On John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988).

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by Jacqueline Valencia

“Walk around on the carpet barefoot and make fists with your toes.”

I read a character analysis of Hans Gruber a long time ago when I first saw the film. I was doing a fan search and ended up on an article on him. It was an incredibly well written piece and the author went to great lengths to convince their readers that  Hans wasn’t so much a villain, but an anti-hero with different motivations than John McClane’s. I don’t know if I understood it too well then or if the author convinced me, however, I do know that I’d wished I had saved the article because it spins in the back of my head when I do character profiles. One day I’ll find it again.

Since there are so many think pieces and tributes to the John McTiernan‘s Die Hard, I’ll keep this write up a bit more on the “how I see it” sides of things. You can’t really have a holiday film debate without mentioning Die Hard. I bring up that film almost as much as Conan the Barbarian because it’s one of my holiday films of choice, and it’s a very entertaining film. It is good action escapist fare, and while critics debate the rise of  Vulgar Auteurism as a new film term, it definitely stands as a starting point for that sort of genre film. ** But let’s get to it, DIE HARD:

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a cop who’s estranged from his wife and kids. He travels a long way to California to meet up with them over the holidays. His wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is second in power at the offices of the Nakatomi Corporation. Soon the couple will reunite, however, all hell is about to break loose as Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his band of merry henchmen barge in to take over the building and their lives in the ultimate hostage taking heist.

How the holidays feature in the film: John carries a huge teddy bear as a gift on the plane. Holiday cheer, drunken co-workers, and general office debauchery runs through the Nakatomi Plaza foyer. Christmas feels like a lonely season for Holly and John who hope to reconnect, yet butt heads instead. John belittles himself for not choosing his words thoughtfully with Holly during a confrontation. It’s the familiar holiday spat over the dinner table, but this time it’s set in an 80s futuristic office, the epitome of top status within a corporation.

Isolation is key in engaging a holiday audience. Holly and John are two lonely people. In the plane, John seems claustrophobic in his surroundings. It could be that or the situation that awaits him upon his arrival. In the airport, John watches an overenthusiastic couple embrace as he searches for a familiar face among the crowd. In the limo, John sits uncomfortably as Argyle (De’voreaux White) tries hard to make conversation with him. On the other hand, Holly sits alone in her huge office space. She’s dwarfed by her surroundings and although she pays little attention to her co-worker’s advances, they still create a strain for her. She is made smaller by her situation at work while still holding great agency with her position within the company.

DieHard-BonnieBedelia

During the holidays one of the things that permeates the depressing part of the season is that sense of otherness. The sight of others embracing makes alienation supraliminal. That feeling of climbing the walls is everywhere: in the schmaltzy advertisements and in the family get togethers you must attend. Christmas can also be a cold season for those that work throughout it. Bigger than life decisions hover our needs to be in the present, thus we build barriers to help us get by. While we might find family to be claustrophobic, there are hints that John feels the same way about his own situation with Holly. Although he loves his kids and his wife, he was rarely ever home because of his job. Holly, in turn, wants a change, but the change has her balancing a job she loves, a home she cares for, but without the partner she wants. The only thing festive about John and Holly reuniting, are scenes of the kids back home waiting with the housekeeper in a warm and inviting space. In some ways, that’s the ephemeral connection the holidays try to enforce on everyone.

Hence the contrasting views of isolating space versus confining situations connects with a great reach of viewers during Christmas; either you’re out of the crowd or within. Wherever you are, you can’t escape the madness.

The action: Die Hard is a film of perpetual action. The constant movement of characters travelling from small spaces to gigantic spaces can be overwhelming, however, McTiernan’s camera techniques cleverly pull off a moving grounding effect. The movement doesn’t stop until the zero point, where change suspends time to create tension and thrills. These zero points become sign posts for the continual displacement of the main characters.

McClane explores the tower—called Nakatomi Plaza—via elevator shafts and air ducts, crashing through windows from the outside-in and shooting open the locks of rooftop doorways. If there is not a corridor, he makes one; if there is not an opening, there will be soon. 

The majority of that film’s interest, I’d suggest, comes precisely through its depiction of architectural space: John McClane, a New York cop on his Christmas vacation, moves through a Los Angeles high-rise in basically every conceivable way but passing through its doors and hallways. – Geoff Manaugh

More on creating space later, but what’s fascinating about the perpetual action in the film, is the camera which acts an emotional drive to the character’s actions. During gunfights, say the scene in the empty computer server room, the camera stays low in classic Dutch angles giving us the feeling of being small among the chaos. No one’s really showing much emotion in these scenes, but the gunfire and the shattering glass that engulfs the frame creates desperation for the audience, placing the viewer in John’s place. When the action stops the camera is raised level shifting it’s gaze from villain to hero. Here we become equal to the non-action, being caught in the tension of the final decision or the impending kaboom.

The overhead shot is used sparingly while low shots are used throughout. This is a technique McTiernan mainly utilizes to cast vertical movement, like a river or a street, giving both a grounding for the constant action, and also a foreshadowing that there is an overflow at the end (a fall), for the audience to look forward to.

