D is for… Die Hard
What can I say about the Oscar nominated Die Hard that hasn’t yet been said? It’s got action, heart, and humor, it launched Bruce Willis’ movie career, and led to the creation of the movie genre “Die Hard on a [noun].”
In my opinion it also is far superior to the book upon which it was based, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. Aside from lacking Bruce Willis, the book lacked a lot of the humor and heart that make the film so engaging.
This review was actually difficult to write, because Die Hard has been one of my favorite movies for a long time, so not only have I seen it before (like with Commando), I also am of course very familiar with it. I found it hard to sort of analyze the film the way I could the ones I haven’t yet seen. I’m not an outsider looking in; I’ve seen McClane take down Hans so many times I can recite their last confrontation with them.
I was even John McClane for Halloween this year.
It’s hard to be objective, is what I guess I’m saying.
However, I of course couldn’t leave Die Hard (directed by John McTiernan) off my list of action movies. Not only is it just plain a good, entertaining action movie, it did indeed launch the “Die Hard on a [noun]” genre because filmmakers wanted to pitch ideas similar to what people could already understand and know they enjoy.
As a brief summary, New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) heads to California to his wife’s (Holly played by Bonnie Bedelia) company’s Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza. However, terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) crash the party and take the guests hostage, all in an attempt to steal what’s in the building’s vault. Fighting the odds—barefoot and woefully outnumbered, and untrusted by authority figures—McClane is of course able to emerge victorious and get the girl (well, his wife; you know what I mean). He’s able to isolate the terrorists one by one, until he finally gets the attention of LAPD Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), who calls in police back up. With Al’s encouragement McClane keeps going, finally drawing the remaining terrorists away from the hostages and going head to head with Hans, who has taken Holly hostage by herself while he steals the bonds from the vault. Hans ultimately plunges to his death, and McClane and Holly share a sweaty, bloody embrace. They ride off into the dawn as “Let It Snow” crescendos over the end credits. See? It’s a Christmas movie as well.
Of course there are more plot details than those, but I think it’ll be easiest just to dive right in and go through the categories.
So here we begin the ABCs of Die Hard.
A is for… Accents
The lead villain Hans Gruber is German, and has quite a lovely accent. Numerous other terrorists are also German.
There’s also the terrorist who manages the reception desk, except his accent seems to be Southern. It’s hard to tell if the accent is fake, or if Hans truly did pick up an American from the south to be part of his crew. We never really learn from where Hans collected his motley team, which makes the team all the more interesting, in my opinion.
B is for… Bad Guys
Hans leads a group of twelve terrorists to Nakatomi to steal from the vault. They are clearly well prepared; McClane even describes them as “well financed and very slick.” They enter the building’s parking garage while hidden in a Pacific Courier truck, and easily take out the building’s guard and take over the party.
Hans himself is well kept and can recognize high quality men’s suits. The fact half of his terrorists are wearing sweats even further puts his own dapperness on display. He was once a member of a radical Volksfrei movement but was expelled. He tells Takagi (James Shigeta) he liked to make models when he was a child because he enjoyed the exactness.
He takes the members of the Christmas party hostage to steal the $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds in the vault. He is able to predict with near perfect accuracy the steps the police will take once they’re alerted to the terrorists. He even tells his team that police action is inevitable and necessary. He makes ridiculous demands to the police to distract them from his actual goals. He’s smart enough to have looked through the directory of the building to learn there’s a “William Clay” who works there, so he has a name to provide when telling McClane (before they’re properly introduced) that he works at Nakatomi and escaped from the party.
Members of Hans’ crew include Theo, the technical expert, Tony, Karl, Franco, Marco, Heinrich, and Fritz. It’s actually really interesting to me that so many of Hans’ crew is actually named. Most of the time villains’ flunkies are nameless and sometimes even faceless.
An argument can be made that Holly’s coworker, Ellis (Hart Bochner) is also a bad guy. He’s clearly sleazy from the beginning, when he hits on Holly. He’s also seen snorting cocaine, to which McClane turns a blind eye. He gives Hans McClane’s name in an attempt to give Hans what he wants. His only redeeming decision in the entire movie is that he doesn’t tell Hans that John McClane is Holly Genero’s husband, but that McClane is actually his friend. McClane tries to tell Hans that he doesn’t know Ellis, and thus isn’t going to give himself up for him (and Ellis can’t give him any more information on McClane because he doesn’t know any), but Hans has no patience and shoots Ellis through the head while he drinks some Coke. Ellis isn’t in league with Hans, of course, but he certainly doesn’t help McClane’s cause at all, and ultimately puts Holly in danger because Hans is later able to piece together the fact that the man killing his men is the husband of the woman he’s been talking to at the party.
