Last weekend my kids and I saw Skyscraper, a decent if not unnecessary action thriller starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Paying so much homage it bordered on full ripoff, Skyscraper embraced its parallels to both The Towering Inferno and Die Hard in the marketing of the film. In the end, nearly every critic called it for what it was: another in a long line of Die Hard clones that are summed up by the now almost cliche “Die Hard in a _______.”
Die Hard came out 30 years ago this month (July 15, 1988). The film launched careers and redefined the action genre. It is, in my opinion, the greatest action movie ever made and one of the few perfect films. Based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, Die Hard was directed by John McTiernan and of course starred Bruce Willis as sarcastic New York City cop John McClane out west in LA to reconnect with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) over Christmas. McTiernan is a hugely underrated action director with Predator, The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard With a Vengeance, and the silly Last Action Hero under his belt.
Willis was everything the action stars of the 1980s was not. The ’80s was the “Bigger is Better” decade and action heavies Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone had muscles on muscles. Chuck Norris and Jean Claude Van Damme, while not giants, had their martial arts backgrounds to fall back on with lots of their action scenes revolving around them kicking ass. In walks comedic TV star Bruce Willis, who looked like Joe Everyman and even had a slightly (then) receding hairline. Willis headlined opposite Kim Basinger in Blind Date in 1987 and was starring on the Golden Globe-winning TV comedy Moonlighting while — pardon the cheap joke — moonlighting to make this film.
Quickly Willis would become a new breed of action hero. Suddenly, just like in the westerns of old (which McClane heavily references), any man on the street could be an action hero. What he lacked in stature, though, McClane made up in humor and charisma. Co-written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, and with plenty of ad-libbing throughout, Die Hard is one of the most quotable films ever made. While McClane dominates obviously, and “Yippie Ki-Yay Mother F*cker” has become part of popular culture, some of his other lines land amongst my favorites:
“Welcome to the party pal!”
“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”
All the characters are given a chance to participate in the fun. Whether it’s accidental sidekick Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), or abrasive Nakatomi employee Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), everyone gets to add their flare to McTiernan’s action masterpiece. None more so than the film’s villain, the iconic Hans Gruber.
Consider this: Hans Gruber was Alan Rickman’s FIRST film role at age 41. Rickman took the role of a German terrorist/thief and turned him into an all-time classic villain performance. AFI commemorated his turn by naming Gruber 46th on their 50 greatest villain in movie history. Not bad for a first film, huh? As for quotable dialogue, Hans is a walking list of evil quotes. My favorite is his straightforward read of McClane’s holiday message: “Now I have a machine gun, HO HO HO.” And who can forget his infamous demand to his henchmen while chasing a barefoot McClane? “Shoot the glass!”
Die Hard is the rare case where everything worked perfectly. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Sound, Editing, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects. It contains some of the best and most spectacular action set pieces, such as the helicopter roof crash and the elevator explosion. For generations over the past 30 years, action movies have come out and been instantly compared to Die Hard. It has set a near untouchable standard for the genre.