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Die Hardest: A Retrospective – Die Hard (1988)

In anticipation for A Good Day To Die Hard, we’re going to be taking a look back at the previous four films in the series to honor the franchise. Today we look at at the film that kick-started the whole thing, 1988’s DIE HARD.

It’s tough to imagine that it’s been twenty five years since Bruce Willis burst onto the scene as detective John McClane and took down thirty or so terrorists in Die Hard. Adapted from Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever, what would become the action classic started out as a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1985 hit Commando. Nothing against John Matrix, but thank the maker that didn’t happen, as it’s tough to imagine we’d have arguably the best action-adventure film ever.

Die Hard

But why do we classify Die Hard so highly? In my personal opinion, that falls solely on how humane John McClane is in this movie. While it’s fun to watch the Rambo’s and Terminator’s clear out an entire room with barely a scratch, there was something more appealing about having a hero that would get his ass kicked and bleed more than the villains.  It also didn’t hurt matters that Willis wasn’t a buffed out freak of nature like his contemporaries (Stallone, Schwarzenegger) and you could relate to him.

Above all, John McClane had real problems. His marriage was falling apart, he barely saw his kids, and wasn’t overly confident. McClane wise-cracks, but does so because he doesn’t know better. He was just a normal cop, not some special military grade super killer. He took punishment and kept coming. McClane was a full character, and Willis’ acting chops are what raised him above your standard action fare.

Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard

But every good story needs a great villain. Cue Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, who not only remains this series’ best villain, but is very easily one of the greatest villains of all time. Gruber was suave, calculating, and barely lost his cool. Rickman plays him so against convention that it’s a shame he didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award. How many other villains are as likeable as Gruber? How have such quotable likes like “By the time they figured out what happened, we’ll be on a beach making twenty percent?” Since 1988, Gruber’s become the measuring stick by which all on-screen villains are measured. As great as some have been, none have come close to challenging him for the greatest villain of all time title.

It wouldn’t be worth talking Die Hard without bringing up the colorful cast of supporting characters. While many remember Reginald Veljohnson is Carl Winslow to many, he’ll always be Sergeant Al Powell to me. Paul Gleason has never been more snide as Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and I’ve always preferred William Atherton’s turn as an asshole here than as Walter Peck in Ghostbusters. Who can forget Hart Bochner’s performance as Harry Ellis, a performance that could arguably be the best on screen douchebag ever? Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly Genaro-McClane never gets her fair share I feel, as she and Willis are a perfect match. Their scenes are few together, but even then, “Ms. Genaro” holds her own as tough, leading woman once Takagi (James Shigeta) is killed.

Alan Rickman in Die Hard

Director John McTiernan never forgets that he’s having fun though. Every action sequence continues to up the ante, and feels organic to the plot, driving it forward rather than showcasing a set piece. It just so happens that every one them tends to be memorable. Be it the failed raid the S.W.A.T. team tries on the building, or the roof being blown sky high towards the end of the picture, each action scene is crafted differently and elevates the tension as it moves along.

The bulk of this has been said before, and likely better than what I’ve been able to throw into the pot. However, this was one of the very first films I ever watched, and I’ve grown up with this series ever since. Die Hard is a lot of things to many people, but to me this film is something of a way of life. I’ve based aspects of my own personality after John McClane, and even after all this time the movie still manages to take my breath away.  Much like it’s iconic villain, Die Hard is still the standard on which all action films are judged, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.

Bruce Willis with a machine gun in Die Hard

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