MoM is proud to launch its latest new feature, The Axis Of Action. In this feature, we look at the action cinema of the 70s, 80s and 90s, with a special emphasis on the movies of popular genre stars like Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, Wesley Snipes, Steven Seagal, etc. (Films with other stars will be allowed from time to time, too). The series kicks off with Jonathon Dabell’s review of John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988), starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman and Bonnie Bedelia.
Just when the action genre was in danger of becoming too self-parodic for its own good under the weight of films featuring indestructible one-man armies (one thinks of Schwarzenegger in Commando, Norris in Invasion USA and Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II), along came Die Hard to really shake things up. Each of those other movies has its admirers, but what can’t be denied about them is that they replaced suspense with spectacle, ditching vulnerable and human heroes in favour of invincible automatons. Die Hard reinvents things somewhat: it presents a normal and entirely identifiable hero, a man with emotional baggage and marital woes, a man who hurts and bleeds and feels fear when the net tightens. It also presents an incredible gallery of villains – headed by a particularly suave, sophisticated and sinister leader – as well as an excellent mix of well-rounded supporting characters. The suspense in Die Hard works so well because we believe everything that happens. It’s totally engaging and absorbing, and that’s because we are made to invest something in the characters and the situations. The various Die Hard sequels have their moments, but the original remains easily the best.
New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in L.A. on Christ
mas Eve to visit his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). She works for the powerful Nakatomi Corporation, headed by Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta), and McClane meets her at a swanky Christmas party being thrown by the company on one of the highest floors in their towering skyscraper HQ.
Later in the evening, a group of thirteen high-tech thieves led by the sophisticated Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) seize control of the tower and take the party-goers hostage. Their objective is to get into the Nakatomi vault, but none of them are aware of the presence of McClane in the building. Slipping away as they seize the hostages, McClane is the only person left who can stop them. He plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the villains, leading them a merry dance up and down the storeys of the building.
Willis’s films and performances vary in quality, but this is certainly one of his best. He makes McClane a multi-dimensional, likable and wholly human person (something increasingly lacking as the series progresses). Similarly, there is fine work from the likes of Bedelia as his resourceful wife, Shigeta as the proud Japanese business mogul, Reginald Veljohnson as a cop on the ground who keeps McClane’s spirits up over the radio, William Atherton as an ambitious newscaster, Alexander Gudonov as the villain’s second-in-command and Hart Bochner as a sleazy, cocaine-snorting businessman. Best of all is Alan Rickman, giving an absolutely riveting performance as the main bad guy. He simply oozes chilling composure and confidence – he is, quite simply, one of filmdom’s greatest ever villains.
Of course, the actors are only able to create these terrific characterisations thanks to great writing. And the script by Steven E. DeSouza and Jeb Stuart is a miracle of economic storytelling, tension and enthralling character dynamics. The interplay between Willis and Rickman over the radio, taunting and threatening each other as the stakes rise, is truly fantastic. Added to this is the fact that certain people on the ground are more of a hindrance than a help to McClane, meaning that in many ways he is taking a battering on all sides. The script also provides some terrific dialogue, with many memorable moments and quotable lines. There’s enough humour to give audiences some respite, but not so much that the tremendous suspense is nullified by too ‘jokey’ a tone.
John McTiernan (arguably one of the most infuriatingly inconsistent directors of the past three decades) is in top form here, wringing every drop of excitement out of the situation. All good siege thrillers create palm-sweating tension, and your palms will rarely sweat as profusely as they do during Die Hard!
If there are weaknesses, they are minor and not worth dwelling on too much. One is that Paul Gleason’s chief-of-police on the ground comes across as a pretty unconvincing character under the circumstances. His initial antagonism towards McClane is understandable, but as events unfold his continued hatred towards the only man who can help doesn’t ring true. Also, the two FBI guys played by Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush Jr seem a bit cliched and are set up merely to be mown down. Both actors play the roles well, but they are fairly wasted.
Overall, Die Hard is a top-notch action movie – indisputably one of the best of its kind, and a genuine ‘benchmark’ movie against which other genre fare should be measured. Each sequel diminishes in quality, roughly in the order they were made. But the original remains an action classic, a genuine must-see for all genre addicts.
MoM Rating: 9.5/10