Christmas Eve. Los Angeles. 1988. A police car with Sgt. Al Powell at the wheel drives around the entrance of the imposing Nakatomi Plaza. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Powell gets set to drive away when….BANG! A body crashes onto the police car, smashing the windshield and sending Powell into a frenzy. Jumping out of the car he looks up to the smashed window and immediately calls back up. This is the moment in Die Hard when John McClane, trapped in a building full of terrorists decides to throw a corpse out of the window and onto the police car down below. Simply to get his attention. It is a moment we realize just how crazy McClane can be. It is a moment worth admission price alone, and it is just one moment of many like it.
25 years on from its 15th July release date and Die Hard still remains one of the best, if not the best action film in the history of cinema. You’ll be hard pressed to find any that match it, never mind top it. It’s 25 years since Willis first donned the vest and uttered that immortal line, and there’s still steam in the old girl yet. The film has spawned a further 4 films with a 5th in the works, making it the Die Hard Hexalogy. None of the other films in the series quite live up to the original, only the 2nd and 3rd coming close.
What is it about the original Die Hard that makes it hold up all these years later? Why can’t any of its sequels live up to its huge, Nakatomi Plaza shaped shadow? Expectation. Nobody expected the first film to be a success, not even the studio that funded it. They weren’t willing to bet on the unknown quantity that was Bruce Willis, known only at the time for his role in TV series Moonlighting. Even when Willis did sign on, the studio marked the budget at just $28 million. Willis could only film at night due to filming on Moonlighting during the day and the script was constantly being reworked as the shoot went on. On paper it shouldn’t work, but it really does. It is a movie of circumstance and it’s arguably these circumstances that propelled it to the heights it has reached. One late addition to the movie that wasn’t in the original script is testament to this; the meeting between hero and villain.
Halfway through the film, Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is making a check on one of the C4 explosives that have been placed around the building. He finishes checking and returns to the ground to find McClane, bloodied and pointing a machine gun at him. Gruber hits the ground and the audience holds their breath: this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. McClane has got his man, only it doesn’t quite play out like that. Gruber starts to shake and quickly adopts a Southern American accent. He claims to be one of the hostages, managing to escape from the captors. It’s a few seconds before we remember that McClane does not know what Gruber looks like; he’s only heard him talk. It’s wholly unexpected, a stroke of genius that elevates the film beyond your run of the mill action movie. It ratchets up the tension and remains one of the films most memorable scenes. To think that this idea only originated after the discovery that Rickman can do a convincing Southern accent, and that it wasn’t in the original script, isn’t worth thinking about. It wouldn’t be Die Hard without it.
Die Hard set the trend for every other action film to follow, especially in the form of its hero John McClane. Even if the rest of the franchise doesn’t live up to the first, it’s always worth watching to see Willis play this force of nature. With his maniacal sense of humour and sheer willpower to see good trump evil, John McClane is one of a kind: a regular guy, doing anything in his power to bring justice. He’s a crazy son of a bitch, but he’s our crazy son of a bitch. We root for him the first moment we meet him and his lines etch their way into our sub-concious. Whether it’s “No fucking shit lady, does it sound like I’m ordering a pizza?” or the immortal “yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”, his dialogue is as unforgettable as he is.
Die Hard is 25 years old, but it doesn’t show:the only thing that gives it away is Bruce Willis’ relatively bountiful head of hair. McClane really is timeless hero, and it feels fresh upon each re-watch. Here’s to you John. And here’s to another 25 years.