It must have been a very unusual action movie for audience and critics alike back in 1988. John McClane was not muscle-bound like Arnold and Dolph, for one thing. He was not a borderline psychopath like Martin Riggs. He wasn’t trying to overcome mild racism or other fashionable social issues like the many other Eighties action heroes. He was a fairly well-adjusted normal guy, a man who loved his two daughters, who wanted to patch things up with his estranged wife, a man who couldn’t even bring himself to manage more than a mild retort to patronizing on-flight neighbours.
It is surprising how much of a slow-burn the beginning is: there’s a disaster-movie flavour to Die Hard, something that many of the subsequent ‘Die Hard on a XX’ copycats failed to emulate. McClane doesn’t exchange gunfire (he never fires at Tony, the first baddie he kills) until 45 minutes in. The movie goes to some lengths to give each character their own time as distinct entities, so that not only do we remember John and Holly and Hans but the more minor characters like Ellis and Theo and Argyle tend to stand out.
There’s a nice rhythm to how the movie plays out. The cadence: character introductions (quiet) – the ‘terrorist’ infiltration (action scale 1) – John and Holly’s conversation (quiet) – the armed takeover (action scale 2) – John’s escape and Takagi’s death (quiet, with a flash at the end) – John’s fight with Tony (action scale 3) – ‘Now I have a machinegun, ho-ho-ho’ (quiet) – gunfight on the roof (action scale 4) – Al Powell’s introduction (quiet) – body drops on the police car (action scale 5) – extended period of conversations between John and Al, Thornberg introduction, police siege, etc (quiet, stage setting) – police attack and the criminals’ counter (explosive action scale 8) – Ellis’s death, more media tomfoolery and the wait for the FBI (quiet) – ‘Shoot the glass!’ (action scale 6) – the vault opens (quiet) – fight between John and Karl (action scale 4) – FBI helo action leading to explosion on the roof leading to the final showdown (action scale 10). Basically every action scene is followed by a slow scene that sets up the next action. This is the opposite of one of my least favourite Hollywood tropes, something I’ve dubbed ‘The Van Helsing syndrome‘ where some very misguided filmmakers believe that non-stop action (action scene followed by more action scene with no respite in between) is the way to go. Die Hard, though, is masterful in how it handles the flow of action, and is the case study in how films in the genre should be made.
Another thing that really lifts Die Hard is its generous amount of not just conventional action movie humour (think cheesy one liners) but a strong streak of over-the-top satire. The savage portrayal of police and FBI incompetency (the lion’s share of the best lines either go to or are about Paul Gleason: “Want a breath mint?”; “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess”) wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Simpsons. The Helsinki Syndrome scene works rather deliciously on multiple levels (a critique of the media, a satirical jab at the so-called ‘experts’ who get wheeled out in front of the TV for noteworthy events, and the actual audience of the film itself who will laugh at the hapless news anchor even though the actual name of the syndrome is the capital of Sweden. All this on top of Alan Rickman’s superb turn as Hans Gruber.
No doubt it’s one of the best action movies ever made. You can argue whether Die Hard or Predator is the better action film from the 1980s, but Die Hard with its relatively normal hero and the focus on problem-solving through guile not firepower is the first post-Eighties action movie, and set the template for all subsequent films from the genre for the next decade until The Matrix shook things up. Die Hard freed action heroes from the need to be ubermensch and delivered them back to earth. Under Siege, Cliffhanger, Passenger 57, Speed, Executive Decision and Air Force One are all in its debt. Culturally it is firmly a film of its time: off-duty cops carrying guns on flights, smoking in airports, the fear of Japanese economic power, the unbridled coke-sniffing excesses of corporate executives, etc. But in terms of how to pace a movie, and how to weave humour into the action while still keeping it complementary to the main action, Die Hard remains simply peerless.