Another argument can be made for Richard Thornburg (William Atherton), the television reporter. In order to add more drama to his story, he actually goes to Holly’s house and has her kids on camera. He’s horrible and manipulative, and it’s very satisfying to watch Holly punch him in the mouth at the end of the film.
C is for… Chases
Because the film takes place almost entirely inside a building, there aren’t any of the traditional action movie chase scenes. An argument can be made that the entire film is a chase scene as Hans and his men hunt throughout the building for John, but that’s more cat-and-mouse than cars-hitting-curbs.
The one scene I think that most closely resembles a chase is when McClane is on his back underneath the conference room table with the terrorist Marco firing at him and taunting his seemingly cowardly actions as McClane crawls and Marco stalks. Of course, we all know that McClane takes Marco’s advice—Next time you have a chance to kill someone, don’t hesitate—to heart.
D is for… Damsels
There’s barely a female presence in the film other than Holly Gennaro, McClane’s estranged wife who brought his kids out to LA so she could pursue her own career while John stayed with the NYPD. She doesn’t even use his last name any more, and explains it as her being part of an old fashioned company. Their relationship seems particularly strained from the get-go, considering she asks him if he has a place to stay, then tells him that she can have the spare room made up for him. How bitter is this short separation that they’re going through, that he flew 3000 miles to spend Christmas with his family and he wasn’t even guaranteed a bed (even a couch) in her home. There’s general awkwardness, and when Holly says she misses him, he makes a dig at her not missing his last name when signing checks. This is not a happy relationship, which makes everything he does to save her seem kind of silly other than while watching through some sort of “love conquers all” veil.
Takagi describes Holly as “made for business” and “tough as nails,” which she does show when she has to interact with Hans regarding the needs of the staff, and also when she challenges him at the end and calls him a common thief (which he does not like).
At the end of the film all of McClane’s efforts seem warranted, as they drive off into the sunrise together arm in arm. Holly isn’t the worst damsel in an action movie, but—especially knowing the fate of their relationship—it’s sometimes hard to imagine putting oneself through the trouble McClane does. Except, of course, he’s “that guy,” so no matter what he’s going to try to save the day. He also saves the other hostages, of course, but his main objective is to save her.
E is for… Explosives
Initially the terrorists are armed with grenades that kind of resemble hockey pucks, and they roll them to within range of the target. One grenade gets the second guard by the elevators, and another contributes to the damage of the glass office in which McClane tries to hide.
Hans brought explosives with him to blow up the roof, but McClane gets his hands on them. He uses them to blow up the elevator shaft to both distract and kill some of the terrorists. There are enough explosives for Hans to blow the roof as planned, which was to hide his escape and take out the FBI helicopters that were circling the roof, as he explains: “Well, when you steal $600, you can just disappear. When you steal 600 million, they will find you, unless they think you’re already dead.”
F is for… Flashbacks
Not applicable in this case. The whole movie takes place in one night with no time diversions.
G is for… Guns
Full details over at the IMFDB.
The terrorists bring a slew of machine guns. McClane happens to have his service weapon on him (even on the airplane, which is so interesting to see nowadays, likewise McClane lighting a cigarette in the airport).
Interestingly, Hans doesn’t seem to have a gun on him—certainly one isn’t drawn—when he and his crew initially take over the party. He makes his minions use them. He does, however, use his handgun to kill Takagi, and eventually Ellis. He also stashes one on the roof when looking at his explosives, but can’t get to it in time when McClane corners him.
The terrorists also have a guided missile in a box, which they do put together later in the film.
McClane of course acquires a machine gun from a terrorist he kills, which he announces to Hans by writing, “Now I have a machine gun. HO-HO-HO” on the terrorist’s shirt. He takes weapons as necessary after he kills terrorists.
A rocket launcher is used to blow up the armored vehicle the feds use to try to breach the building.
In one of the heartfelt moments of the film, Sergeant Powell draws his gun at the end to kill Karl, meaning he was able to get over his fear of shooting someone by mistake.
There are a number of shootouts in the film as well, all ending with John either escaping (such as when he’s on the roof and is able to make his way inside) or being left to suffer (after the glass surrounding him is shot out and he must crawl away from the wreckage).
