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Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Retro Review: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard
Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald Valjohnston
Genre: Action
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $140 million 

Plot: New York City policeman John McClane is visiting his estranged wife and two daughters on Christmas Eve. He joins her at a holiday party in the headquarters of the Japanese-owned business she works for. But the festivities are interrupted by a group of terrorists who take over the exclusive high-rise, and everyone in it. Very soon McClane realises that there's no one to save the hostages but him

'Bruce On The Loose'

After 'moonlighting' with Cybil Shepherd for 4 seasons on the dramedy series, by the late 1980s, Bruce Willis turned his attentions to becoming a Hollywood movie actor. His first real effort was Die Hard, and boy what a way to make an entrance as a fully-fledged action star. It was initially pitched to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a direct sequel to 1985's Commando, but he turned it down, only for Bruce Willis to accept the role of John McClane and the rest, as we say, is history. 

Willis's arrival came during towards the end of the 1980s, where after several and successful attempts were made by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone on the movie front that the action genre started to wane and thus, it needed some re-invigoration, some new blood. Cue Bruce Willis, who was already well known to audiences in the U.S for TV smash hit, Moonlighting and with that, what we got is (unlike Arnie, Sly, Van Damme and a couple of other muscle-bound stars), an ordinary man who didn't have the huge muscles and biceps but who could still take charge. Though he bled, felt pain, had a vulnerability to him and had to experience getting hurt in order to dish out the punishment to them, he still never gave up until he succeeded. And thanks to the more than competent and at times wisecracking script, John did that. He even fought barefoot most of the time, which isn't always easy, especially when he has to contend with broken glass on the floor; and so one nasty graze would be painful, to say the least. He jumps off the roof, smashes through glass and picks broken glass off his feet, his antics would make Jackie Chan proud. 

And for all of the jokes about his dirty vest, that vest is what makes John McClane his own type of action hero with a distinguishable trademark: with the Terminator it is the sunglasses and leather jacket and Rambo it's the headband and longish curly hair. 

As a one-man army, though he goes about it in the same way as Arnie, Stallone in a gung-ho fashion, he has to also work twice as hard to defeat them, given that Willis isn't as strong and powerful by relying on his wits, as much as everything else he is good at. 

The plot may have been rehashed several times over with the terrorists taking over a ship or whatever and holding people captive and yet there is one guy who outsmarts them all and beats them at his own game (i.e. Under Siege). And yet not many action and action-adventure/thriller type films have managed to make it work as and so effectively as Director John McTiernan has done, with the screenplay by Steven E. De Souza and produced by Joel Silver; with both De Souza and Silver having worked wonders in previous outings. The former with 48 Hrs, The Running Man, Commando and the latter with Lethal Weapon, The Matrix, Predator and Romeo Must Die to name but many. 

Off-duty cop John McClane is off to Los Angeles to see his estranged wife and to enjoy his Christmas vacation, when he ends up in a life or death race- against- time situation to save hostages - one of them being his wife, who is held captive in a high- storey building on Christmas Eve - and to successfully dispatch the bad guys, one-by-one. 

The film's massive success spawned 4 more films in the Die Hard franchise, as well as several video games, including a game titled Die Hard Arcade for the Sega Saturn and whereby the character of Bruno Dellinger was modelled on Bruce Willis's physical likeness for the 2012 Nintendo 3DS game, Project X Zone

Alan Rickman as villain Gruber has more personality than any of the other antagonists in the Die Hard series that as the first and foremost bad guy, he was for me the most believable. It is so seamless: sly, charming -yet conniving and still he possessed the threat and menace needed for this film. Yeah, sure Die Hard 2 was, well for me, really upped the action and tension, but the main villain of the piece had a persona, that as twisting as it was, he's not as interesting as Gruber. The key to any great film of any genre involving good versus evil is that not only do you have a great leading hero but also a very convincing and charismatic villain who oozes personality to make his villain act, all the more believable and formidable, as heinous as it is and that the audience buys into it completely. He also airs a conscientiousness about him, especially during the scene where John's wife tells him about a pregnant woman who needs help, and so it seems he does have that other side of him where he is not an outright, complete and utterly loathe-able person. & Rickman's portrayal has a naturalness that evokes that menace, without coming off as being hammy. I don't think the movie would have been as effective, had the villain been much like and looked a lot like Commando's Bennett with a chain-mailed shirt & look of Freddie Mercury. Had that been the case, Gruber would have been a distraction & be dismissed as a mere joke, rather than be taken seriously. As he is here via Alan Rickman. 

The best performances come from Rickman and Willis, who by and large carry this film and their contrasting personalities make a tremendous amount of difference and give it a major boost. Whilst Reginald Valjohnson makes for a likeable and well-mannered cop, Al and the sole, nosey roving news reporter, is just an annoying jerk. William Atherton reprises his role as the jerkass, 4 years on from Ghostbusters but this time as a reporter. When Holly punched him in the face, I was like 'go girl!'.  

Another aspect of this film that is worth relishing is the action scenes: they are of high quality, well-orchestrated. And thankfully no CGI involved either, although this film didn't need it. The suspense is great and the stunts are one of a kind. Some of the best examples include John McClane swinging and smashing through a window whilst suspended by a fire hose and of John throwing himself off a 35th-floor building that is about to explode. 

Die Hard pretty much set a benchmark for all other action films to transpire and live up to - and most of them, post - 2000 wise especially, have been rather disappointing, to say the least. Some films are even variations on the theme; hence 1994's Speed was dubbed ''Die Hard on a bus''. Die Hard meanwhile, has so many strong points that still hold up almost 30 years on. 

Final Verdict:

Bruce Willis's major career breakthrough, and what a breakthrough it was. On repeated and countless viewings, Die Hard never gets old, never tires or wanes and never loses its unique edge that makes it a great change to Arnie and Sly Stallone's usual offerings. 

It's not just an '80s movie classic but it makes for one hell of a Christmas classic also. Willis's transition from rom-com sitcom star through Moonlighting to high-octane action fare, such as this is rather remarkable that is also ably supported by impressive and believable performances by the supporting cast members. 

This is an essential must-have film for all action fans. 

Often imitated - yet rarely surpassed; bold, brash and but also not lacking in standout moments, Die Hard is an action film with a Christmas-ish twist that is arguably the best of its own kind. 


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