Die Hard (1988) – John McTiernan

The 101 Action Movies brings me another one of my favorites.

Fresh off the success of Predator, McTiernan took Bruce Willis, then mostly known for the TV series Moonlighting and launched him into superstardom as everyman police officer John McClane, who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Flying out from New York to California to see his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their kids for Christmas, John arrives at Holly’s place of work, a 40-storey office building for the annual party. Shortly behind him are a gang of smart thieves, letting the authorities think they are terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (the always brilliant Alan Rickman).

The building is locked down, no one gets in or out, and it’s up to John to try to save the day as he is by turns the hunter and the hunted as he takes the villains down one at a time. For all that, McClane is by no definition a superhero, he’s an average guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and as the tension builds so does his wise-ass attitude, and of course his now trademark catchphrase makes a welcome R-rated appearance.

diehard_lMcTiernan proved he could direct action sequences in Predator, in this film he perfects them. He also takes his time with the set-up, establishing his characters and the building’s geography.

John is pushed to his limits, barefoot and living by his wits as things get worse and worse as the building and its surroundings is filled with bullets and explosions.

Outside the building allies are few and far between, Gruber has anticipated every move the authorities will make, leaving Agents Johnson (Robert Davi) and Johnson (Grand L. Bush) flapping in the wind. Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) stays in contact with McClane via radio, despite the fact that Powell’s boss Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) doesn’t believe a word of it.

Stirring the pot is Richard Thornberg (William Atherton), who learns the connection between Holly and John and broadcasts it…

gruberThe film races to its climax, as John shows down against Karl (Alexander Godunov), Gruber’s right hand man, and finally against Hans himself.

But he certainly doesn’t come through unscathed, by the film’s end he’s beaten, bruised and bloodied, and to this day, the scene with the glass still makes my feet clench.

I can remember the first time I saw it, once again at the theater on the American base in Bermuda, and I went both nights it screened. I had never seen an action movie like it. It was smart, funny, and expertly crafted. For the longest time, as a teen, this was my favorite movie, after Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was watched repeatedly on VHS and DVD. Everything in it just seems to work, without a single missed moment or opportunity.

diehardThere’s no question that the bad guys get their comeuppance, but they give as good as they get, they just never expected someone like John McClane to be a problem.

Michael Kamen provides a pulsing score to go with the action on the screen, as McClane leaps from rooftops, rides elevators, and savagely takes down his enemies.

The interplay between John and Al grounds the film, especially post-glass while McClane considers his odds while in the bathroom, blood everywhere. He comes across as a real guy, and its moments like that, coupled with his terrible handling of his catching up with Holly at the film’s beginning  that do that.

johnThat and the fact that he is battered almost beyond recognition by film’s end, but his wits and improvisational skills keep him going.

This one continues to tower over all other action movies before or since, and can always be counted on to get me through a rainy day.

What’s your favorite John McClane moment?


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