H is for… Helicopters
There is a sad lack of helicopters in the film, though the DVD menu features a helicopter for some reason. I suppose because the menu itself is designed to look like the top of the building.
The FBI agents Johnson and Johnson attempt to land a helicopter on the roof to get to the terrorists and rescue hostages, but fortunately they get blown up. (They were jerks.)
I is for… Improvisation
Unfortunately, McClane doesn’t have a whole lot to improvise with. But he does make the best of it a few times.
He does evade the terrorists by getting past a fan then escaping through the elevator shaft, using the strap on his acquired machine gun to help him down. Though Hans does say to leave him because the elevators aren’t working, so this escape may not have been successful in other circumstances.
When leaping from the exploding roof, John ties the fire hose around his waist to catch him as he falls, so he doesn’t wind up on the street. He just smashes into the side of the building instead.
The crowning moment of the climax is also a clever improvisation. John has zero bullets in the machine gun and only two for his service weapon, so he pretends to give the weapon up when confronted by Hans, only to reveal his service weapon is strapped to his back using holiday themed tape lying around from the construction. He takes out Hans and the other terrorist, and McClane’s silent communication with Holly illustrates the closeness their relationship once had at some point in time.
J is for… Jumping Through Solid Objects
What really stands out in Die Hard, compared to the other films I’ve reviewed thus far, is that the glass making up the windows is real. Or at least if it’s not real, it breaks a heck of a lot more realistically than movie glass usually does.
A lot of glass breaks in the film:
-McClane uses a chair to shatter the window in order to throw Marco out of it to catch Powell’s attention.
-Marco smashes Powell’s windshield when he lands on it.
-McClane smashes the glass on the fire ax.
-in a reversal of the “glass shatters instantly upon contact” trope, when McClane leaps off the building with the fire hose, he swings back towards the building and crashes into the glass and it doesn’t break. He has to push himself off of it with his bloody feet and shoot at it with his gun.
-The window behind Hans is shot out, allowing him to fall through it after McClane shoots him.
K is for… Kill Count
McClane gradually kills all the terrorists in the movie with few exceptions.
-He breaks Tony’s neck when they’re falling down the stairs.
-He shoots a blonde terrorist.
-He shoots Marco through the table then throws him into the street to get Powell’s attention.
-Powell tells him he got two of the terrorists with the explosion he creates in the elevator shaft.
-He shoots another terrorist with a machine gun.
-He strangles Karl seemingly to death with a chain (only for Powell to have to finish him off).
-He shoots the terrorist who’d eaten the Crunch bar earlier.
-He shoots the terrorist with the southern accent right in the head.
-He drops Hans out of the window.
L is for… Limitations
By listening to the weirdo on the plane who tells him to “make fists with your toes,” McClane is caught shoeless when Hans and his men take over. Yes, McClane, “better than being caught with your pants down,” but it still leaves you vulnerable. Also, McClane tries to take the shoes of the first terrorist he killed, so why not any of the others afterwards? Did they all have small feet?
Also, John has to cover several floors of the building all by himself, at first with no help at all, then with only the help of Powell, who’s is basically moral support as the other cops just make things worse. McClane can’t simply go in and rescue the princess, so to speak, he has to get rid of all the terrorists first to ensure the safety of everyone at the party.
M is for… Motivation
As much as Hans is “very slick,” at heart he really is just a thief who is after the $640 million and treasures in the vault. His demands given to the FBI are just to keep them guessing and distract them.
McClane’s goal is to save Holly above all, and of course save all of the other hostages, which he does except for Takagi and Ellis.
N is for… Negotiations
Hans has his fake demands to stall the FBI.
Ellis wants McClane—aka John Boy—to give himself up to Hans so Hans can just get what he wants and leave everyone alone. Or so Ellis can be the hero, which is more likely.
After McClane steals Hans’ detonators, he tries to negotiate to get them back, but of course McClane refuses.
Powell spends a lot of his time trying to get Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) to listen to him, which while not necessarily a negotiation, is still Powell trying to get what he wants.
O is for… One Liners
Die Hard, and McClane specifically, is known for the one liners and clever bits of dialogue.
Theo: You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality.
Tony: There are rules for policemen.
McClane: Yeah, that’s what my captain keeps telling me.
McClane: Nine million terrorists in the world and I had to kill one with feet smaller than my sister.
McClane write’s onto Tony’s shirt: Now I have a machine gun. HO-HO-HO.
McClane, sarcastically: Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.
McClane, standard hero-talking-to-himself monologue: Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.
