For much of the 1980s, tough guys named Schwarzenegger and Stallone ruled the action genre. Their muscle-bound heroes were virtually indestructible and mowed down villains with machine-like precision. Popular examples like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Commando featured this character type and set the standard for many that followed. A different approach was needed to energize the tired formula. This new lead would be a regular guy who could hold his own but wasn’t invincible. The draw would be his charisma and personality instead of pure killing skills. The unlikely champion for this mantle was television star Bruce Willis, and his vehicle was Die Hard.
Released in the summer of 1988, this iconic film earned incredible success and spawned a franchise that will release its fifth installment next year. The rampant popularity is actually surprising when you consider the careers of the participants involved. Willis was the star of Moonlighting but had only appeared in a few poorly received movies. Alan Rickman had zero film credits and was known as a theater actor. John McTiernan earned praise for Predator, but that was his only prior directing credit. The story was based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever from Roderick Thorp, who was hardly a household name. This didn’t seem like the combination that would deliver a legendary action movie and multiple sequels.
The story revolves around a group of Germans (and a few others) invading the massive Nakatomi building in Los Angeles to steal more than $600 million in bearer bonds. They plot an elaborate terrorist scheme that involves hostages, ludicrous demands, and clever misdirection. The plan seems foolproof, but they don’t count on facing off with a very determined New York City cop. John McClane (Bruce Willis) has traveled to California to visit his estranged wife and kids for Christmas. Through pure luck, he avoids the original strike and engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the bad guys to save the day. The villains are led by the brilliant Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), who’s planned for every contingency but McClane. Lurking in ventilation shafts and vacant offices, he waits for the right opportunity to strike at the intruders.
While Die Hard functions primarily as a straight-up action yarn, it also works as a heist movie. McTiernan spends a considerable time outlining Gruber’s ingenious plans to commit the robbery. You could essentially flip the story on its head and make his crew the leads while McClane is the enemy who stands in their way. This change shifts the perspective but wouldn’t require a massive overhaul of the script. Their path follows the heist genre formula and presents the reasons why they ultimately fail in the end. Instead of recognizing the threat of a single opponent in the giant structure, they play right into his hands. Rickman’s Gruber is so entertaining that we’re pulling for him to get away with the money. Most of the innocent killings are McClane’s fault, right? While that question might not hold up to scrutiny, it does make for an interesting reading of the movie.
Although Rickman is excellent, the main reason for the success is Willis. He brings a vulnerability to McClane that makes him a lot more than your standard action hero. After dispatching numerous foes and taking a lot of damage, you can sense that he’s barely holding it together. His best moment comes after being forced to run across glass on his bare feet. Pulling the shards from his bloody feet, there’s a believable weariness that makes us root for him. The movie’s key relationship isn’t between McClane and his wife; it’s his new friendship with Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson). Their radio conversations create a bond that helps McClane avoid giving up. Both guys reveal sad events from their past and become allies in getting through this crisis. The other reason Willis shines is the way he delivers the witty one-liners. They don’t feel like your typical jokes because he sells them as part of McClane’s personality. It’s his way of dealing with the deadly situation, and it keeps the violent movie from becoming too dark.
There are a few negatives that don’t match the high quality of the rest of the movie. Hart Bochner is painful as Harry Ellis, a one-dimensional caricature of selfishness and ego. It feels like he should be in a completely separate movie. Paul Gleason also has the thankless part of the skeptical deputy police chief who creates obstacles for McClane. While neither of these guys hurts the overall success, they do induce cringes each time they appear. Some of the villains are also one-note hoodlums who are too easily thwarted by McClane. They differ so sharply from Gruber and his top guys that it’s hard to believe they’re in the same crew. While these are minor flaws, the hokier elements do keep this movie from becoming too serious. It still takes place in the ‘80s, so a small amount of cheesiness and stock characters is basically the law. There’s a danger in playing the action too straight and not including some dummies to validate our heroes’ skills. Without the silliness, it risks becoming too direct and falling into duller territory.
Die Hard has become such a powerful title that it can be easy to forget about the positives of the original. It offers high-octane thrills but grounds them by putting an everyman into the chaos. McTiernan didn’t set out to create a long-term franchise with lucrative, yet disappointing sequels. If he had been more calculating, he might have gone a different route with Gruber’s ultimate fate. The follow-ups have their strong points, particularly the enjoyable third installment with Jeremy Irons. Even so, there’s little chance they can match the opening entry. It spawned an entire genre of imitators where similar plots occurred on a bus, a battleship, and even at a hockey arena. The tremendous success changed the action genre for the better and delivered knockout entertainment at the same time.