Die Hard (1988)

In Hungarian the title is “Give your life expensive“, the title of the sequel is “Your life is more expensive“, and the third part is “The life is always expensive” – luckily the English versions are a little more on the nose -Today we’re looking at Die Hard and spoiling it with spoilers…..

Is Die Hard A Christmas Film?

Lets get this out of the way first – This isn’t a long-form article to try and convince you that Die Hard is a Christmas film – I’m working under the assumption that you, my dear reader, are not suffering from some sort of delusion, drug-induced psychosis or mental illness.

I could spend this article going into the various factors that more-than qualify it as a festive-genre release, but why waste my time and yours pointing out that the film is set at a Christmas party on Christmas Eve, soundtracked with festive tunes, includes references to Santa, includes traditional nativity tropes such as travellers and a pregnant lady, contains subject matter of friendship, family, togetherness, “HO HO HO“, actual Holly (Genero/McClane) and John McClane bringing the gift of justice to terrorists during the holiday season?

No, I will not labour on those facts at all. Instead I will review what we all know to be one of the greatest stories ever told….

die hard 1988 film review

Die Hard

The synopsis for Die Hard really doesn’t do the film any justice :

“Visiting his estranged wife and kids for the Christmas Holidays, NYPD cop John McClane finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as a group of armed thieves take over the building.”

That description is devoid of the grit that we associate with the film. I mention the grit specifically because it is a stylistic aspect of the film so tightly woven into its core – the dirt, the sweat and the blood.

The cinematography of Die Hard is presented in a style that compliments this flavour. The shots are wide-angled but shot in a visceral way. There’s a sense of helpless claustrophobia without the use of close, tight shots and shaky camera work that is prevalent in todays cinema. Never before have ventilation shafts, maintenance corridors and office interiors been used so effectively to place a character in peril.

The audience is treated to some emotional character building. There’s genuinely still a lot of feelings in John and Hollys relationship, good and bad, fire and ice. Johns holding onto a lot of resentment regarding Hollys decision to take the job but it’s clear he loves his family dearly.

It’s touches like this that make the characters seem more real. An important observation within that vein and among the fandom is that Gruber doesn’t define himself as a terrorist, more a thief. After all terrorism is defined as “One who favors or uses terrorizing methods for the accomplishment of some object, as for coercing a government or a community into the adoption of or submission to a certain course; one who practises terrorism”. Gruber sneers at the insinuation of this lesser status. Much like how an inker in comic books isn’t a tracer…..

die hard is a christmas film 1988 review

The Cast

Richard Gere, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Charles Bronson, Don Johnson, Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Madsen were considered, but declined the role of John McClane.

As you can see Bruce Willis was actually very far down the list of choices for John McClane. The actor was well known with audiences for his comedic performances in the likes of Moonlighting, which explains why test audiences didn’t automatically click with him as an action star.

His casting and the film itself helped to revolutionize the action genre, or at least what audiences perceived to be a believable action star. A lot of the appeal of the character is that John (despite showing himself to be an absolute hero) is an everyman caught in a bad situation, fueled by adrenaline and fear. Something that the later films in the franchise began to lose sight of.

The believability of the character resides in a state of “what would you do in that situation?”, whereas the later Die Hard releases focus on John Mclane being some sort of indestructible super cop / danger magnet who is too smart for the baddies.

Sam Neill was the first choice to play Hans Gruber. He turned the part down which paved the way for a Broadway actor called Alan Rickman. Despite my love for his portrayal of Severus Snape, this remains my favourite Alan Rickman performance. It’s so very pure, down to the way he delivers the line “I read the article in Forbes” which is entirely reminiscent of his line in Dogma – “What are you gonna do? Hit me with that fish?” complete with hard F inflection. I think we can all agree, an absolute talent that was taken from us too soon.

Linda Hamilton, Geena Davis, Debra Winger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carrie Fisher and Kelly McGillis were considered for the role of Holly Gennaro-McClane before it went to Bonnie Bedelia.

Nerding Out

Upon my 63rd viewing of Die Hard i noticed that the receptionist in Nakatomi Plaza gets John to look on the computer for Hollys name and THEN tells him the 30th floor is the only ones left in the building, thus coming across as willfully belligerent. I’m not entirely sure this was intentional but I love it all the same and I’m glad they left it in.

Joe Takagi seems like a nice lad, and he knows how to throw a decent staff party with live musicians and champagne. A dedicated boss who appreciates his staff on a personal level, he learned the name and profession of his employees husband. Not only that, he took time to position himself at the door to welcome him to the party (pal). He proves himself to be noble in the face of the terrorists by stepping forward to identify himself. The true hero of Die Hard?

die hard is a christmas film crazydiscostu

If you watch closely you can see that Karl hands Theo some money after Hans shoots Takagi. After a little digging i found there is some throwaway dialogue to support even this exchange (“I told you“) and clarify it as payment for a bet between the two. Its not quite clear the exact information surrounding the bet, but we can assume it involves Takagi, the codes and whether or not he’ll give them up. If you can stomach the gut-wrenching ignorance of the site itself head over to Reddit for the discussion thread.

The one blooper or mistake I can’t quite defend in this film is the magical ambulance which appears in the previously empty truck when the gang step out onto the loading platform. The vehicle emerges from the truck in a later scene. This seems to have been the result of rewrites where it was added late on. The director still famously shrugs this blooper off to this day.

“I could talk about industrialisation and men’s fashion all day but I’m afraid work must intrude.”

– Hans Gruber

The scene where the vault opens, scored by Ode To Joy, is beautiful. The music bolsters the event perfectly.

The SWAT guy who brushes up against some rose bushes and exclaims “Ow” is a nice moment, seemingly strange that it was left in but wonderfully serves a section of the film which highlights how inept the authorities are.

Conclusion

The film was selected for preservation in the National film registry by the Library of Congress in 2017 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

There are enjoyable moments of genuine emotion in the film that other directors would have left on the cutting room floor. For instance when Gruber is called “boobyRickmans quizzical expression is genuine, as is his reaction be dropped unexpectedly during the finale (Rickman was dropped from the crane a second before he expected).

Die Hard should be protected at all costs. It’s also a stark reminder how a franchise can steadily decline. Despite any on-going cultural debate, this Christmas film holds a special place in a lot of our hearts.

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