Revisiting Die Hard
This Sunday, iconic action movie Die Hard is going to turn 30. Everyone I know has seen it and loved it to some degree. I must've seen it between thirty and forty times and haven't gotten tired yet. It's the definition of a contemporary classic. It gets better with age and repeated viewings. How did Die Hard manage to remain inherently better than thirty years worth of action movies? What makes this movie so special that people make it a yearly tradition to watch it? Well, I watched Die Hard again, last night. And I have things to talk about.
In case you've been living a rock for 30 years: Die Hard is the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York cop traveling to Los Angeles to spend the Holidays with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their two kids. They separated six months prior when she had a career opportunity she couldn't turn down and John refused to follow. Shortly after John picks her up at her Christmas party, the office is invaded by armed goons who claim to be terrorists. He's trapped in a building with 12 dangerous criminals and there's no one outside even aware of what's going on.
It's by watching Die Hard many, many times over many, many years that you gain an appreciation for its narrative economy. Every non-essential detail in this movie builds towards essential plot or character development. The family photo on Holly's office building up to Hans (Alan Rickman) identifying her as John's wife, John's post-flight nausea and discomfort with Californian living leading up to him seeking refuge in Holly's bathroom before everyone else is taken hostage, etc. There are no lengths in Die Hard because everything serves a purpose. It constantly rewards you for paying attention, so you increasingly pay more attention as it progresses.
Another important trait of the Die Hard franchise that makes it so riveting, at least in the early trilogy, is that its protagonist John McClane isn't a badass. He's not some sexy, ultra-trained ex-marine/CIA agent that does cartwheel kicking while wearing a leather jacket. He's a terrified middle-aged cop who's desperately trying to get local law enforcement involved, but everything is going wrong. They first turn away, then they don't believe him and last, but not least, they try to barge into the building like prototypical american protagonists and get slaughtered. So, the responsibility falls to him to keep the hostages safe and the stall the criminals for as long as possible.
And it's a fine line between being a cop who acts like a courageous cop when everything goes to shit and being a superhero douchebag. John McClane doesn't exactly save people in Die Hard. He remains hidden from Hans' crew for most of the movie and keeps them occupied, trying to delay an inevitable. Those who step forward and try to play hero like Takagi (James Shigeta) or my boy Ellis (Hart Bochner), suffer a grim fate. McClane works smart, with little resources and figures out Hans' master plan by using the only advantage he has on them: they can't see him. That's why he's such a relatable character. He's an ordinary man, stepping up to the plate and doing extraordinary things when circumstances required it.
Don't get me wrong, Die Hard is still one of the craziest, most implausible movies of all-time. Jumping from a 40 stories building with a fire hose tied around your waist shouldn't work. Nobody should come back to life after getting hanged from a chain, 10 feet in the air. But that's what the magic of this movie is all about: making you relate to character who are in situations you would normally never relate to. It's a lesson Hollywood movies seem to have forgotten somewhere along the nineties and this is why we're still watching Die Hard today. It made us believe normal people could be courageous under duress.