Monday, January 24, 2011

Die Hard

It's hard to believe now, but Bruce Willis in an action movie was considered a risky move before Die Hard.  Sure, he had proven himself as a comedic actor on television, but he also promoted wine coolers.

Looking back, it's hard to believe that anyone wanted to see him blow stuff up.  But it was the 80s, and all sorts of questionable choices were being made --- making John Ritter Ted Danson Bruce Willis into an action star probably made perfect sense to a coked-out film executive.

Thank goodness it worked out.  Die Hard (German for "The Hard") is, without a doubt, one of the top action films of all time.  There are a number of small mistakes throughout the film, but nobody ever notices them until they have watched the movie for the twentieth time.  That's better than quality.  That is the all too rare ability to suspend not disbelief, but criticism.  Die Hard is so awesome, it's mistakes make it all the more lovable.

New York detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) is in Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), and kids for Christmas.  Before heading home, John heads to her workplace, the Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper, guess he loves his estranged wife much more than his young children.  Maybe they're just awful little people.  Don't judge him.  As soon as John is in the building, European terrorists take everyone hostage; since Holly's company was the last group in the building, the thirtysomething employees make up all the hostages.  With his police training and the good luck of being near an emergency stairwell when the hubub began, John manages to escape to an unoccupied floor.  Now, it's John McClane, unarmed and (for some reason) without shoes, against a dozen terrorists with automatic weapons.  I almost feel sorry for the bad guys.

What makes Die Hard completely rad?  The actors, for starters.  Bruce Willis got to shoot a bunch of bad guys and make witty retorts like, "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like!"  Take that, lonely man nutrition!  As John McClane, Willis is extremely likable; he's not perfect --- he can't help getting into stupid fights with his wife --- but he knows how to get things done.  Of course, a hero is only as good as his villain (if you need proof, check out Die Hard 2), and this movie has a doozy.  Alan Rickman plays Hans Gruber, leader of the bad guys.  Whereas McClane is a blue-collar guy to the bone, Gruber is very fancy; he has extensive business knowledge, buys his suits from Savile Row, and he is a teacher at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Right there you have a slobs vs. snobs match-up for the ages.  Gruber adds charm, wit, and ruthlessness on top of those attributes to make him one of my favorite movie villains of all time.  Also impressive is former Soviet ballet dancer Alexander Godunov, as the hot-blooded revenge-fueled villain.
He's like a bare-chested Mona Lisa.  No matter where you move, his eyes follow you.
Sadly, this would be Godunov's last decent film role before his death; it's a shame, because he played a very convincing crazy.  Sure, there are other supporting actors, like Reginald VelJohnson as McClane's contact with the LAPD, or Bonnie Bedelia, that do a decent enough job, but the rest of the cast is just bit parts.  They are stellar bit parts, though, and they make the film so much more enjoyable with their brief appearances.  Who can forget Lakers fan/computer expert Theo (Clarence Gilyard), the only villain that doesn't die?  Or Paul Gleason, taking a break off from playing a high school principal to be the absolute worst Deputy Police Chief ever?  William Atherton was, once again (remember him in Ghostbusters?), a pitch-perfect jerk as the story-hungry reporter.  And then there is stereotypical 80s businessman, Ellis (Hart Bochner):
Hans...!  Bubby...!  I eventually went on to direct PCU!.
Heck, even the bit-bit players were awesome in this movie.  You have FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (Grand L. Bush and future Bond villain Robert Davi, respectively); Argyle, the limo driver, was actually the shoplifting kid that Ray Charles shot at in The Blues Brothers; and Mr. Fu Manchu himself, Al Leong as (what else?) a bad guy with no dialogue.
Fu Manchu, ready to dump a load of action scenes all over Hollywood
It is worth noting that neither Huey Lewis nor the News are in Die Hard...that is just a dude who looks like Huey.

In the director's chair, John McTiernan shows a much better touch with the actors than he did in 1987's Predator.  Of course it helps to have actual actors in your cast, instead of just future governors.  Thanks to McTiernan's help, the humor, action, and drama are well-balanced in this movie.  And each of those aspects of the film are pretty great.  It's not just the dialogue, either; Willis and Rickman show a lot of great nonverbal acting, for both humorous and dramatic purposes.  The action looks really good throughout the film and the story was told in a very clear fashion.  What more could you want?  Well, more professional editing, I suppose.  If you know where to look, you can find Willis' stunt doubles in a few scenes --- they're usually the Bruce Willis-looking guys with the bright white shirts, long after Willis' has been stained with blood and dirt.

That's okay, though.  In my mind, this film can do no wrong.  It's got action, humor, and is just completely awesome.  Do you want to know how awesome Die Hard is?  Here's a list of stupid things in the movie that I don't even care about.
  • Everything 80s: smoking in airports, cocaine use, pregnant women drinking alcohol, form-fitting sweatpants, Huey Lewis look-alikes, and limo drivers drinking hard liquor --- it's all good in the 80s!
  • If Reginal VelJohnson is a "desk jockey," why was he in a patrol car?
  • So, the only people left in the building are the party on the 30th floor, but the doorman makes McClane search for his wife in the computer anyway?  What a jerk.
  • The Deputy Police Chief makes some valid points as to why there is not a hostage situation...until he explains that the dead body that dropped from the upper stories of the building was "probably some stock broker that got depressed."  Oh, well if it's "probably" just that, then we can all go home now, right?
  • John McClane never tracks down the guy with the "make fists with your toes" advice and punches him in the mouth.
  • The closing message of the film is that Reginal VelJohnson killing somebody is a Christmas miracle.  Pity it didn't transfer over to Family Matters.
Here's an interesting factoid: Die Hard, based on the book Nothing Lasts Forever, was actually supposed to be a sequel to the Frank Sinatra film, The Detective.  Can you picture Frankie saying "Yippie ki yay, MF?"  Actually , I would be pretty awesome.  Anyway, without a doubt, Die Hard is one of the quintessential action films, as well as one of the more cheery Christmas movies that you can watch any time of year.

1 comment: