Thursday, July 19, 2007

Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.

Released in the twilight of the eighties, 'Die Hard' was markedly different from other action films. It significantly raised the status quo for the genre by eschewing the well established 'invincible muscle man' convention by featuring a scrappy and resourceful yet vulnerable everyman as its protagonist. Oh, and by also having a good plot and strong performances. Nearly 20 years since its release and in the wake of the arrival of its third sequel, John McTiernan's classic shows its whippersnapper descendant how it should be done.

New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) in Los Angeles. She's a senior employee at her company, and John meets her at her office in the Nakatomi Plaza building during a company Christmas party. Shortly thereafter, the building is taken over by a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and everyone is held hostage. Everyone, that is, except for McClane, who manages to slip away during the chaos. He proceeds to sneak around the building, gathering information on the terrorists and foiling them in any way that he can, eventually becoming... "just a fly in the ointment... The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass." The cops soon get involved and besiege the building, and McClane establishes contact with a Sgt. Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) via a walkie-talkie he commandeers. The terrorists, however, are very resourceful and organized, and are not exactly what they appear to be... and the arrival of the authorities doesn't phase them one bit. Which leaves just John McClane standing in their way.

That's the basic storyline. It isn't deep - this is an action movie after all - but as always it's the execution that counts, and this film executes the hell out of its story. While conceptually simple, the plotting is actually quite solid and meticulous. Its far fetched to be sure, but it still stays on the right side of believable and always seems logical and consistent - simple details like McClain making himself familiar with the layout of the building and writing down the terrorists' names add tons of credibility to the story with minimal effort. The characters aren't exactly deep either, but they are given enough depth to not feel generic, and they have loads of personality to boot. Additionally, the integration of character actions into the plot feels organic instead of contrived, which is always a big plus. Although not a comedy, the film is laced with humour throughout, humour that mostly comes from the characters; there are loads of memorable lines and exchanges that keep things from getting too leaden. Even the villains are entertaining and in some ways the orchestration of their plan is such that in another movie you could easily find yourself rooting for them!

Add to this the pretty much perfect casting of just about every role. The stars are of course Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, playing characters who are different in just about ever way. Willis is spot on as the wise-cracking, dogged blue collar cop having a very, very bad day. You're on his side from the first scene, and his cockiness is counterbalanced with a very real sense of fear and vulnerability - he survives every encounter by the skin of his teeth and he knows it. Rickman's Hans Gruber is suave and refined and exudes an aura of ruthless intelligence and supreme confidence. The guy is undoubtedly in charge and revels in it, dealing out dry quips at every turn and only rarely letting his frustration with McClane slip through. A classic villain to oppose Willis's classic hero. The main supporting players, Bedelia and VelJohnson, are also fantastic in their respective roles as McClane's wife and his buddy on the outside. Bedelia is feisty and convincingly holds her own against the egos of Rickman and Willis (their characters, I mean). VelJohnson is, despite appearing initially comedic, quite a badass in his own way when squaring off against his superiors while also providing McClane with much needed moral support. The rest of the cast are note perfect in their minor roles as villains and inept law enforcement personnel.

Great writing and great performances are complemented by great everything else. John McTiernan's work on the character exchanges, the comedy, and the action is exceptional. The film is fast paced; after a brisk 15 minutes of initial setup it becomes relentless. The action sequences are doled out regularly and they are as tense and exciting as anything made today (actually, more so), and the action manages to be great without stretching suspension of disbelief. The constrained and claustrophobic setting only adds to the tension. Despite the laugh-out-loud humour employed, the tone is always reigned in and never veers too far into comedy territory or detracts from the core of the story. The effects and action choreography in general are great, though there are some stunt double sequences that are glaringly obvious. At least they're obvious stunt doubles and not obvious CGI 'Jello man' doubles. Topping it all off is the music, which mixes some Christmas tunes with a little Bach that together with the original score by Michael Kamen create a complementary and memorable aural experience.

'Die Hard' is one of the best action movies ever made, and an absolute classic. Thrilling and entertaining from start to finish, it shows that action films don't have to be overblown and intelligence insulting to be any good. The sequels are pretty good as well, but the progenitor towers above them all. Yippee Kay-yay (you know the rest)!

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