By contributor Patrick Zabriskie.
Review: By the mid-1980’s the quality of the modern action movie had reached its all time low. Whatever sense of the pacing and suspense that had had coated the genre in such classics as ‘North by Northwest’, ‘The Great Escape’, or even ‘Apocalypse Now’ had given into a conglomeration of senseless explosions, bare-chested macho-men, and boring plots subservient to the action. In short, they sucked. Thus it was truly a surprise, I imagine, in 1988, that people felt when they went to see the modern classic of ‘Die Hard’.
‘Die Hard’ tells the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York police officer who flies out to L.A. on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife, Holly, at a party in the 30-plus-story main building of Nakatomi Plaza. Sadly, however, a group of dissident Eastern European terrorists, led by the cunning Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) have the same idea, as they take the whole building hostage in an epic attempt to steal the half billion or so dollars locked away in its vault. Luckily though, John McClane manages to escape to an unoccupied floor and, armed with only small weapons and his intuition, wages a one-man war.
So what makes this movie such a revival for the action genre? Well, the script for one thing. It takes time to actually build a plot before the action begins. In many ways, it almost doesn’t try to be an action movie at all in the beginning. The first fifteen minutes of the film consist of John and his wife having a serious talk on their separation and their mutual frustrations with each other. This could just as easily be the beginning of a romantic comedy. This makes it all the more exciting and surprising when the terrorists show up and we, the audience, are reminded that this is an action movie.
This sense of pacing is seen in other parts of the film as well. Take the famed explosion on the roof. In other action movies, there have been bigger explosions, but the brilliance of this movie as that there is a great build up to it, starting early on in the movie. We aren’t quite sure when there is going to be an explosion, but we are given clues that it’s coming, and our anticipation only grows. Thus, when the explosion finally does occur, it does not seem random or stupid, but satisfying. These are just a couple examples of how excellently this film paces itself. The location helps as well. By setting it in a building in Los Angeles and not, say, the jungle, it adds to the believability and helps bring the action closer to home for the viewer.
The casting in this film is perfect. Bruce Willis gives his most memorable performance as John McClane. Unlike “Arnie” or “Sly” in their movies, Willis is the common man here. He is not some highly trained special-forces commander, bulging with muscles and a kick-ass attitude. He is un-muscular, foul mouthed, and in many ways very scared in this movie. This makes him all the more genuine and identifiable. The audience roots for him unquestionably. Equally great as McClane’s foil is Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. As a villain, he isn’t some perfect mastermind. He isn’t always calm and cool. He becomes angry and frustrated when his plans don’t work, and at times he makes noticeable blunders. In short, the characters are allowed to be human, as opposed to stereotypes in other action movies. The only true criticisms for any of the characters in this movie are when they are given bits of corny dialogue. This movie does have its fair share of one-liners, but they are spaced far enough apart that they don’t really detract from it.
Lastly, though this film benefits most from its plot and acting, its technical aspects helped to bolster the film well. The cinematography is truly impressive. A lot of quick cuts and hand held camera work add to the action, as does the relatively dark lighting and frequent low angle shots. An often over looked part of the cinematography is that almost every shot shows intersecting walls, a key to creating a claustrophobic feeling for the viewer, which is the desired affect when all the action takes place in a building. The music for this movie is done well. As opposed to lame pop songs and corny techno-beats, this movie goes old school with classic orchestration. Michael Kamen, the composer, mixes classic Beethoven with his own brand of brass driven melodies and fast beats to create music fitting for the action.
In short, this movie helped bring the action movie out of its rut and reinvented it for a newer generation. Its influence is still felt today. Almost every action movie made after ‘Die Hard’ takes something from it, and they are all the better for it. If you haven’t seen this one, give it a watch, it’s worth at least that.