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"Die Hard" in a building: an action classic turns 25

In the nineties, when "Passenger 57" and "Under Siege" and "Sudden Death" and other "Die Hard" clones were clogging up multiplexes, there was a joke amongst critics that sooner or later some smart-aleck screenwriter would pitch a new variation: "Die Hard in a Building." Of course "Die Hard" was "Die Hard in a Building." Ironically, though, when the concept of the picture made the rounds of studios in the mid-eighties, it was pitched as "Rambo in an Office Building." Sylvester Stallone's bare-chested, machine-gun-toting hero was all the rage then; his franchise was the one that studios wanted to rip off.

It was a sweet surprise that a cynical cash-in ended up being one of the most exciting films of its time. "Die Hard" began life as a concept, or a "package", basically an idea without a script or a star. When it was announced that some guy named John McTiernan would direct the picture based on his success with "Predator" (basically "Alien" plus "Rambo"), and that the hero would be played by a wisecracking TV star named Bruce Willis, and that Willis would earn the then-unthinkable sum of $5 million for his efforts, the Hollywood press thought it was another example of the suits considering every angle except the one that really mattered: the story. (The script was theoretically going to be based on a novel—Roderick Thorp's "Nothing Lasts Forever," the author's sequel to the bestseller "The Detective," adapted for film in 1968 with Frank Sinatra in the lead—though nobody involved lost much sleep over being rigorously faithful to the source.)

We all know the rest of the tale. "Die Hard" turned out to be a great movie, one that owed as much to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (McTiernan's comparison) as it did to "Rambo" or its other obvious inspiration, "The Towering Inferno." It restored a measure of human vulnerability to the high-tech shoot-'em-up as well. Audiences dug the flesh-and-blood struggles of NYPD cop John McClane (Willis), trudging on glass-slashed feet to save his wife from terrorists, just as they dug the middle-aged bickering of the main characters in another 1988 action film, "Midnight Run." 

That same summer, the latest Stallone-kills-Russians opus "Rambo III" and the "48 Hrs." rip-off "Red Heat" (Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Soviet cop in Chicago, teamed with Jim Belushi) did disappointing business related to cost. Their multiplex competitors infused tired formulas with a refreshingly humane spirit—and for audiences, this was a minor revelation. Viewers were so used to the Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Chuck Norris-type superman characters that the sight of a hero muttering to himself and even tearing up was startling. This was no action figure. This was a man—a brave and physically capable man, one whose derring-do sometimes defied physics or seemed to, but a man nonetheless. It was easy to picture John McClane tending a grill in somebody's backyard, arguing about the Yankees and cracking open another brew. Stallone's Rambo and Schwarzenegger's Ivan Denko, not so much: they were steroidal apparitions dealing death. This was a minor tragedy in Rambo's case, considering that his first outing, 1982's "First Blood," was itself a human-scaled picture, one whose tone expertly straddled the dour, realistic 1970s and the increasingly unreal '80s. But as it will say on my tombstone, I digress.

I've written quite a bit about "Die Hard" in all sorts of places, including a piece about the enormous debt that it owes to the John Frankenheimer/Burt Lancaster World War II picture "The Train," which pitted an anti-intellectual palooka (Lancaster's French railway inspector) against an effete Nazi (Paul Scofield) trying to smuggle France's art treasures out of occupied territory before the Allies marched in. Watch how McClane carries his submachinegun on a shoulder sling, and the way the camera treats Willis' sinewy body as a Lancaster-level fetish object, and the Dutch tilts the director uses to suggest disorientation: it's totally "The Train." But that's clearly not the only film the director has learned from. His sense of screen space and elastic time is extraordinary here, the technical equal of Frankenheimer, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Pierre Melville at their peaks. Even when the film is cross-cutting between multiple lines of action in several locations, and killing people off by the bushel, you're never confused about what's happening, where you are, who you're looking at, or what's at stake. It is as respectfully classical an action film as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Aliens"—a rare Hollywood popcorn picture with a deep sense of film history, and one that can be endlessly re-watched, always revealing new things.

The key to the film's greatness, I think, is its sense of fun, which comes out of its determination to make all of its people, even cameo players, pulse with life. McTiernan and his credited screenwriters Steven E. DeSouza and Jeb Stuart stuff every nook and cranny with beguiling little character touches, such as the disbelieving look that the 7-Eleven clerk gives to McClane's future radio buddy, the beat cop Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), when he insists all those Twinkies are for his pregnant wife, or the way that the long-haired Asian terrorist (Al Leong) steals a candy bar while waiting to ambush the tactical officers. (He glances around nervously before he does it; terrorism, theft, kidnapping and murder are no big deal, but he won't be seen jacking sweets.)

