Saturday, July 7, 2007

Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan

Bruised, bloody and beaten, Bruce Willis is in the wrong place at the right time. An action movie is only as good as its hero, and “Die Hard” features one of the greats. With reluctance and a “how could it get any worse” attitude, Willis imbues a character that carries this film far beyond what it could have ended up being -- namely, another disposable "junk food" action flick. Yes, this film is, in part, junk food, but it will taste so damn good that you'll gladly abandon your diet for two hours of indulgence. "Die Hard" bravely set a trend that was in direct opposition to what had been going on at the time, and consequently was bastardized by Hollywood hacks, but never equalled. Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop with a tinge of noir, who is visiting his wife, a successful businesswoman, and two children out in L.A. The whole film is laced in an atmosphere designed to turn McClane into the most put-upon fish out of water the action screen has ever seen.
First, we discover that it's Christmas, but one that only the neutral weather of L.A. could provide. It’s set almost entirely at a Christmas party in an L.A. office building, where McClane arrives to meet his wife. She and her coworkers are held hostage, when a gang of terrorists seizes control of the party in an attempt to rob the building's safe that's filled with over $600 million in bearer bonds. This perfectly simple set-up allows this film to be a great action movie and nothing more. And why shouldn't it be just that? They obviously knew what they were good at, and designed a movie to show off their talents. John McClane is able to slip away, and make his way through the building, which is in the middle of a renovation. The 12 terrorists begin to drop like flies as they’re systematically picked off by a simultaneously confident and panicky McClane. The plot may be simple, but it has a great economy. As one character intervenes, whether it’s the police, the media, the F.B.I, or McClane himself, it immediately and plausibly throws everyone else’s makeshift plan out of whack (a detail few action movies recognize or utilize well). I know “plausible” is a word that may seem out of place here, but when the characters recognize their respective positions in the story, they keep the whole thing realistic in relation to the rest of the story. Obviously the whole thing is a ridiculous concept, but within that frame, the plot points work. The other perfectly cast addition to the story is Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman), who's the leader of the terrorist group. Hans remains the model for any 90’s action film villain who has an axe to grind and an affinity for ridiculously brutal intimidation. All the while, never forgetting his role in this little story and pointing out what's going on right before the audience even gets a chance to ask. This shows that the filmmakers knew affectionately what genre they were dabbling in, and weren't shy about unabashedly showcasing action for action's sake. But unlike most other action flicks, Hans stays three steps ahead of everyone in a way that keeps the story movie without weighing it down with superfluous exposition. Part of that is that the exposition is simply the character of John McClane. Where he goes, the story goes.
It’s quite simply a “guy” flick in its purest form, complete with wry catch phrases, a classic battle between good and evil with no middle ground, and a hero who steps up when he sees that nobody else will. It's futile to defend its over-the-top silliness, and the film itself knows this. It uses action film elements to great effect, in a way that won't have you rolling your eyes, but thinking to yourself, "nice." Without Willis, this film would undoubtedly not be at the level it ultimately rises to. They took an action film, and boiled it down and gutted it to provide a backdrop for a great performance by Willis. They even stripped McClane of his shoes, his clothes, and his energy. And when the final confrontation occurs, we see that McClane was probably on his last leg, and probably couldn’t make it another round. L.A. has literally stripped, beat, and worn McClane down to the exasperated and bloody action star that was shamelessly copied, but never duplicated, in a delightfully simple, but never boring, excuse to simply blow some shit up.

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