A few thoughts on Die Hard (1988)
• Cigarettes: I hadn’t seen the original Die Hard for years until I rewatched it again last night with my wife, who’d somehow never seen it, and a few friends. One of the first things that struck me, having not really watched any older action film in a while is John McClane is one smoke-happy action hero, pulling out a cigarette the moment he gets off a plane and smoking every chance he gets until the end. Typical of the film, which doesn’t let any element go to waste, his habit plays into the plot, allowing him to learn a bit about the bad guys based on the brand they smoke, and providing another way for the film to show the passing of time based on the number of smokes left in his pack. Bruce Willis smokes beautifully, too, letting his attitude toward the butt in his hand express his mood. It all plays into the film as a whole without drawing too much attention to itself. There’s a reason this movie got ripped off so much in subsequent years: It’s a model of how to make a tense thriller without losing sight of the characters, or why we should care about them.
• McTiernan: That efficiency’s there in the direction, too. There are a number of John McTiernan films I haven’t seen, including The Hunt For Red October, which people seem to like. But I don’t think too many object to the statement that this is finest hour. (Predator never impressed me that much, but I guess an argument could be made for it.) I’ve seen enough of his later films to know he lost the flair on evidence here, becoming just another competent-enough action hand who directs like he’s seen Die Hard a few times. What happened? Was it having Jan DeBont as his DP that made the difference? If nothing else, DeBont captures some the most apocalyptic-looking L.A. sunset I’ve ever seen.
• California: One trick the film pulls off with the same sort of efficiency is the way it slowly adds to its cast, bringing in cops, reporters, and FBI agents until it becomes a real Los Angeles movie. That all the action—and most of the movie—takes place in a single skyscraper helped make Die Hard stand out in 1988 but the way that location becomes the focus of the entire city over the course of the film makes the canvas feel much broader. So does MacClane’s New York-born distaste for casual California culture. It’s little more than a collection of eye roll-inducing California clichés floating through the ’80s (though, oddly, no sushi jokes), but Willis makes it work.
• Women: The background business of the movie is MacLane’s attempt to repair his marriage and I’d never noticed before how the first act of the film keeps throwing attractive women in his path only to have him notice them and pass them by. He’s got other business, not that the thought doesn’t cross his mind. (Even once the action starts, there’s still that nudie calendar posted in the back passageways that he uses to mark his place.
• The towering inferno: It’s not as easy to watch Nakatomi Plaza explode the as it was before 9/11. All those falling bodies and office paper floating against ash and smoke doesn’t quite look the same.
• The way of the gun: MacLane’s walkie talkie exchanges with LAPD Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) provide the film with some of its highlights. So do his talks with Han Gruber (Alan Rickman), and between the two ongoing conversations the film seems to be trying to work out some ideas about what an action hero was supposed to be in 1988. Gruber taunts MacLane with comparisons to John Wayne and Roy Rogers, but the taunts don’t stick. He digs those guys and the film posits him as a contemporary equivalent of their heroism, in contrast to Gruber’s effete, cerebral villain. As for Powell, he explains his humiliating desk duties as an ability to shoot his gun—this might be symbolic—after accidentally killing a teenager. At the tail end of the climax, he guns down a bad guy and McTiernan shoots the barrel of his gun with almost erotic affection. It’s, frankly, a little gross. Or maybe this film would find my machismo wanting, despite my deep affection for it.
• The end: I’m mostly okay with the Die Hard sequels. I remember Die Hard 2 as being a fun cartoon of a movie and dozing off during the fourth one, which was part of drive-in double feature. (The first part was Transformers. It wore me out.) I didn’t really care for the third one but it’s not terrible. None, however, are necessary. This is an almost-perfect self-contained action film that didn’t have to become a franchise. But such is the way of the times. Yippie-kay… I forget the rest.