Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Die Hard on a Blog: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard is the movie that launched a hundred cinematic knock-offs or so.

John McTiernan’s blockbuster 1988 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.)”

Movie-going audiences soon saw Die Hard on a Bus (Speed [1994]), Die Hard on a battleship (Under Siege [1992]), Die Hard on a Train (Under Siege 2 [1995), Die Hard on a Plane (Passenger 57 [1992], Executive Decision [1996]) and even Die Hard in a Hockey Stadium (Sudden Death [1995]).

So in the spirit of that memorable nomenclature, welcome to my newest blog series: Die Hard on a Blog.

All the movies I will feature here in the coming weeks include the critical element of a nefarious terrorist or criminal threat acting inside a closed-setting, and the singular hero who combats it.

Today, in the inaugural installment, I’ll remember the still-unmatched progenitor of this cinematic trend: Die Hard.

The 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).

The 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 seventy-four hostages. 

Many 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.

Rich 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.

First 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 pace.  

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.

Secondly, 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 McClane.

At 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.

Yet 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.

John 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).

No, his battle, as I hope to explain in this review, is to redeem himself as an alpha “male” and showcase his viability as such. 

Some 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.

“Just a fly in the ointment, Hans, just a monkey in the wrench, just a pain in the ass.”

For 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.

When 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.

Their 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.

John 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, well-organized Gruber.

John 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).

Before 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…

“It’s Christmas time, Theo. It’s a time for miracles.”

It 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.

Die 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.

The 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.

This 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

Sometimes, 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.

The 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.

As 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 American society. 

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.

Yet 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 country.

By 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.

On 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.

Die Hard, very 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."

That 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.

But 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 earner.

He 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.

Yippy-kay-yay, motherfucker.

The 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.  

This idea 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.

What 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

This 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.

In 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.

At 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.

Then, in 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.

Immediately 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.

There 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.

What 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 1980s ideas about women in the workplace take away their manhood too (by the movie's way of thinking; not mine).

And 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.

Now, 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.  

Al Powell has been rendered impotent by society too. He’s a desk jockey who hasn’t fired his gun since an accident years earlier.  

How 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.

The 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 catchphrase.  

In other words, Die Hard is a movie that is both primal male fantasy and simultaneously smart enough to be self-aware about it. 

It 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 Building. 

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.”

The fire at Nakatomi Plaza is delightful?

Hell yeah it is. For John McClane, who has won back his wife, defeated the bad-guy, and is horizon-bound.

When 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.  

It’s an ironic Christmas story. 

It’s a development of the Towering Inferno setting. 

It’s 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. 

But the passing of Alan Rickman demands that I add one more paragraph to an already too-long critique of this film.  

His Hans 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.

At 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.

So the year 1988 and the dawn of Die Hard? 

A “time of miracles” indeed.

Next Tuesday, Die Hard on a Blog continues with Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990).


  1. I re-watched "Die Hard" back during the Christmas holiday with my wife (who had never seen it before). A few observations:

    - John McClane really comes across as a man in over his head. He's a veteran police officer, but he realizes how outclassed he is by Gruber's team of professionals. He panics, he spends at least half the movie in retreat... but when it comes down to it, he digs deep and finds the courage to act. He derails Gruber's detailed plan with clever improvisation. In the end, he takes his stand and triumphs. Willis gave his character a relatable sense of humanity that gradually evaporated from the sequels.

    - My wife is not a huge action movie fan, but she commented how much fun this movie is. And it is: it's a roller coaster, violent yet exhilarating. There is no waste; every scene is necessary and stripped down to its essential elements. Someday film scholars will point to "Die Hard" as a high water mark in action film cinema.

    - Alan Rickman truly was a treasure. His Hans Gruber might be the greatest movie villain of all time: smart, capable, flexible, funny. Even if Alan Rickman never made another movie, this part would have made him a cinematic legend. The world is a poorer place for his passing (I always thought he would have made a great character in a Star Wars movie... now we'll never know.)

    - It seems to be me that the "Die Hard" franchise is a study in diminishing returns. With every sequel, John McClane migrated from everyman to superhero. In the first movie, when he gets his feet cut on the broken glass, we feel his pain; in later movies, he can jump from skyscrapers and take countless bullets to the shoulder and keep going because he no longer feels pain at all. His specialness was that he was one of us; now he's a generic action movie hero, interchangeable with any other hero.

    Likewise, with every "Die Hard" clone that came out, the novelty diminished piece by piece. You can only see so many variations on the theme before it becomes boring or ludicrous. I remember someone telling me about being in a theater and seeing trailers for Steven Seagal's "Under Siege" and Wesley Snipes' "Passenger 57" ("Die Hard" on a ship and "Die Hard" on a passenger jet, respectively) back-to-back, and how the audience laughed because the trailers were identical in structure; they realized it was the exact same movie with cosmetic changes.

    To me, at least, the first "Die Hard" exists in a bubble; none of the sequels or clone count to me. By itself, "Die Hard" is a textbook example of an action movie. It's a classic.

  2. Stephen Tilson9:32 AM

    Roderick Thorp's novel had much the same concerns over the lost meaning of masculinity, but it also treated the violence as even more problematic. It also deals seriously with the problem of how the state reacts to terrorism and violent dissent within its borders: the terrorists in the novel are politically motivated, and are basically the sort of Baader-Meinhof Gang/Red Army Faction cell that Europe was dealing with in the 70's.

    In an early scene in the novel, Joe Leland -- the protagonist of Thorp's THE DETECTIVE, to which NOTHING LASTS FOREVER is a sequel -- attends a conference of police officials deciding how to combat such political terror groups in the US. Leland muses that a society gets what it prepares for: when the police bunker up inside buildings that look like forts, they are essentially inviting a civil uprising by telegraphing that they expect one. At the same conference, a veteran police chief vows that if the young revolutionaries come into his town, they're going to be killed and displayed with the cover sheets off, "so everybody can see" the price of rebellion.

    In the book, some of the terrorists are female, and young enough to be Leland's granddaughters (he's older than McClane); he kills them as well, adding another layer to that subtext about male/female relationships.

    All in all, the book is both more socially aware and more intense than the movie. It also has a much darker ending.

  3. Stephen Tilson9:35 AM

    Also: the Rock's upcoming movie "Skyscraper" is going to be DIE HARD... in a building.