Willis Wins Hans Down
Whilst Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger spent the 80s battling it out as to who had the biggest muscles in their action movies a third action hero came along and an unlikely one at that. Bruce Willis the star of comedy detective show "Moonlighting", a man who didn't have that big physique became the third in a trio of stars who epitomised 80s and 90s action. And it has to be said that however unlikely it seemed at the time Bruce Willis's turn as Officer John McClane in "Die Hard" set him on a path to action glory which some 20 years later is still going on. But what of "Die Hard", why is it such a great movie, loved by millions, imitated by many and for some a favourite alternative Christmas movie?
Having headed to L.A. to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and children, New York Officer John McClane (Bruce Willis - 16-blocks) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Nakatomi offices are taken over by terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) and his henchmen. With no way of getting help or in and out McClane must use all his skills as a cop to try and stop Gruber whilst rescuing all of those held hostage.
As with many of the best action movies the storyline to "Die Hard" is simple, it's a good guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. You could almost say it has a feel of an old western, just moved to a modern time as you get the good guy taking on the baddies and with the various references to cowboys such as the now famous "Yipee Kay Aye" it gets remarkably close. But what makes this simple storyline work is that it doesn't go careering off all over the place, everything important happens in one building and that creates an amazing atmosphere, a feeling of adventure, excitement and danger. It makes the fact that the obvious outcome unimportant as we get drawn into this battle between McClane and Hans Gruber.
With it being set in just the one building "Die Hard" is also hugely imaginative as McClane navigates his way around the building, thinking on his bare feet to not only try and beat Gruber but also avoid being killed. But rather than being totally far fetched it has believability about it such as when McClane tries to get into an air duct, there is no rope at hand all there is, is the strap on his gun. Or that he finds himself with out shoes and so one of his concerns is to find some. It's simple things like that which keep "Die Hard" feeling real but also fantasy like because climbing into an air duct which is a sheer drop is something 99% of people wouldn't do. All of which is done at such a bristling pace that there is rarely any time to get your breath before the next burst of action presents itself.
And of course being an action movie "Die Hard" is full of special effects which it has to be said the majority of them are brilliant. The various gun fights, climbing through air ducts, lift shafts or chasing around the roof top all are beautifully embellished with special effects. But not all of them work and one memorable scene which sees someone plummeting to their death the special effect is so cheesy that it's almost laughable, but in a strange way being that little bit tacky almost makes it good.
But whilst the storyline, action and effects are part of the reason why "Die Hard" is such a great action movie it is the casting of Bruce Willis which takes it that next step to being great. It has to be sad that prior to "Die Hard" Willis' career did not suggest action hero yet because he isn't muscle bound and looks like your average New York Cop it works. In fact Willis is more believable as an action hero than say Stallone and Schwarzenegger because for the most he and his now famous vest looks average. But it is also that when Willis gets some wise cracking dialogue he pulls it off so that it's not cheesy, it's funny for all the right reasons.
And then of course the bad guys most notably Alan Rickman who plays it just the right side of over the top as Hans Gruber. It's a classic villain, slightly edgy, calculated a little bit maniacal and Rickman instils all of this into Gruber to make him bad but also gives him a slight edge of comedy so whilst not manufactured funny ends up being a little amusing. In the scene where Gruber is taking the CEO of the business up in the lift he makes some comment about the suit and that remark whilst not daft ends up making you laugh. It's cleverly done so that whilst he is a bad guy he's not just a 2 dimensional cliche.
Aside from Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia does an adequate job as John's estranged wife Holly Gennaro and Reginald VelJohnson is fun as beat cop Sgt. Al Powell who gets dragged into this battle at the Nakatomi building. Plus William Atherton does a decent enough job of being nasty as callous news reporter Richard Thornburg.
What this all boils down to is that "Die Hard" really is a great action movie. It takes a simple storyline and makes it interesting, imaginative, dangerous and exciting, all the components of an entertaining action movie. But it also has a far greater sense of reality than other action movies and with Bruce Willis wise cracking his way through as action hero John McClane pretty much every single scene is memorable for all the right reasons.