RogerBW's Blog

Die Hard (1988) 12 February 2022

1988 thriller/action, dir. John McTiernan, Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman; IMDb / allmovie.

The most amazing thing about this film is that it came out amazing.

It's based on Roderick Thorp's 1978 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, for which the genesis was "what if The Towering Inferno, but with shooty action?". In that, the evil corporation really is supporting dictators, and it's the heroine's estranged daughter who's in the building… as one of the terrorists. Nobody comes out of it well. (Well, it's the 1970s, and happy endings are only for good children who eat all their greens.) Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (separately) turned that into a more interesting screenplay.

But the really major thing that made it not just another turn-the-crank action pic was the star. In action film before this point heroes were big tough musclebound guys who felt no pain or other emotion; all right, mostly they were Arnold Schwarzenegger. And he was offered this part; so was Stallone; so were Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, even Richard Gere and Don Johnson. They all turned it down. Bruce Willis was "that guy from Moonlighting" in an era when transition from television to film acting was still rare, and indeed he also had to turn it down at first, but when there was a shooting break for Cybill Shepherd's pregnancy he was able to take the job after all.

And, who'd have thought, having a hero who's human, who pauses to look at the girlie picture on the wall, who's afraid of flying, makes them more relatable. (Even if he can still win a fight against the big beefy guy too.) In fact there's a lot of showing who people are here: Sergeant Al puts money in the charity box, the SWAT team catches on the spiky plants as they charge up to the building, and even Agent Johnson says "no, the other one". Heavy-handed perhaps (it's hard to fit subtlety into the length of a film), but it gets the job done better than spoken lines would.

Of course, like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves a few years later, this film is saved by Alan Rickman. After all, it's his actions that drive the plot; and it's a caper plot. If only the thieves were a bit less prone to shooting people, they could very easily be the stars of the film and the people the audience was rooting for. They have the plan, they've done the research, they know how the police and FBI will react and have taken that into account. They just didn't allow for a lone hero.

Meanwhile Bonnie Bedelia has the thankless task of being both sympathetic and at outs with Wonderful Relatable Bruce – and she's frankly underused; not every film can be The Thin Man but I'd have loved to see a version of this in which she was manipulating the thieves' state of mind while McClane was out hitting people. I can't help notice that McClane has more of a relationship here with Sergeant Al than he does with his own wife.

Clarence Gilyard Jr shines in a small role as the techie on the thieves' crew, establishing some of the later clichés. Alas, the next films he'd appear in were Left Behind parts 1 and 2 in 2000.

The action's good, but there were lots of good action sequences in films of this date, before computing power got cheap enough that mere gravity and inertia no longer had a role in filmmaking. What makes this a masterpiece is the people.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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