“You want to know the secret to surviving air travel? After you get where you’re going, take off your shoes and your socks, then you walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.”
“Fists with your toes?”
“I know, I know, it sounds crazy. Trust me, I’ve been doing it for nine years. Yes, sir, better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee.”
Welcome to the party, pal! In this episode, we’re celebrating Christmas in July with the 30th anniversary of Die Hard, a (debatable) holiday favorite. John McTiernan’s 1988 hostage thriller posed Bruce Willis as a kinder, gentler action hero alternative to the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone — but don’t worry, he still murders lots of greedy terrorists. Ho, ho, ho!
This genre classic set the mold for many action flicks that followed, and featured one of the most beloved bad guys of all time in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. But what about its depiction of women in the workplace as a threat to masculinity? Or its serious skepticism toward capitalism, the media, and law enforcement? Before you RSVP “yes” to John McClane’s holiday bash, remember this: Die Hard also co-stars a series regular from TGIF’s Family Matters.
Will Die Hard hold up as well as Nakatomi Plaza does under fire? And how about those sequels? Kindly remove your shoes before stepping into this nostalgic experience, because it’s time to say “yipee-ki-yay,” podcast lovers!
July 15, 1988
Budget: $28 million
Opening Weekend: $7.1 million
Domestic Gross: $83 million
Worldwide Gross: $140.8 million
There’s a lovely thrill you feel when watching a true classic, and Die Hard did that for me. I saw it once as a teenager, and later in a movie theater, so there was no real surprise factor in viewing it this time around. It’s well known that the film is largely responsible for the transition between the ripped hulks of the 80s — Rambo and RoboCop and the Terminator and Dirty Harry, to name a few — and the wise-cracking, normal-sized Everymen we tended to see in 90s action flicks. (They still ended up being indestructible Supermen, but relatably so!) I also knew, of course, that Die Hard set the mold for action-oriented hostage plots in relatively contained — but still very explosive — settings. All a screenwriter these days has to do is pitch, “It’s Die Hard in a…” and everyone immediately knows what kind of movie they’re about to pass on.
But the podcast gives me a nice excuse to look under the hood, and I wondered how this marriage subplot would hold up. In its broadest strokes, the film is about a wife who jeopardizes her marriage for her career, deciding she can make things work without her husband… until she becomes the damsel in distress who literally needs her husband to save her life and her career. (If everyone at the company dies, it’s effectively a very harsh pink slip.) Obviously, I knew the movie would end with John McClane saving his wife, and most hostages, and his marriage, because that’s what action heroes do. And I wondered if this very 80s, progressive-at-the-time subplot might actually be one big blast of hot air designed to puff up the male ego.
Yes and no. Die Hard is wish fulfillment. McClane was the kind of smartass, rough-around-the-edges guy American men could identify with. His marital problems felt real, and McClane was nicely positioned as the smartest dumb guy in the room. He was a cop, but he also mouthed off to other cops. He was uncomfortable with not-such-red-blooded-Average-Joe things as Japanese business culture, women using their maiden name, and Los Angeles. He did like old cowboy movies, riding up front with limo drivers, and profuse profanity. (While I do suggest that McClane broke the mold for action heroes, it’s not like he was Liberace with an Uzi.)
Die Hard is deeply skeptical of law enforcement, especially the guys that run the show (versus the Twinkie-loving Reginald VelJohnson, who is arguably the film’s true hero). It lambasts the media and uses mere capitalism as its villain’s motivation. Business bravado, like the coked-up “bubby” bro-talk used by Hart Bochner’s delightfully dense Ellis, doesn’t result in tit-for-tat back-scratching. It gets people killed. Even the terrorists are somewhat emasculated, looking more like Eurotrash male models than a serious threat. On the one hand, the message it sends is that everyone who isn’t a middle-class, no frills, average American deserves to be shot. (One of the first victims is Takagi, Holly’s boss, who seems like a nice enough guy… but probably had it coming for scheduling his office holiday party on Christmas Eve, so everyone has to leave their kids with the nanny while the tits and coke are busted out.)
