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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holiday action movie pick: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard is one of my favorite action films of all time. As most people know by now, Die Hard involves a group of terrorists who crash an office Christmas party on Christmas Eve. McClane is there to visit his wife (who moved to LA with the kids-- but left him behind). Fortunately for everyone at the party, he's not in the main area when the terrorists attack. He escapes onto another floor before he's discovered. It doesn't take McClane, a smart detective, long to singled-handedly start taking out the terrorists.

The Screenplay

Like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard uses the Shane Black style of action movie writing (Die Hard was written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza). Like their colleague Mr. Black, these writers create a script that is immensely readable. Here's how it begins:


Christmas tinsel on the light poles. We ARE LOOKING east past Inglewood INTO the orange grid of L.A. at night when suddenly we TILT UP TO CATCH the huge belly of a landing 747 -- the noise is deafening.


The usual moment just after landing when you let out that sigh of relief that you've made it in one piece. As the plane TAXIS to its gate, they stir, gather personal belongings.


mid-thirties, good-looking, athletic and tired from his trip. He sits by the window. His relief on landing is subtle, but we NOTICE.


Details and characters

I've always thought what makes Die Hard better than the typical action movie are its details and characters. For example, McClane is told by a fellow passenger on the airplane:

SALESMAN (smiling) Ya wanna know the secret of successful air travel? After you get where you're going, ya take off your shoes and socks. Then ya walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.

Later, McClane takes his advice:


TILT UP FROM McClane's BARE FEET. He is clenching and unclenching his toes.

MCCLANE (surprised, actually feeling tension decline) Son-of-a-bitch. It works.

But this is also the reason he doesn't have his shoes on when the terrorists attack. Later in the film, this becomes his Achilles heel.

And then there's Alan Rickman's portrayal of the uber-terrorist Hans Gruber. He's charming, erudite, brilliant, and also just happens to be a psychopath. The scene when he meets McClane face to face for the first time is a classic reversal:



A moment. And then Hans turns, looks up. The transformation in his expression and bearing are mind-boggling. Hands shaking, eyes filled with fear, he swallows, looks up at McClane and in a perfect American accent says:

HANS --ohGodplease -- don't kill me -- don't kill me -- you're one of them, I know it --

MCCLANE (thrown, unsure) Whoa, whoa, easy man. I won't hurt you. Who are you? What are you looking for?

The supporting characters that inhabit this film seem genuine and three-dimensional, but also become larger than life (like what you see in Tarantino movies now):

- Powell - The policeman whom McClane befriends on the radio and helps him out. He also loves Twinkies, as we see in this exchange:

MCCLANE Yeah, just trying to handle some year old twinkies. Yucck. What do they put in these things?

POWELL (reciting) 'Sugar, enriched flour, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysorbate 60 and yellow dye #5.' 

- Argyle - The limo driver who gets stuck in the building after the terrorists take over, but also ends up helping McClane.

- Ellis - A fast-talking VP of sales who has his eye on McClane's wife and thinks he can negotiate with Hans:

ELLIS Hey, business is business. You use a gun, I use a fountain pen, what's the difference? To put it in my terms, you're here on a hostile takeover and you grab us for some greenmail but you didn't expect a poison pill was gonna be running around the building. (smiling) Hans, baby...I'm your white knight.

- The two FBI agents who arrive to take over the operation from the police. One is black, the other white, and they're both named "Johnson." Here's how they introduce themselves:

BIG JOHNSON (showing badge) I'm Special Agent Johnson of the FBI. This is Agent Johnson...no relation.

- Richard Thornburg, the TV journalist in search of his big story (and willing to do anything to get it).

Reflecting on Bruce Willis' career

Die Hard is what propelled Bruce Willis into the top level of 80s action stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. But what I find interesting is how Willis has been able to continue his career some 25 years after Die Hard. He still falls back on his "action movie" persona (16 Blocks, The Expendables, GI Joe: Retaliation, and even more Die Hard films), but he also takes on films that are unique -- or at least more risky (Pulp Fiction, Red, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Fifth Element).

Many actors -- including his 80s action star colleagues -- haven't been able to escape typecasting (let alone a front-page tabloid marriage and divorce). Whether you like him or not, you have to give him props for carving out a long career and helping to make a lot of great films.

Bonus: AndyO's favorite Bruce Willis films

My list of favorite Bruce Willis films:

  1. Die Hard
  2. Pulp Fiction
  3. The Sixth Sense
  4. Looper
  5. Die Hard 2
  6. Surrogates
  7. Red
  8. Look Who's Talking
  9. The Fifth Element
  10. Twelve Monkeys
  11. The Last Boy Scout
  12. Die Hard With a Vengeance
  13. Beavis and Butthead Do America (voice, animated)
  14. Ocean's Twelve (as himself)
  15. Over the Hedge (voice, animated)
  16. Live Free or Die Hard
  17. The Siege

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posted by AndyO @ 3:23 PM   0 comments