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Die Hard (DVD)
Member Name: SWSt
Die Hard (DVD)
Advantages: Great characters, rip-roaring action, tense atmosphere.
Disadvantages: Casual violence and bad language may offend, been copied so much it now looks cliched
Trapped in a building which has been overtaken by terrorists, New York Cop John McClane must find a way to survive and try to save the hostages.
Die Hard is one of those wonderful films that no-one expected anything from, but which ended up taking the world by storm (sadly, leading to the inevitably inferior sequels and Steven Seagal starring rip-offs).
Your memory is probably telling you that Die Hard is nothing but a pitched gun battle from start to finish. In fact, it's a lot more subtle. The build-up is actually fairly slow, giving director John McTiernan the chance to establish the characters and move his pieces into place. It also gives us chance to get to know John McClane (Bruce Willis) properly - not as some gung-ho maverick cop with a gun, but as a husband, father and, at times, a bit of an idiot. In other words, before he's a hero, he's a human. This is vital to the success of the script, because it means we really engage with him and are rooting for him later in the film when the shooting does start.
Willis plays the part to perfection, showing great confidence in what was his first big-screen lead. His McClane is arrogant, cocky, reckless, funny, caring, friendly. He's not a one-dimensional, one-man-war machine. Throughout the course of the film, he displays all the emotions you would expect a normal person to go through - fear, panic, elation, hysteria and, finally, acceptance and resignation. Again, this human element helps us identify with him all the more.
Once the introductions are over, though, the film gets down to business and never lets up until the final reel. This is the film which set the benchmark in the late 80s for action set-pieces. Some are impressive in a technical sense (the lift shaft explosion) or in a visual way (the assault on the Nakatomi Plaza building by the police). The explosions, whilst probably thoroughly unrealistic really add to the sense of excitement. This is backed up with some spectacular, but carefully rationed stunts. The "fire hose" abseil is probably the best of these - dumb, unrealistic and spectacular!
Where the film's real strength lies, however, is not in these stunts, but rather in the film's atmosphere. Limiting the action to a single location (a building) is a masterstroke. It quickly establishes a sense of claustrophobia which generates a natural tension. This is a game of cat and mouse, of terrorist seeking lone gunman; and the fact that they only have a few areas in which to look for each other, really adds to the tense atmosphere. Having Willis move around the building using lift shafts or air conditioning ducts only heightens the feeling of claustrophobia.
I've mentioned the terrorists a number of times already, without actually considering them too much. This is because, for the most part, they are fairly dull and generic. The exception to this is Alan Rickman as leader Hans Gruber. Rickman essentially redefines the screen baddy (something he would do again in Robin Hood). It's a controlled and restrained performance, with just occasional flashes of "ham acting". His is a terrorist leader who very much knows what he wants and how to get it. It's also interesting to see how he allows his character to gradually lose control in the face of more and more provocation from McClane. Unusually for an action film, Rickman even gets to exercise his acting chops - adopting both German and American accents. If Willis is the star of Die Hard, Rickman is the wildcard, stealing virtually every scene he is in.
All this is backed up by an interesting script, which keeps the action flowing, whilst still finding time for more human moments and elements of black humour.
Of course, Die Hard is not going to be to everyone's taste. Although it is a little bit different from traditional action movies and many of the "one-man-army" films, it is still firmly in that genre. If you don't like that type of film, you'll hate Die Hard. Similarly, its casual use of violence and bad language will be off-putting to some. Certainly, if you like your films subtle, then this is one to stay well clear of!
The film also contains a lot of clichés (lone hero, maverick cop, officious bureaucrats, European bad guys), which people may find unoriginal and annoying. In fact, many of these clichés became clichés as a result of this film - it was so successful and copied so many times, that some of its fresher ideas now look tired and jaded. Then again, if you're looking for a thought provoking, original script full of interesting ideas, you're hardly likely to be watching Die Hard, are you?
Easily one of the best action films of the 80s. Although it's often on TV (hacked to death by cut-happy TV execs), grab it on DVD and watch it again.
Director: John McTiernan
Running time: approx. 131 minutes
© Copyright SWSt 2008
Summary: A key 80s action film