Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

Rated R

Score: 5 out of 5

It's motherfucking Die Hard. That's really all the review you need for one of the greatest action movies ever made. It's what happens when you take an entertaining hero, an amazing villain, a slew of memorable supporting characters and henchmen, a mountain of witty dialogue, tons of thrilling action set pieces, and a brisk pace with a basic setup that, even after almost thirty years and dozens of ripoffs, is still pure gold. And it's also a great Christmas movie, no matter what anybody says. There's really nothing I can say that hasn't already been said before. I could stop the review right here, my bottom line being that, if you haven't see this movie already, fucking fix that.

But I'm not gonna stop here. I'm gonna tell you why you should fix that.

Our hero is NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), who's currently flown out from the East Coast to Los Angeles to visit his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) for a Christmas party at her workplace, the high-rise corporate complex Nakatomi Plaza. The pair separated six months ago when Holly got a promotion that required her to head out west, with John staying behind because he had a massive backlog of cases to work through... or at least, that's what the two of them say. When John gets there, he finds that Holly's gone back to using her maiden name Gennaro, and the first thing they do when they're in private is get into an argument over her decision to leave; clearly, things weren't rosy between them even before Holly moved to LA. Their family feud gets put on the backburner, though, when a baker's dozen of robbers, led by the suave German mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), assaults the building. Posing as radical leftist terrorists, Hans and his men get to work on breaking into the tower's vault and stealing $640 million in bearer bonds while rounding up everybody in the building... save for one man. John manages to slip away, equipped only with his service pistol and not even having time to get his shoes back on, taking refuge in the upper levels of Nakatomi Plaza and radioing for help. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game as Hans' men attempt to hunt John down and stop the fly in the ointment from sabotaging their well-laid plans, all while the police outside, led by Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), have to contend with interference from the police chief, the FBI, and a voracious media.

The first thing you notice watching this, whether you've been raised on a diet of '80s action flicks or modern superhero movies, is that John McClane, by the standards of either then or now, is no ordinary action hero. Bruce Willis doesn't have bulging muscles to carry and fire a belt-fed machine gun one-handed like Arnold Schwarzenegger did, nor is he trim and fit like Chris Pratt; he's schlubby and has a bit of a gut, a far cry from the fitness freaks that action movies have often cast as their badasses. He rarely confronts his foes head-on, spending most of the movie either running away from danger or enduring horrifying abuse (especially to his feet), and even in a one-on-one, hand-to-hand fight, he struggles to prevail. His relationship with his wife is on the rocks, and even as he's unraveling the villains' plans and causing them to lash out, Holly remarks that only an asshole like John could possibly drive somebody that mad. By the time it's over, John isn't triumphant so much as he is simply happy to have survived all of that. Even knowing how much this figured into the film's appeal, I often found myself asking, "just what kind of action movie is this?" This is what critics mean when they say Willis brought an "everyman" quality to the part: that he came across less as a screenwriter's idealized macho man coming in to save the day, and more as an ordinary cop in the wrong place at the wrong time fighting to stay alive. Willis did have one thing in common with the likes of Ahnold and Stallone, however: his sense of humor. He started out as a comedy actor on the lighthearted police show Moonlighting, and he elevates action movie one-liners to an art form. His profane twist on Roy Rogers' catch-phrase is only the most famous of many moments when he snarks about his situation, a particularly great kill, or Hans' taunting over the radio. Even as he's being put through hell, he can't help but to get the last word against his enemies. Picture someone like Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, or Kristen Wiig at their best headlining a serious action movie -- and that movie being awesome -- and you've got a pretty good impression of what Willis is like throughout the film: somebody who you can't believe is not only still getting up, but joking about it. By breaking the stoic muscleman mold, Willis redefined what an action hero could be, paving the way for everyone from Liam Neeson to Keanu Reeves to Jennifer Lawrence.

