Thirty Years of Dying Hard
Examining one of the most important movies of the 20th century
“Bruce and I grew up watching the same TV shows. Roy Rogers used to say ‘Yippee ki yah, kids.’ So it had to become ‘Yippee ki yah, motherfucker’ in the movie. That line was from me. Whenever you think you’re writing a line that’s going to catch on, it never does. A lot of people, cough, Sylvester Stallone, cough, think they can invent them. The line you think is going to catch on never catches on and the audience decides what is the takeaway line.”
Die Hard just turned 30. Released July 15, 1988, director John McTiernan’s blockbuster would prove to be one of the most iconic and important action movies of all time. The film would reshape the landscape of an entire field of filmmaking, going from genre-defying to genre-defining. Die Hard launched a new era of action movies and a hit franchise (including a possible prequel in the works). However, why is this one film so important? What did Die Hard do to change an industry? Let’s take a look.
Die Hard wasn’t always going to be Die Hard. The movie was initially positioned as a sequel to 1968’s The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra as Detective Joe Leland. Based on Roderick Thorp’s novel of the same name, the neo-noir film was a box office success, making a sequel a real prospect. Thorp did pen a second novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, inspired by a dream he had after watching The Towering Inferno (really). The premise may sound familiar: German terrorists take over the skyscraper headquarters of a prominent business, only to be foiled at every turn by a barefoot cop visiting family in Los Angeles.
When the novel was optioned, it was intended to be a straight sequel. Sinatra, however, turned the role down; he was in his 70s—not exactly action star material. Nothing Lasts Forever was shelved, though rumor has it the project could have been retooled into a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger as a sequel to 1985s Commando. (Co-screenwriter Steven E. de Souza has denied this.) The script bounced from action star to action star, but all—including Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, and Burt Reynolds—declined.
Without a star, what was 20th Century Fox to do? Audiences expected a particular type of hero. The genre was dominated at the time by something closer to Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Figures like Schwarzenegger and Stallone were the norm, which were bulky and bulging golems made of muscle and growly one-liners. When Bruce Willis was suggested, the initial response was tepid.
Willis, by trade, worked comedy—on television. His biggest known role was the sitcom Moonlighting, which would earn him an Emmy and a Golden Globe, but his film career was limited. Before Die Hard launched his action career, Willis had just two features under his belt, Blind Date and Sunset (which earned around $4.5 million worldwide. Total). The casting was almost unheard of, but demographic stats from CinemaScore helped persuade the studio and McTiernan that Willis would be worth the gamble. It was a pretty substantial bet, too: Willis’ paycheck was 5 million dollars, a price unheard of for an actor of his status. His agent changed the business entirely.
“I kept saying to [Fox chief negotiator] Leon Brachman, ‘That’s the number.’ He’d come back with three [million] or two and a half [million]. Bruce, to his credit, asked me what I thought. I said, ‘Here’s the reality. You don’t have the money, so you can’t spend it, so you’re not out the money if you never had it. If we get it, you’re the highest paid actor in the world. If you don’t get it, you’ve got enough money to go to Hawaii on hiatus and no one will ever know the difference.’ There was a seminal moment where there was a number on the table. There were people who thought he should take it, and they got their chance to voice their opinions. Bruce asked me mine. I just said, ‘Look, I’m not going to tell you I know for a fact we’re going to get it. It’s a risk.’ He said, ‘Go for it.'”
—Arnold Rifkin, Die Hard: An Oral History
“He got the astonishing sum of $5 million, which made everybody’s salaries in Hollywood [increase] the next day. Literally, the next day Richard Gere said, ‘How did this guy get $5 million, which is more than I got from my last picture and I’ve been nominated for awards?'”
—Steven E. de Souza, Die Hard: An Oral History
McTiernan, in some ways, was Michael Bay before Michael Bay, but he didn’t exactly have a reputation to write home about either. In fact, the first choice for the project was Paul Verhoeven, but he passed…along with several other directors. McTiernan had exactly two features to his name at that point: the disastrously received Nomad, and the box office smash Predator; one flop, one hit. The director was, at the time, a risky proposition for a film that was already on shaky ground.
McTiernan, though, would change the project dramatically. Still rooted firmly in the novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the story’s villains were terrorists—and terrorists weren’t fun.
