28 years ago today saw the release of a summer actioner that changed the game. Die Hard was a successful conflagration of several elements, tried and true as well as groundbreaking, that became the new shorthand for action and comedy. For better or worse, Die Hard’s success can still be seen 28 years later, in some of today’s biggest hits.
Producers Joel Silver and his original mentor, Lawrence Gordon, had a strong property, Nothing Lasts Forever, the sequel to the book The Detective, the film of which originally starred Frank Sinatra. It’s quite a trip to flip through the pages of “Forever” and imagine what Die Hard would’ve been like with Ol’ Blue Eyes dragging himself through the ventilation shafts of Nakatomi Plaza. And, in fact, Sinatra’s option included first right of refusal if Nothing Lasts Forever was ever optioned into a film. Luckily, the then 77 year old passed on the project.
Part of the magic of the property was its mixture of disaster film tropes and a cat and mouse bad-guy/goodguy sensibility (The Towering Inferno meets Action Hero). In fact, writer Roderick Thorp credits a dream he had after watching The Towering Inferno as the inspiration.
Published in 1979, the book has many similarities to the finished script, with the biggest difference being the tone. “Forever” is a dark meditation on terrorism and the evil that men do. Joel Silver’s team decided to give the script a tongue-in-cheek “machismo” bravado similar to his previous successes. They went through a laundry list of available and box-office worthy talent, starting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who Silver had a strong relationship with ever since their successful teaming on Commando and Predator. In fact, Silver was ready to retool the early version of Die Hard into a Commando sequel. Fortunately for us, Schwarzenegger passed as well. After that, the script went to Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford and even Don Johnson; all passed.
Bruce Willis at that time was a somewhat unproven movie commodity. He’d had only one film released, Blake Edwards’ Blind Date, which was an uneven romantic comedy, with a weak script that attempted in the ninth hour to cash in on his popular role as David Addison on TV’s successful series Moonlighting. The film received mixed reviews and lukewarm boxoffice. But it wasn’t over for him; as Willis’ agent and manager knew that if they could find the right project to tap into his irreverent, wise-cracking persona from Moonlighting, they would have lightning in a bottle.
Since the script was already heading in a comedic direction, Willis was given a shot. In his audition, his improvisational style impressed Silver enough to reshape the script again, this time not only adding more of Willis’ sly flippancy, but creating a character who was not a muscle bound superhuman, (which up until Die Hard, was standard issue movie action characterization) but instead, a good cop completely out of his element; making it all up as he goes along.
Director John McTiernan had only helmed two films previously; his own low-budget, self-produced Nomads, and the blockbuster Predator. Silver, famous for taking chances on unproven talent, had believed enough in Nomads to give McTiernan the car keys for Predator. And with that windfall came Die Hard.
When a genre hybrid works (action and comedy, noir and horror, etc.) it seems like a natural “fit,” but there are enough failures to prove that it takes good writing, even handed direction and lots of trial and error for this fusion to succeed. McTiernan was the perfect director for the action, the choreography and the big, explosive set pieces. But it was writer Jeb Stuart and “punch-up” specialist Steven de Souza who infused Willis’ John McClane with solid backstory (a Christmas visit with his estranged wife in hopes to reconcile their personal and geographic rift) and a likable self-effacing attitude that makes the film fire on all pistons.
For the three people who haven’t seen it, Die Hard is about New York City Cop John McClane in LA to visit his successful wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and his kids. He’s to meet her at her office Christmas Party at the towering Nakatomi Plaza. While waiting in her office, changing clothes, the party is taken over by Hans Gruber and his crew of international terrorists. Before long, they have killed Bedelia’s boss and made outrageous demands. Meanwhile, McClane figures out the “terrorists” are really in the building to steal “bearer bonds” from the company vault.
Unbeknownst to the crew, McClane is hiding out in the offices, and soon, using the whole building against them. He gets in contact via two-way radio with a local police officer, an LA version of himself, as well as the limo driver who brought him there, to assist in the takedown. Again, it’s the charm of Willis and his characters’ ability to get other normal “Joes” behind him that makes McClane so empathetic.
A good thriller needs a good villain, and it was the late, great Alan Rickman who so ably nails the devious, crafty Hans Gruber. Die Hard was Rickman’s first film; he had gained attention for his Tony Award winning role on Broadway as Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
One of the film’s most ingenious scenes brings Gruber face to face with McClane, but the two have only communicated over walkie; they don’t know what the other looks like. Seeing his torn and bloody clothes, Gruber immediately realizes he’s in front of the fly in his ointment. But McClane doesn’t know Gruber is Gruber. When producers realized that Rickman could do a “dead-on” American accent, they created this scene, allowing Rickman’s Gruber to effortlessly change his accent so as to gain the upperhand.
The writers also use the story as a chance to satirize the FBI, the CIA and the press; the most unflappable of all whom is arrogant Reporter Richard Thornburg, played by 80s “go to asshole” William Atherton (Real Genius, Ghostbusters). It’s his “digging” that reveals McClane is linked to Bonnie Bedelia (whose character, out of sheer luck, has up until then been able to keep herself anonymous to the thugs by using her maiden name) and going on live TV to reveal their connection. All of these societal mosquitos get their comeuppance, with Thornburg receiving the final insult, when McClane punches him out.
Die Hard’s success, both critical and financial, sealed the fate of the summer actioner. The smart-talking antihero, thrust into a situation beyond control, has been mimicked to equal and lesser effect ever since. For easily 25 years, scripts were pitched and greenlit with the logline of “Die Hard on a Ship” (Steven Segal’s Under Siege), “Die Hard on a Mountain” (Stallone’s Cliffhanger) “Die Hard at the Stanley Cup” (Jean Claude Van Damme’s Sudden Death) and recently “Die Hard in the White House” (Channing Tatum’s White House Down). In fact, White House Down’s plot is almost beat for beat Die Hard, all the way to the hero’s wife-beater.
With each, the protagonist has gotten more and more ripped, the stories more preposterous, and the character, more bulletproof and less believable. Interestingly, even Die Hard’s McClane in subsequent sequels, has lost the normal Joe aesthetic and, in attempts to stay relevant, morphed him into another immortal superhero.
When I first saw Die Hard in 1988, as much as I loved it, I never thought we would be looking back to it with nostalgia, remembering when explosions and violence were less computer generated and plotting less formulaic. It makes one wish the whole genre was re-booted for the umpteenth time, and a new variable (a modern John McClane) was dropped into the equation. Then in another 28 years, will we look back again, remembering when our current thrillers were more reflective of our current sensibilities, and bemoan the state of bloated box-office fare in 2038? If so, I’ll be happy as the old man harping at the grandkids about that creaky old classic Die Hard, the thriller that “started it all.”