Action heroes belong to a class. They sit in for lessons and are taught the same things over and over again until they no longer know how to be anybody else except an action hero. Take Jason Bourne, as played by Matt Damon. He is so good at being a thriller hero that even in his movies, he doesn’t know anything else. He doesn’t know the ways of humanity, nor is he in touch with his emotions. His movies make him a machine of action set pieces by wiping away his memory, and that is all he was ever designed to be.
We believe Jason Bourne as a hero because the stories he finds himself in write him down as one. We know that he received combat training. We know that he is as adept with a gun as Van Gogh was with a paintbrush. When he fights the bad guys hand-to-hand, we know he will be victorious because his character is written to be victorious, and Damon is sure-footed in the face of triumph. Basically, the Jason Bourne type action hero cannot survive in any other genre of film. Can you imagine him buying groceries at the local supermarket?
I begin this review with Bourne because he is, in every way conceivable, the opposite of Die Hard’s hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), who is not shoved into the action hero role; he assumes it naturally. Where Jason Bourne is confident and swift in action, John McClane is nervous and reckless. Where Bourne is lethal, John is innocuous. Bourne presents himself to his enemies as if leading an army; John waits in the shadows for his army to arrive. Bourne is immediate; John hesitates. He is filled with fear and self-doubt, which makes him an action hero far more plausible than the Bournes and the Bonds and the Transporters — he has weakness. While everyone sat intently in the Action Hero classroom, John McClane tore up the textbook and blew bubbles with his gum.
John is the unassailable life force of Die Hard, an action thriller directed by John McTiernan about a New York cop visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles for Christmas. Willis and McTiernan do the smart thing by allowing John the freedom to hate himself. Here is a man who has let his wife (and children) slip through his fingers by choosing his career over his responsibilities as a husband and a father. He makes the trip to L.A. to make amends, and when he meets Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), his wife, their reunion is less than celebratory. Willis is absolutely spot on at making John a man who would rather be anywhere else but here. Instantly, we get the feeling that this trip to L.A. is forced, that his attempts to make up will go south very quickly.
His apprehension is compounded when Nakatomi Plaza, the multinational company Holly has recently been promoted to vice president for, falls under the arrest of a group of terrorists, led by a German maliciously named Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Die Hard is based on the 1979 novel, “Nothing Lasts Forever”, by Roderick Thorp, and its ace in the hole is its treatment of the relationship between John McClane and Hans Gruber. When the terrorists round up the Nakatomi employees (who have gathered together on the 30th floor for the office Christmas party), it is a stroke of genius to have John in one of the office bathrooms, having just landed and in need of a wash-up. Yes, he is there so that he can eventually slip by all the bad guys and begin his game of cat and mouse, but he being in the bathroom when the attack begins doesn’t feel like a perfunctory plot device. It is grafted with surgical precision into the fibre of the narrative, so that when we see John avoid capture, we are almost inclined to cheer.
Hans is a supercilious prig, who thinks he is above everyone else because he speaks with intellect and can dictate the course of events by raising an eyebrow. John is a smart-ass who improvises and relishes the disruption of plans. These two egos are volatile, and when the screenplay brings them together, Die Hard exploits their instability to evolve into something richer than a mere action thriller with lots of gunfire and explosions, which it also is.
The movie is a technical masterpiece. The special effects department spared no expense getting John into every kind of predicament imaginable. He leaps off the roof tied only to a firehose just before the roof blows up. He rappels down a central ventilation shaft and stumbles into one of the vents. He throws a chair full of explosives down the lift chute. He runs on broken glass and gets shot in the back. Then there’s the string of man-to-man fights, each involving no less than 20 punches to the face. All the effects are convincing, in a way that makes them feel needed. That John comes out of the movie alive is not only a testament to his everyman resilience, but also to the care with which the effects around him glorify his efforts.
And then consider the genius of the walkie talkie in this film. Walkie talkies have been used in every movie involving policemen, and maybe some that don’t, but never have they been used as a prop of such astute practicality. The underlying anxiety of Hans’ and John’s relationship is that neither man knows the other. Hans doesn’t know who John is. John has no idea what Hans looks like. But during a bloodied brawl, John confiscates the walkie talkie of one of Hans’ henchmen and begins a rapport with the villain. The walkie talkies act like the rounds of questioning one makes during a game of Cluedo — Hans and John are given hints but not the full picture. All they need now is the room, the weapon, and whodunnit. This makes the scene in which they come face to face for the first time all the more extraordinary. Sure, Rickman’s American accent couldn’t convince an American, but the scene is a snarky reminder of just how brilliantly Thorp’s novel and McTiernan have set up the two men’s relationship by using walkie talkies.
Die Hard is the first of a long line of sequels and followups, none of which I have seen. I am in a position where I fear the worst. I fear that if I see the sequels I will tarnish the pristine clarity with which this first Die Hard presents itself. It is great entertainment where the adrenaline pumps right from the get-go. The L.A. John lands in seems brushed over by a sandstorm. The sky looks ominous in its sandy browns and deep yellows, and the frame feels claustrophobic. The movie doesn’t make the mistake of lulling us into a state of serenity; we know, almost instantly, that something terrible will befall its characters. Indeed, some of its characters need terrible things to befall them, like the ignominious moron of a deputy chief (Paul Gleason), who enters the movie only to provide a counterpoint to everything John says and does. Even the two FBI agents who take over the case in the third act are about as sympathetic as a couple of rocks. The real core of Die Hard is in Hans and John, and in their playful but dangerous banter. Rickman makes a truly paralysing villain, and Willis steals the show by revealing to us that he is not a hero. He is only a hero by circumstance. He is thrust into a vicious situation against his will, and we take pleasure in watching him deal with it. Unlike Jason Bourne, he has everyman qualities. It’s the little things — like him questioning his every move, and waiting impatiently for the cops to come to the rescue — that set him apart. This is why I can imagine him at the local supermarket, waiting patiently at the checkout counter with a basket full of groceries.