In 1994, Umberto Eco published an essay entitled, “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball.” The novelist expounded on the greatness of this classic film for its incorporation of every possible stock character in Western fiction into a single narrative. Nearly every speaking part taps into some standard, some archetype. Star Wars is perhaps its only competitor for universality in this regard. And while it lacks the wide reach of either the aforementioned films, in the twenty-five years since its release, Die Hard has become the sine qua non action film.
Like most films which inaugurated a new genre, Die Hard comes with a fascinating back story. The film is based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, a sequel to his earlier work, The Detective, which was adapted to film and starred Frank Sinatra as NYPD detective John Leland. The same John Leland returns in Nothing Lasts Forever, though his name was changed to John McClane for the novel’s move to film. To think of Bruce Willis picking up where Old Blue Eyes left off certainly sets the film on different footing.
When Willis took to the screen as McClane, he had no history as an action film star. He was a comic actor, best known for the television series “Moonlighting” (a show which can, perhaps, be immediately understood through the singular fact that Al Jarreau performed the theme song). Similarly, Alan Rickman was best known at the time as a BBC actor whose first television credit was Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet back in 1978. Rickman’s last film credit prior to Die Hard was a minor role in Girls On Top, a comedic TV series whose biggest star was Tracey Ullman. Needless to say, anyone looking at the cast of Die Hard would be hard pressed to say director John McTiernan was making a bid for credibility.
That lack of pretention might be the secret to the lasting appeal of the film.
Die Hard opens with detective John McClane landing in LAX by way of LaGuardia to spend Christmas with his estranged wife. While McClane’s movement across the country might be seen as a device to set up a few jokes about the wackiness of Los Angeles, that movement also frames the film as a Western of sorts. McClane is an officer of the law headed out West, where a band of robbers is tyrannizing a town in which the local badge is incompetent to bring perpetrators to justice. Die Hard is also an Odyssey. The first shot in the film is McClane’s left hand, wedding band in place, tightly gripping his chair on a descending plane. His marriage is central to the story, and, like Odysseus, McClane’s reconciliation with his wife will only come after a blood bath at a feast.
While Die Hard was originally released in the summer, the story is set on Christmas Eve. Does the film have anything to do with Christmas at all? Given California weather, it’s hot and there is no snow on the ground, so the Christmas décor within the film seems no less forced than would a theater in Tulsa which drapes festive lights around the screen in the middle of July. The juxtaposition of the Christmas party and the elaborate theft of $640 million in bearer bond sets off the narrative’s more significant overlaying of McClane’s work to save hostages, one of whom is his wife, and to simultaneously rectify his failing marriage. The Christmas setting plays neatly into the plot; the thieves are able to take over a skyscraper in ten minutes because the whole city is distracted by the holiday. That distraction resonates deeply elsewhere.
Every story about a man on a mission to save a relationship with a woman must needs derail that mission with a thousand material, practical concerns. It is an easier story to tell than one wherein a man is trying to sustain a relationship, though every human being in either scenario has felt that they were being torn apart by the conflicting concerns of the soul and of the body. When I leave for the office in the morning, I say, “If only I had more time for my wife and kids…” and in the late afternoon, as I leave the office, I say, “If only I had more time for work…” There is never enough time to read the Bible, but there is never enough time to read great novels, either. Never enough time to pray, never enough time to go jogging. To be human is to be skeptical of Solomon’s claim that there is “a time for this and a time for that,” though the problem might also be that we’re never content with what time it is. Early in the film, John converses with his wife Holly (an appropriate name for a Yule time story) about their separation, but she is called away from the conversation to deliver a speech to her company. John has come out to Los Angeles in the hope of fixing a dissolving marriage, but he is sidetracked by a dozen thieves with machine guns. “One damned thing after another” as the old saying goes.