Given all that, though, Die Hard is a little more subversive than you might think. McClane doesn’t immediately jump into action with an action hero’s master plan when he hears shooting — first, he makes sure he’s safe and hidden, then he tries a couple things that don’t work. He’s flying by the seat of his pants here, which is good because he doesn’t have shoes or a shirt. Having John McClane barefoot for the duration of the action makes him oddly relatable, much more vulrnerable than we’re used to. Action heroes get shot all the time, and that’s fine, but there’s something about seeing one walking on glass in bare feet that really makes us feel his pain. As much as other action movies have borrowed from Die Hard, I can’t think of any others that made their heroes’ physical suffering truly felt by the audience.
McClane also resorts to killing only when necessary — which, admittedly, is almost always, but at least he tries. He does think before he shoots, though, which is not something you’ll see a lot of in action movies. There’s also the business of McClane talking to himself, working out plans, expressing doubt, and dripping with sarcasm — which gives the character a lot more interiority than we get from, say, Rambo. Talking things out and thinking things through is actually a much more feminine trait, at least in the movies, and paired with his physical disadvantage — those bare feet, and a lack of weapons when the action begins — there’s something emasculated about the character, even if he does end up kicking ass and swinging from the side of a building on a fire hose. His apology to Holly in the end is sincere. In the end, it’s not Holly who must learn that she needs the security of a male in her life, it’s John who must accept that his wife wants to fulfill herself as more than just a wife and mother. In 1988, this was a big win for women in action movies, though unfortunately not one of the lessons Hollywood took from Die Hard‘s success. (There are also a lot of African-American actors in terrific roles, which also wasn’t replicated enough in the 90s.)
I wouldn’t say John McClane ushered in an all-new type of action star. It was more of a return to the relatable, vulnerable Everymen you’d tend to see top-lining an action-thriller in the 70s. But Die Hard definitely left its mark on most of the 90s action genre in so many ways. Jan De Bont’s cinematography is surprisingly gorgeous for this sort of film, and explains a lot about why this movie has always reminded me so much of Speed, which is perhaps the most die hard of Die Hard clones. The supporting cast is stellar, with so many engaging characters — Argyle, Powell, Holly, Ellis, Takagi, and of course, Alan Rickman’s delectable Hans Gruber. Die Hard even makes time for a faux-friendly hangout between McClane and Griber, which again, adds a quirky but suspenseful not we don’t often get from a movie with this many bullets and explosions.
DIE HARD 2
July 6, 1990
Budget: $70 million
Opening Weekend: $7.1 million
Domestic Gross: $117.5 million
Worldwide Gross: $240 million
Die Hard 2 is directed by Renny Harlin. I could probably stop there. Harlin is the five-time Golden Raspberry-nominated director of Cutthroat Island, Deep Blue Sea, The Covenant, and plenty of other bottom-of-the-barrel fare.
Die Hard 2 is sometimes referred to as “Die Harder,” which it deserves. It has a perfectly fine setup, with McClane stuck at a Washington, D.C. airport waiting for his wife’s plane. It doesn’t land, because terrorists. Fixing the problem will require McClane to “wake up and smell the 90s” and learn to use a fax machine, kill many bad guys, and blow up at least one plane.
There’s plenty of good camp here, from the main villain’s buck naked entrance to NYPD Blue‘s Dennis Franz cast against type as a cop. (He’s taking over for Reginald VelJohnson, the TV cop from the first movie.) In 1990, it was apparently fine to have guns at the airport and tasers on airplanes, so that’s interesting. Holly also gets a nice subplot with the jerky newsman she punched in the first movie, with whom she is now stuck on a plane. (A stewardess rewards with champagne for assaulting him.)
