Die Hard: The Ultimate Viewing Guide


by James Dyer |
Updated on

Thirty-six floors. Thirteen terrorists. Three exclusive interviews. Eminently quotable and endlessly rewatchable, Die Hard remains the gold standard for big screen action. Adapted from a Roderick Thorp novel by first-timer Jeb Stuart and meticulously directed by set-piece maestro John McTiernan, the movie was energised by Steven De Souza's fizzy dialogue and it's secret weapon, TV star Bruce Willis — these rare ingredients distilled into a film like no other. For the movie's 30th birthday back in 2018, we spoke to McTiernan, De Souza and Stuart to bring you the ultimate Die Hard viewing guide. Yippee-Ki-Yay, motherfuckers.


Die Hard: The Ultimate Viewing Guide

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New York Detective and reluctant flyer John McClane (Bruce Willis) touches down at LAX with some handy jet lag advice from a fellow passenger: "Walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes." The tip was one shared with Stuart during his frequent flying youth. Does it work? "Honestly, I think a Valium is just as good," he says.

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The first trademark Willis smirk. Everyone from Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman to Richard Gere and James Caan had been offered the role of McClane but none of them bit. In desperation, the studio paid Willis, then star of Cybill Shepard sitcom Moonlighting, a humongous $5 million for the role. "There was a lot of hand-wringing at Fox but they were over a barrel," says Stuart. "I was a big Moonlighting fan, though. I loved it!"

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"DIE HARD"! It was producer Joel Silver who switched from the novel's rom-com-sounding Nothing Lasts Forever to Die Hard, having cribbed the title from Shane Black's early draft of The Last Boy Scout. An idiom, the name doesn't travel well, leading to an assortment of weird and wonderful international re-brandings including The Glass Jungle in Spain and the delightful Give Your Life Expensive in Hungary.

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Nakatomi boss Joseph Takagi addresses the troops at the annual Christmas party. Resembling a feng shui meditation chamber more than a corporate office, Nakatomi HQ was based on American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. In the film's mythology, the company bought the house and had it reconstructed brick-by-brick in the atrium. The Nakatomi logo, meanwhile, was created by production designer Jackson De Govia to resemble a samurai helmet.

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Arch-douchebag Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) puts some unwanted moves on Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) "Bochner was playing leading men at the time; he was seen as a straight guy," recalls Stuart. "That really helped make this foul character work."

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Trainee limo driver Argyle (De'voreaux White) picks up McClane (and bear) in the departure lounge. Silver suggested the name, although no one seems to know why. "It might have been his pet dog, it might have been the name of his sled, I have no idea but he insisted on Argyle," recalls McTiernan. "It was just goofy enough that I thought it was wonderful."

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Thanks to Argyle's side-gig as Basil Exposition, we get the lowdown on McClane's backstory as a NYC cop whose wife moved to LA without him. Everyman McClane naturally sits up front. "It positions him as this typical blue collar guy and a contrast to the terrorist leader," says De Souza. In earlier drafts McClane (then called John Ford) was a more Fleming-esque counter-terrorist expert. McTiernan insisted he be downgraded to a run-of-the-mill flatfoot from New Jersey.

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Argyle pulls into Nakatomi Plaza — in reality, Fox Plaza. The studio's spanking new HQ was still under construction and largely unoccupied, making it the perfect location to shoot in and, ultimately, blow up. "It was the only way the film was possible," insists McTiernan. "I mean, no one's gonna loan you a skyscraper!"

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Sunset on December 24th. When the dust settles, Santa will have just finished his rounds. Originally, though, the action took place over days rather than hours. "I specifically made it a single night," says McTiernan of the change to the timeline. "It starts with sunset and finishes at dawn."

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McClane looks up his wife (now using her maiden name) on some cutting edge '80s tech. The guard reveals that the only people in the building are at a party on the 30th floor, begging the question of why he made McClane use the computer to look her up in the first place.

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McClane and Holly lock eyes across the office. "The only thing that dates it is Bonnie Bedelia's hairstyle and shoulder pads," observes De Souza. "We should get whoever turned the guns into flashlights for the Special Edition of E.T. to go in and tweak her fashion sense."

