Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
Best quote: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”
The killer scene: Alan Rickman’s final tumble: iconic, nostalgic, slightly-shoddy-effects–based glory.
So here it is. The No. 1 spot, the top of the skyscraper. The perfect action movie. But does Die Hard really fit the bill? It doesn’t have anything to say about the state of the world. It doesn’t offer much insight into the human condition (though the image of Bruce Willis walking on broken glass could be taken as a poignant metaphor for life’s little brutalities). It isn’t exactly what pseuds would call High Art.
All of which is precisely the point. If cinema is the perfect escapist medium—and until someone invents a virtual-reality device that works, it will be—then action movies are its purest expression, the best way we know of for humanity to shake itself loose from the trappings of humdrum reality and take to the ether. We don’t want to see ourselves reflected, we don’t want understanding or honesty or intellectual insight. We want speed and intensity, wit and wisecracks, cartoon violence and things going boom. We want Die Hard.
The story is so ingenious, it’s incredible no one had thought of it before: A group of terrorists invades a state-of-the-art skyscraper and takes the inhabitants hostage. Their only hope is a man locked in with them, yet free to roam, a lone hero who must pick off the bad guys one by one, arcade-game–style, until he reaches the Big Boss. Admittedly, there are precedents—Assault on Precinct 13 must have been an on-set favorite—but no one had told this tale with such streamlined precision before. It’s little accident that, in the wake of the film’s success, clones sprouted up like toadstools almost overnight, from Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege) to Die Hard on a bus (Speed) and this year’s Die Hard on a musical instrument (Grand Piano).
That said, even the highest of concepts will only work if all the elements are right, and Die Hard is a textbook case of everything falling into place. John McTiernan’s direction pulls no punches, and there are sequences here—like the oft-imitated, never-bettered swinging-through-a-window-on-a-firehose moment—that achieve something close to visual poetry. The script is crammed with humor and invention, and whoever came up with the idea of setting it at Christmas deserves a big medal. But of course, the blue-ribbon winner in all this has to be Bruce Willis, who crashed from nowhere (well, from TV’s Moonlighting) onto the world’s stage, thanks to a combination of antiheroic self-mockery, battered but unbowed machismo and one very grubby T-shirt. Yippie-ki-ay, indeed.—Tom Huddleston