Revisiting the Greatest Christmas Film Ever: Die Hard (1988)

December 24, 2016 | By




Six years ago I wrote a piece on finally being able to catch Die Hard on the big screen at the former Bloor / now Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, having had all prior attempts foiled by a TTC fire, work shifts, and other monkey wrenches tossed into the machinery that should’ve enabled a proper reunion between myself and one of a few films that had me walking out of the cinema in a daze in 1988, wondering what kind of new creation I’d just experienced.

The following is a revised & edited version of that piece which retains my original stance: Die Hard is for me, the Christmas film in which one man saves Christmas from the evils clasps of terrorists / common thieves and undergoes a personal journey from disgruntled cop and estranged husband to epic hero.

It also reflects a period when the film hadn’t yet turned into a full-blown cult film, which the HDTRC has transformed into a successful Quote-Along, hence audience reactions that 6 years later seem quaint.



Sudden Impacts

Over the passing decades, Die Hard has evolved into the definitive big-budget, eighties action film because while it may have been designed to satirize the idiocies of the disaster film – namely 1974’s Towering Inferno, with stupid people trapped in a fiery tower with floors that blow up time to time, while firefighters attempt elaborate rescues doomed to fail in splendid, cinematic conflagrations – it’s wholly indicative of that perfect blend of action, forced / unintended heroism, melodrama, pop culture riffing, and brilliantly choreographed mayhem.

“Ho… Ho… Ho….”

Die Hard’s catch-phrases became classics, whether it was “Yippy ki-yay, motherfucker,” Hans… Bubby,” “Welcome to the party, Hans,” “Oh the quarterback is toast,” and the film spawned an immediate array of imitations.

Back in June of 2007, Norm Wilner wrote a column on Die Hard clones for MSN (the piece is no longer online), and his rough list included 1991’s Toy Soldiers (aka Train Hard), Andrew Davis’1992 variant Under Siege (Float Hard), 1992’s Passenger 57 (Fly Hard), 1994’s Speed (Drive Hard), 1995’s Sudden Death (Skate Hard), 1997’s Executive Decision (Fly Harder), 1997’s Con Air (Fly Hard III: Conned), 1997’s Air Force One (Presidentially Harder), 2001’s Whiteout (which I never saw, so I got nothing to say, except maybe Swim Hard?), 2002’s Panic Room (Fight Hard), and 2005’s Flightplan (Fly Hard IV: Tussle A380).

A friend also added Renny Harlin’s 1993 goof-fest Cliffhanger (Climb Hard) to the tally, plus 1992’s Hard Boiled (Chow Hard), and I added two titles that simply had to be on that list: 1997’s Masterminds (Study Hard), and 1994’s No Contest (Model Hard) which actually earned enough money in ancillary sales (and maybe forgn pre-sales) that director Paul Lynch (Prom Night, Humongous) got cash for a sequel, 1997’s No Contest II (Model Hard II: Strut Harder!).

I guess you could also include 1997’s Turbulence (Fly Hard V: Altitude Flip-Out), but seeing how there’s only one protagonist, it doesn’t really count (although maybe one of its two utterly necessary sequels might). Another (dis)honorable entry: the Anna Nicole Smith 1996 idiocy Skyscraper (Die HarDDDest). Seriously, it exists.

What a younger generation may not get is when Die Hard broke in cinemas, it went beyond a blockbuster: it became a pop culture phenomenon, and a genre unto itself which talent agents used to pitch variants and knock-offs using terms like ‘Die Hard on a plane,’ ‘Die hard on a Train,’ ‘Die Hard in the basement of an angry wine merchant,’ or ‘Die Hard in the Vomit Comet.’

For years this pitch continued, and the real Die Hard sequels never improved upon the original. Die Hard II: Die Harder (1990) was (literally) overblown; Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) was a rare high quality exception, and like the original Towering Inferno, successfully fused different source materials into one script;  Live Free or Die Hard (2007) proved the franchise could squeeze one one more entry and balancing practical and CGI stunts plus Kevin Smith, work extremely well in spite of its ridiculous finale; and although terribly scripted / ADD edited A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) should’ve killed the franchise, John McLane is expected to return in the planned Die Hard Year One, which is wholly unnecessary.

The original Die Hard wasn’t a perfect script – the third film was a rewrite of a non-Die Hard script called “Simon Says,” and the fourth happened after years of delays and turfed script concepts due to the steady stream of imitators – and there were a series of articles as to who really wrote the first Die Hard and /or touched up the dialogue, which were based on Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever. It didn’t matter in the end, because both credited writers enjoyed box office hits soon after, and were able to retire as key participants of the eighties action film.

Fun fact: Thorp’s John McLane first appeared as Joe Leland in the Frank Sinatra police procedural The Detective (1968).

