1988 saw the death of an action franchise with the abysmally bad Rambo III. Yet less than two months later another figure stepped into John Rambo’s boots as the action hero. John McClane (Bruce Willis) was not a hardened war veteran with social problems but a smart-mouthed New York cop with marital problems. The action hero had traded in his political worries for far more mundane issues, although his gun toting enemies were just as problematic.
In a classic case of wrong place, wrong time, wrong guy John McClane goes to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), and two kids. He meets her at Nakatomi Plaza at a Christmas party that gets shaken up by a group of terrorists. Let by the professionally German Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the terrorists take the partygoers hostage, interrogate the head of the company and wait. But John isn’t going to wait for nothing. While the terrorists bide their time, he slips away, attempts to alert the authorities and kills one of the terrorists. One cop and one machinegun against a group of professionally organized criminals may seem like bad odds–because it is.
And while my meager plot description might fail to convey it, the film is a brilliantly conceived narrative with plenty of small moments leading up to the big ones. On the first viewing you might think the film is dragging its feet to get us to the terrorists. The film makes time for John to converse to a fellow airplane passenger and taxi driver while we see his wife interact around the office. But as the film unfolds it’s constantly coming back to these small moments as key to the development of the plot. For instance, the passenger’s suggestion to get over jet lag becomes the source of an entire conflict of the film. Likewise, when we discover that Mrs. McClane has switched to her maiden name it has implications up until the final scene of the film. It’s one of those films where you notice something new every time, another moment that makes the film all the more brilliant in its construction.
Likewise, every action scene is constructed with specific goals in mind, whether it’s developing a character or createing another point of tension. Like great action it serves as a gradual increase of the stakes until we get to the point where our hero faces almost insurmountable odds. The action itself is somewhat ridiculous and over the top but it knows it. There’s a ridiculous and goofy side to it as the characters crack jokes or express disbelief over what’s just happened. Yet it works because every action sequences is one where McClane is losing, where he barely survives and just manages to scrape through either by luck or fast thinking.
This represents the shift of the action hero. John McClane isn’t a cowboy like Hans Gruber suggests, if anything he’s the antithesis of the cowboy. He gets beaten to a bloody pulp, lacks the skill and bravery and one of his greatest conflicts throughout the film is so ridiculously mundane that it would never even be an issue for a cowboy. His real problem isn’t the terrorists swarming the building but the fact that his wife can live independent of him and, furthermore, is better off than he is. The action hero must now face feminism of all things. Whereas Rambo had the problem of being an outsider McClane has the problem of being like everyone else. His problems are everyday ones of family and economics. He can’t keep his wife or a decent pair of shoes.
Perhaps my only problem with the film is when it gets to the broader portrayals of law enforcement. The various law enforcement groups are played for laughs as buffoonish, incompetent fools. In some ways this does feed back into the ridiculousness of the actions and necessitates the fact that John is going to have to take on these terrorists himself. But at times it becomes a bit too much such as when a S.W.A.T. team member yells “owww” after scratching himself on a rose or when the head police officer totally neglects the existence of a terrorist body. It is redeemed somewhat by the fact that John himself is more than competent as is Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), a sort of liaison of sorts between John and the cops via radio.
But neglecting the issues of buffoonish cops and getting past the entire brilliant structure of the film the reason why Die Hard is so great is that it provides a series of satisfying, memorable moments. Yes, it’s built off the carefully constructed plot and that is part of the reason why it is so enjoyable, but I doubt most people are obsessing over every last tidbit of plot information. It simply gives us plenty of entertaining and satisfying moments. You can make a much more spectacular and grandiose action film but I can almost guarantee you it will fail to be as entertaining as Die Hard.
If Die Hard proves anything it’s that there is a craft to making great action films. The average watcher will simply enjoy it for the entertaining thrill ride that it is, but the film holds up surprisingly well to scrutiny. I’ve watch this film over three times now and I still find myself marveling over how it complex and brilliant every moment is. Die Hard is so brilliant in its structure that it does not simply stand as one of the greatest action films ever made but one of the greatest films of all time.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing