3.5 stars out of 4. Action classic, but you already knew that.
Terrorists seize a business tower on Christmas Eve. Employees are still at their Christmas party, where one off duty NYC cop has just come to meet his estranged wife.
The core of Die Hard’s success with audiences is this human element of exasperation. Det. John McClane is not a movie action hero. There is no polish, no oozing charm, no feats of incredible unbelievability. This is a guy who does a 9 to 5, drinks beer and gets jet lag. In fact, he spends the entire film barefoot because of one fellow traveler’s advice on how to lose jet lag. The extensive wardrobe consists of one tank top that grows increasingly bloody as the building is systematically taken apart from the inside.
We like this guy. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be any sequels. Not only does he come across as one of us, but he reacts in ways that audiences can relate to. Instead of coolly walking away from a fight unscathed, McClane will barely survive and then give a blessed yell of relief that he is even still breathing. This is not a superman-this is “a regular Energizer Bunny” who becomes increasingly worn down so that by the end of one of these adventures he shouldn’t even be walking at all. The energizer bunny reference is perfect, because like that titular advertising legend McClane simply keeps going and going and going and going without any notion of stopping.
Had anyone else been cast as John McClane this film would not have worked. The entire thing just rests on Bruce Willis’s shoulders. His bruised laconic gaze speaks volumes about how much we lost out on when humanity went out of commercial filmmaking. He can go from a marital dispute to dodging bullets to rigging an improvised explosive to witty one liners to that phenomenal bug eyed look McClane gets in the midst of fights throughout all four films. And then the magnificent monologues of McClane-isms. Oh boy, how I do enjoy characters chewing themselves out in the midst of extreme peril.
The plot sounds simple enough doesn’t it? What more could possibly be there in the plot that isn’t the obvious? Aside from Bruce Willis’s characterization this is the film’s other secret weapon. For such a simple premise, the plot weaves in new twists with such alacrity that one often wonders what could possibly be thrown in next.
The leader of the “terrorists” is Hans Gruber who sidelines in his enjoyment of men’s fashion and politics. Why is it that nearly everything Alan Rickman is in winds up being so deliciously watchable? Gruber’s real objective is the horde of money hidden in the corporation’s vault. So what is simply a case of petty theft is so elaborately dressed up in theatricality that the tangled web of its construction is something to marvel at. Now if only they had borrowed an idea from the Bond producers and had Rickman return in a sequel as Gruber’s twin brother. None of the succeeding villains have had any of Rickman’s impact.
The action is handled in a way so that the believability remains in a sea of fantastic overkill. Upon release in 1988, many claimed that the level of violence was overkill, but this has since been downplayed by both time and the sheer number of imitators on the film’s premise.
The way John McTiernan allows for the building to an element in the story is remarkable. It is this visual flair combined with Jan DeBont’s in your face cinematography that makes things really come alive. For a 2.35:1 frame to bob and weave into the fray with such reckless abandon in a studio film is really refreshing. Bright lights flare in your vision just as they would to weary McClane. But there is also a composure in this freedom. Swirling movement combines with tracking to create a foundation of composure.
The surroundings are an office tower that is till under varying stages of construction. Needless to say the builders are about to have a major setback in their completion date. The confinement of a single building actually serves to heighten the tension which for this kind of action film is essential. (And a point that the two later sequels missed entirely.) The events that take place outside the Nakatomi Plaza are confined to the grounds outside as the LAPD attempt to maintain a base of communications to work down the terrorists and their “demands”. It’s nice to see some negative reaction to McClane’s unauthorized aid and the extent to which he is unappreciated gives much weight to his exasperation.
Unfortunately, once things are over you find yourself asking what really mattered in the end. While this may certainly be remembered as a landmark in the action sub-genre, what does one really take away from it all? The small human elements we like combined with the use of real locations make the ride feel a bit more natural but these great 80’s action films can never really be considered classics. The 80’s action film is washed out looking today, has a nice balanced Dolby SR sound mix, fresh dialogue for the first film of a franchise, but is always firmly centered in the slick corporate dominance of 1980’s American cinema. To get something truly different, you have to also attack the society that creates these situations (William Friedkin’s masterful To Live and Die in LA (1985) ) or build a poetic balance between action and drama as found in John Woo’s doubleshot of action mastery, The Killer (1987) and Hard Boiled (1990). Even with the human energizer bunny, Die Hard never reaches the level of balance between action and drama contained in the greatest of action cinema. For all of its innovations and benchmarks the film never gets too far away from its pulp novel framework when you really look at it. (especially the death of Hans.)
So crank it loud and enjoy being blown through the back of the room. Yippie-ki-yay.
Die Hard has never looked spectacular on home video due to it’s late-80’s production. The film has always looked washed out and very contrasty and lacking fine detail. The original DVD was rather dark and was little more than a port of the Laserdisc transfer.
The 5 Star Collection edition is 16:9 anamorphic with 5.1 mixes in Dolby and DTS. The transfer is much brighter and representative of the original film. However, the image has some fluctuation issues in the opening scenes and is rather washed out. The audio is a nice bump from the original Dolby Surround,but seeing the original mix included would have been nice. The Dolby remix is tinny and the DTS is much more robust. Both have little use of the LFE channel. These seem to be the same as the earlier LD multichannel mixes.
The Blu-ray release fixes most of the image issues with the increased resolution, but there is still a lack of detail and overall graininess. However, this can’t really be faulted as the image represents the original production and Fox has literally done a straight transfer with little to no manipulation. Sound is a good 5.1 DTS hd-master audio mix, but I still want the original Dolby Surround mix in lossless quality included .Sounds like I’ll need to track down an older Laserdisc for the PCM track.
Die Hard was one of the last films to really get a 70mm blow-up run, so there might have been a 6-track master made for 70mm’s superior 6-track magnetic stereo or a Dolby 70mm mix. These would be the basis for all of the modern 5.1 mixes, but to my ears it sounds a bit like the Batman (1989) mix where none of the 5.1 mixes sounded right to me until I heard the original Dolby SR mix on the Laserdisc which absolutely dominated.
In any case, Die Hard should be played loud. The film originally came with disclaimers to be played loud, because it was mixed that way.
Ho. Ho. Ho.