Action films do not have to rely solely on special effects while bereft of plot, solid acting and outstanding direction. You wouldn’t know that today from the dreck being shoveled out by Hollywood, but if you go back to the ’80s you’ll find a bunch of examples of action films that are excellent motion pictures. Today, I’m looking at the now-iconic “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis. It has just about everything you’d want: Great action; solid acting; a creative story; and, of course, a good-guys-win ending that I know I haven’t spoiled for you. So, check out “Die Hard,” as it is easy to find.
(1988; 132 minutes; rated R; directed by John McTiernan and starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and Bonnie Bedelia)
YIPPIE-KI-YAY … YOU-KNOW-WHO
Of course, “Die Hard” is an action film. It was nominated for four Oscars including two for special effects (visual and sound), but none for acting. You wouldn’t expect it should, but that’s a very wrong impression. At least one supporting actor deserved one and while headliner Bruce Willis wasn’t deserving, he did a great job. My point? Not all action films are shallow, vapid festivals of violence and CGI – which wasn’t around when “Die Hard” was made.
What you find with “Die Hard” is a creative plot; a film that moves along briskly; and a story told as much with characters as by its action. I recently re-watched “Die Hard” and found myself impressed with what a good film it remains as it cruises on movie networks to its 30th anniversary on July 20, 2018.
Much of the success of “Die Hard” is on the shoulders of now-disgraced director John McTiernan. He rang up a number of great films before spiraling downward and landing in prison in the early 2000s. McTiernan knows how to put a film on screen and, best of all, knows how to take one that could just wallow in stereotypes and elevate it to “great” status.
In brief, Willis plays New York cop “John McClane” and he’s in Los Angeles at Christmastime in an attempt to reconcile with his estranged wife. While at her company’s holiday party in a partially under-construction high-rise office building, a group first believed to be terrorists takes over the building – and the party and its guests.
From there, the plot unfolds that the whole thing is the robbery of the Japanese company that owns the building and keeps hundreds of millions of dollars in bearer bonds in a sophisticated safe in the CEO’s office.
Enter Willis, who manages to escape initial capture and then becomes the hero.
The film then follows Willis from floor-to-floor and battles with the bad guys. All-in-all, each scene is excellent and McTiernan knows how to ratchet up the tension from Willis’ first fight with a single bad guy to rollicking gun battles later. Better yet, each battle is unique and creative and builds to the climax showdown between Willis and top bad guy Alan Rickman, who plays one-time terrorist and now über-robber “Hans Gruber.”
Throughout it all, Willis has an ongoing relationship via radio with a Los Angeles police officer who is somewhat of a voice of comfort at the time of ultimate stress.
Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:
- Golden Globe winner and three-time nominee (not for this one) Willis does his off-hard, sarcastic best here and there wasn’t an actor working at the time that could have accomplished what he did. He breezes through this somewhat complicated film by jumping from one frying pan into an even bigger fire. Willis has notched a somewhat prolific 114 acting credits since his first in 1980 and I liked best outside “Die Hard” in “The Sixth Sense” and he was very solid in the drama “Fast Food Nation.” He got his initial boost with the success of TV’s “Moonlighting” and was great in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” but much worse in the terrible reboot called “The Jackal” (click here for my review).
- Just as Willis is the embodiment of “McClane,” Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Rickman is the same as the baddest bad guy. Rickman is equally smooth, if not more so, than Willis and you will always remember him for this role. Rickman does a great job of switching from talking men’s fashions to violent threats in a blink of your eye. Rickman, who won his Globe for TV’s “Rasputin,” is most recognized today as “Professor Severus Snape” from the “Harry Potter” franchise. He died at 69 in 2016 of pancreatic cancer.
- Reginald VelJohnson plays L.A. police “Sgt. Al Powell” and he’s a somewhat deskbound cop who gets caught up in the action and is Willis’ support group via CB radio. VelJohnson, who didn’t capitalize the “J” for the film’s credits then, is solid at the somewhat soft cop who, of course, comes out of his shell at the end. VelJohnson has an extensive resume of TV roles including “Family Matters.” He was in the first “Die Hard” sequel and even had a small part in the original “Ghostbusters.”
- International-class ballet dancer-turned-actor Alexander Godunov was a great casting choice as Rickman’s lieutenant “Karl.” The Russian-born Godunov had a short career of 10 acting credits and he is a complete natural in front of the camera here in “Die Hard.” He knows how to do both controlled and uncontrolled savagery and, like his co-stars, delivers a smooth, nearly perfect effort. I liked him just as well in “The Money Pit” with Tom Hanks and Godunov died young at 45 in 1995 of hepatitis.
- Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Bonnie Bedelia is an excellent actor, but doesn’t manage to elevate her character “Holly Gennaro McClane.” She has good lines and delivers them professionally, but, well, there’s just something missing with which another actor could have done more. I liked her much, much more as pioneer female drag racer Shirley Muldowney in “Heart Like a Wheel” (she was nominated for this one) and she has a resume of mostly TV roles. I also liked her in the little-remembered film “The Big Fix” with Richard Dreyfuss (click here for my review).
- The most interesting actor is the one who needed to have had a bigger role. Golden Globe winner (not for this one) James Shigeta, who plays company CEO “Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi,” shows courage and strength in his short time on screen. He had a lot more to offer and it would have been interesting to have a bigger presence in the film. Shigeta won his Globe as “Most Promising Newcomer” in 1959 for “The Crimson Kimono” and voiced in Disney’s “Mulan.” He died at 85 in 2014 of pulmonary failure.
