Throwback Thursday Review: “Die Hard” (1988)
At a time when big blockbuster action movies were exploding onto the big screen faster than machine-gun fire, “Die Hard” emerged as one of the very best of its kind. It was a huge success both critically and commercially, and was singularly responsible for propelling a little-known actor named Bruce Willis to the top of an elite group of A-list celebrities. How elite? Consider this; Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, and Burt Reynolds were all in negotiations for the lead role. At the end of the day however, the script was re-written, and the powers that be decided that the main character should be more of a blue-collar everyman, and Bruce got his big chance. I think it’s fair to say that he made the most of it. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine how the film would have turned out without him. I guess some things were just meant to be.
The story takes place on the 30th floor of a high-rise office building in Los Angeles, where a corporate Christmas party is in full swing. New York police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) has been invited to the party by his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), and is attending in the hope of patching up the marriage. Unfortunately, their plans to reunite are put on hold when an elite group of German terrorists crashes the party, and begins taking hostages. The mastermind behind this operation is the suave but ruthless Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who will stop at nothing to get what he wants; millions of dollars worth of negotiable bonds, stored in the company’s seemingly impenetrable vault. Unsurprisingly, McClane is the only thing standing in his way. The lion’s share of the picture is devoted to following our reluctant hero, as he uses every trick in the book trying to keep the bad guys off balance, and the hostages alive.
“Die Hard” is extremely well-crafted from start to finish, and in many ways, redefined what we should rightfully expect from a good action thriller. It is
well-paced, and strikes just the right balance between adrenalin-filled action sequences, and playful banter among the characters. The story is fast-paced, and remains thoroughly engaging throughout. The special effects (mostly practical) look entirely realistic even by today’s standards, and go a long way towards selling the film. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that the movie received Academy Award nominations for best sound editing, best film editing, best sound mixing, and best visual effects.
Bruce Willis gives an honest, gritty performance as the picture’s requisite hero, and although I would not go so far as to describe him as a great actor, he definitely seems like the right man for the job here. He portrays McClane as likeable, clever, sarcastic, resourceful, and above all, someone we can rally behind. Admittedly, his role does not require a lot of range, but he nails it nonetheless. A heartfelt special mention also goes out to Alan Rickman, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year, and was without question, one of the finest character actors of our time. When doing background research for this review, I was stunned to learn that this was actually his debut film! His performance as the sophisticated villain was subtle, and nuanced to a tee. He pretty much steals every scene he appears in, and would continue doing so for many years to come. Bravo!
As previously mentioned, the movie was well received at the box office, earning 140 million dollars, against a budget of 28 million. It also managed to inspire four sequels, several video games, and quite a number of less successful imitations. Additionally, it is worth noting that because the story takes place on Christmas eve, it is still ranked by many as one of the best Christmas films of all time. I suppose this could be fodder for a good debate, but one thing is for certain; it is definitely one of the most commercially successful holiday features ever made, which is obviously saying quite a lot.
So now it’s time for the million dollar question; how well does the film actually hold up after nearly thirty years? In a word, brilliantly. I would still count it among the very best action thrillers I have ever seen, and I enjoyed watching it every bit as much today, as I did way back in 1988! If by some chance you’ve never seen this movie, I recommend doing so as soon as possible. If you have, then you probably already know that it’s worth watching again and again. I’m personally planning to make “Die Hard” part of my regular holiday routine, and you should consider doing so as well. I can think of worse ways to spend a cold December evening.