In the city of Los Angeles, a Christmas party is held on the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Plaza Hotel. While the party is going on, downstairs, a band of German terrorists arrive and take the entire building hostage including its employees and attempts a huge robbery. But the only one who eludes capture is New York City Cop John McClane who launches a one man war in an attempt to stop the terrorists and save all hostages including his wife Holly.
Next time you find yourself in the City Of Angels (that’s LA, if you’re not clear), take yourself along to Century City. Specifically, to 2121 Avenue Of The Stars, where you’ll find a brown steel and glass building towering some 150 metres above its surroundings. The wage-slaves at 20th Century Fox call it their HQ, Fox Plaza. The film fans of the world, however, know it as Nakatomi Plaza, the setting for the movie that many people, from this correspondent to Joey and Chandler from Friends, believe is the greatest action movie ever made: Die Hard.
In 1987, über-producer Joel Silver was about to roll cameras on a project based on Nothing Lasts Forever, a 1979 novel by ex-cop Roderick Thorp. The film was to feature Detective John McClane, a New York cop visiting his high-flying but estranged wife in LA for a Christmas party at her company’s high-rise base. When terrorists rather rudely gatecrash the event, McClane finds himself forced into action, armed only with a handgun, his wits and — thanks to a neat plot contrivance — his bare feet. Silver had a title (Die Hard), a director (John McTiernan) and a star (Bruce Willis), but what he didn’t have was the skyscraper where all the action was to take place.
Luckily, 20th Century Fox had just cut the ribbon on their very own multi-million dollar base and, after considerable wrangling with high-powered lawyers over logistics (no daytime filming, and absolutely no blowing shit up), Die Hard had its location. Indeed, Silver and Fox considered the building so important that, for the first few weeks of the movie’s theatrical run, the Nakatomi/Fox Plaza was alone on the poster.
Eventually, of course, Willis crammed his cranium onto the one-sheet, unlike the movie’s villain, Alan Rickman’s calculating German criminal Hans Gruber. But by God, he should have made it, for Gruber is possibly the finest screen villain since one Mr. D. Vader made asthma seem cool.
Previously, bad guys in the action genre had been either simplistic thugs or raving madmen. Gruber, the impeccably dressed, cultured yin to McClane’s slobbish, streetwise yang, signalled an influx of urbane, intelligent nemeses. He is so persuasive and charming that you begin to harbour hopes that he might, at the very least, live to sneer another day. Recognising the allure of his villain, McTiernan is canny enough to give Gruber a moment of victory halfway through. As his men finally trigger the Nakatomi vault, containing the $640 million of bearer bonds they’ve come for, McTiernan bathes Rickman in a beatific God-light and reprises Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, effectively appropriated for the movie as Gruber’s Theme, giving it a triumphant tweak.
It’s testament to Willis that he not only thwarts Gruber’s heist, but also Rickman’s own audacious attempt to walk away with a multi-million dollar movie. Willis had been cast after Richard Gere had passed, prompting Silver to take a $5 million gamble on a guy whose career as a leading man was in danger of stalling. After all, Blind Date and Sunset, the first two movies Willis made while he was moonlighting from some TV show, had kaputted spectacularly. Appropriately, Willis’ performance in Die Hard is hungry and committed, redolent of a man visiting the Last Chance Saloon, and it worked handsomely, turning him into a bona fide megastar. What’s more, his McClane — a likeable mix of working-stiff neuroses, desperate heroics and wise guy sardonics — changed the face of action heroes forever.
One scene in particular sums up the impact Willis would have. McClane has narrowly escaped a gunfight and holes up in a bathroom to remove shards of jagged glass from his shredded feet. As he does so, McClane has a heartfelt back-and-forth with Reginald VelJohnson’s Al Powell, an LA flatfoot with whom he has forged a brotherly connection over a walkie-talkie. As their dialogue exchange continues, McClane — alone, badly injured and afraid — breaks down and starts sobbing.
Prior to that moment, action heroes would barely crack a smile, let alone squirt a few. Can you imagine Dirty Harry sobbing about his missus? Or Arnie taking time out from wiping out small armies to wail into a Kleenex Man-Size? And yet in Willis, audiences were suddenly confronted with a recognisably vulnerable hero who didn’t have all the answers, who didn’t laugh — or stoically squint — in the face of danger or death. Sure, he cracked wise, but his humour felt organic, a defence mechanism to keep him sane. Here was a hero who made Arnie and his muscle-bound ilk seem antiquated.
Yet the real hero of Die Hard is McTiernan, who was given the gig by Silver after impressing on 1987’s Predator. But he didn’t simply recreate Predator’s bludgeoning style, readjusting his approach to factor in not only the very different leading man, but also the differing landscape — from real jungle to urban jungle — while his collaboration with cinematographer Jan de Bont ensures the camerawork is lean, sleek and propulsive, with triangular camera movements recurring during action sequences, brilliantly establishing spatial relations in a single shot.
There’s also substance married to the surface flash. There are obvious parallels with Westerns (McClane compares himself to Roy Rogers; John Wayne and Gary Cooper are namechecked) and ’Nam movies (under-equipped local takes on technologically advanced invaders; although, in this revisionist take, an American wins), but Die Hard is also a subtle satire on bureaucracy and corporations. Gruber and his men are terrorists, but they dress and act like City bankers, while McClane is dogged by trumped-up pen pushers, from William Atherton’s venal newsman, to Hart Bochner’s coked-up exec, Ellis, to the too-cocky FBI agents, Johnson and Johnson.
Needless to say, each of them gets their comeuppance, for Die Hard is a movie that allows each of its ordinary Joes to redeem themselves through violence. Not only does McClane save his marriage after toe-tagging ten terrorists, but the movie offers VelJohnson’s Powell a literal shot at salvation, as the gunshy desk jockey blows away Alexander Godunov’s barking mad Karl. It’s probable that McTiernan was here tipping a wink to the Hong Kong action movies of directors like John Woo. Ironically, of course, Woo would go on to borrow from Die Hard for his own masterpiece, Hard Boiled — but then again, there aren’t many action movies since 1988 that haven’t cribbed in some way from McTiernan’s explosive marvel. Think of the Die Hards on a bus/plane/train/boat/in a phone booth knock-offs you’ve seen — some great, some good, some utterly incompetent. However, like John Carpenter’s Halloween, the original remains the best, towering above its imitators, rather like the Fox Plaza above the Century City skyline.
Die Hard would not only prove to be one of the most successful films ever released, but also set a high watermark for larger-than-life FX-strewn thrillers.