From the second that McClane takes a fellow airplane traveler's advice and makes fists with his toes on the carpet in the office where his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) works, we know we're in the real world, or somewhere adjacent. The hero and his estranged wife fight like real people; you can see them lapsing into old argumentative rhythms and getting fed up all over again. When the archvillain Hans (Alan Rickman) enters the picture, he's fully-formed, too. He's smarter than anyone who works for him, and that bothers him. Once McClane starts messing up his master plan to steal the bearer bonds from Nakatomi's safe, his facade of Euro-cool melts away and he becomes increasingly exasperated. This is one of the reasons why that scene between him and McClane on the rooftop is so wonderful: Hans is up there because he thought, "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."

There's a strain of satire coursing through the picture as well. More often than not, what's being made fun of is machismo itself. Man after man gets wounded or dies because he gives into rage, complacency or cockiness. The FBI guys Johnson and Johnson ("No, the other one") might have been the heroes in a different, less interesting film; look at how they run roughshod over everyone, inadvertently helping Hans' plans come to fruition. The coke-snorting Yuppie Ellis gets shot because he bought his own Master-of-the-Universe hype and thought of the hostage situation as another deal that he could negotiate, like a merger or acquisition. Hans' minions tend to think with their adrenal glands instead of their brains, particularly Alexander Godunov's Karl, who's so driven by the need to avenge his brother's death at the hero's hands that he can't think beyond the next five minutes. None of these men are as fearsome as they imagine. When I think of this film, the first shot that comes to mind is a closeup of one of the S.W.A.T. team guys advancing on the building and pricking himself on a thorny bush. ("Ow!" he says.) The S.W.A.T. officers only went in that way because deputy police chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) felt cowed by the feds, and wanted to prove his own toughness-by-proxy. 

McClane is mostly spared this sort of scrutiny, but not always. It's cool when he shoots Hans with the gun he'd taped to his back, then blows smoke off the barrel, visually linking himself to Roy Rogers, the action hero he told Hans he loved most. But his pause for self-celebration allows the wounded Hans to fall out of the broken window, nearly killing Holly in the process; if McClane were less of a showoff, that particular call might not have been as close.

The male characters who practice rational self-interest and put their egos in check do better than the ones that succumb to grievance, rage, or insecurity. Al, the beat cop traumatized after shooting a kid, is the cooler head advising McClane to be cautious and patient. Argyle the limo driver (De'voreaux White) sticks around in the basement and ends up doing a lot of good. Clarence Gilyard, Jr.'s computer nerd Theo often seems more amused than impressed by the chest-thumping of terrorists and cops ("And the quarterback is toast!"), and is ultimately a better right-hand-man for the brainy Hans than the hot-tempered Karl. (Was Theo the first black computer geek in Hollywood history? If so, bravo, "Die Hard.")

The expanded cast of characters is so well-drawn and seems such a part of a community, however makeshift, that parts of "Die Hard" remind me of "Casablanca," a film with no dead spots and no uninteresting characters, only wit, heart, action and suspense. When John, Holly and Al meet in the plaza at the base of the skyscraper, paper fluttering down like giant snowflakes, it feels like a charmingly perverse homage to the airport tarmac finale of "Casablanca": the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Incredible as it might sound twenty-five years later, neither this film nor its smirking star were considered a slam-dunk in the summer of 1988. If you were the sort of viewer who looked for art in unexpected places, "Die Hard" was a godsend—the kind of moviegoing experience that colonized a part of your imagination and turned you into a bit of a zealot. I saw the film on opening day, fell instantly in love with it, and ran out to the theater lobby afterward to phone my younger brother. "Put your shoes on," I said. "I'll be out front in ten minutes. I'm going to see 'Die Hard' again immediately, and you're coming with me." I saw it 15 times that summer. When I admitted this to art house-minded friends who assumed it was just Rambo in a building, they looked at me like I was crazy. But the ones I managed to drag to the theater understood instantly that this was no mere time-waster, that there was indeed something special about it: a joyous quality and an astonishing sense of craft.

The only thing I can say against it is that its success inspired direct sequels that, to my mind, diminished the uniqueness of the original "Die Hard." A big part of what made the first film so marvelous was the fact that its hero was a guy who never expected himself to be in this kind of situation, and responded accordingly, with tenacity but also incredulity, horror and dark wit. Over time, and four sequels, McClane stopped being an Everyman and became just another action movie Superman, an invulnerable bruiser to whom bad things happened, traveling around the world and through the decades attracting terrorists as a magnet attracts iron filings.

Oh, well. We'll always have Nakatomi Plaza.

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