Jan 23, 2011

24FPS Top 100: No. 66

DIR: John McTiernan
Action movies often get short shrift from critics (and, to be fair, that's largely with good reason), but Die Hard really is a very special film. It's action packed, crowdpleasing fare, but it never talks down to the audience. It's perhaps implausible at times, but it's never stupid, and it is relentlessly entertaining.

Despite the presence of John McTiernan, fresh from Predator, Die Hard was something of a gamble for Fox. They searched for a long time for an actor to play New York cop John McClane, who finds himself having to free a group of business people, including his estranged wife, when a group of presumed terrorists take them hostage during a Christmas party. The film was offered to the top action stars of the day; Arnie, Sly, Mel, Harrison Ford and, erm, Richard Gere before Bruce Willis. Willis, who had never toplined a film of this scale, made an astonishing for the time $5millon for the role. His casting was clearly not fully endorsed by the studio even when the film was finished; the first posters did not feature his face at all.

The casting, ironically, is one of Die Hard's strongest suits. Willis is quite simply perfect as McClane, bringing to the screen a more down to earth action hero than ever before. McClane is an endless improviser. Some of his ideas work well, but others don't, he's shown not as the immovable object that an Arnold Schwarzenneger was but as an ultimately rather fragile. Every exertion seems to hurt him, and he's even allowed to express genuine emotion. It's this that makes Die Hard so much richer than, say, Bad Boys 2.

The other key piece of casting is that of the antagonist; Hans Gruber, which saw British stage actor Alan Rickman make his film d├ębut. Rickman is outstanding as the coolly calculating villain Hans Gruber. Rickman is funny and scary, often in the same moment, but his truly outstanding moment - possibly the one that made him the star he is today - comes in the brilliant scene where Hans and McClane finally meet, and Hans pretends to be an escaped hostage, a scene that was written when Rickman was heard demonstrating his American accent on set.

The great thing about Die Hard's vulnerable hero and wily villain is that the combination introduces a greater level of suspense into the film than most action movies are ever able to generate. We love McClane, and we want to see him succeed, but even halfway through the film he's run ragged, bleeding and facing huge odds, it really seems like it's possible that he can lose this battle. He doesn't of course, but just for a moment there's doubt there, and that makes the film incredibly engaging.

The action, under McTiernan's expert direction, is near peerless. No it doesn't have the balletic style of a Hard Boiled, but the film's direct and to the point action scenes are visceral and exciting all the same. In one outstanding set piece Hans and his cronies shoot out the glass in an office, leading McClane to have to injure himself to escape (and, as it happens, to the film's best scene). McTiernan pursued what he called 'exaggerated realism' with the action scenes, and he nails it perfectly; McClane seems lucky and extremely proficient as he fights off Hans and his gang time and again, but he's never superhuman, and again this just helps us both to identify with McClane and to fear for his safety.

There's so much to talk about with Die Hard, be it the exceptional performances (Bonnie Bedelia's steely work as McClane's estranged wife has long gone unappreciated, the sharp witted screenplay, or the surprising emotion of some sequences. It's almost unfair to pigeonhole it as an action movie. It's not just a classic action film, it's a classic film, full stop.

Arrival: Hans' group step out of the elevator and immediately take control of the room and the movie, brilliantly led by Alan Rickman.

"Does it sound like I'm ordering a pizza?": McClane tries to communicate the gravity of his situation to a 911 operator, a perfect example of the film's mix of character, drama and humour.

"Schiess dem fenster": Hans' exhortation to "shoot the glass" leads to the film's best action scene and the to its best dramatic scene, as an injured McClane tries to get a message to his wife.

John McClane: Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.

Hans Gruber: Mr. Mystery Guest? Are you still there?
John McClane: Yeah, I'm still here. Unless you wanna open the front door for me.
Hans Gruber: Uh, no, I'm afraid not. But, you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?
John McClane: Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really like those sequined shirts.
Hans Gruber: Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
John McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.

Hans Gruber: [addressing the hostages] I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way... so he won't be joining us for the rest of his life. We can go any way you want it. You can walk out of here or be carried out. But have no illusions. We are in charge. So, decide now, each of you. And please remember: we have left nothing to chance.

John McClane: [huddled in an air vent, recalls his wife's invitation] "Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."

Holly Gennero McClane: After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief.
Hans Gruber: I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I'm moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

If you want to buy Die Hard, and help 24FPS out at the same time, please use the links below. Thanks.

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