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Retro Review: Die Hard (1988)

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Die Hard was released when I was three years old. I was just a tad under the age to see the film in theaters. Not that it would have mattered. When I was ten, a buddy of mine brought the VHS copy (kids, that stands for Video Home System and was the predominant form for watching movies during the 80’s and 90’s) over to my house for a sleepover. Unfortunately, however, my mother uncovered our dastardly plot and put an end to our plans. So, instead, we told dick and fart jokes the rest of the evening. You know, wholesome fun.

Having been released in the waning years of the 80’s, so too, Die Hard was released in the waning years of the Action Boom. That decade proved to be a golden era. First Blood, Predator, and Lethal Weapon were all released in these years and boy howdy was it an explosive ten years. It was a time of the mortal hero. Today our heroes are given superpowers, by either gods or some radioactive materials. But not John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane embodies a certain spirit that was alive in this era. A man, that by all accounts should die…several times over. But somehow, after the blood is spilled, the injuries are collected, the white tank-top is sullied and browned, our hero crawls from the rubble, limping into victory.

We first find John McClane aboard a flight from New York City to Los Angeles (my nightmare incarnate). He’s nervous and fearful of air travel. Right there, we are exposed to our hero who isn’t 100% hyper-masculine. Which is a breath of fresh air. This humanizes him. We soon learn that John and his wife Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedalia) are going through a rough patch in their marriage. She’s moved to LA, dropped her surname, and she may or may not be seeing Cokey-McEighties (Harry Ellis played by Hart Bochner) on the side. Essentially, this is a movie about a marriage on the rocks. McClane has reluctantly left beautiful NYC to visit his estranged wife and their kids for Christmas. He doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for their marriage. This is a melo-drama holiday plot…with machine guns and a whole lot of murderin’.

Let’s move on to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Most people nowadays know this actor as the heart-sick Severus Snape from the Harry Potter films. This is unfortunate, because Hans Gruber is one of the most memorable on-screen villains of all time. He’s developed a masterful smoke and mirrors plan. He’s not the type of villain to talk and talk only to have someone else kill a hostage. He just blows these guys away without a second thought. Furthermore, he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, running off to execute plans and enter into a fire fight with McClane. We see, oftentimes, a villain who talks a big game, but when it comes down to the real deal, they cower in the hero’s presence. Not Gruber. Well, he does, but it’s only to gain the upper hand and not in true fear.

This is a movie with plenty of bullets, blood, face-punches, and just a teeny bit of frontal nudity. It’s the essential 80’s action flick. There’s the uber-intelligent villain facing off with the sarcastic, brawny hero. McClane takes hit after hit, even cutting his feet on broken glass, but keeps on going. As a viewer, you’re completely invested, and even feel at times that McClane may not…and probably should not…succeed. I’ve seen this movie almost once a year since finally watching it at the age of 14. I know nearly every tick and tock, all the plot-twists, all of the moments that McClane nearly dies and the tension is still there. As McClane uses a machine gun and the strap to lower himself into a ventilation shaft, and leap to an open duct, I noticed my hands were becoming sweaty. I might have even called out to the screen, “C’mon, John, you can make it. JUMP!” Because this isn’t the action film of today, where the hero would have done a bit of Parkour and the scene would be over in a matter of seconds. This scene lasts for a long time. The henchmen are hot on his tail, searching for him, and he’s engaging every single muscle, just to live. Finally the strap breaks and he leaps, just to slam into the duct, grabbing on at the last moment to save from falling. I fell back into the couch, relieved. Somehow, it still gets to me.

The greatest Christmas movie of all time is two-hours of tension, action, and several explosions. And yes, this is the best Christmas movie. A Christmas Story  is great but it doesn’t have machine guns, a wise-crackin’ limo driver, “Yippie ki-yay, Motherfucker” or Reginald vel Johnson of Family Matters fame. Plus this movie series gives you options. You can Die Hard or Die Harder. If you’re a bit angry you could Die Hard with a Vengeance. Considering the political climate, these days you can Live Free or Die Hard. And soon enough, in 2013, oh yes ladies and gentlemen, you will be given A Good Day to Die Hard.

 

After-Thoughts:

 

  • Does rolling your toes up in a fist on some carpet really work with relieving stress post-flight? I have a flight in a couple of weeks…tips…pointers?
  • Is Bruce Willis more intimidating with hair or without? (It does become a valuable weapon for the henchman near the end of the film…)
  • Another example of facial hair…most notably the goatee…symbolizing evil.
  • Has there ever been an 80’s businessman who wasn’t coked up? I feel like the film industry was trying to tell us that an MBA was the root of all coke habits.
  • Argyle, the wise-crackin’ limo driver…a black kid with a Scottish name. Still one of my favorite side-kicks.
  • Reginald vel Johnson AKA Carl Winslow from Family Matters has played a cop or a variant in many movies. He has appeared as such in Ghostbusters, Plain Clothes, Turner and Hooch and of course reprised his Die Hard role in Die Hard 2…to name a few. He’s your go-to fat cop. But for all you aspiring filmmakers out there, I think he’s put down the badge, so to speak.
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The Author

Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien

Michael graduated with a degree in Creative Writing with a minor in Film Studies from Western Kentucky University in 2009. He currently lives with his wife, two cats (and Netflix account) in NYC. He has published short stories on 400words.com and asouthernjournal.com. He has published poems in The Poetry Gymnasium by Dr. Tom Hunley and in The Roundtable.