Tuesday 13 September 2016

Movie Review: Die Hard (1988)

A brash, bold and boisterous action film, Die Hard is an exceptionally enjoyable thrill ride featuring one reluctant hero, one tall building, a gaggle of hostages and a large group of murderous terrorists.

It's Christmas Eve, and New York City police officer John McClane has just landed in Los Angeles to maybe try and patch things up with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), an executive at the Nakatomi Corporation. John travels to the Nakatomi tower where the company Christmas party is in full swing, and barely avoids an invasion of the building by a group of well-organized and brutal terrorists. Mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his main henchman Karl (Alex Godunov) along with about a dozen armed men take all the Nakatomi employees, including Holly, as hostages, and set about opening the well-guarded corporate safe.

McClane escapes into the upper reaches of the building and initiates a one-man guerrilla war against the terrorists, picking off a few of them while trying to attract the attention of the enforcement authorities. Eventually LA police Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) responds and initiates contact with McClane from outside the building, and a large police force gathers. Hans and his men still have surprises in hand, and the outnumbered and outgunned McClane has to fight a lonely battle just to survive and save his wife.

McClane: Mayday, Mayday, Emergency anyone copy, Channel Nine, terrorists have seized the Nakatomi Building, Century City, I repeat, unknown number of terrorists, six or more armed with automatic weapons on the 30th floor of Nakatomi Plaza.
LAPD Operator: [to other operator] I'll take this.
McClane: Somebody answer me, goddamn it!
LAPD Operator: Attention, whoever you are: This frequency is reserved for emergency calls only.
McClane: No fucking shit, lady! Do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?!

Directed by John McTiernan, Die Hard turned Bruce Willis into a global action superstar and redefined what a high quality action movie can deliver. With a tight premise, plenty of quotable one-liners, hissing villains, a reluctant hero playing impossible odds, and no shortage of well-executed action scenes, the film unleashes an irresistible torrent of adrenaline.

The personality of John McClane is a huge part of the film's success. A classic fish-out-water hero, McClane's New York pragmatism is already being tested by the unfamiliar fluffy Los Angeles surroundings. His night gets much worse when the terrorists let loose, but McClane's streak of dark sarcasm carries through, his irritation at being forced into action the juice that keeps the evening going.

Bruce Willis brings McClane to life and finds his perfect career role. 33 years old with a prematurely thinning hair line, Willis brings credible world weariness to McClane, but makes the most impact at the personal level: Die Hard rises above typical action fare mainly due to McClane's desire for a reconciliation with wife Holly, and later thanks to the bond created over the radio between McClane and beat cop Al Powell. For all the flying bullets, shattered glass and huge explosions, Willis comes through at the personal level, creating a hero with heart, just as believable trading gunfire as he is at longing for human warmth.

Every good hero requires worthwhile villains, and McClane gets two. Decked out in expensive European threads, Hans Gruber is a distinguished killer, never hesitating to spill blood but insisting that he looks good doing it. Karl is more volatile, and runs on a short fuse once his brother becomes one of McClane's early victims. Alan Rickman and Alex Godunov deserve a lot of credit for creating a pair of hate-worthy bad guys.

The film has other troublemakers, first in the form of Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson (Paul Gleason), and later two FBI agents (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush).  Their hamfisted attempts to take charge and resolve the crisis only make matters worse for McClane, who learns the hard way that sometime the cavalry is more trouble than its worth.

Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson: I got a hundred people down here and they're all covered in glass!
John McClane: Glass? Who gives a shit about glass? Who the fuck is this?
Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson: This is Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and I am in charge here.
John McClane: Oh you're in charge? Well I got some bad news for you Dwayne, from up here it doesn't look like you're in charge of jack shit.
Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson: You listen to me you little asshole-
John McClane: Asshole? I'm not the one who just got butt-fucked on national TV, Dwayne! Now, you listen to me, jerk-off, if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem. Quit being a part of the fuckin' problem and put the other guy back on!

But ultimately Die Hard is all about the action, and the film delivers in spades. Using the building as an excellent platform McTiernan stages the action in elevator and ventilation shafts, stairwells and half-completed floors, all transformed into intriguing settings for an escalating battle between one resourceful  man and a small army of terrorists. Handguns, automatic rifles, anti-tank missiles and C4 explosives are all put to good use, as the Nakatomi plaza building takes a fearsome pounding. The climax involves a fire hose and the roof, and it remains an all-time epic action movie highlight.

Die Hard holds nothing back: this is a whopper of an action film, a perfect dose of inescapable escapism.

McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!

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