At the 2010 Bloor screening, the crowd laughed and seemed to have fun with the action scenes in spite of them being copied and expanded in subsequent films, since the point of clones and legit Die Hard sequels was to over-deliver in every department (except script quality) to please fans wanting (presumably) the original’s top elements X 100.

The most obvious cheers from the audience came when Hans (Alan Rickman) makes his first entrance, leading his flock of grumbly gun-toting acolytes into the main celebration room. The most unexpected cheers were for Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), buying Twinkies ‘for his wife’ and the local Quickee Mart.

Powell actually got a few laughs whenever he and McClane (Willis, in optimum shape, and sporting perfect hair/rug) had their radio chats about being cops, hardships of the job, and ‘hanging in there’ because ‘you’ll tell her that message of love yourself.’

The slo-mo death of Hans as he turns, loses grip, fires a gun and starts to freefall from the Nakatomi building also earned chuckles for being appropriately overwrought, and newly minted chauffeur Argyle received approving cheers when he pesters McClane about his wife, and later clocks the computer geek in the finale.

Unexpected laughs actually came from the mention of a “VHS” player among the limo’s luxuries, and the sight of an audio cassette tape being shoved into the limo’s stereo.

Happily, the montages still worked, Michael Kamen’s score is assuredly a brilliant interpolation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” / Symphony No. 9, and the montages and fight scenes are superb.

The helicopter assault is a magnificent example of action filmmaking, and it was even more riveting when the film was exhibited in 70mm, with Kamen’s standout score blasting in 6-track surround sound.

Moreover, the fight scenes aren’t psychotically edited, so we actually see the actors beating the shit out of each other, with blood and emerging sores, and heads bashed into walls, metal railings, or wrapped in chains before the whole body – namely poor Karl (Alexander Godunov) – is ratcheted up and swung over to a wall, where it smacks into concrete.

In an earlier life, Godunov was a highly respected ballet dancer, and director John McTiernan exploited his gift for controlled movements in simple but memorable shots, such as Karl walking in measured pulses towards the edge of the roof where McClane is hiding. With a gun held up, Karl’s a patient hunter, slowly honing in on his prey in a long shot that reveals character and creates tension without any manic inter-cutting.

The film also proved without any doubt that Germans are funny, particularly when they grumble about lazy Americans, mutter among incompetent co-workers, swear in English with German reserve, yell anxiously to be handed the next missile, or feel contempt for rebels like McClane who don’t understand order. (Drifting from the plan is wrong, and simply not correct.)

Lloyd Kaufman has insisted for years that monkeys are funny.

Monkeys are not funny; Germans are. Ende punct.



Admitted Weaknesses

The sole weak spot in the film is the final return of Karl in an overwrought shootout, and sure, it validates Powell again as a pro-active, heroic cop, but it’s unnecessary.

Another aspect that also hurts is the way the melodrama builds between Powell and McLane, so when the two finally meet each other in person at the end, it plays goofy, if not a bromantic. Because of a tight production timeline and release date, the filmmakers fell in love with their temp track, and not only scored the bromantic reunion with John Scott’s lovely theme from Man on Fire (1987), but added James Horner’s closing track (“Bishop’s Countdown”) from Aliens as Powell kills Karl.




In 1988, Fox was admittedly worried that their expensive action film starring a former TV actor (Moonlighting) who failed to make an impact in terrible comedies (Bling Date and Sunset) named Bruce Willis might suck, so the publicity was rather tame. I caught the film as the first half of a double-bill with big (1988) at the old 2-screen Varsity Cinema. It was a sneak for the former, and we were all blown away by this thing that rewrote the rules for action films.

When Fox realized they had a blockbuster, the publicity campaign was revamped, plastering rave views on posters, and both print and TV ads ads emphasizing the magic 6-track 70mm engagements. The trailers were ultimately reduced to boom moments – blasts of fiery action set to Beethoven, and large text smothering the screen in fast zooms.

(Blowing up a 35mm print to 70mm wasn’t done for picture, but for sound, because the mag tracks offered an incredible range that’s still evident in Fox’s Blu-ray edition, which retains much of the big booms and fine details of the most perfect sound mix ever crafted.)

Whenever Die Hard screened in 70mm at the now-dead Cinesphere, it was always packed, and even on Blu-ray, sonic highlights include the engine rumble in close-ups of the approaching police RV that gets ‘toasted’ by the Germans; massively elegant gunfire and ricochets throughout the story; shattering glass and pounding bass as McLane is trapped on an office floor being turned into plasmic Swiss cheese; and the various levels of helicopter engines in the Nakatomi attack montage, where McTiernan cuts in and around the copters from various angles and vantage points,  goosed with differing levels of aggressive and passive sonics, and Kamen’s militaristic theme variation that’s arguably the finest track in the film, and the most perfect action cue ever written.



