Die Hard (1988)

8 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One can praise “Die Hard” for its slam-bang action sequences and its two great performances of two very interesting characters. That’s exactly what I am doing—solid three-and-a-half star rating based on those elements. The action scenes are half routine and half original, so when you put them both together, they’re amazing. And then you have the star of the picture—the hero in action who will go through many lengths to accomplish the impossible. A masterstroke here is that the character is believable as he goes through one situation after another—he’s a New York cop named John McClane who visits a 30-story building in Los Angeles and winds up fighting twelve terrorists who have taken over the whole building and are holding many people (including his wife) hostage. The odds are against John McClane here and as the movie’s poster puts it well, that’s just the way he likes it.

That’s one of the two very interesting characters I mentioned already. The other is the villain. Of course, all of the best action movies have compelling villains and Hans Gruber, the leader of the terrorists, is one of the absolute best. This is a man who is well-dressed, has a neatly-trimmed beard, and is not your typical out-of-control maniac—he’s a somewhat well-behaved German intellectual who has his own delusions of authority. He would like to get his way because he believes this is the right thing to do. He doesn’t call himself a terrorist, though not much is said in the defense of his hired team of gunmen who really are maniacs out for blood. Actually, Hans believes he is superior to these misfits, but seeing as how they are packed with machine guns and explosives, it’s probably smart not to say that to them.

Hans has taken control of the Nakatomi building with a controlled plan of robbing millions of dollars in negotiable bonds from the building vault. The terrorists hold party guests hostage on the party floor, but they overlook John McClane who was invited by his almost-divorced wife, now taken hostage. John hides in one of the higher floors of the building and becomes a one-man army against these terrorists. He sneaks around, gets information, finds a way to inform the police (and the FBI become involved later), and fights as many of the terrorists as they come.

All of this is a ton of fun! The action is very impressive, the stunt work is excellent, and the special effects are first-rate. There are shootouts, chases, close calls, and explosives being thrown down an elevator shaft. But more importantly, the action scenes are never boring. For one reason, it’s because of its technicalities. For another reason, the pacing is excellent. Director John McTiernan has paced this movie very well. And for another, it’s because Bruce Willis, as John, makes a great hero. He has a charming personality with wit and priceless one-liners to burst—we definitely know that when the action stops (and it does, so the action doesn’t go forever). And he has an everyman quality—Willis is so great at making John believable. We root for him as he takes down these terrorists and he holds our attention throughout.

In between the action is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber—mostly, he stands by and makes sure that the plan is not altered. He has his men go after the “fly in the ointment” while he makes sure everything is still under control and negotiates with the police and the FBI, who are mostly as ignorant as can be. We know that Hans is no ordinary terrorist. This is a man who wants to get things done and doesn’t want time to mess around, like the wild animals he sends after John.

Despite all I’ve said, I am not giving “Die Hard” four stars. I apologize, but there is one character who didn’t really work. When you have good supporting performances by Bonnie Bedelia as John’s wife, Reginald VelJohnson as the cop who communicates with John via radio, and William Atherton as a slimy news reporter, there is one really dull character that just doesn’t work. That character is the police chief, played by Paul Gleason. This guy has no purpose in this movie except to say one stupid thing after another. This character is unnecessary and annoying and he almost made me give the movie three stars instead of three-and-a-half.

Put him aside and you have a nearly-perfect action movie. “Die Hard” is fast-paced, well-shot (great camerawork by Jan de Bont), wonderfully-acted, and intensely action-packed. I really enjoyed it and if the movie had put away that character of the police chief, I would’ve loved it even more.

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