Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 1: "Die Hard " (1988)

As a franchise goes along, it's sometimes hard to look at the first film in a series without thinking about the franchise's legacy and its evolution. Die Hard is one of those franchises that has gone so far past its initial premise and tone that one really has to put the first film in its proper context to fully appreciate what it was doing in regards to its central character, New York city detective John McClane, and the casting of Bruce Willis in the part. When Willis was first cast in the role, he was not the iconic action star we see him as now. He wasn't an action star at all back then- he was mostly known for his work on the TV show Moonlighting. Willis wasn't made in the Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone  mold, both who defined the macho, unstoppable action hero of the 1980s. He was just a regular joe who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what the original Die Hard was all about, a regular guy who has to step up and be a hero. And, after rewatching it, it's a great antithesis to the over the top action movies of the 80s as well as the James Bond films which had made Ian Fleming's creation more superhero than spy. Though, to be fair, by time Die Hard came out, Timothy Dalton was bringing Bond back down to Earth with his underrated portrayal of the character. But I digress. Die Hard is arguably the definitve action movie of the 80s, in that, as I said before, it subverted audience expectations of what an action movie could be .

The plot is simple. John McClane is a New York City detective who is visting L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who works at Nakatomi Plazza under her maiden name, Gennarro-due to it being a Japanese company for which she works. After they get in a fight over her using her maiden name and leaving New York with their two children, a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) takes over the building to break in to its vault.  McClane hides while hostages are being rounded up and precedes to start a one man war against the terrorists.

The Nakatomi building is a great one-location setting for the film, in that it allows for a claustophobic, grounded environment to stage the action, but is also big enough for the action to build as the LAPD and the FBI arrive and try to solve the situation. Over the past several films there's been a lot of talk about the realism injected in to the Batman and James Bond franchises, as well as the new Spider-Man film. And while it's true that Nolan's Batman trilogy and the Daniel Craig Bond film feel more grounded in reality than many of their predeceding films, I think Die Hard pre-dates those films in terms of creating an action film and hero that feels grounded in reality. I'm not saying everything in the film is completely realistic- McClane jumps from the rooftop just as it's rigged to explode with a fire hose wrapped around his waist- then it supports him even as the rooftop is on fire. But the thing is, it feels grounded in reality- which I think is largely due to Willis' performance- the way he says "God please don't let me die" before he makes the jump. It's an incredibly human moment and makes the jump/explosion all the more spectacular. This is a real guy escaping death by the skin of his teeth- and Willis sells that. Willis balances the wisecracks and one liners, his confidence in facing Hans, as well McClane's vulnerbility, his unsurety that he will survive this ordeal. It's a performance that I would argue was worthy of an Oscar nomination.

And speaking of Oscar snubs, where was the nomination for Alan Rickman's performance as Hans? Part of why Die Hard will always be the best of the Die Hard films is that Hans is still the best villain of the series. Rickman makes Hans surprisingly likable, despite being very ruthless. Much of this is due to his dry sense of humour. I think my favourite scene with Rickman is when one of the hostages, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) tries to negotiate with Hans by telling him he can get him McClane. In this scene, while Ellis is putting on a show for Hans, Rickman has a "Is this guy for real?" look on his face which is priceless. What I also like about Hans is he's pretty smart- he doesn't really do anything in the film that stupid, which makes him a formidable foe for McClane. And just how McClane isn't a superhero, Hans isn't a super villain like some of the James Bond villains, he feels grounded in reality.

I also think Die Hard is actually one of the great unsung buddy cop films. Throughout most of the film, McClane communicates via cb radio with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the only one outside the building who supports McClane and knows he's trying to help.While they don't meet face to face until the end, they form a connection and we learn about Powell's tragic past- he shot and killed a kid at night whose toy gun looked real. After that, he tells, John, he could bring himself to pull his gun on anyone. At the end of the film, when the last remaining terrorist Karl (Alexander Godunov), who we believed was killed by McClane, reappears, Al is finally able to fire his gun again. It's a great character payoff and is enough to give you goosebumps.

While Die Hard is a pure action movie, it's also a lot about the build up to the action, and suspense is expertly handled by director John McTiernan. The concept of "chaos cinema," meaning action films that have incoherent action, is one that's prevalent in our discussion of modern action films. With Die Hard, the action is coherent and classically staged. There's a great overhead shot early on while McClane is shooting at terrorists on the roof. We see where everyone is and the shot is  fascinatlingly detached, particulalry in this era of action film where the acton is so hetic and has no breathing room.

Die Hard is pretty much a perfect action film- and just film in general- It blends intense action with genunine poignancy- McClane and Al's face to face meeting is beautiful, as well as McClane telling Al to tell Holly he's sorry- and is intelligently staged in terms of its action. While I enjoy the sequels, none has been able to completely recapture the original's magic. Those are my thoughts for part 1. Next time: Die Hard 2: Die Harder

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