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The terrorists arrive in a Pacific Courier truck (a brand subsequently re-used in Speed and riffed on in Die Hard With A Vengeance). While the terrorists had always planned to escape amid the chaos, the exact method — via a smuggled ambulance — wasn't settled on until the final weeks of filming, whereupon the truck miraculously grows to accommodate it.

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Holly and John's first conversation turns into a spat. According to De Souza, Willis and Bedelia improvised the argument during a run-through and he worked it into the script. The scene was designed to show McClane's human side and the fact that the character doesn't actually like himself very much.

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Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) recounts the plays of a Lakers game as he and Karl (Alexander Godunov) storm reception and take out the guards. The imposing Godunov was a ballet dancer at the Bolshoi before defecting to America.

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Led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the terrorists spill out of the truck in a wave of blouson jackets, popped collars and fluffy blow dries. It all looks less like an armed infiltration than a slightly glowery catwalk at Hamburg Fashion Week. "When Rickman came in they started fitting him with all this tactical gear and he said 'I'm not going to wear this, I'm going to look ridiculous,'" recalls De Souza. "[Casting Director] Jackie Burch said, 'Why do these guys have to look like the mooks in every other action movie? Let's elevate it, let's make them look like models!'"

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Gruber steps out of the elevator and ends the festivities. Die Hard was Rickman's first movie role, having been cast off the back of Broadway's Les Liaisons Dangereuses. "Once we started to see what he was able to do, it was like, 'Hey, get the fuck out of his way! Just let him do it,'" recalls McTiernan.

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A couple in one of the meeting rooms has been getting into the festive spirit. The woman is Kym Malin, Playboy's Miss May 1982. She and fellow Playmate Terri Lynn Doss (Miss July 1988, seen jumping into a man's arms at the airport) were included at the behest of Silver, who insisted on having some "female eye candy".

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Gruber addresses the hostages, citing Nakatomi's legacy of greed around the globe as reason for the attack. This was, in fact, the original setup until McTiernan (after turning the job down several times due to the dour nature of the script) insisted the 'terrorists' be transformed into thieves. "Terrorists make you feel bad," he explains. "There's no joy in that. But robbers are fun, you can root for them. They just want the money!"

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Gruber hums Beethoven's 'Ode To Joy' in the lift. Inspired by the Korova Milk Bar sequence in A Clockwork Orange, McTiernan had the tune woven through the score as a leitmotif for the terrorists — much to composer Michael Kamen's disgust.

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"Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two myself." Fabric fact: Gruber's suit in the movie is a custom tailored Armani.

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"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer." Gruber misquotes Plutarch — clearly he could have benefitted from a slightly more classical education. McTiernan wanted this line to show that Hans isn't just intelligent but also pretentious.

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The model of the bridge Gruber admires is a real Andrew Lloyd Wright design for a bridge that would have spanned the South end of San Francisco bay, but was ultimately never built.

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"Who said we were terrorists?" Gruber plays 'fill in the blanks' with Takagi to try and get the vault code, revealing that his true objective is the $640 million in bearer bonds sitting in the Nakatomi vault — the presence of which implies Nakatomi is into some rather shady stuff. Financial fact: bearer bonds don't need to be recorded in tax ledgers and have to be honoured by the government regardless of who holds them, thus making them an excellent target for theft.

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"I'm going to count to three. There will not be a four." Takagi (James Shigeta) checks out, brains liberally splattered across the conference room door (the film's biggest wrangling point with censors). "We'd had a preamble of about half an hour where we've not really seen anything terrible from Gruber," says Stuart. "This set the stage for the fact that if he will kill this man in cold blood, he'll probably kill anybody!"

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Karl hands Theo some cash, having lost their best on whether Takagi would give up the code. McTiernan still wonders whether he made that clear.