- Hart Bochner plays coked-up businessman “Harry Ellis,” who manages to fail most spectacularly when he tries to deal with Rickman. Bochner at times appears to overplay his character in the short time he’s on screen by forcing his emotions, but overall does a workmanlike job in a tough role. I also liked him as the bad guy in the Jamie Lee Curtis horror flick “Terror Train” (click here for my review) and has done a variety of TV roles and was in the film “Company Retreat.”
In an apparent attempt to make sure both sides are diverse, the good guys and the bad guys each has an African-American character who plays a key role in the story. For the good guys it is De’voreaux White as limo driver “Argyle” and for the bad guys it is Clarence Gilyard Jr. as “Theo,” who is the technical genius responsible for cracking most of the safe’s codes. The duo has a confrontation – guess who wins? – at the end.
- White obviously has fun with his character (he’s oblivious, chatting away on his limo’s phone with music blaring as a car can be seen behind him being destroyed by machine gun fire) but he actually brings a bit of depth to “Argyle.” He shifts gears smoothly from the fun-loving driver to being called on to do serious moments. White had a youthful role in “The Blues Brothers” eight years before “Die Hard” and was also in “Places in the Heart.”
- Gilyard is breezy with his quips from the killing of a rent-a-cop at the beginning to calling defensive maneuvers as police attack the building. Here’s another actor who deserved more time on screen for this one. Gilyard was also in “Top Gun” and on a variety of TV shows including “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Matlock.”
I’m out of time to spend on the cast, but other characters worth noting are the idiot L.A. police commander and the two arrogant FBI agents.
All three roles are significant to the plot, but they’re just not worthy of individual attention. However, I’ll write a bit about Paul Gleason, who plays incompetent “L.A. Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson.” You’ll remember Gleason as the principal in “The Breakfast Club” and the coach in the horrible football flick “Johnny Be Good” (click here for my review). He knows this kind of role and delivers a solid effort here. Gleason died in 2006 at 67 of mesothelioma. The actors playing FBI agents are completely forgettable, just like their characters.
At one time, McTiernan was one of the best action directors working in Hollywood. You’ll easily remember “Predator” (click here for my review), “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review) and the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” (click here for my review). His career ran aground for lying to FBI agents and he served time in federal prison, but not before launching the completely horrific remake of “Rollerball” (click here for look at that one).
One layer in the film is an ongoing showing the stupidity and shallowness of the media. Since the film was in the late 1980s, it was television reporting that bears the brunt of criticism – and one pushy, arrogant reporter even had a prime role in “Die Hard’s” first sequel, but, like the law enforcement officers, he’s not really worth mentioning individually.
So, there you have it. “Die Hard” is solid to great all the way around; it was a big hit with moviegoers; and it remains an iconic action flick today. Since it has a frequent run on movie networks, you won’t have any trouble finding it.
Don’t bother with most of the sequels. Only one, “Live Free or Die Hard” is anywhere near equal to the original and that one does come close – especially with modern computer special effects.
Oh, finally … you’ll see a bunch of smoking in this one. Cigarettes have a role in the plot (the bad guys have a European brand that Willis shares with Rickman in one scene). It’s interesting to see three decades in the past how attitudes about smoking have changed since you wouldn’t see this much puffing in most films today.
“Die Hard” was the seventh most popular film at the U.S. box office in 1988 with $83 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a $28 million budget and took in $140.8 million worldwide, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Rain Man” with $172.8 million. The number two film was “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” with $156.4 million. The other films from 1988 that I’ve reviewed for my blog are:
- “Betrayed” (solid social drama) – click here for my review
- “Caddyshack II” (sequel that’s crap) – click here for my review
- “Cocktail” (very good drama) – click here for my review
- “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (great comedy) – click here for my review
- “Johnny Be Good” (crap) – click here for my review
- “License to Drive” (bad but funny youth flick) – click here for my review
- “Married to the Mob” (excellent drama) – click here for my review
- “Midnight Run” (really good De Niro) – click here for my review
- “Noble House” (great TV mini-series) – click here for my review
- “The Presidio” (excellent drama) – click here for my review
- “They Live” (not very good sci-fi) – click here for my review
- “Twins” (simply terrific Arnie-DeVito comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Willis was paid a reported record $5 million for “Die Hard.”
- The scene where Willis meets Rickman was reportedly unrehearsed to give both actors the chance to react spontaneously.
- Clint Eastwood originally owned the rights to the novel on which “Die Hard” is based.
- Robert De Niro reportedly turned down the “McClane” role and Willis was turned down for the character ultimately played by De Niro in “Midnight Run” (click here for my review). By coincidence, both films opened July, 20, 1988.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The Nakatomi tower is actually the headquarters of 20th Century Fox. The company charged itself rent for the use of the then-unfinished building.”
- Thank goodness Sam Neill turned down the role of “Hans Gruber.” I don’t have anything against Neill, but Rickman proved to be pitch perfect. Check out Sam in “The Final Conflict” (click here for my review), which is the second sequel to “The Omen” (click here for my review).
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The German that the terrorists speak is sometimes grammatically incorrect. In the German version of the film, the terrorists are not from Germany but from ‘Europe.’ This has been fixed for the Special Edition VHS and later home video releases. The only instances of incorrect use of German are Alan Rickman‘s (Hans Gruber) lines.”
- Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the film …
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