The Test of Time: Die Hard (1988)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Enough bullsh*tting, we’ve got a controversially pressing question to pose to y’all: is DIE HARD a Christmas movie or not?

You’re goddamn right it is! I mean, what else do you need to know other than the fact the movie takes place entirely on Christmas Eve, has a set festooned with festive decorations, a towering ornate tree, a celebratory office party, and perhaps most important – the use of Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis to kick off the action? Anyone who says DIE HARD is not a Christmas movie is flatly wrong!

Now on to the real subject of the day: DIE HARD’s staying power. Look, we already know the 1988 Bruce Willis action flick is one of the absolute classics in the genre. Hell, it’s rightly atop the running for best action film of all time. The high-wattage spectacle not only spawned a handful of sequels, DIE HARD also gave us perhaps the coolest, most iconic, laconic and likeable take-no-shit good guys in John McClane. It also treated us to the film debut of Alan Rickman, whose transcendent turn as the villainous Hans Gruber has ascended to equal infamy over the years and even decades. We know this. The movie is currently ranked #122 on IMDB’s 250 Movies of All Time and not surprisingly, is featured in Steven Schneider’s "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die." Anyway you cut it, DIE HARD is an undisputed classic. So, how does it play now, almost 30 years after it was made? Yippi-ki-Yay Motherf*ckers…DIE HARD is locked, loaded and aiming square at The Test of Time!

THE STORY: Believe it or not, Clint Eastwood was the first to hold the rights to Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever, from which the script for DIE HARD was adapted. While it would have been interesting to see Big Clint direct the material, perhaps even starring as well, no one could have done a better job for 20th Century Fox than John McTiernan, who was in the absolute zone of a sweet spot coming directly off of PREDATOR. Not to mention the inspired casting of Bruce Willis, a TV sitcom actor with no real big screen bona fides at the time. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in talks to star as John McClane (among many others), which would have sensibly reteamed him with McTiernan, and would have made even more sense considering Steven de Souza wrote the scripts for both films. It’s crazy to think how different DIE HARD could have been!

Now for the story itself. You know what’s up. Bedraggled NYC cop John McClane lands in sunny Los Angeles to surprise his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company Christmas party. Doubly celebrating a big money deal they just closed earlier in the day, McClane arrives at the 40-storey high-rise called Nakatomi Plaza (Fox headquarters in real life) – headed by Mr. Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta) – and elevates up to the 30th floor to greet Holly. 23 minutes later, a militant cavalcade of German thieves posing as terrorists storm the joint with designs on pilfering millions of dollars in negotiable bearer bonds. These mofos are armed to teeth, organized like a goddamn mafia family, and of course, headed by one of the most calculatingly slick masterminds of all in Hans Gruber…a professional criminal who always seems one step ahead. That is, until he runs into John mother*cking McClane!

Old Johnny Boy must not only waylay the entire squadron of German goons, he must reconcile with his wife while protecting her life and that of everyone she works with. With a tactile, DIY, man-against-the-world mentality, Johnny boy attacks with lightning quick strikes, taking down a terrorist or two at a time, traversing up and down the many floors, ducts and shafts of the towering skyscraper before ultimately, ever memorably, showing down with Hans…Bubby in the end. So simple, exacted so perfectly!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Having just watched DIE HARD again for the like 100th time, I say with brimming confidence that the movie not only holds up like the goddamn Egyptian pyramids, it plays almost better now than it did in ’88. Look no further than an early scene where John uses a touch screen directory to locate his wife’s office. Shit’s techno-prescient! This is also germane to the story, what with McClane learning his wife has chosen to represent her maiden name at work in L.A. This feeds into the overarching narrative of John trying desperately to reconcile with his distancing spouse. For an FX driven, stunt-laden, marvelous action extravaganza, it’s easy to overlook how deftly formulated the screenplay to DIE HARD is. But it starts on the page, and the details in the film have only appreciated over time, they’ve not receded to the naked eye one bit.

It’s hard to articulate all that works so well in DIE HARD, beyond the confluential synecdoche of the total sum being greater than any one part. That is, pretty much every aspect of the filmmaking process comes together - naturally, harmoniously - to create a first rate piece of dramatic-action entertainment. The script is where it starts of course, the choice of director follows suit, then the brilliant casting. But let’s not forget about what a great looking film DIE HARD remains to be. This is a credit to A-class Dutch DP Jan De Bont, who got his start working with Paul Verhoeven in the Netherlands. The camerawork has a fluid dynamism that perfectly mirrors the material, a kinetic onslaught of movement that allows us to fit into the shoes (and then bloody feet) of McClane as he traverses the high-rise. Interestingly, De Bont was accidentally trapped in an elevator-lift during the shoot, which inspired him to write the similar scenario in the opening to his film SPEED six years later.