“A few days later I said, ‘The central problem here is that terrorism is not entertaining. There’s no fun in this.’ … I asked, ‘Is there a way we could make this a robbery?’ Everybody likes robbers. They’re good bad guys. They’re fun bad guys. There’s a basic change in the dynamic. Terrorism has always been something that makes us all feel sad.”
—John McTiernan, Die Hard: An Oral History
Die Hard, obviously, would go on to be a smash success, leading McTiernan to become one of action’s biggest directors. He’d follow the film with the classic The Hunt For Red October, the underrated/reviled (take your pick) Last Action Hero and Die Hard threequel Die Hard With a Vengeance, but the action streak wouldn’t last forever. Eventually, McTiernan’s career fizzled, likely in part because of legal trouble—the director pleaded guilty to perjury and lying to an FBI investigator after illegally wiretapping a producer’s phone. His last film was 2003s Basic.
A Human Hero
“I was always struck with how potentially fragile McClane was as a guy, and he didn’t want any part of [the action], but he had to do something because his wife was there. It always struck me, the idea of if McClane had been with his wife and it had gone down, he would have probably bailed. You know what I mean? ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ That, to me, is a lot closer to his [essence], before he became superheroic.”
—Joe Carnahan, Director (Narc, Smoking Aces, The Grey)
Willis would turn out to be a perfect fit for the character of John McClane, largely in part because he was an unconventional choice. He wasn’t built like a superhero or a bodybuilder. Instead, he was the Average Joe™.
(Ironically, McTiernan’s Predator came out the year before, starring Schwarzenegger as the exact type of hero Willis’ McClane would ultimately refute.)
McClane was a blue-collar everyman, world-weary and jaded. He wasn’t a steroidal supersoldier sent into the depths of the jungle to fight faceless goons and save the world, but a cop visiting his estranged wife from across the country. John McClane was a far cry from the time’s typical protagonists. He was human.
The fact that McClane, as a character, was so down-to-earth would define the entire film. The stakes were real. Since McClane was so…well…normal, the action became real as well. Every bullet was a threat. The blows McClane endures have real weight; every right hook and every dance with death has real gravity. Crossing a floor of broken glass was more nerve-racking than any movie magic minefield. At the end of the movie, McClane stands bloodied, battered, and exhausted—but triumphant.
A Love Story with Machine Guns
That humanity extends to the story itself. Die Hard isn’t driven by the action, but rather relationships. John McClane didn’t go to Nakatomi Plaza to save the day. He went to save his marriage.
“Die Hard is basically a Shakespearean comedy. I never said ‘Shakespearean comedy’ because that would have scared the fucking pants off of studio guys, but that was what I had in mind. A Midsummer’s Night Dream literally is a festival night when some weird thing happens and all the princes become asses and all the asses become princes. In the morning, the true lovers are united, and everybody returns to their regular lives and feels better for having this event where the world got turned upside down. I wanted to use that as the guiding tone.”
—John McTiernan, Die Hard: An Oral History
The film opens with McClane arriving in Los Angeles from New York to reconnect with his wife, Holly (played by Bonnie Bedelia). He’s dismayed to find Holly has reverted back to her maiden name. McClane’s hurt, confused, and honestly kind of a dick about it. If it weren’t for a band of thieves barging into the office Christmas party, John and Holly may very well have split up for good. However, when the life of the woman he loves is in danger, John becomes his best self.
At the end of the day, Die Hard is about love and family. John doesn’t just wrestle with gun-toting villains, but with his own ego and feelings. Everything he does is driven by emotion, unlike the square-jawed lunkheads of old, content to mow down rows of extras with bullet hoses. Yes, there’s action galore—even an explosion or two—but that’s just icing on a layered cake of a thinking, feeling story. Just one with blood and bullets.
“I love that it starts off with ‘Christmas in Hollis’ by Run-DMC. I can still remember that moment when I was in the theater in Brooklyn and it came blasting through the sound system. The crowd went nuts.”
—Darren Aronofsky, director (Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler)
Sidebar: I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the Christmas movie argument. No matter what Bruce Willis himself may say, Die Hard is, in fact, a Christmas movie. Not just because it takes place at Christmas, but because Die Hard is about a family reconnecting in the direst of situations through a man learning there are people who aren’t him that he has a real effect on; who also affect him more than he realizes. (That’s some It’s a Wonderful Life shit right there.)
