a critiQal film review Die Hard (1988)

Plot: On a trip to Los Angeles to try to patch things up with his estranged wife Holly (Bedelia), New York cop John McClane (Willis) suddenly finds himself involved in a hostage situation. Terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Rickman), have taken over the Nakatomi building where Holly works. With Hans seemingly one step ahead of both the LAPD and the FBI, it looks like it's up to John McClane to save the day.

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  • ...proves over and over again why action films have been copying its format ever since its release.

With Live Free or Die Hard (2007) hitting DVD soon, it seemed like a good time to look back at the Die Hard series so far, and re-familiarize ourselves with all of John McClane’s exploits. Our first stop: the 1988 film Die Hard that started the whole thing.

In his first appearance as reluctant action hero John McClane, Bruce Willis is outstanding. Setting an action hero standard that redefined the very definition of action hero, Willis is cool under fire in Die Hard, and, while being somewhat indestructible, manages to lend a humanity to his character that was missing in previous action films. Delivering deadpan one-liners throughout, he survives by a combination of his wits, luck, and the actual use of his brain – something virtually unheard of in previous action heroes. This is the action hero that action films since have tried to embody – with varying degrees of success.

Alan Rickman, who would later become synonymous with the Snape character in the Harry Potter film series (after stopping by to portray a hilariously evil Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)), delivers his breakthrough performance in Die Hard. All of Rickman’s success in later years can be attributed to his start in this film, and he shows why as he delivers brilliantly in each scene he appears in.

Using his brains more than brawn, he seems a step ahead of every one in Die Hard, with the LAPD and the FBI play right into his plan. Hero McClane seems but a minor glitch in his plans, something that, while bothersome, isn’t much to worry about. As the film progresses, and McClane starts to put more of a crimp in his plan, Rickman’s Hans still looks like he might come out on top – especially with some unwitting help from a slimy reporter (played to greasy perfection by William Atherton).

This makes for nail-biting sequences throughout Die Hard, as despite everything that McClane manages to accomplish, half the time he seems to be playing right into Hans’ hands. And just when the audience thinks McClane has finally gained the upper hand over his foe, something else occurs that puts Hans right back on top once more.

Bonnie Bedelia, as McClane’s estranged wife, also does a good job, playing her Die Hard character with a tough edge that pretty much dispenses with the typical “damsel in distress” role. Instead, she’s a tough no-nonsense gal, whose performance most likely helped introduce the “strong female” role that has since become much more prevalent in films. Sure, she isn’t the hero of the film, but her pressure under fire helps make her a much stronger character in what is typically a very weak role.

Even the minor characters are worth watching in Die Hard – something that’s increasingly rare in action films. Surprisingly, future “Family Matters” (TV) co-star Reginald VelJohnson is one of the stand-outs amongst these as a genial, Twinkie-loving LA cop. Another stand-out: the rather clueless young limo driver (portrayed by De’Voreaux White), whose antics – after finally discovering he’s trapped in the middle of a hostage situation – will have viewers cheering him on.

Of course, as there have been so many copiers of the action format that Die Hard introduced, some of the sequences in the film seem a bit pathetic at this point. However, one must remember that when this film was released, not every bad guy came back from the “dead” and not every film included a couple of slow-motion “go for the gun” shots, etc. So props need to be given to the film for introducing those, even if the audience has grown a little bored with them since.

With director John McTiernan’s ability to capture great action sequences on film, outstanding performances by Bruce Wills, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman and the rest of the cast (even the minor characters), plus a more-brains-than-expected plot that keeps the tension high throughout, Die Hard proves over and over again why action films have been copying it’s format since.

If you haven’t seen this one in awhile, check it out again before Live Free or Die Hard (2007) hits DVD, and reacquaint yourselves with John McClane’s previous exploits. Let’s just hope that Live Free or Die Hard (2007) manages to (probably) end the series that started off so well in Die Hard on another high note. In the meantime, however, be sure to pick this one up on DVD if you haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s a definite must-have for any collection.

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