Die Hard is a film that works because it isn’t solely a brainless action film. Oh, it has scenes where the brain isn’t needed, but it has a smart villain and a smart hero, and the interactions between the two — which happen mostly over walkie-talkies — are brilliant. It also takes its time to tie up any loose ends to the plot threads it begins mid-way, which makes it clock in at just over two hours long. I didn’t mind this runtime though, because I was having a really good time.
Our story begins with John McClane (Bruce Willis) on an airplane. He talks to the person sitting beside him, who tells him that the best way to make yourself feel good after a long flight is to take your shoes off and curl up your feet. Of course, this plays a large role later on. John is heading to a Christmas party at his wife’s workplace. Her name is Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), although she’s now using the surname Gennaro, since she and John, a New York City cop, haven’t been living together. They fight just about right when they see one another, although their fighting doesn’t get to last very long.
You see, this is a special building that has a vault on its 30th floor — the same floor that the party is happening on. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his group of “terrorists” decide to crash the party, hold up his new-found hostages, and attempt to break into this safe. John manages to get away from the group, and is now the sole person able to do anything about this situation. He has to figure out how to get the police to help, all while making sure that none of the hostages die. He also has to worry about himself, because he’ll spend most of the next hour and a half being chased around this building. He has to do it barefoot too, because he decided to listen to his airplane neighbor.
Eventually, the cops do get involved, and they get to communicate with John via the radio. Hans can talk with them as well, which means that anything John says can be used against him. He doesn’t want Hans to know that his wife is down there, and as a result, can’t tell the police anything about him personally. His liaison in the force is one Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), a shy cop who is always overshadowed by the Police Chief. In fact, the Police Chief decides to be the contrarian seemingly just to boost his ego, or something like that. Why he acts like such a moron isn’t actually explained, and unfortunately, he never got what was coming to him.
Hans is the most interesting character in Die Hard, even if we don’t get to learn much about him. How he got into this situation, how he planned everything — none of it is explained to us. We get what we see on-screen, and that’s it. We’re okay with that though, because this is an intelligent, witty man that we’re dealing with, and we want to watch him for as long as we can. John McClane is less interesting, although he seems just as smart. He always seems to find himself in precarious situations, and instead of shooting in order to escape, he often has to think his way out. They’re like puzzles, although if he doesn’t solve them in time, he’ll be dead. That is motivation for you.
Of the action scenes, we get a few kinds. We get a bunch of shootouts, filled with machine gun and pistol fire. There are also a couple of fist fights, as well as some explosions. Some of them are inventive, and they’re always entertaining. There isn’t a single dull moment in this film, and that’s important in an action film. Even when the only thing that happens is talking, we’re captivated largely because of Alan Rickman’s performance as Hans Gruber. To call him one of the better villains in action movie history would not require massaging the truth.
I also enjoyed the plot and premise. We start out with a good idea, although the possibilities after that are endless. Anything that you can think of that could happen given the situation could be written into the script, and this means you never run out of things to have happen. I also liked how it ties up all of the plot threads it starts, or, at the very least, it mentions them. Director John McTiernan doesn’t often introduce elements without at least touching on them later on, which is a nice touch in my eyes.
The larger set-pieces are also saved until later in the film. Some films open with a bang, but never manage to achieve the same level of greatness afterward. We open strong here, not with explosions, but with the takeover of the building. Then we’re able to experience bigger and bigger action scenes as the film progresses, while still giving us time to breathe in between. The pacing is another thing to praise here; it isn’t just a film that throws action scene after action scene at you. You get time to get to know the characters, and have them communicate.
Die Hard is an excellent example of how to make an action film. Almost everything works. The plot, premise and execution are all great, the action scenes are inventive and exciting, while the actors do a good job in their roles. The script is sharp, the pacing brilliant, and it all adds up to a great action film that will keep you engaged because it features smart characters. The only thing that needed removing was the awful Police Chief, although that’s a flaw that is easily overlooked. If you haven’t, definitely give this film a watch.