McClane, watching the fire trucks summoned when he pulled the alarm: Come on baby, come to papa, I’ll kiss your fuckin’ dalmatian.
McClane, watching Powell drive around the parking lot: Who’s driving this car, Stevie Wonder?
Hans: Thanks for the advice.
McClane: Welcome to the party, pal!
McClane: Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change?
(this one is more notable for Hans’ nonverbal reaction after he says it)
McClane: I was always kind of partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really liked those sequined shirts.
McClane: Yippie Ki Yay, mother fucker.
Hans, actually starting to be shaken, or maybe is experiencing disbelief: He had the detonators.
McClane, explaining to Powell what the terrorists were packing: Enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger. (I’m mostly including this line because of the Arnold reference.)
Hans: What idiot put you in charge?
Holly: You did, when you murdered my boss.
(some of the “tough as nails” attitude she’s described as having)
McClane: Call me… Roy.
Powell, to McClane, trying to get him to be quiet for a bit: If you are what I think you are, you’ll know when to shut up, when to listen, and when to pray.
Theo: The quarterback is toast!
McClane, arguing with Robinson: Glass? Who gives a shit about glass? Who the fuck is this?
And then: I’m not the one who just for butt fucked on national TV, Dwayne.
Hans, sardonically to Ellis: You’re amazing, you figured that all out already.
Powell: Why don’t you wake up and smell what you shoveling?
Hans: I read about them in TIME Magazine.
Holly: He’s still alive… Only John can drive somebody that crazy.
Hans: The circuits that cannot be cut locally are cut automatically in response to a terrorist incident. You asked for miracles, Theo, I give you the F.B.I.
Powell, explaining to McClane what’s going on: They got the terrorist playbook and they’re running it step by step.
McClane, about Holly: She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times, but she’s never heard me say ‘I’m sorry.’
McClane, to Karl: You should have heard your brother squeal when I broke his fucking neck.
Special Agent Johnson: Just like fuckin’ Saigon, eh, Slick!
The other Special Agent Johnson: I was in junior high, dickhead!
Robinson, after Johnson and Johnson’s helicopter is blown up: We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.
Hans: This time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.
McClane: That was Gary Cooper, asshole.
McClane: Happy trails, Hans.
Robinson, as Hans falls to his death: Oh, I hope that’s not a hostage.
Argyle: If this is their idea of Christmas, I’ve got to be here for New Years.
P is for… Profession
John McClane has been a New York City cop for eleven years, as revealed to his seatmate on the airplane when his service weapon comes into view. He has a nasty looking scar on his right shoulder.
He’s depicted as very clever throughout the entire movie, such as as soon as he escapes from the party he immediately learns the floors above the 30th and keeps track of what’s under construction, what’s an office, et cetera. He takes what he can from the terrorists he kills, including searching their pockets for ID and rummaging through duffel bags. He also knows how to manipulate the elevators to stop between floors, and maneuver the shafts themselves. He writes the terrorists’ names on his arm as he learns them, and picks up immediately that Hans is the leader. He also knows how to use C-4. His hinting about fake IDs and some other things is enough to tip Powell off that “he’s definitely a badge.”
It’s arguable that he has military training as well.
Q is for… Quagmire
The most difficult position McClane seems to get himself into is the battle with Hans where Hans has his men shoot out the glass surrounding McClane. Hans knows McClane is barefoot and while his men don’t seem to get it, Hans knows McClane will have to make his way across the sea of glass at some point. He even leaves him there to crawl his way out.
So, barefoot McClane surrounded by nothing but glass shards and no hope of rescue or assistance, and on a timeline to save the hostages and his wife, is a really horrible situation.
R is for… Reality/Suspension of Disbelief
For the most part, Die Hard seems fairly grounded in reality, at least to the point where most of the circumstances and events don’t really raise a mental flag of “yeah, right.” Most of it seems plausible.
Except the elevator shaft escape, where McClane is able to pull himself into that tiny vent shaft with no leverage at all. It might be possible, but it seems unlikely.
S if for… Sidekicks
Argyle is McClane’s limo driver from the airport to Nakatomi Plaza, arranged by Takagi. He’s a former cab driver turned limo driver, and so chats a lot. McClane tells him he’s “very fast” because he was able to discern that John and Holly’s relationship is rocky, and John didn’t expect Holly’s career in LA to work out as well as it did. He offers to wait in the parking garage until he hears from McClane that Holly will take her home with him. He winds up staying for a long time, and doesn’t even realize anything is wrong at the building until he listens to the TV/radio. He bravely drives his limo into Theo as he’s readying his escape, and even punches Theo out. At the end of the film he’s able to snatch McClane and Holly away from the media and drive them home.