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The vault's security consists of a code, which Theo cracks, five mechanical locks, which he drills, and the seventh seal (a Bergman nod from De Souza): an electromagnetic lock that can't be cut locally. "That's the most stupid thing in the movie, which I take full credit for," laughs De Souza. "That the final lock is a fibre optic cable that runs from this building to another one in Tokyo under the ocean is the most ridiculous thing ever! But it enabled us to put the audience in suspense. In the book, they're searching the office for documents but in the movie it's this lock that gives the terrorists something to do."

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Having alerted Gruber to his presence by pulling the fire alarm, McClane is hunted by Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), the world's least stylish terrorist. Despite being part of a group resembling the militant wing of Spandau Ballet, Tony sports a grey tracksuit. It doesn't save him from getting his neck snapped when McClane drags him down the stairs, though. "That was inspired by Hitchcock's Torn Curtain where you see how hard it is to kill somebody with your bare hands," says De Souza.

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Theo cracks the code! It's 'Red Castle', the English translation of Akagi: the aircraft carrier the Nakatomi chairman had served on during WWII. Obviously.

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Just as Gruber utters the words "We have left nothing to chance," the lift opens to reveals a very dead Tony, sporting a Santa hat and bearing everybody's favourite festive slogan: 'Now I Have A Machine Gun Ho-Ho-Ho'. "Bruce rode the top of that elevator for real," says De Souza.

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Continuing the film's debt to Hugh Hefner, the topless pin-up on the wall is from the November '87 issue of Playboy, featuring centrefold Pamela Stein. Rather than another of Joel Silver's booby contributions, this is a breast-based landmark to orient the audience, letting us know we're back at the top of the elevator shaft when McClane sees it again later on.

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Our introduction to Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), loading up on Twinkies at a convenience store. According to the film's casting director, McTiernan originally pushed for Robert Duvall but she went to bat for Veljohnson, insisting he'd be a grounding influence. McTiernan recalls it differently, maintaining he'd actually wanted Lawrence Fishburne.

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"Girls." After a brief firefight, McTiernan's 'nipple nav' indicates we're back at the lift shaft. Rather than just being pervy, McClane pawing at the poster is a nod to 1958 Clark Gable movie Run Silent, Run Deep, in which the submarine crew all touch a pinup of Betty Gable for luck as they head into battle.

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McClane lowers himself into the elevator shaft by the strap on his machine gun, which breaks. The cavernous drop was actually a painting laid over an air bag but the near-miss was real as Willis' stunt double missed the lip of the vent and fell. Editor Frank Urioste liked it so much he cut it into the movie as McClane slipping and catching himself on a lower ledge.

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"Now I know what a TV dinner feels like." Ad-libbed by Willis, the line was inserted after the production mistakenly commissioned actual air vents instead of oversized movie versions. "They were too small and it was taking Bruce like a month to move from point A to point B, so we needed lines to fill the dead air," says De Souza. "That's how the 'Come out to the coast…' line ended up in there, too."

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By the time McClane drops down into a deserted office, his formerly white vest is has turned a shade of vent-muck green. Eagle-eyed vest-watchers will note that it actually gets cleaner in some shots before dirtying up again, thanks to several sections being filmed out of sequence. The vest — blood, dirt and all — currently resides at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

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"Who's driving this car? Stevie Wonder?" Coincidentally, when Powell crashes past Argyle's rear view mirror after McClane drops a body through the windshield, Wonder's 'Skeletons' can be heard playing in the limo.

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Terrorists Heinrich (Gary Roberts) and Marco (Lorenzo Caccialanza) take on McClane and lose. The moment McClane shoots Marco through the conference table is, according to Willis, responsible for permanent hearing damage in his left ear. McTiernan, however, dismisses the claim: "You're not allowed to shoot a gun without hearing protection all around. There's a safety man on set whose job is to make sure that doesn't happen!"

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Slimy reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) is introduced, discussing dinner plans with his girlfriend (he's referring to Wolfgang Puck's '80s hot spot Spago on the Sunset Strip). Thornburg was inspired by Stuart's time at University, where he disliked most of the journalism students: "I didn't hold them in high regard, so, anytime I could find a chance to stick a dig in, I did."