Where did everyone go after 1988?

For everyone connected with the film, Die Hard boosted careers, if not profiles within the next 5 years.

Bruce Willis finally broke free from that purgatory of shitty comedies and made imitative actioners (Die Hard 2), less shitty comedies (Death Becomes Her), a few serious roles (In Country) and some crap, plus the ego trip / guilty pleasure Hudson Hawk.

Alan Rickman only went upwards, reaching international audiences with Truly Madly Deeply and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (and yes, I’m ignoring January Man). Character actor Reginald VelJohnson went for the security of TV, and dropped his cop uniform to play opposite that thing called Urkel in Family Matters from 1989-1998.

William Atherton had a brief film career boost after having started out in feature films during the seventies (The Sugarland Express, The Day of the Locust, and singing the title tune “What’ll I Do” for The Great Gatsby), and Bonnie Bedelia continued to make straight drama and genre projects (Presumed Innocent) in film and TV.

The late, great Paul Gleason (The Breakfast Club) seemed happy to play assholes we’d all feel no guilt in beating to a pulp for being a mouth, and Hart Bochner mostly worked in TV, with the odd directorial project (like the rude / guilty pleasure PCU, filmed at the University of Toronto, and co-starring a young Jon Favreau as a dreadlocked stoner named Gutter).

Alexander Godunov never managed to find anything worthwhile, appearing in just a handful of direct-to-video shockers (North, excepted), and he failed to find a role as strong as the pacifist in Witness (1985). He died at the ridiculously young age of 45 in 1995. When the actors were doing press for Die Hard in 1988, Bonnie Bedelia told a nice story to City Lights host Brian Linehan of asking Godunov to do a little pirouette for her, and to Bedelia’s absolute delight, he did.

No one seemed to know what to do with Robert Davi because he wasn’t an emotive actor, but he had a unique screen presence. Already a hard-working actor in TV and film, he played the lead villain in the Bond flop License to Kill (1989), a cops in Mimi Leder’s overheated The Peacemaker (1990) and Joel Silver’s Predator 2 (1990), and managed an effective quiet performance as a stoic handler in Zalman King’s Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue (1991). Drivel and banalities followed – he played the lead cop in Lynch’s No Contest – but he was kind of fun in the short-lived series VR5 (1995) and a sleazebag in Paul Verhoeven’s neon trash heap Showgirls (1995). Most amusing was his sort-of reunion with two other Die Hard co-stars in Maniac Cop 3 (1993).

Director John McTiernan was a top action director of the period, and followed up with the smart The Hunt for Red October (1990) before his talents were wasted on Medicine Man (1992), Last Action Hero, based on a wonky script co-written by Shane Black, and Rollerball (2002), which MGM emasculated by removing graphic violence (not that it would’ve helped the cinematic turkey). He did made The Thomas Crown Affair in 1999, which I’ll defend as one of the few great remakes & re-imaginings of a classic film done with thought, class, and style.

Screenwriter Jeb Stuart did make some crap – there’s no dignity in Leviathan (1989) nor Another 48 HRS (1990) – but he regained some of his reputation for writing Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive in 1993. Co-writer Steven E. de Souza co-wrote Willis’ ego trip Hudson Hawk as well as Die Hard 2, and when his fledgling directorial career flopped with Street Fighter starring Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1994, he seemed permanently tainted, and wrote mostly crap. (Knock Off was, unfortunately, his too.)

Michael Kamen had already scored Lethal Weapon for Joel Silver in 1987, and while he was involved in the sequels of that franchise as well as the first two Die Hard sequels (he died in 2003), he scored a memorable mix of commercial and little films. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves may have been his biggest hit (and Hudson Hawk was fun), but Kamen’s quiet scores for Peter Medak’s The Krays and Let Him Have It are superb (and deserve proper & complete CD releases).

Producer Joel Silver milked the heck out of his Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises (not to mention Predator), and continued his association with Shane Black via Ricochet, as well as further Willis films (Hudson Hawk, and Shane Black’s The Last Boy Scout) and Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin (although the Andrew Dice Clay guilty pleasure The Adventures of Ford Fairlane kinda ended that love affair).

And then there’s Jan de Bont, whose elegant lens-flared cinematography propelled him to the forefront of A-list DOPs. After further adventures with producer Silver (including the oddball TV movie Parker Kane) and photographing McTiernan’s Hunt for Red October, he took whatever knowledge and inspiration he gleaned from various directors and helmed Speed (1994) and Twister (1996).

His further efforts – Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) and The Haunting (1999) – proved he sold his soul to the devil, as the dual stinkers made one wish he’d return to pure cinematography, but that was never to be. Perhaps the years with Verhoeven in Holland (art films) and America (beaver films) exhausted his zeal for photography. Besides a few producing credits and directing Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003), he’s been awfully quiet.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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