A Perfect Villain
“I read it, and I said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.’ Agents and people said: ‘Alan, you don’t understand, this doesn’t happen. You’ve only been in L.A. two days. ‘OK, fine.’ And then I came back and they handed me the new script. So, you know, it just pays to occasionally use a little bit of theater training when you’re doing a movie. It is shocking how thrilling it is to shoot a machine gun, that I discovered.”
Every hero needs a foil, and for John McClane that’s Alan Rickman’s incomparable Hans Gruber. Gruber’s calculating and ruthless, yet it’s all too tempting to root for him. Rickman’s just that charming.
(Die Hard was actually Rickman’s first feature film; he was cast after McTiernan and producer Joel Silver saw him performing on the stage.)
Whereas most genre villains of the day were one-dimensional, inhuman monsters (literally, in Predators‘ case), Gruber had personality and motivation. Rickman steals almost every scene he’s in, delighting in the mayhem, while remaining a real threat. Although, it’s not just Rickman’s performance that makes Gruber such a compelling character, but the fact that he has an actual story—hell, he’s arguably the real protagonist. Flip the film’s perspective, and Die Hard becomes a heist movie where the thieves are continually foiled by one particularly persistent policeman. De Souza puts it best himself:
“Who’s the protagonist of Die Hard? It’s Hans Gruber who plans the robbery. If he had not planned the robbery and put it together, Bruce Willis would have just gone to the party and reconciled or not with his wife.”
—Steven E. de Souza, Die Hard: An Oral History
Redefining a Genre
Die Hard kept itself as grounded as its characters. There’s just one location for the action: Nakatomi Plaza, the towering skyscraper. It’s simple but effective. The script functions like clockwork as McClane makes his way through the building, level by level. Every action has a reaction (taking off his shoes on the plane? Broken glass in the feet!), and McTiernan’s pacing is downright impeccable. This wasn’t just another trip to Vietnam to maul faceless goons—Die Hard was something real.
The success of the film uprooted the entire action genre. Over time, the musclebound behemoth hero slowly died out. Instead, more relatable (at least approachable) heroes and stories began to appear. The epoch of the Übermensch was over. Everyone wanted to be John McClane.
Action movies mimicked Die Hard and its structure; the very mechanics of the genre shifted. Theaters were swamped with “Die Hard on a _____” copycats: Under Siege (Die Hard on a battleship), Speed (Die Hard on a bus), and Air Force One (Die Hard on, well, Air Force One), among others. Hell, Die Hard itself even got in on the action, arguably starting the trend with the sequel, Die Hard 2 (Die Hard in an airport).
The Die Hard franchise would represent the best and the worst of what action had to offer. Die Hard 2 and Die Hard with a Vengeance built on the strengths of the original. Though eventually, the series descended into self-parody, propelling itself into absurdity. The fourth and fifth entries, Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard, turned John McClane into the very hero he was designed to subvert. Hanging dozens of stories in the air from a firehose? Desperate and dangerous. Launching a cop car into a helicopter? Patently ridiculous.
The Modern Action Era
Does Die Hard still define the action film? As evidenced by two of its own sequels, the answer’s no. Studios and audiences alike, for better or worse, have moved on. The action landscape no longer reflects the everyman anymore. The field is dominated by the likes of Vin Diesel’s mealy-mouthed Dom Torreto, the unending pantheon of godlike superheroes from Marvel and DC; and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in literally anything (perhaps we’ve come full circle with unabashed knockoff Skyscraper). There’s a new standard in place.
Still, there’s glimpses of John McClane in genre films, even if he himself is unrecognizable these days. The Average Joe™ still exists. John Krasinski in A Quiet Place was a family man doing his best against a nigh-unstoppable enemy. Even Marvel has Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, a divorced dad who becomes the superhero Ant-Man out of pure desperation (and there’s an argument to be made for Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy). Keanu Reeves’ titular John Wick tears down a world of crime to avenge the death of his dog, for Christ’s sake, but these are the outliers.
Fiction—particularly genre fiction—is constantly evolving. The action film has seen numerous phases of hero: the swashbuckler, exemplified by Errol Flynn; the effortlessly cool, like Sean Connery’s James Bond; the murder machine, like Rambo; the out of place everyman, like dear old John McClane; and now the Adonis reborn, a quip factory with rippling, marbled muscles. How long will the Rock’s tenure as action incarnate last? One might wonder if a film like Die Hard, with an actor like an ’80s era Bruce Willis, would even get greenlit in this modern climate. Probably not, but hey, that probably encapsulates the mythos and genuine adoration that follows this movie thirty years later.