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McClane cold calls Gruber for the first time. The call wraps up with Die Hard's most famous line: "Yippe-Ki-Yay, motherfucker." While Willis has claimed it as an ad-lib, the line is in the shooting script. "That came out of a conversation Bruce and I had in his trailer," corrects De Souza. "We grew up about 40 miles apart and were talking about our childhood and how we both watched The Roy Rogers Show. Roy always signed off that way and that's why it's in the movie."

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McClane tells Powell the terrorists have "enough plastic explosive to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger." A persistent rumour maintains Die Hard was once intended for Schwarzenegger as a sequel to Commando. This is, De Souza confirms, nonsense, although his unfilmed screenplay for Commando 2 did feature a hostage situation in a building, which is likely where the confusion originates. "The Arnold line was actually an ad-lib," De Souza recalls. "In the script it was [full-figured American songstress] Kate Smith."

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Chucklehead cop Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) arrives to take charge: a character venerable film critic Roger Ebert hated so much that his scathing review of the film can be laid largely at Gleason's feet. "The character is so wilfully useless, so dumb, so much a product of the Idiot Plot Syndrome, that all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie," Ebert wrote back in '88.

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Holly strides in to see Gruber, laying out a list of demands (wee breaks, a couch for her pregnant assistant) that clearly puts Gruber on the back foot. It's a great scene for Bedelia and one she owes, in large part, to Willis' Moonlighting schedule overrunning. "At one point he was shooting 10 hours a day on the show and filming this at night, getting 20 minutes sleep in his trailer," says De Souza. "McTiernan came to me and said, 'We're killing Bruce! Can you fatten up the other sections of the movie?' So I wrote more scenes with Thornburg, Holly and everyone else. This scene with Rickman was the first one I wrote."

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LAPD's elite SWAT team goes in — an operation slightly undermined when one of their crack troopers pricks his finger on a rose: an unscripted moment that McTiernan kept. Terrorist Uli (Al Leong) brings his own sprinkle of improv magic when he steals a Hershey bar from the concession stand and starts munching away. "That assured him a longer life," says De Souza. "I was killing somebody every eight or 10 pages but that moment made him interesting. He's one of the last guys to die!"

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After their squad is gunned down on the steps, the cops up their game, sending in 'the car' — in reality, a modified WWII Scorpion tank. "I've always loved old military vehicles," says McTiernan. "So we went and bought one of these things from a collector in the desert, just because it would be fun. It's a goofy action sequence, but we had to find ways for the police to do things other than shooting people."

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"Geronimo motherfucker!" McClane takes matters into his own hands, slapping C4 on a chair and hurling it down the lift shaft, where it demolishes an entire floor. The two toasty terrorists include Ghostbusters II's Viggo The Carpathian (Wilhelm von Homburg). For the explosion, they wired hundreds of old-fashioned flash bulbs to the outside of the building — a trick Visual Effects Supervisor Richard Edlund learned on Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

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Über-yuppie Ellis swaggers into Gruber's office, offering to solve his cowboy problem once and for all: "Hans, Bubby. I'm your white knight!" Bochner deliberately played Ellis as coked off his tits, much to the irritation of McTiernan, who had told him to aim for Cary Grant. Silver, however, loved it, insisting Bochner cut loose and go for maximum asshole.

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Anchor Harvey Johnson (David Ursin) interviews a hostage expert who explains Helsinki Syndrome ("As in Helsinki, Sweden," Harvey flubs). The correct term is, of course, Stockholm Syndrome, an error that mystifies De Souza to this day. "I don't know why we called it Helsinki Syndrome, because we knew it was Stockholm," he insists. "The idea was that he rattled the anchor so much he got the country wrong but it was supposed to be 'as in Stockholm, Finland.' I have no idea how it got switched."

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Back on the ground, FBI Agents Big Johnson (Robert Davi) and Little Johnson (Grand L. Bush) — no relation — hit the ground, increasing ambient douchbaggery by a factor of 10. "The FBI guys are still my favourite part of that whole movie," chuckles Stuart. "They had to be something completely different: serious to a fault so you even start to like Paul Gleason a little bit."

