Essential Film: Die Hard

Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
Year: 1988


by Mathew R Johnstone

Action films have a hard time. No other genre gets quite so overlooked when it comes to awards or the critics’ ‘greatest films of all time’ lists. Adrenaline-fuelled action flicks make up for this at the box office, but there are still films which deserve proper recognition that also happen to feature huge explosions and ridiculous gun fights.

Of all the action films that deserve to be considered ‘essential’, Die Hard has to be at the very top of the list. Released in the genre’s best decade, the 1980s, Die Hard has every element required to be the greatest action film of all time.

First, it has the perfect action hero in the form of John McLane. Bruce Willis plays a tough New York cop, wise-cracking and chain-smoking. He’s slightly out of his depth in the extravagance of Los Angeles and to make matters worse, he’s estranged from his wife who he’s visiting for Christmas. Thankfully, their argument at her work party thirty floors up in a skyscraper is cut short by the arrival of international terrorists with machine guns. McLane manages to escape becoming a hostage, and spends the rest of the film ruining the bad guys day by picking them off one by one, destroying his iconic white vest in the process.

For a film with some ridiculous stunts, Die Hard’s central character is its most believable feature. Willis’ character isn’t a superhero, just an ordinary policeman who happens to find himself in an extraordinary situation, and rises spectacularly to the challenge. The audience actually sees him get injured: terrorists don’t give you enough time to get dressed so he spends the film barefoot, which isn’t perfect when you need to run over broken glass to avoid getting killed. When combined with the natural charm Bruce Willis still had in the 80s you get an action hero the audience can cheer for.

But a brilliant action hero needs an equally brilliant action villain, and Die Hard certainly delivers in the shape of Hans Gruber, leader of the gang of ‘terrorists’ who actually turn out to be German baddies trying to steal a fortified shed load of cash. Played with sinister perfection by Alan Rickman, Hans Gruber is the complete antithesis of McLane: a cultured European versus Average Joe American, calculating and methodical compared to his nemesis’ haphazard approach to fighting crime. One thing they do have in common is a penchant for snappy one liners, although Gruber’s are infinitely more deadpan: after shooting dead the boss of the company he’s robbing, he informs the remaining hostages that ‘Mr Takagi … won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.’ Rickman’s first proper film role, Hans Gruber alone is enough to make this film essential viewing.

There was never any doubt that McLane wouldn’t conquer the baddies eventually: you can’t have a blockbuster action movie without a happy ending. After throwing Alan Rickman from a skyscraper in slow motion, he’s able to return to his wife who, in all the chaos, has forgotten their marital problems and welcomes her battered and bruised husband with open arms. After all, that’s the joy of the action genre – it may not solve any problems, but it makes you forget about them for a few hours while you watch Bruce Willis beat the crap out of a bad guy.