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Review: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

Directed by: John McTiernan

Premise: Terrorists take over a high rise office complex on Christmas Eve and hold holiday partygoers hostage. Among them is John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York City police officer, who engages in a cat and mouse game with the terrorists, attempting to foil their plans and save his wife, who is among the hostages.

What Works: Die Hard is among the great action movies and twenty-five years after its release the picture has become a fixture of the Hollywood action cinema institution. But after so many sequels and rip offs, it is easy to overlook just how well made this movie is. Die Hard is a masterful example of filmmaking and it proves that action movies, a genre usually dismissed as juvenile and stupid, can demonstrate as much filmmaking skill as an art film or a piece of Oscar bait.  Die Hard was filmed by cinematographer Jan de Bont, who went on to direct Die Hard imitator Speed, and de Bont makes great use of widescreen compositions. John McClane is often trapped in claustrophobic spaces like ventilation shafts or he is exposed in open spaces like rooftops where the emptiness diminishes his stature in the frame. The cinematography uses depth to great advantage and like a haunted house movie the set design is an important part of this film. Sound is used similarly well, often adding dimension to the visuals. Die Hard is associated with explosions and carnage and although it certainly has that in the ending much of this movie is relatively quiet. The bulk of the picture involves John McClane creeping through the corridors of the building and long stretches of tension are punctuated by crashes of action. Director John McTiernan is a crafty and intelligent filmmaker and as well choreographed as the action scenes are his skill is better demonstrated in the film’s early dramatic scenes.The opening of Die Hardestablishes the geography of the building, laying it out in ways that make spatial relationships understandable and the filmmakers do that while also introducing the characters, so that the audience subconsciously picks up on the design of the building while focusing on the actors. As with most movies, the rhythms of Die Hard’s filmmaking are a large part of what makes it work and that is established through editing. The periods of tension gradually get shorter and action scenes occur closer and closer together until the film gets to its finale in which action is compounded through cross-cutting. The rhythm is also helped by Michael Kamen’s excellent music score. The movie has a fun and irreverent tone and Kamen’s music picks up on this, including small, musically witty flourishes amid the militaristic bombast of the action scenes. Die Hard is above all a spectacle but this film is distinguished from other movies like it because of its visceral qualities and because of its performances. The picture builds very well, starting with hand to hand combat and gradually escalating into gunfire and explosions. But as spectacular as the film gets, Die Hard is staged in a credible way. Some of the stunts are outrageous but they are offset by visceral moments; scenes like that of McClane pulling glass shards out of his feet raise the stakes and give the fights and shootouts a human dimension. That humanity is one of Die Hard’s most endearing traits and the film has aged as well as it has in large part because of its core cast of characters. John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, is a much more human lead than the kinds of action heroes who were popular at the time of Die Hard’s original release. Willis brings a lot of humor to the role but he is also vulnerable and that combination makes for a very engaging hero. In contrast to McClane is Alan Rickman as terrorist leader Hans Gruber. It is rare in action cinema for a hero and a villain to be so well matched and the conflict between them makes the picture enjoyable. The cast of Die Hard also includes a lot of terrific actors in supporting roles including Bonnie Bedelia as McClane’s wife, Reginald VelJohnson as a police sergeant, William Atherton as an unscrupulous reporter, and James Shigeta as the corporation president. The mix of memorable characters and cinematic craftsmanship makes Die Hard a movie that is literally a joy to watch.

What Doesn’t: Die Hard is not a deep movie nor is it a political statement. This is pure popcorn entertainment and as well done as it is and as important as it is to Hollywood action cinema, Die Hard is never more a spectacle. That is all its filmmakers desire to accomplish and they do that with a great deal of skill.

DVD extras: The blu-ray edition includes commentary tracks, trailers, deleted scenes, and image galleries.

Bottom Line: Die Hard is a lot of fun to watch and that alone makes it a notable picture. But this is also a movie that can be admired as a piece of cinema. Mainstream entertainment is rarely this satisfying or this well made.

Episode: #428 (February 24, 2013)