Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988.)
New York cop John McClane gives terrorists a dose of their own medicine as they hold hostages in an LA office building.
This was the first action movie I ever saw. The second was Total Recall. I watched them both on VHS on the same New Years’ Eve day with my cousins. Absolutely no action film has measured up for me, since. How could it? Even though it’s made most other action movies pale in comparison, I still wouldn’t trade those four-or-so hours for the world.
The movie is based on the book Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. Nothing Lasts Forever is a sequel to The Detective, which was made in to a film in 1968 with Frank Sinatra as Joe Leland, the McClane character’s original name. Originally, Nothing Lasts Forever was going to be adapted as a sequel to Commando (?!), but after hanging out in development hell for awhile, it was repackaged as a sequel to The Detective, and then eventually tooled as a standalone picture.
In 1975, author Roderick Thorp saw the film The Towering Inferno. After seeing the film, Thorp had a dream of seeing a man being chased through a building by men with guns. He woke up and took that idea and turned it into the The Detective sequel, Nothing Lasts Forever.
In the source material, it is not his wife but McClane’s daughter Steffie Generro (not Genarro) who is in the building, which is the Klaxon Oil Company national headquarters. Also, instead of posing as terrorists while really planning a good old-fashioned heist, Gruber and co. in the book really are terrorists. They are specifically members of the Rote Armee Fraktion, or Red Army Faction (sometimes called the Baader-Meinhof group), a German terrorist organization of the 1970s through 1990s.
The change from Gruber’s group being legit RAF terrorists to only using terrorism as a smokescreen for their intended purpose, director John McTiernan says, came because he wanted the film to be lighter and have “joy” rather than dark political overtones.
Taped to the fuse box is a pinup of Pamela Stein, Playboy’s Miss November 1987. The crew stuck it up there as a joke and Willis’s reaction to it is allegedly the real deal, so the choice was made to leave it in. For more on Ms. Stein, she was an entry in my NSFW November project of 2009: read all about it.
William Atherton does what he does best in this movie: play an asshole. In this case he’s reporter Richard Thornburg. The king douche from Ghostbusters lays it on thick, even going to Holly’s house and telling the McClane children that their parents are going to die. Do they have any last words they’d like to share with them? Small wonder that the first thing Holly does when she sees the aptly named Dick is punch him.
If someone told my kid I was going to die and asked her what her thoughts on that were, they’d better consider themselves lucky if, once I got out of danger, I restrained myself to just a punch in the face.
The “yippie kai yay” phrase is a reference to the theme music for Roy Rogers, who McClane tells Gruber was his preferred screen idol growing up, in the face of Gruber’s disdain for McClane’s lone wolf heroics. The line made it in to the AFI’s top 100 list, coming in at 96 on the 100 Greatest Movie Lines of all time.
The contact info for the Nakatomi building is actually the numbers (at the time) for Fox Plaza, where the film was shot. The extended cut of the film also contains a short scene which explains a plothole: the FBI tries to cut power to the building once they take over the “terrorist” negotiations. In the extended cut, McClane, hiding in the men’s bathroom, asks Al what’s going on and he explains that the FBI is in charge now and it’s part of their operating procedures.
The building’s power getting cut does not work according to Gruber’s plans. He’d hoped that the power being out would help him to crack the seventh and final lock for the safe (remember, earlier on Theo had warned Gruber that the circuit for the final lock could not be severed locally, precisely to prevent their kind of activity); deciding to go back to the drawing board, Gruber has computer whiz kid Theo connect to the emergency power supply. This is why when the power comes back on without this short backstory in the theatrical cut, the first thing we see is an FBI agent, and it’s why later the FBI takes out the power to the whole block instead of only the Nakatomi building, which does deactivate the seventh lock mechanism.
The “yippie kai yay” line isn’t the only American Film Institute keeper: Hans Gruber was listed as #46 on their 100 Years, 100 Villains list. What is it with the AFI and lists? Pretty soon it’ll be all like, “The AFI’s 10 Greatest AFI lists,” and the special will show famous actors and directors somberly describing the first time they accidentally stumbled on a televised broadcast of the 100 Best Movie Songs and couldn’t find the remote, so they watched it all.
The filmmakers introduce a gratuitous and unnecessary additional character: the deputy police chief (Paul Gleason), who doubts that the guy on the other end of the radio is really a New York cop at all.
(Roger Ebert. “Die Hard.” July 19, 1988. Chicago Sun-Times. He only gave the movie two stars.)
As nearly as I can tell, the deputy chief is in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress. The character is so willfully 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.
Entertainment Weekly named this the best action film of all time, showing those uptight pinky-raisers at the AFI that anyone can make an arbitrary list. What do you call my 12 Days of Highly Tolerable Holiday Movies? Completely made up is what I call it, because I’m the one who sat down and made it up.
Gruber being dropped because McClane unfastens Holly’s watch totally stuck with me for life. I’m not saying that it is singlehandedly responsible for my vertigo, but it’s on my arbitrary list of suspects (running gag alert). Some of that surprise is genuine: director McTiernan had Alan Rickman dropped a full second early in the count in order to capture an expression of truly spontaneous shock and fear. Worked.
To wind things down with the dewy promise of what’s-to-come, I’ve got super-great news for anyone who likes news that is super and great: a fifth Die Hard film is in the works, with Willis attached, and shooting is expected to begin in 2011. Personally, I liked Die Hard With A Vengeance best of the sequels, but I would not kick Live Free or Die Hard out of bed. Your thoughts?