There’s a pretty harrowing plane crash midway through the film that nicely raises the stakes. Unfortunately, Die Hard 2 becomes a pretty rote shoot-em-up flick after that, with none of the first film’s action panache (until the pretty cool climax). Die Hard 2 is also much jokier than the first movie, with Willis basically speaking right to the audience. As action sequels go, this one is fine, but it wears out its welcome.
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE
May 19, 1995
Budget: $90 million
Opening Weekend: $22.1 million
Domestic Gross: $100 million
Worldwide Gross: $366.1 million
Die Hard With A Vengeance deviates from the quintessential Die Hard formula in major ways. It doesn’t take place on Christmas Eve, Holly is in no danger, and there isn’t a particularly die hostage situation. Instead, Hans Gruber’s brother plays a game of “Simon Says” with John McClane and his new buddy from Harlem, Zeus (a very welcome Samuel L. Jackson), having them solve riddles as a distraction while they steal gold from the Federal Reserve.
The script for Die Hard With A Vengeance wasn’t originally a Die Hard, and you can tell. (Actually, every Die Hard aside from the misbegotten A Good Day To Die Hard is based on non-Die Hard source material.) Here, John McClane is more of a generic tough guy than the character we met in the first film, and the lack of a contained setting dampens the formula (as contrived as it would be to have, say, Holly trapped on a yacht on Christmas Eve this time).
With those qualms in mind, Die Hard With A Vengeance is still a pretty solid action thriller, thanks in large part to the chemistry between Willis and Jackson. The movie contains references to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, though only one of them is mentioned as a potential future president. (It’s Hillary.) Though by no means anywhere near as entertaining or groundbreaking as the original, this entry has better action and suspense than the first sequel, perhaps because McTiernan returned as director.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out to 2007’s Live Free Or Die Hard, which surprisingly emerges as the second best Die Hard movie, even though it strays pretty far from the original formula. (At least we’re back to terrorism on a holiday — the 4th of July, in this case.)
Live Free Or Die Hard takes McClane’s previously established disdain for technology and builds a whole movie around it, with terrorists who hack into seemingly every computer in the United States and cause a total societal meltdown. (You’d think this would feel dated by 2018. It’s actually more relevant.) An amusing bit of casting in “the Mac guy,” Justin Long, has a tech-savvy millennial in mortal danger, who is very fortunate to have John McClane as his bodyguard. With the exception of Die Hard 2, the weakest in the series up to this point, Die Hard movies have always been about the clash between brawn and intellect. Gruber was incredibly intelligent, but the supposed “smart guys” couldn’t match him. It was a more street smart array of skills, paired with some muscle, that saved the day. Similarly, McClane needed Zeus along to solve Simon’s riddles in Die Hard With A Vengeance, though again, it’s brute force that ultimately saves the day.
In Live Free Or Die Hard, Matt Farrell’s whiz kid smarts actually are necessary to take down the equally cyber-savvy villain, played by Timothy Olyphant. To compensate, John McClane is now the kind of beefy, indestructible superhero that the original John McClane reacted against. Technically, this should probably spoil the movie, but after watching McClane go through this four times how, doesn’t it kind of seem like he’s earned this invincibility?
Live Free Or Die Hard also brings back Die Hard‘s family element. Mary Elizabeth Winstead shows up as McClane’s daughter Lucy, now a college student, who eventually ends up in distress but shows her mother’s grit under fire. This sly feminist streak is, I’d argue, a large part of what makes a Die Hard movie Die Hard, even if it strays from contained locations on Christmas Eve. I’ll probably never get the Holly-and-Lucy headlined Mrs. Die Hard movie I’d like so much, but it’s pretty clear that sending McClane to Russia with his action hero son in the fifth and final movie was a mistake on all counts.
It wouldn’t hurt to see the franchise brought back one last time to go out with a bang, rather than A Good Day To Die Hard‘s whimper. (I never saw it.) But we still have Die Hard, which somehow only feels fresher after countless retreads that couldn’t quite stick the landing.