“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs….”
Christmas Eve: A group of terrorists seize control of a 40-story office building in downtown Los Angeles. They’ve taken hostages, they’re well-armed, and they’re dug in like ticks. The local police and even the FBI seem powerless to stop the terrorists, or even to figure out what it is they want.
The only hitch in the terrorists’ plan? One off-duty cop, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Oh. Hell. Yeah.
Thirty years ago today, moviegoers were introduced to John McClane, a New York cop who’s in L.A. to visit his estranged wife and their kids for Christmas. Things are supposed to be low-key, right? McClane meets his wife at her office within the impressive Nakatomi Plaza, after which they’ll drive to her house and enjoy all the various yuletide traditions and so on and so forth.
Of course, everything goes completely to shit, which is why we end up having a movie.
Released on July 15th, 1988, Die Hard remains a benchmark for action movies, redefining the whole “one man against a bunch of bad guys” trope into its own subgenre of films. Masterfully directed by John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October), the movie presents nothing less than a clinic on how to lay out a perfectly paced, well-plotted and well-acted action thriller. It has been endlessly imitated, parodied, homaged and just flat out ripped off. To this day, similar projects of every sort often are pitched as being some variation of “It’s Die Hard on/in a ________.”
Speed? “Die Hard on a bus.”
Under Siege? “Die Hard on a battleship.”
Paul Blart: Mall Cop? “Die Hard in a shopping mall, but not as funny.”
As for the actual film? It elevated its star, Bruce Willis, to A-List action hero status where he has — more or less — remained since then. Willis does a fantastic job selling us on McClane, the wise-cracking, acerbic cop who’s in way over his head, facing off against the smooth stylings of the late Alan Rickman’s delicious turn as Hans Gruber, supposed terrorist with a secret agenda. Indeed, the whole cast is superb from Willis and Rickman on down, including solid performances by Reginald VelJohnson as LAPD Sergeant Al Powell and Paul Gleason playing yet another in a string of dickhead authority figures with his singular aplomb. But it’s Willis and the very much missed Rickman who carry the load here, pitting sarcasm against sophistication in a battle of wills for all the marbles.
Based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard might well have ended up being a sequel to the 1968 film The Detective, itself based on another Thorp novel and starring Frank Sinatra. When ol’ Blue Eyes declined the opportunity to reprise his role from that movie, the idea next was reworked into a possible sequel to the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Commando. After Arnie passed, the idea then was modified again, becoming a standalone story but still retaining much of the plot from Nothing Lasts Forever.
The film did huge bank in the summer of 1988, earning nearly $150 million after a $28 million budget. A sequel was inevitable, and Hollywood didn’t disappoint, with Die Hard (so far) eventually spawning four sequels. Though each successive film has its own things going for it, all of them fail in varying degrees to match the quality and unfettered — dare I say it — fun of the original:
Die Hard 2 (Die Harder), 1990, based on the 1987 novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager
Die Hard With A Vengeance, 1995, adapted from the unproduced screenplay Simon Says by Jonathan Hensleigh
Live Free or Die Hard, 2007, inspired by the Wired magazine article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin
A Good Day to Die Hard, 2013, written by Skip Woods
Only Die Hard With A Vengeance really comes close, owed perhaps in no small part to John McTiernan once again occupying the director’s chair. Will there be another one? Hard to say. Though critics ripped the latest entry in the series without mercy, it still did major box office business. There have been rumblings about a potential sixth installment, and even the dreaded “r word*,” but so far those seem to be nothing but rumors.
In the meantime, we still have the first — and the best — Die Hard, who still looks mighty fine at 30.
“Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!”
(* = reboot, yo)