyfriend. Her rear-end appears to defy gravity.
the party, McClane ogles a woman standing beyond a fountain, in long-shot. Here we get both the object of his gaze, and a view of his gaze.
Holly’s office, a sexually available woman bursts in with her lover. John sees her, through the mirror, so that we get his gaze, and the object of his gaze in the same composition.
after McClane escapes from Holly’s office, John heads to a floor upstairs. He
looks out a window, and sees an apartment across the way. A half-naked woman is
lounging there, in front of her window. The camera moves in on McClane as he
registers her presence. Again, this encounter features two shots: the object of McClane's gaze, and a view of him gazing at that object.
And, finally, during his chases back and forth through the infrastructure of the Nakatomi
Building, McClane twice sees a pin up of a nude woman. She catches his eye on one occasion, and he cranes his neck to look at her. On another occasion, he speaks to her like an old friend.
are no fewer than six instances, then, in Die Hard, wherein John’s gaze is explicitly connected to the visual of a sexually-desirable woman.
does it mean?
Quite simply, there’s the idea here that marriage and society -- and modern convention too -- shackle
men, and prevent them from being their true selves. These things hold them back, rendering them impotent, just as new-fangled 1980's ideas about women in the
workplace take away their manhood too (by the movie's way of thinking; not mine).
how does John exert or assert his manhood, if not by conquering these available, luscious women he constantly encounters? By shooting guns. A lot. By killing terrorists.
In Die Hard, McClane asserts his masculinity not by having sex with all the abundantly desirable women he miraculously keeps casting his eyes upon, but by committing bloody violence and
re-taking his place as a powerful alpha male.
no man is an island, of course, and John still requires emotional support, even while doing
things that a man must do. He turns not to
his wife (who is unavailable to support him), but to a "bromance" with Al Powell. McClane finds that
for his emotional needs in a time of crisis he needs, simply, another man, and
one who is, importantly, a cop like he is.
Powell has been rendered impotent by society too. He’s a desk jockey who hasn’t fired his gun
since an accident years earlier.
does he get his groove (and masculinity) back?
Again with a pistol, by killing someone.
Once more, I would like to stress that I’m not rendering any kind of judgment, pro or con for the argument that Die
Hard so carefully constructs. However, it is abundantly plain the message is there, and part
of a wish-fulfillment fantasy aimed straight at men in the eighties.
They have been held back too much, and if
they want to earn back the respect of women and men around him, they have to
be gun-toting heroes in the mold of John Wayne, Rambo, or any of the other
heroes that Gruber names.
appeal in Die Hard, not entirely unlike the appeal of the Dirty Harry films, is
the characterization of a male hero -- in a time of change -- reverting to "simple" cowboy form. Die Hard makes that characterization funny by references to Roy
Rogers’ sequin shirts, and by McClane’s foul-mouthed but nonetheless immortal
In other words, Die Hard is a
movie that is both primal male fantasy and simultaneously smart enough to be self-aware
would be easy to write much more about this film.
For instance, Die Hard is one of my
favorite Christmas movie of all time, because -- again -- it deals so
ironically and with such self-awareness about the contradictions between a
holiday celebrating love and peace and the bloody violence in the Nakatomi
This conceit, this
juxtaposition, reaches its zenith of brilliance in the film’s final shot. Nakatomi burns and smolders, and the
soundtrack plays the song “Let It Snow.” The lyrics, in case you have forgotten, commence with: “The weather
outside is frightful. But the fire is so delightful.”
fire at Nakatomi Plaza is delightful?
yeah it is. For John McClane, who has won back his wife, defeated the bad-guy, and is horizon-bound.
I first devised the idea of writing about Die Hard (1988), I thought about all
the approaches I could take, and realized just how brilliantly the film
fulfills multiple functions.
ironic Christmas story.
It’s a development of the Towering Inferno setting.
a primal male fantasy about re-asserting manhood according to the Hollywood
definition of that term, and, finally it’s an elegantly-shot action film too.
Sadly, the passing of Alan Rickman demands that I add one more paragraph to an already
too-long critique of this film.
Gruber is, without exaggeration, the perfect movie villain. Not because Gruber can
shoot. Not because Gruber threatens people. But because Rickman projects so much
intelligent, wit, and cunning.
one point, Rickman's Gruber quips about the “benefits of a classical education,” and that dialogue makes a valuable point.
Rickman, a slender intellectual sort is
able to project so much cerebral menace as Hans Gruber that we feel the
muscular, t-shirt clad McClane is in constant danger from him.
In short, Rickman proves
that not only is smart sometimes sexy, smart is also sometimes damned scary.
His best scene in the film involves Hans’
on-the-fly adoption of an American accent when he unexpectedly encounters McClane. This scene is rife with tension
because we don’t know what John knows, and we didn’t expect Hans to prove quite
so…adaptable in the field.
Gruber also gets a death scene that has yet to be topped in the action film genre (pictured above).
So if my description of Die Hard as a primal male fantasy is somehow disturbing or
uncomfortable for anyone, there’s no need to focus exclusively on that aspect.
Die Hard features so many other virtues -- from
its stirring fight scenes, accomplished camera-work and great performances to its brilliant Michael Kamen
score -- that’s it difficult to choose which one really makes the movie soar.