Where I actually start sharing my thoughts on Die Hard.
Last time I wrote in great detail about why I was writing about the movie Die Hard. This time, I will actually do so. There are some prerequisites to reading this.
1: You must have watched Die Hard at least 10 times in your life. If you’re not sure you have, go watch it about three or four more times before reading this. I will assume not only basic knowledge of the plot but intimate knowledge of individual scenes.
2: You should not have strong feelings about Die Hard. Part of the point of this (there’s no point to this) is that Die Hard is a part of my life because I’ve watched it so many times. But I haven’t watched it so many times because I’m some kind of Die Hard Fan Boy. It’s just always been on, and it’s a tremendously easy movie to watch. But also if you dislike Die Hard, this is not for you either. I may be scathingly critical at times, but the underlying respect for Die Hard as a seminal action movie of my lifetime is assumed.
3: Don't look for a point.
That’s it. I might think of more later. Here goes:
Die Hard begins with John McClane landing at LAX. He doesn’t like flying and his work-a-day businessman seat-mate says what works for him is when he gets where he's going, he takes off his shoes and sort of hugs the floor with his feet. This is the incomprehensible and yet genius setup to why Bruce Willis runs around the Nakatomi building killing bad guys in bare feet. It is these nuggets of genius you appreciate.
So John deplanes, leering at a stewardess and then at a bubbly young blonde at the airport before he meets his adorable limo driver Argyle. As man-of-the-people John sits up front in the limo, Argyle gamely gets us a good two years worth of exposition in the car-ride to Nakatomi plaza. John is there to retrieve his far-too-successful-for-her-own-good wife. Game on. In maybe the first iffy plot point, Argyle out of the blue offers to stay in the basement of the building to wait to see if John can convince the wayward wife to let him stay at her place. John’s got a driver and that’s a start.
The arrival at Nakatomi and pre-hostage sequence is thin, but we learn some things. First, Nakatomi corporation has their Christmas party on Christmas eve. I figure the implication here is that their Godless Japanese overlords don’t recognize Christmas anyway so it’s a regular workday until it’s party time (also, I think the other implication is no one in Los Angeles has family or cares about Jesus). Anyway, Holly and her assistant are still working as the party starts. Holly, we learn, is a successful businesswoman even though she’s only a woman. It’s 1988 and this is amazing. Okay, I’m being mean to the all male team who brought us Die Hard as they really were trying here. Holly doesn’t really do anything but be a hostage the whole movie, but she has some good lines and is given opportunities to display some personality. (and yes, I had a MILF crush on Bonnie Bedilia when it first came out—we ALL did)
We also learn Holly is no longer using her married name. This is a great affront to John and we are meant to take it hard. John has apparently made mistakes in not supporting his wife enough, but he feels badly about that (shouldn't that be enough). We know this because he says it OUTLOUD TO HIMSELF. This is another great early setup. That John is a talker to himself is profoundly useful in a movie where he is by himself almost the whole time that he’s not killing pretend-terrorists. And the fact that Holly and John end their sequence in a fairly bitter fight extends the “will they or won’t they re-unite” tension throughout the movie.
The fun begins of course when the bad guys arrive. It hardly needs to be said that Hans is one of the all time great movie villains. (if you care to list other better villains in the comments please do so). And while his cast of fellow-villains aren’t required to act, they live up to their archetypes. In particular Alexander Godunov’s flowing hair is a piece of genius casting. Alexander Godunov was a Russian ballet dancer who defected to the US to make great high art with Michael Barishnikov. And yet he will be forever known for scowling through Nakatomi plaza trying to get revenge for the death of his pajama-wearing brother. His 2nd most famous role is a great counterpoint, as the Amish wooer of Kelly McGillis who is outshined by Harrison Ford in Witness. (maybe he gets the girl in the end!)
The bad guys in Die Hard are mainly German because as we all know Germans make good bad guys. Not just because, you know, Nazis. Die Hard has no beef with their German-ness. But the German language sounds a lot scarier when bad guys are arguing about how to execute their bad guy plan, than say, Italian. If they were Italians however nasty the scheming really was, to us Americans it would sound like they’re arguing over how much garlic should be in a tomato sauce.
So they’re German and they are played by actors who can carry off a German accent well enough to convince American actors they are German. Low bar there. But the pseudo German robbers also have room for a non-threatening African American techie, a threateningly hairy Asian guy, and a midwestern white dude who looks like Huey Lewis to man the door (I had to go to IMDB to confirm that he wasn’t actually Huey Lewis).
When John pulls the fire alarm, we have our first experience of how the authorities unaccountably discount everything going on at Yakatomi plaza throughout the movie. That Huey Lewis gets the fire department to turn around quickly makes sense. But when John uses his walkie talkie to tell the cops directly about this major hostage situation going on, the dispatcher’s position is pure disbelief. Now I would think police dispatchers have to retain a certain level of skepticism, but this dispatcher is unmoved by John’s story even as she hears gunshots behind him that are loud and close enough to make her say “ouch” and rip off her headset. She grudgingly sends a cop to do a driveby.
This leads us into the core of the movie, the walkie-talkie bro-mance between John and the twinkie-eating Al. Al responds to the dispatch call despite the fact that he is no longer a street cop, but a paperwork cop. Now we will learn that Al is a paperwork cop because he once shot a kid, so doesn’t feel like he can shoot his gun again. But despite his lack of being a real cop anymore, he decides to go to Nakatomi, because it’s really close to the mini-mart where he buys his Twinkies.
One of the wonders of the movie is that when the shit hits the fan and the LAPD knows the tower is filled with bad guys with explosives, they let Al maintain the only contact with the building. There are no hostage negotiators in Die Hard. There is just Al and incompetent senior officials. The first of whom is none other than Dick, the vice-principle from the Breakfast Club. More genius casting. Now the vice principle oversees an ill-fated attempt to penetrate Nakatomi, which John himself actually refers to as “macho bullshit.” (John knows macho bullshit when he sees it). So then the bad guys gleefully blow up the LAPD tank.
Now this is one of a few times where the expected audience response is a little fucked up if you think about it (if you’re response to this is “it’s Die Hard, you don’t think about it” you are of course right, but why are you still reading?). My take is that we are given tacit approval to enjoy the blowing up of the tank.
People like to see explosions in movies. Explosions are cool. And if decent or well-meaning people are dying or being badly injured in the explosions, that can hamper the fun. But Dick the vice principle and the nameless SWAT guy send in the tank (and refuse to pull it back) because they are macho assholes. And the tank is an extension of them. We know Hans has control of the fortress. We know he’s ready for this kind of ill-conceived attack. And so it’s gratifying to see it fail because we know that no one can take out these bad guys besides John McClane. Hans even blows up the tank twice for good measure. And yet somehow the LAPD tank guys seem to escape and are in serious pain but alive, so no harm done by us enjoying watching them being blown up. Phew.
We'll going to stop here. The LAPD tank being blown up is part of what triggers the arrival of the Feds. And if we dislike local cop authority figures, you can imagine what we think of Feds. Watching Hans outsmart Feds will only make it that much sweeter when John finally outsmarts Hans.
Which we will get to in our third and final (I promise) installment.