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Gruber and McClane finally come face to face, Hans pretending to be an escaped hostage. Not in the script, this scene originated when Rickman goofed off, putting on an American accent for the crew. De Souza immediately ran to McTiernan with an idea for this scene, which required re-thinking Takagi's execution so that McClane never sees Gruber's face. "These movies are like romantic comedies," says De Souza. "In a romantic comedy, a boy and a girl have a meet cute, they have a couple of dates and then they go off together. In these movie, the hero and the villain have a meet cute, they have a couple of close encounter dates and then one kills the other."

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The pair share a friendly cigarette and chat, Rickman standing on one leg (out of shot) the whole time thanks to damaging the cartilage in his knee jumping down from the ledge in the previous shot. The camera deploys a distinct Dutch Angle here to indicate the deception — a McTiernan homage to The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.

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The game is up! How McClane sees through Gruber's ruse has been the subject of endless fan theories but the truth lies on Gruber's wrist. All of the terrorists have matching Tag Heuer watches — signposted by an early scene where the gang synchronise them. "When they all set their watches you're staring into the maw of an empty truck," says De Souza. "There was clearly no ambulance! So we had to lose it and also cut the bit where Bruce looks at the watch. It makes no sense now."

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"Shoot the glass!" Karl's look of bafflement may well be genuine as Gruber's German is objectively terrible (it should be "Shieß auf das Fenster", not "Shieß dem Fenster"). When the film was released, all the terrorists spoke pidgin German bordering on gibberish but a merciful re-dub fixed almost all of it for the home release. Now only Rickman's dodgy Deutsch remains.

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As the windows shattered around him, Willis sported prosthetic hobbit feet to keep his soles intact. Later, Ronald Reagan's post-presidential office would end up on this floor of Fox Plaza, and, legend has it, the day he moved in, they found Die Hard bullets and shell casings scattered around the floor – much to the displeasure of his Secret Service detail.

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McClane pulls chunks of glass from his bloody, mangled feet. "All things being equal, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," he quips, quoting W.C. Fields. McTiernan and De Souza came up with the film's most gut-churning scene weeks into filming to lend McClane sympathy and show he's in pain. Largely so his smart-ass attitude came across as courageous, rather than just being a dick.

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The film's literal money shot. As the Agents Johnson cut the building's power (a $20,000 effects shot, since they couldn't do it for real), Hans gets his Christmas miracle and the vault door slides open to Theo's amazement as 'Ode To Joy' swells around us. "It's preposterous that Gruber wouldn't have told his team what the whole deal was," laughs De Souza. "But withholding that information makes the audience is intrigued. You secretly want the authorities to fail 'cause otherwise you'll never find out what he's up to!"

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Beaten and bloody, McClane gives Powell a message for Holly. "Tell her that John said he was sorry." A simple sentiment but also the inspiration for the entire movie. When starting the project, Stuart had a row with his wife, jumped in the car and sped off. Tearing down the freeway he crashed into a (thankfully empty) refrigerator box and, badly shaken, pulled over in a cold sweat. "At that moment it came to me in a flash," he remembers. "The story wasn't about a 60 year-old man whose daughter falls from a building [as in the novel]. It was gonna be about a 30 year-old man who should have said sorry to his wife and then something bad happens."

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Thornburg extorts his way into Holly's home by threatening to call immigration on her Mexican nanny — in actuality Italian actress Betty Carvalho, who didn't speak a word of Spanish.

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Hans has wired the roof to blow and the FBI are sending gunships: it's a quadruple-cross! Just as he finds out the truth, McClane is bushwhacked by a pissed-off Karl, which kicks off the mother of all artless brawls "I'm gonna kill you. I'm gonna fucking cook you and I'm gonna fucking eat you!". "Choreographed fights can be so formulaic and boring," says McTiernan. "We tried very hard to figure out how the hell you actually make it feel like a real physical fight. It's messy, like a fight in the sixth grade schoolyard." Unlike the average playground tussle, Karl is left hanging from a chain-link noose.

