“Make fists with your toes”
It’s become such an action classic with numerous sequels, copycats, and homages and yet Die Hard as we know it almost never was—by choice. Novelist Roderick Thorp wrote Nothing Lasts Forever, his follow-up to The Detective, thirteen years after the original because he saw The Towering Inferno and dreamt up an idea of one man in a skyscraper hunted by terrorists. It starred his NYPD Detective Joe Leland, now aged and retired, visiting his daughter’s office building in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve where he decides to single-handedly save the day from an attack. Well, since Frank Sinatra already played Leland on the big screen, Fox needed to offer him the role. At seventy years young, the result would have been nothing like what we know today.
But he turned them down—to the studio’s glee. They could now take Steven E. de Souza‘s script and rework it as a Commando sequel if Arnold Schwarzenegger was willing to sign on. He wasn’t. So they offered it to every established action star they could think of and received a constant barrage of, “No thanks.” Intending the property to be a big blockbuster for the studio, Fox had to pivot from star-power to action-packed glory. They could get Bruce Willis to bring some of his comedic chops from playing a detective on “Moonlighting”, rework the script with Jeb Stuart (and ultimately continue tweaking all the way through production so director John McTiernan could make it his own), and focus its appeal on the explosiveness its premise provided.
Sometimes lightning strikes when nothing goes right because Die Hard became a staple, even going so far as to find new life in theaters during the holiday season as an off-beat Christmas favorite. Willis vaulted to A-list status, a franchise was born, and the put-upon everyman little guy became the new hero. Would we ever think of Kiefer Sutherland as the badass we do from “24” without a guy like Willis’ John McClane showing how ingenuity and tenacity could defeat muscle-clad brawn? Probably not. The genre opened itself up because audiences came in droves. You no longer needed an established face to fill seats as long as the ride was entertaining. McClane brought a vulnerability to the role too, his self-hating chauvinist realizing that family truly meant everything.
This spin on masculinity to accept that his wife (Bonnie Bedelia‘s Holly Gennaro) can be the successful breadwinner is perhaps the film’s best trait. She deserves to be supported by her husband as much as McClane believes his established career in New York City should. We’re made to laugh at his stranger in a strange land sarcastically mocking flashy businessmen and drooling from slack-jawed awe at pretty women smiling back. We’re supposed to understand that his cop comes from a different world of archaic ideas on marriage and gender roles. Los Angeles is sex, cocaine, limos, and opportunity. It’s painted as white-collar excess to his blue-collar status quo and seeing it firsthand has him hating how he left his wife and kids there alone for six months even more.
He’s completely out-of-place and on-edge. If he doesn’t grab Holly by the arm to try and drag her away—in effect dissolving the last bit of love she still has—he’ll probably punch her lecherous co-worker (Hart Bochner‘s Ellis) in the face and ultimately endure the same result. You could almost say Hans Gruber’s (Alan Rickman) arrival with his machine-gun wielding European compatriots saves McClane’s marriage from certain destruction because it grounds him into doing something he knows. The violent chaos that ensues is what he was born to do. Moving barefoot through the expansive Nakatomi building to wreak havoc on these terrorists prevents him from making a fool of himself at Holly’s cocktail party. McClane is off-duty, emotionally invested, and in desperate need to blow off steam.
That’s a perfect premise to unleash his machismo in a one-night, single-location cat and mouse chase with rocket-launchers and copious amounts of C4. Let him just go floor to floor and Die Hard may still have been a success, but leave in the nuance from Thorp’s book and you create a timeless classic most actioners that followed could only hope to equal. This isn’t just a one-man wreaking crew against nameless foes to save the damsel in distress. For one, Holly is no damsel. She’s a tough-as-nails executive who takes up the mantle of de facto leader when her boss is murdered and goes toe-to-toe with Gruber, ice in her veins. She understands the stakes. She knows she’ll become a liability if her connection to John is revealed.
Gruber isn’t some two-dimensional heavy either. He’s a criminal mastermind using his connection to a German Autumn-era terrorist group to mask true intentions. Hans is constantly proving he could care less about the prospect of LAPD arriving at the scene. He wants his tech genius Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) to get through firewalls on the vault, his general Karl (Alexander Godunov) to find McClane’s pest in the vents, and enough explosions to coax the FBI over for reasons yet to be revealed. Rickman plays him cool as a cucumber—clearly the brains of the operation, but unafraid to get his hands dirty or act his way out of sticky situations. His Gruber is mysterious, complex, and a perfect foil to embrace McClane’s snarky attitude and give it back.
But that isn’t enough for Thorp or his filmmaking counterparts as there’s a uniform cop with his own complicated backstory (Reginald VelJohnson‘s Sgt. Al Powell) keeping McClane’s morale up while the Deputy Police Chief (Paul Gleason) risks botching the whole operation and FBI Agents Johnson (Robert Davi) and Johnson (Grand L. Bush) take boredom and ego to new levels of unearned intensity. There’s ineptitude on behalf of the authorities in control that makes us pull for McClane as the man on the ground who knows what it really takes to win and who’s willing to ignore orders from men in ivory towers. John finds himself in the crosshairs of villains and police alike. He may be everyone’s chance at not being collateral damage, but he’s just as expendable.
Add colorful characters like Argyle the limo driver (De’voreaux White) rising to the occasion, William Atherton‘s sleazy newsman Thornburg, and expanded one-noters like Karl and Theo becoming entertainers beyond simple actions and you have one enjoyable night at the movies. The camera is moving from multiple vantage points at breakneck speeds and yet we never find ourselves lost as far as motivations, revelations, or relationships. Implausibility abounds, but no one goes into this film thinking that won’t be the truth. They come for high-octane action, severe characters that aren’t afraid of some silly levity to ease tension, and unexpected twists making a “no survivors” scenario a distinct possibility. Sometimes genre work comes together to fire on all cylinders when you least expect it and an icon is born.