Sergeant Al Powell was on his way home to his pregnant wife when he got the call to do a drive by at the plaza. He talks to McClane on the radio and provides to him the only support he has. He immediately trusts McClane, even when his superior is angry about it. He figures out that McClane—or Roy as he asks to be called—must be a cop. He spends the movie talking with McClane and arguing with Chief Robinson, though Powell proves to always be correct about what is happening, such as when he knows the terrorists are shooting out the lights, not firing in panic. He bonds with McClane and explains he’s on desk duty because he accidentally shot a kid, and is afraid to pull his gun. At the end of the film he is able to fight this fear when Karl rises from a body bag and levels a gun at McClane. Powell is able to take him out and save McClane’s life.
The moment where McClane and Powell meet each other face to face the first time is a powerful one. Finally there are faces to go with the voices they’d heard all night.
T is for… Technology
Theo breaks in and locks the parking garage, controls the security, locks all the doors remotely, and in general is depicted as Hans’ technology expert. Tony cuts through the phone lines, while Karl cuts everything with his chainsaw. A computer controls the vault, and the vault itself requires a code for the initial lock, has five mechanical locks, and the seventh and final lock is an electromagnetic seal that cannot be cut locally. Because the film was made pre-cell phone, everyone communicates across floors and with the outside using CB radio, which Argyle can also pick up in the limo.
It’s not until Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and then embellished in Live Free or Die Hard, that McClane is depicted as a Luddite.
U is for… Unexpected Romance
Because the damsel in this case is already McClane’s wife, there is of course no unexpected romance. The experience does, however, seem to strengthen their bond, because Holly uses McClane’s last name at the end of the film.
V is for… Vehicles as Weapons
Because the movie takes place almost exclusively inside a building, there aren’t too many vehicles, but Argyle is able to use his limo to stop Theo from helping with the escape by driving into the fake ambulance he was using.
W is for… Winning
As awesome a villain as Hans is, it’s still satisfying to see him drop from one of the top floors of the building. McClane sets this up by pretending to be empty handed, but then lulls Hans and his final goon into a false sense of security by laughing. He gets Holly to duck, and takes the gun taped to his back and fires off his two remaining shots into Hans and his goon. It’s not that easy of course and Hans almost takes Holly with him as he falls, but McClane is able to pop open the watch to which Hans is clinging (a gift from Ellis), so he loses his grip. McClane can’t do a simple shootout, he has to go for improvisation, cleverness, and finally getting Hans to fall out the window to his death.
X is for… X-Rays, or Maybe You Should See A Doctor
Throughout the film McClane is subjected to falls, beatings, glass in his feet, near strangulation, and is ultimately shot in his shoulder. Yet he still keeps going, knowing he has to get to Holly and stop Hans before it’s too late.
Y is for… Yesterday’s Problem Becomes Today’s Problem
While not related to Hans, the past events of Holly moving to California and McClane staying behind lead to her being taken hostage. Had McClane been any earlier or later from the airport, he’d’ve been either part of the party or not allowed in the building.
Z is for… Zone, in the
McClane seems to be in the zone or at least near it throughout the entire film. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to strategically take out so many terrorists, get the police involved, live to save the hostages, or taken out Hans with his sleight of hand, so to speak. While not expecting terrorists and only having his service weapon (and no shoes!) McClane is able to derail everything for Hans.
Again, Die Hard is my favorite movie, so it was hard to be objective. But I also don’t think there’s all that much to be subjective about, either; the plot is fairly straight forward and doesn’t miss a beat. The characters are developed well, and Hans is even a villain for fans to love to hate, or even love to enjoy because he’s that interesting. Holly is a little iffy, but because McClane is fighting to save the thirty other hostages and stop Hans from thieving as well, Holly seems like more of a bonus for McClane rather than the total end goal. Al Powell is a wonderful secondary character, the only sane member of the LAPD and FBI with a line of dialogue, except for maybe the “Something about a double cross” guy. Argyle’s brief scenes are amusing and help ground the viewer into remembering that McClane isn’t alone inside the building, even if he can’t get to anyone.
Overall, it’s easy to see why Die Hard, with its well-developed characters, good writing, and solid direction spawned its own film genre and three—soon to be four—sequels.
All I have to say is, predictably, yippie ki yay!