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The Johnsons soar over the LA streets. "Just like fucking Saigon, eh slick?" "I was in junior high, dick head!" "The LAPD told Joel Silver that they could not bring those helicopters in on the deck as it's written in the script," says Stuart. "Joel said, 'Absolutely. We will, of course, not do that. We'll keep it well above 1,500 feet.' Then to the helicopter pilots, 'Bring them in as low as you possibly can!'" McTiernan had six camera crews and planned three runs for the choppers but the director got cold feet after he saw them soar over the hostages on the roof. "It wasn't that long after the helicopter accident in The Twilight Zone, and that put the fear of God into me. After the first run I said no more," he says. "If something had fallen into the intake of the turbine, we could have had 75 people killed!"

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"Blow the roof!" Hans hits the detonator, turning the top of Fox Plaza into a searing fireball. The script had featured an elaborate scene in which McClane defused the bomb, but Joel Silver insisted that, like Chekhov's C4, as audiences had seen the explosives being set, they had to see them go off. "I had to reconstruct that whole part of the movie to get McClane off the roof, which led to Bruce jumping off with the fire hose," recalls Stuart.

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"I promise I will never even think about going up in a tall building again." The perfect parting thought before McClane hurls himself off the roof as it explodes, crashing his way through an office window. "Bruce came up with that," says McTiernan. "He threw it out on the first take."

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An elevator dings before inexplicably exploding. The now burning office floor, with flames lighting up the rocks and waterfalls, was deliberately shot by DP Jan De Bont to feel like Vietnam. Coincidentally, De Bont spent three hours trapped in one of the building's lifts while shooting Die Hard, which inspired him to add a similar scene to his directorial debut, Speed.

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"We're gonna need some more FBI guys." Stuart's favourite line in the movie, though not De Souza's. "I hated that line," he says. "It was an ad lib from Paul Gleason; I thought it was a joke too far."

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Argyle watches Theo unload an ambulance from the back of the (now enlarged) truck. Look closely and you can see a typo on the side, which reads 'LOS ANGELES CITY FIRE DEPARMENT'. Argyle gets his moment in the sun, though, ramming the ambulance and decking Theo (one of only two terrorists to survive — the other being Kristoff, who McClane cold cocks in the vault).

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The final showdown. McClane confronts Gruber in the vault, suckering him in with banter before pulling the pistol Christmas-taped to his back and making good use of his final two bullets. Stumbling back, Gruber grabs Holly's wrist and nearly pulls her out the window with him, until McClane undoes the clasp on her company-bought Rolex. "Anyone who's ever owned a Rolex knows that watch isn't gonna just open," observes Stuart. "It's a sealed clasp! I brought that up at a production meeting and everybody looked at me like I was insane." The look of terror on Rickman's face is entirely genuine, however. "They said 'we'll let you go on three.' And they dropped him on one," says De Souza.

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All's well that ends well. Except Karl, it transpires, isn't nearly as dead as advertised, rising from the grave to take a potshot at McClane before being put down for good by Powell. The music here is lifted directly from James Horner's Aliens score ('Resolution And Hyperspace') — a temp track McTiernan thought fit better than Kamen's composition. "There was a big fight in the middle of the scoring session." the director recalls.

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Despite glass-splintered feet and a bullet hole in his shoulder, McClane seeks no medical attention, driving off in the limo with Holly. As Christmas morning breaks, the pair kiss in the back seat while hundreds of millions in bearer bonds fall around them like snow and Vaughn Monroe croons a festive hit. At last year's Comedy Central Roast dedicated to insulting him, the star of the movie declared, "Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It's a goddamned Bruce Willis movie!" But his collaborators disagree. "Of course it's a Christmas movie!" says De Souza. "That's why it has snowfall, and why the first time Bruce sees Al Powell he's shot like an angel in The Bishop's Wife or something." "It was always a Christmas movie," agrees Stuart. "It was in the novel and it is in my script. The movie's about family and getting together and all those Christmas things." De Souza even cites the  30th anniversary edition that Fox released a few years ago as definitive proof. "It comes with Christmas cards and the box is a Christmas sweater. Who are you gonna believe? Bruce Willis, a mere actor, or Rupert Murdoch?"

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