The film is decidedly individualist and anti-intellectual in a way which is apt to make Americans content. The LAPD is slow to respond to John’s warnings, conceding that something is, in fact, wrong in the Nakatomi Plaza only after a falling corpse demolishes a cop car. The police set up a circus and refuse to cooperate with McClane inside, though he is the only one capable of assessing the situation. The cops can’t get through a wall of glass with an armored tank, though McClane manages to do so with a cheap office chair. The feds show up, a bunch of steely-cold egos who insist they can bring the situation under control, but they’re dead in a matter of minutes. The humorlessness of the cops outside is contrasted with McClane’s wisecracking, flippancy and disregard for protocol. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, on the other hand, is a parody of a European intellectual. He quotes the ancients and chalks up the brilliance of his thievery to “the benefits of a classical education.” He is not incompetent, though when he begins losing control of the situation, he first insists that everything is going according to plan. McClane, by contrast, is a realist, who only ever shouts and loses his temper when dealing with bureaucrats. The well-known exchange between Gruber and McClane over the radio is worth transcribing.
Hans Gruber: [on the radio] Mr. Mystery Guest? Are you still there?
John McClane: Yeah, I’m still here. Unless you wanna open the front door for me.
Hans Gruber: Uh, no, I’m afraid not. But, you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?
John McClane: Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really like those sequined shirts.
Hans Gruber: Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
John McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, mother____er.
Director John McTiernan, whose last directing credit prior to Die Hard was for Predator, centers the whole ethos of the film on this scene and this dialog. Gruber the Intellectual psychoanalyzes McClane, reaching back into the cop’s upbringing, all the while critical of America’s “bankrupt culture.” McClane’s glib response that he preferred Roy Rogers for his “sequined shirts” perhaps mocks Gruber’s sexuality (the mincing “Mr. Mystery Guest” and “Mr. Cowboy” seem suspect), but also dismisses Gruber’s heady attempt to unpack McClane’s demons. The film’s most enduring line is the linguistic equivalent of Indiana Jones picking off that overly gymnastic sword-wielding Arab in Raiders of the Lost Ark (a scene which would in no way pass given a politically correct climate). Absolutely nothing in the plot called for Gruber’s character to have a German name. He is not German in the slightest. When McTiernan gets Rickman to do a convincing American accent late in the film, but couldn’t be bothered to get him to do a German accent, he more or less lumps all Europeans in the same egg-headed basket. It’s as much to say, Gruber is a German name, he sounds like a Brit, but really, what’s the difference? Still, Europeans prove to be behind the times. The single American whom Gruber has employed in the heist is the one who performs all his tricky tech work. The rest of party shoot and grunt and cut phone lines with a chainsaw.
From the fifth minute of the film until the end, McClane is shoeless, and for a rather simple tick of the plot, a great deal of the film’s beguiling charm is bound up in this detail. To unwind, McClane removes his shoes to “make fists with your toes” as another passenger exhorted him to do after seeing him nervous on his flight. Willis is in the midst of such homeopathy when the first shots are fired, though the tip seemed to be working up until that moment. Is this the secret to McClane’s cool dealing with Gruber and his stooges? He never seems quite as laid back in any of the four sequels, but neither does he make fists with his toes in those pictures. There’s something delightful about a New York City cop taking a bit of odd advice from a fellow traveler- something quaint, provincial and humble. Something Hans Gruber wouldn’t dream of doing.
Few funny, violent films sustain as much review as this one. At least some aspect of the film’s residual potency is the unresolved contradiction at the heart of it. McClane is a loner because institutions can’t be trusted, but he’s still trying to put his marriage back together. A man’s got to rely on himself, but he’s going to want a wife anyway. As someone who fancies himself an amateur intellectual, I still can’t bring myself to fault the film for lampooning “intellectuals.” So, too, complaining the film “has intellectuals all wrong” hilariously misses the point. McClane is unfussy and unpretentious, and the institutions McClane and McTiernan lampoon are not so much corrupt as they are top-heavy. As with ultraviolent epics in the classical tradition (Homer’s Iliad, The Song of Roland), very little of the violence in Die Hard is memorable because it doesn’t take center stage. That’s not to say the film isn’t glib in its treatment of the human body, as McClane wins more than a few morbid laughs before the credits roll. However, the fact McLane tries to save the life of his wife’s coke-snorting suitor plays up McTiernan’s greater interest in dynamic characters and shifting relationships. A PG version of the film, edited for television, would lose none of none of the pleasure and charm (aside of that line) owned by the original. How many action films can make a similar boast?