Nicholas Waxman reflects on what Die Hard (1988) means to him…
I was only 6 months old when Die Hard blasted onto movie screens around the world and raised the bar to an unreachable height for all action movies to come. Die Hard is arguably the best action film ever made, it is most certainly the greatest Hollywood has ever attempted, and is definitely my favorite. You can separate Die Hard from the rest of the franchise (as most would with others quadrilogies such as the Alien, Indiana Jones and Rambo films) because Die Hard was the first off the rank and its success led producers to the next three films. The quality and success of the rest of the series is separate from our first outing with John McClane.
So, forget Die Harder (1992 – even though it was cool), remove Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995 – regardless of how awesome it was) from your mind and shatter the memory of Die Hard 4.0 / Live Free or Die Hard (2007) because it was more a John McClane film that a Die Hard film anyway. We are talking about the brilliance of Die Hard.
The title, how I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that decision. The title of the book that the film is based on Nothing Lasts Forever (1979, Roderick Thorp) would have been an awful movie title and the franchise would surely have failed (Nothing Lasts Forever 2: Nothing Lasts Forever’er ?) But to take a gamble on a title like Die Hard, feels to me a similar decision to Snakes on a Plane; but this was well before action movies were self aware enough to know that Die Hard, although an awesomely cool title, is ridiculous! You can’t ‘die hard’ – or soft for that matter – but it utilized a noun and an adjective to get our blood pumping (it may also be used as an adverb in this case).
Die Hard is the kind of title that gets every testosterone-fuelled human on this planet lining up at the cinemas, but as we know now, the producers weren’t so sure about that. Die Hard was saved, on my count, at least 12 times from doom. The film was originally going to be Commando 2, with Schwarzenegger taking the lead and ruining it for everyone – can you imagine Arnold as John McClane saying “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like”, “Son of a bitch! Fist with your toes”, not to mention “Yippie-Ki-Yay Mother F*&^%$#!”. Happily and luckily the film was saved from Arnold, but that wasn’t the end of potential doom. After Mr. Schwarzenegger turned it down Stalone was asked, he declined; then Burt Reynolds (what?!), and after he said thanks but no thanks Richard Gere was asked (which is madness, absolute madness); after Gere rejected the idea Harrison Ford was considered; before finally resting on the brilliant Bruce, Mel Gibson was asked to take the plunge. That Mel Gibson was asked is somewhat ironic because if Mel had done the film then Bruce Willis probably would not have had his John McClane cameo in Loaded Weapon (1993), a piss-take of Mel Gibson’s star vehicle Lethal Weapon (1987).
Bruce Willis seems like an obvious choice now of course, because he was brilliant, but he wasn’t even included on the original posters because the producers feared all those Willis-haters out there wouldn’t come and see it. But, the posters as we know were changed after its initial success. The film is cast almost perfectly (which makes it that much better) with strong actors taking up small and large roles; Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in his first feature (although he was in BBC R&J as Tybalt –very funny). Alan Rickman is a joy onscreen; a smarmy, sarcastic thief with sharp edges and a smooth, deep voice. He is pathetic and strong, happy to use violence and negotiation to get his way. What a villain! He is the strongest performer after Willis in this film – if not equally strong. Bonnie Bedelia is gorgeous and funny as Holly Gennaro (McClane’s estranged wife), her emotional range in this film is extensive considering her brief screen-time and she hits her marks with aplomb. I was always very sad to miss out on seeing her development over the series. Gennaro was a great character. William Atherton as Richard Thornburg the TV journalist is either done very well or quite poorly; he is over the top and incredibly unlikable; the man is a leech, which means job well done for Mr. Atherton. The prize for best ensemble character must go to Harry Ellis, played by Hart Bochner. Ellis is a deluded fool with a cocaine problem, he is a patronizing tool who gets his comeuppance, not what he deserves, but it is satisfying in the moment. There are many more strong performances in the film including Reginald VelJohnson as the very funny, tortured cop with a heart of gold and John McClane’s only friend on the outside.
But what’s fun about that! Lets talk about the massive acting fails! Paul Gleason and Robert Davi are by far the worst thing about this film. Paul Gleason is DPC Dwayne T. Robinson, and all the acting classes in the world couldn’t save this guy from being an archetypal idiot. He yells, he screams, he has no time for courtesy until the FBI arrive, he doesn’t listen and he assumes the worst always. He is an idiot and if he had been mastered by the right man (or woman), this could have been a great character piece, like many of the others throughout the film (Argyle for instance). The worst performance in this movie though is Robert Davi as FBI agent Big Johnson. It is bad, it is bad, it is bad. The actor is over-confident with his comedy style dialogue and he underplays the mass murder he is potentially party to. It is a small role and made all the smaller for lack of a decent actor. I am glad FBI Agent Johnson is dead. That might have been a tad too rough, but when all the other actors are pulling their weight it’s hard to ignore the bad apples. It takes a tribe to raise a child and the same can be said for making a movie, John McTiernan directs this awesome movie, he is famous for directing bloody, action blockbusters and this is the greatest of his many greats.
The writing team is also superb and you can tell when the dialogue starts that this is not just a shoot-em-up pointless action, but there is heart, comedy and pain in this movie. Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive, 1993) and Steven E. de Souza (48 Hrs, 1982) re-wrote Roderick Thorp’s novel into a smorgasbord of gripping dialogue and iconic one-liners. Die Hard inserts itself easily and quickly into pop culture as “Yippie-Ki-Yay Mother F*&^%$#!” quickly became the [potentially] greatest overloaded, self referential, sarcastic remark in film history and will echo ever in eternity through universities and wherever more than 10 boys [or girls] drink beer. The Simpsons, Friends, The Sopranos, How I Met Your Mother, as well as countless movies and other TV shows have borrowed the premise, quotes and title for their own storytelling. Die Hard is a film yet to be rivaled and it stands alone as the best action movie of all time. I would like for Hollywood to come up with a better one, but I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. Die Hard is a must-see movie event, this is not for DVD consumption and The Astor is the only place to see it, on the BIG SCREEN. I absolutely love it.
Written by Nicholas Waxman for the Astor Theatre.
Die Hard screens this Wednesday before the latest, somewhat more dire instalment in the franchise, A Good Day To Die Hard. Wicked Wednesday – All tickets $10