“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
I’ve been hearing that phrase ever since I can remember. As a kid I’d hear the old farts go on and on about the decline of the car industry, or the home appliance (pick one). Even the clothes on their backs were subject to scrutiny, and more than likely the Chinese, Japanese, or the oft cited “younger generation” were going to get bandied about as likely culprits for the aforementioned decline. It wouldn’t surprise me if 100,000 years ago some knuckle dragging proto-human grunted his disapproval for the newfangled stone tools that had begun to replace the stronger, more reliable bone tools he was used to.
But it never stops. Things are never as good as they once were.
Take the action movie. Action as a genre was at the top of its form and popularity in the 1980’s. It was an era of unforgettable heroes, the likes of which haven’t been seen since. There was Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, Van Damme, Lundgren, and Seagal, to name just a few. And though these larger-than-life heroes of the silver screen are aging into the grandpa bracket now, the legacies of the tough-as-nails characters they portrayed live on in film and are preserved as icons of a bygone era. The era of the action movie.
Die Hard redefined the action star. It put Bruce Willis on the map, and solidified John McTiernan as one of the go-to directors for Hollywood action films. In the fast paced 80’s when bigger was better and more, more, more was the expectation, Bruce Willis’s John McClane stood apart as an everyman’s hero. The little guy with a quick wit, big balls, and the expertise and downright determination to back it up. Sure, we had Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series (one of my favorites), but Martin Riggs was crazy and seemed hell bent on suicide. John McClane had something to live for. Something every working stiff could sympathize with: a wife and kids.
New York cop John McClane (Willis) is flying out to L.A. for Christmas to try and salvage his failing marriage. His wife, Holly (Bonny Bedelia), has apparently taken a high paying promotion with the Nakatomi Corporation, and has been living out west for the past six months. But shortly after McClane is reunited with his wife at her posh, new Nakatomi office, a sophisticated group of European terrorists seize the building and take the entire floor of Nakatomi employees hostage. McClane manages to elude the bad guys and uses his free reign of the building to wreak havoc on their plans.
Die Hard is just a good, goddamned movie from start to finish. Bruce Willis plays the straight forward, wise cracking New York cop perfectly. There’s no distinction between actor and character. As far as the movie-goer is concerned Willis is McClane. And Alan Rickman, the “it” guy for 80’s villains, matches Willis stroke for stroke. Rickman’s head terrorist, Hans Gruber, is keen, funny, ruthless as hell, and likeable. Rickman’s got his work cut out for him, though, because he has to share the screen with a whole cast of character’s worthy of the audience’s disdain.
Die Hard is replete with quintessential 80’s bad guys. Paul Gleeson (Trading Places, The Breakfast Club) plays the bullying, bungling Deputy Police Chief, and William Atherton takes a turn as the amoral, opportunist reporter, Richard Thornburg. Toss in a couple of immature, testosterone-tweaked FBI agents played by Robert Davi and Grand Bush, and Holly’s slimy, coke-snorting coworker, Harry Ellis, and you’ve got a pretty rounded stable of jerk characters to jeer at.
How to choose?
Besides Die Hard’s perfectly executed action set pieces, the writing and interactions between the characters is the sweet spot of the film. The radio conversations between McClane and Gruber and McClane and Sergeant Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) are well scripted and perfectly timed. These exchanges punctuate the film with brevity and charm, and act as a siphon for the mounting tension between the film’s protagonist and antagonist. But they also cleverly serve as a way to acquaint the audience with our hero. We get to know him as the other characters do, and the more we learn, the more we come to like the caustic New York detective. We want him to save the day, even though he’s kind of an asshole.
Die Hard is a perfect time capsule for the decadent, cocaine fueled 1980’s. The Japanese preeminence as a business power house set against a puffed up American superiority complex is on full display here. And the seeds of the now prevailing European view of Americans as a morally bankrupt, movie fed culture are sown amidst the verbal skirmishes between McClane and Gruber.
Everything gets tied up in a nice, tidy Christmas bow at the end of the movie, and that would be my biggest complaint about it. The end is just too tidy, even for an 80’s feel-good action flick. By the time Powell resolves an earlier admitted gun shyness, the film’s climax has lapsed into the ether, and the whole “Surprise, there’ still one bad guy let alive!” bit lacks the emotional resonance intended.
Still, for my money, Die Hard is as good a movie as the first time I saw it. And I guess I’ll just have to keep watching it over and over again, cause they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.