DIE HARD also features two great performances from its opposing leads. Willis, who was exhaustively shooting his hit TV show Moonlighting during the day before working nights on the Fox lot to film DIE HARD, gives one of the all time great performances as an action antihero. McClane is in many ways a self-loathing asshole of a character, but damn do we love him so. Why is this? Well, the comedic timing of Willis and concomitant tone the entire film shapes around such is a crucial determinant. Straight up, what’s more classic than McClane’s constant ball-busting, dry barbs and wry quipping, none of which striking more hilarious than when leaving a dead German henchman in a tantalizing Christmas sweater that reads “now I have a machine-gun…Ho Ho Ho!” Too damn good! Word is McTiernan turned down the script many times before agreeing to direct, citing the tone of the piece as being too “nasty.” Once the script was given a lighter rewrite, likely to accommodate Willis’ comedic talent, he accepted. Merry F*cking Christmas!

As for the flipside, who has ever been a better villain in an action movie than Alan Rickman as Gruber? So nervous was Rickman to make a good impression in his film debut, filming only two days after arriving in Los Angeles, he begrudgingly took the role as an action movie villain and decided to throw himself into it fully. He gained unanimous critical plaudits for his performance, so much so that he spent years turning down villainous roles he was offered as a result. And why not? Rickman is outstanding in the film, namely in the scene in which he and McClane face off for the first time. Not only was this the first scene Rickman filmed, he did so days after badly injuring his knee. He’s practically playing the scene on one leg, with a giant brace hiding under his pant-leg while standing opposite McClane. Also, in order to keep a level of spontaneity, this is the first time Willis and Rickman actually met in real life as well. The result is as natural as can be. The way Rickman has Hans surreptitiously slide into his American accent and fool McClane is a transcendent moment in the film, and one of the reasons why it’s a transformative performance. Boy are we glad Sam Neill turned down the role and opened the door for Rickman!

Enough’s enough though, let’s get into the ACTION. Off top, three wildly profligate set-piece spectacles instantly leap to mind. The first has to be when McClane swings from the 30th floor, like a swashbuckling buccaneer, using a fire rope to crash through a plate glass window in a heap of blood and bones. It’s one of the showstoppers in the film that lets you know this is no ordinary B-movie escapism.

We could also get into the shootout showdowns between McClane and both Fritz and Karl, but mention of the incendiary rooftop finale must take priority. The shot of McClane launching off the roof just in the nick of time, his whole body illuminated like a heroic halo from a blazing blast right behind him is, without a doubt, another iconic moment from the film no one will soon forget.

Finally, we arrive at the infamous death of Hans Gruber. Filmed at 300 frames per second, the shot was achieved by having Rickman fall from a 21-foot tall model. Apparently, he was to hold on to a stuntman and fall directly on to a large air bag. But get this. In order to get the right reaction of surprise, the stuntman dropped Rickman at the count of two instead of three. This is why Rickman looks so genuinely terrified upon being dropped. It’s another masterful sequence in the film that remains as memorable as anything else. And not for nothing, it marked the 21st onscreen death in the flick!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: How dare you? Nothing about DIE HARD blows. Not now, not ever. Hell, I even think parts 2 and 3 (Jeremy Irons!) are damn near perfect as well. GTFO with that kinda talk!

THE VERDICT: You serious? DIE HARD is, was, and will always be in the running for the best action film ever made. Simple as that. The way it fuses every aspect of filmmaking into one massive, eminently repeatable piece of pop-entertainment is damn hard to assail, even 30 years after it was made. It’s almost like hitting the lottery tenfold. Fox optioned the right novel, hired the correct writers, sought out the best director for the material, wisely took a flier on would-be mega-movie-star in Bruce Willis, recruited the perfect cinematographer, found the perfect villain in Alan Rickman and let the first rate stunt-team and visual FX crew utterly flourish. The confluence of each of these departments speaks for itself. The Test of Time? Please, DIE HARD does to that question what McClean does to crew Gruber. Annihilates!




Extra Tidbit: How's this for another trivial Xmas tie-in: DIE HARD's main villain is named Hans Gruber, right? Well, word his name was changed from the novel to be named after Franz Gruber, the man who wrote the famous Christmas carol, Silent Night.
Source: AITH



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