Saturday, December 20, 2014

Die Hard Movie Review

I guess Die Hard has achieved something close to classic status by now. It’s a beloved action movie from the 80s (the heyday of big dumb action) with an up-and-coming movie star that spawned four sequels and a catch phrase. Taking another look at it I’ve found that it holds up well, but it’s certainly not great. It does just about everything right and hardly missteps until the very last scene, I’d say.

That Bruce Willis was cast and became an action star was largely accidental. Die Hard is based on a novel that is a sequel to a book that was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1968. 20th Century Fox was contractually obligated to offer any sequel to him first. Being 73 years old at the time, he passed. After that came the usual suspects of 80s action stars including Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for whom it would have been conceived as a Commando sequel. Just think of the horror that might have been! Willis was starring on the drama series “Moonlighting” at the time. But by casting a more dramatic everyman, producer Joel Silver perhaps unwittingly ended up with a more realistic, more reasonably, and better movie.

Because he didn’t bring that pedigree of a major action hero to the role of police officer John McClane, there is naturally more drama and tension over what could happen to him. He’s a vulnerable hero rather than a superman like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Willis’s acting is occasionally rough around the edges and there are moments when he doesn’t look entirely comfortable with the gun-wielding movements of a veteran cop, but his charisma is infectious and he’s funny. An early scene before the action begins between McClaine and his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) illustrates his very solid dramatic skills.

As the leader of (mostly) European thieves posing as terrorists who take over Nakatomi Tower in Lost Angeles for the purpose of stealing $600 million in bearer bonds, they score big in landing Alan Rickman for his film debut. He’s not an uber-villain, which makes him the perfect counterpoint to Willis. He’s a dramatic actor who brings heft and subtlety to the role of Hans Gruber. He’s not a monster, but he is dangerous and criminal.

This was the second in a series of three highly-effective semi-classic action films of the late 80s and early 90s directed by John McTiernan. He was one of the best action directors of the period, with excellent control and an ability to build tension throughout the duration of the film. His films bear resemblance to equal parts Tony Scott and John Frankenheimer.

The script by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza is one of the best examples of 80s action films. It’s actually well-written in terms of dialogue, story, and multiple levels of conflict. The premise and a lot of the scene are taken directly from the novel, but still, the whole idea of small team of villains confining themselves to a closed space with a rogue running around taking them out one-by-one and foiling their plot, is compelling. Or perhaps it’s made compelling by the actors and the conflicts behind it. There’s the obvious conflict between McClane and Gruber and the terrorists.

Then the story throws into the mix that McClane has been in New York for six months while his wife has been in Los Angeles with the kids to pursue a great career opportunity. There is tension in their marriage. That kind of thing is often standard in action movies where the backdrop of personal tension between characters is supposed to add to the drama. Bedelia and Willis make it feel like a real marriage with problems in the two scenes they have together early on. Within the group of terrorists Karl (Alexander Godunov) wants vengeance for his brother’s death, but Hans only wants to keep McClaine neutralized so as not to cause more disturbance to the plan. Among the hostages is the smug cocaine fueled Ellis (Hart Bochner), who thinks he can pull off a successful negotiation with Hans. Down on the ground, there’s Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the patrolman who initially comes to Nakatomi to investigate an emergency call and ends up being McClane’s rock and support over the radio. He’s the real cop, the guy who has the creative vision and understanding to see what’s really happening while the bureaucratic Deputy Chief (Paul Gleason, whose character is almost a continuation of his Breakfast Club school principal) wants to look good and follow the book. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a smarmy TV reporter (William Atherton, who made a short career playing guys like this in Ghostbusters and Real Genius) whose tactics wind up putting Holly and John in additional danger from Hans. The bit I could have done without is the depiction of the FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush) as officious idiots who make a bad situation far worse with a complete disregard for human safety. Their presence is sort of useless and played for a few bad and obvious laughs.

Die Hard winds up closing on a few screwy notes, several bones thrown to the masses so that everyone feels like their favorite character gets a chance to do some good and that all the bad guys, both cops and villains, get their comeuppance. Argyle the limo driver gets to knock out Theo, the technician whose job was to crack the codes on the vault. Theo doesn’t have to die, though, because he never even held a gun. Holly gets to punch the reporter in the face. And Powell, who was earlier given a little back story of accidentally shooting a kid which led to his desk assignment and never drawing his service revolver again, gets to save the day when Karl ludicrously springs back to life from his gurney for one last crack at revenge. All these moments feel tacked on to wrap up in unnecessary ways the stories of secondary characters. They only serve to mar the good will the film earns on its merits up to that point.

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