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Die Hard (1988)

by on 2010/12/16

My family always listened to “Dazzling Don” Daynard on the radio.  Every morning, through the Seventies and Eighties, any station he called home, we tuned in to.  So when he announced one morning that he’d just seen an incredible new movie called Die Hard, even my parents were intrigued.

Like Lethal Weapon, this picture is decorated with the trappings, if not the sentiment, of Christmas.  Bruce Willis plays New York cop John McClane, estranged from his Los Angeleno family.  Visiting for the holidays, he reaches his wife’s workplace, the Nakatomi tower, just as a group of terrorists lock it down.

Cue an intricate order breaking loose.

Through the clockwork flurry of plot mechanics, I was struck by the strength of the cast.  There are many people here, of varying involvement, but every single one them is well-played.  Each has a unique agenda, is intelligent or obsessive, with individual “character” moments to shine.

Bruce Willis surprised me most.  His portrayal of John McClane is that of a man who doubts himself.  He’s caught in a cycle of impulsiveness and regret, and yet he’s never stupid.  He learns, gathers resources, and puts aside his doubts to act.  I’d come to think of him as purely an action hero, but his acting can get intense, and he reminded me somewhat of Harrison Ford.

Of course the popular standout is Alan Rickman.  His villain, Hans Gruber, is intelligent and educated, eloquent and charming, quick-witted and ruthless.  He plans his work, he works his plan, and it’s easy to believe he’ll succeed.  He exemplifies the perfect “bad guy”, nearly enough as to unbalance the tale.

Other notable roles include Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennaro-McClane, Alexander Godunov (Witness) as Karl, Andreas Wisniewski as his brother Tony, and Reginald Veljohnson as Sgt. Powell.

Even the smaller “sleazy” parts are great.  Hart Bochner as Ellis, a wheeling-dealing, coke-snorting rogue, Paul Gleason as the windbag Deputy Chief, Robert Davi as a soulless FBI “problem eliminator”, and William Atherton as an exploitative reporter.

Between the attention lavished on its sets, to the cinematography observing them, the Nakatomi building is nearly a character itself.  Considering the locations are mostly interiors, it feels counterintuitively expansive and spacious, with interesting angles, and a wide screen perspective.

Though the people and places were a newer consideration, I was also reminded of things I’d forgotten.  While humour abounds, some may find it grim.  Beyond the popular refrains of “Yippee-ki-yay” and “Now I have a machine gun” I noticed several others:  the Night Before Christmas tactical analysis, the “Let it Snow” prelude to a body-drop, and Gruber’s admonition of “It’s Christmas, Theo!  It’s the time of miracles, so be of good cheer!”

But as much as this movie is celebrated, at Christmas or the rest of the year, it’s usually faintly praised as a “popcorn flick”.  I think that conclusion sells it short.  More than a formula, it’s an intricate and flawlessly orchestrated piece, with good humour, great characters, and incomparable action.

Die Hard doesn’t do things by the book . . . it is the book.

* * * *

Rated R for language, nudity, and violence

132 minutes

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