No good hero is complete without a villain, however, and that's where we get the late, great Alan Rickman as one of the greatest bad guys in action movie history, Hans Gruber. He's a villain whose plan you can see actually working (if not for one little Bruce Willis-shaped problem): carry out an armed robbery while pretending to be terrorists in order to divert the attention of the hostages and police alike, exploiting the fact that the police are treating the affair like a hostage situation without considering what else of value may lay inside the building. And once you've got the money, fake your death by blowing up all the hostages along with their ride out of there, making it look like you and your men were with them while you secretly scurry away in an ambulance you've hidden in the parking garage. Rickman is cold, calculating, and just a little bit odd in his stilted, accented delivery, giving the impression that there's something slimy about Hans underneath his cool, well-dressed exterior. He and Willis are a match made in hell, perfect foils to one another; you can see why both of their Hollywood careers took off after this film (Rickman had been exclusively a theater actor before this). His henchmen, too, are a memorable bunch, characters in their own right as Hans dispatches them to eliminate the pest upstairs. They run the gamut from Karl, the blond-haired hunk with a personal grudge against John after he takes out his brother, to Theo, the streetwise, hoops-loving nerd who serves as the group's technical support as he shuts down communications and cracks the locks on the vault. I remembered many of them for more than just how they died, with every battle against them being a boss fight for John.

Director John McTiernan imbues the whole affair with a great sense of place, almost making Nakatomi Plaza a character in its own right. You know that the building is 35 stories high, that the 32nd is under construction, that the 34th is home to the boardroom, that the first and third are where they have guys on lookout for the police, and that John McClane can't go below the 30th (where the hostages are being held) due to the elevator service for the lower floors being cut. He's clear to establish where everybody is when they start shooting it out, getting into fistfights, and stalking one another through the offices and maintenance areas. It's a running theme in this film, refusing to withhold information from the viewer and instead making sure that they know everything that's happening even if the characters don't, and it makes for a ton of white-knuckle moments of both suspense and thrills. The action itself is handled the same way. This is a movie made long before ripping off Paul Greengrass without any understanding of what made The Bourne Supremacy work became the standard for hack directors. (I'm looking at you, Olivier Megaton and Paul W. S. Anderson.) Fights are brutal, the viewer feeling every punch, scrape, and shard of glass that wounds John McClane. Gunfights have the combatants scurrying for cover and having to keep tabs on ammunition, ravaging the landscape as they fire on one another hoping they hit their target. The rooftop scene is one of the greatest action scenes of all time, from John's fight with the police helicopter to the big, booming finish. It's in the action where John's lack of invincibility comes into play. This isn't a power fantasy, but a hard-scrabble fight for survival in the face of big guns and explosions, one in which you wonder how badly John's gonna be fucked up after this latest encounter.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, is watching and wondering the same thing. Reginald VelJohnson is the standout as Al Powell, an LAPD sergeant who bonds with his fellow cop as he keeps John informed of the situation on the ground while relaying John's info on the terrorists to his superiors. William Atherton, one of Hollywood's greats when it came to playing total scumbags, stays true to form as Richard Thornburg, a TV reporter who makes everything worse. De'voreaux White's limo driver Argyle makes for entertaining comic relief, as does Hart Bochner as Ellis, one of Holly's co-workers and a personification of everything obnoxious about '80s yuppies. Hell, I didn't even hate Bonnie Bedelia's Holly all that much. While she was undoubtedly one of the weakest characters, the film getting uncomfortably close to shaming her for choosing her career over John, she still got in some great lines, and the fact that her use of her maiden name Gennaro instead of McClane winds up saving her life for most of the film (before that asshole Thornburg fucked it up) went a way towards subverting some of the unfortunate implications I brought up.

The Bottom Line:

A deserving entry in the pantheon of the greatest action movies ever made. It has it all, and it's one to pop in any time you and your friends are looking to have a good time, whether or not it's the holiday season -- though sleigh bells simply provide one more reason to watch it.

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