Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why Die Hard is a Classic

Today I sometimes think we take the movie Die Hard for granted. After all, the film has aired countless times on television, produced three sequels, and inspired an inordinately large number of imitators. It is true that it holds a 94% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an equally impressive rating of 8.3 stars out of 10 possible at IMDB (which places it at #123 on that web site's Top 250). The movie also came in at #39 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Thrills list. Ultimately, however, I think the average viewer has forgotten or (for those not born yet or not old enough to remember when the film came out) are simply unaware of the impact the movie had when it first came out.

The simple fact is that Die Hard, released in 1988, was a huge departure from the action films of the Eighties which preceded it. The film is a wholly different animal from Rambo: First Blood Part II or the many Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the era. What is more, it introduced a whole new plot element to action films, creating its own little subgenre which thrived in the Nineties. Not since Seven Samurai had a film had such an impact on the action genre.

The vast majority of the impact of Die Hard rests on the fact that it is, quite simply, a very well crafted movie. Particularly for an action movie made in the Eighties, Die Hard has very few plot points that appear contrived or forced. In fact, for the most part the various plot developments are spurred by characters. Rather than being a plot driven film, as some action movies are, Die Hard is largely a character driven movie.

Indeed, the characters in Die Hard may well be the movie's greatest strength. The villain Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) is not a simple cardboard cut out, but a three dimensional character with motives wholly his own. Holly Gennero McClane (played by Bonnie Bedelia) is a strong, independent, and intelligent woman, a sharp break from the way many women were portrayed in action movies of the era. Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is an ordinary cop who finds himself in an extraordinary situation, and comes to respect and admire the the hero.

As to the hero himself, John McClane (played by Bruce Willis), he was a total break from the heroes of the Rambo movies and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the era. John McClane is not some one dimensional character with superhuman abilities who comes out of every scrape untouched. Instead, McClane is a sympathetic character, in some respects an average man who simply finds himself in the wrong place at the right time. Not only is McClane going through a rough patch in his marriage, but as the movie progresses he finds himself beaten, tired, and even bleeding. What sets McClane apart from the average man is his enormous resourcefulness and his sheer determination to survive and save lives. When Hans Gruber claims McClane is "Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon," McClane simply replies, "Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually." McClane's exchange is more telling than the simple smart alec remark it appears to be. Unlike many Western heroes, Roy Rogers' characters avoided taking lives unless entirely necessary and always strived to help others in need. And while McClane does rack up quite a body count through the movie, it is notable that he generally reacts only in defence of himself or others.

While Die Hard has well rounded characters, it also benefits from some great action sequences. In fleeing from Gruber's terrorists, McClane must go through fan blades, run along a catwalk, go down a ladder, and work his way down an air vent into a boardroom. Another impressive action scene is McClane's battle with Gruber's ubermensch Karl (Alexander Godunov), in which McClane must use his resourcefulness to defeat a stronger opponent more skilled in fighting. Towards the climax, McClane must make a daring escape from the rooftop, which Gruber has rigged to explode with C4. The direction and editing in these sequences is superb, making them some of the most riveting action sequences to appear on film.

Not only was Die Hard a well made film, its originality went beyond having a hero who was merely human, albeit one who was resourceful, determined, and persistent. Based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, the plot of Die Hard centred around terrorists seizing control of an entire skyscraper. The success of Die Hard resulted in its plot being recycled again and again in the film's imitators. In fact, in the Nineties many of the films were described as "Die Hard on a....," such as "Die Hard on a ship (Under Siege)," "Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57)," "Die Hard in a sports arena (Sudden Death)," and "Die Hard on a bus (Speed)." Not since The Seven Samurai (which has inspired films ranging from The Dirty Dozen to A Bug's Life) had an action film more or less created its own subgenre.

Die Hard was released on July 15, 1988 to almost entirely positive reviews (Roger Ebert was among the few dissenters). It did relatively well at the American box office, grossing $83,008,852 (roughly the equivalent of $152,430,577 today). This is a very respectable amount for a movie released in mid-July when the summer movie season is slowing down (The Dark Knight was a huge exception to this rule). Ultimately, however, the impact of Die Hard cannot be measured in the reviews it received or even in dollars and cents. Consider, the top grossing film of 1988 was Rain Man. And while the film is well remembered, it did not produce a slough of imitators, nor did it produce its very own subgenre. In the long run, then, Die Hard has a greater pop culture cache than Rain Man.

Today we tend to take Die Hard for granted. The fact remains, however, that not only did it receive largely positive reviews upon its release (an accomplishment only a few action films can boast), but it changed the action movie genre for years to come. It introduced a hero who could tire, be seriously injured, and did not have a never ending stream of bullets. It also introduced a plot line that would form the basis of what can be called the "Die Hard subgenre" of action films. While it is hardly the masterpiece that The Seven Samurai is, in many respects it revolutionised the action genre in the same way that The Seven Samurai had over thirty years earlier.


Jim Marquis said...

I remember my buddy Dave and I went to see the first Die Hard at a free sneak preview screening. We were absolutely blown away by show smart, fun and exciting it was.

Jim Marquis said...

Oops, meant to say "how smart, fun and exciting it was".

Thomas Pluck said...

This is one of my favorite action films, and I watch it every Christmas. Endlessly imitated, Bruce Willis made the smart-aleck hero commonplace; Arnie always had one-liners and a knowing grin, but Willis was best known as a comic actor from "Moonlighting" and it was a huge gamble giving him this role.