(I noticed the same constant flux used in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug in the elves versus orcs scene played out on river rapids. I love that film, however, that scene had me overly on edge. I believe Peter Jackson could have spared me a bit of heart attack if he had added a few zero point parts in there.)

The hero: John is cast as the hero, but he can be awkward, fallible, and has been shown to make mistakes. He’s a great cop since his instincts immediately kick in as the bad guys take over the building. However, he’s vulnerable. There’s no greater key to this than the fact that he is in the middle of gunfights, exploding shards of metal and glass, yet he has no shoes. The other film I noted a situation like this was in Children of Men. Theo is introduced to us as a reluctant hero when he’s running on pure instinct, but without shoes.

Therefore, the strong cop hero (muscles and all), becomes equal to the audience as he’s barefoot in a situation you really need shoes for. If he steps on glass, John will bleed. (I am overdue on analysis on the hero in bare feet phenomena I’ve been noticing as of late.)

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The one liners make our hero clever and cast him as the cowboy (“Yippee Ki Yay“). There are quite a few western inspired conflicts in the film that are reminiscent of westerns. Hans Gruber fighting with wits against John on the phone or face to face with guns, they’re cool versions of Mexican stand offs. McTiernan uses those low shots to show the winner above the fallen, but as soon as a new conflict arises the camera goes back to level with our hero.

Going back to John creating space, our hero becomes a sort of supernatural saviour bending space to his will (do read that article by Manaugh I’ve linked above. It’s an interesting way of thinking of one’s own personal space too – Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for pointing it out). John goes beyond that concept and does what should be the impossible: he takes down several of the very powerful and smart henchmen and manages to damage a highly expensive building. Thinking on it, John saves people, but singlehandedly demolishes a symbol of corporate success: the Nakatomi Plaza. It’s the ultimate little guy versus the big guns and who doesn’t want to root for the little guy?

The bad guys: There isn’t just one Bond villain in Die Hard, but TWO BOND VILLAINS. Andreas Wisniewski (seen below in the infamous Ho Ho Ho shirt), played a great henchman in The Living Daylights, while Robert Davi was a bad guy as well in License to Kill (and both films being Timothy Dalton Bonds), but in Die Hard, he plays a bumbling federal agent. That’s way too much geek excitement for a Bond freak like me.

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I will also add that “the guy who looks like Huey Lewis” henchman played by Dennis Hayden is quite awesome because he does look like Huey Lewis. An evil Huey Lewis (he’s played by the actual Huey Lewis in this hilarious parody, which is on Netflix, I believe): http://ca.ign.com/videos/2011/12/09/die-semi-hard-trailer .

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Hans Gruber is the quintessential bad guy though. He’s suave, sagacious, and clever. Gruber stays cool, calm, and mysteriously clean cut in a suit as blood and gunfire erupts around him. Oh Hans:

That devilishly handsome and sinister smile. He’s also the boss to an unusually close knit band of bad guys. As each of his soldiers falls, the group is visibly shaken and made a bit weaker by the loss. This shows, that although Hans is the leader, they are also a thief collective. By storytelling standards, such loyalty while holding a strong camaraderie is not the norm in villainous film portrayals. The audience empathizes a bit for this group then and when the Ode to Joy wells up in the soundtrack as Hans stands before the open vault, we can’t help but smile in response to his victory.

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Awesome underrated heroine: Holly is successful and the right hand person next to Nakatomi himself. For all the audience is shown, Holly has it all. She an equal to all the players in this film: Holly replaces her boss when he’s shot; Holly is the first one to make demands on Hans; Holly confronts Hans; and Holly ultimately plays a huge part in defeating the villain.

There are times when our heroine is scared, but it’s to be expected when there are guns in her face. However, she fearlessly takes over roles as they come to her. You can almost see the wheels turning in her head as she thinks on and manages to cut off the bad guys before they figure out who she is, delaying them in using her as a pawn in their game. In the end, she’s the one that punches William Atherton‘s nosy reporter character.

(Note: While Atherton basically plays the same hateful character role as he did in Ghostbusters, Paul Gleason plays the same clueless principle-like incarnation here as he did in The Breakfast Club)

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Thus, Die Hard appeases many things in me: the film geek, the feminist, the classic western lover, and the need for Alan Rickman to be everything. Yes, Bruce Willis is quite awesome in it, but he always is. I saw him first in Moonlighting, and although I hated the bickering in that television show, it was always enjoyable to see him cleverly quip his way out of situations. Die Hard is just one of the many films in which he utilizes both smarts and physical prowess to become the everyman hero everyone looks for in an action film.

I think this is the basis of why people love this film as a must see holiday film: John and Holly are what we search to be during the holiday season, potential good guys in possibly bad situations trying to turn them around for the better. Whether the shopping bags and angry shoppers are reminiscent of the bullets in the film, or whether the tension between everyone reminds people of their own confrontations during the holidays, in the end, we want to let go of the bad guy and save the day. We want to be worth saving or be as memorable as the unforgettable Hans.

And maybe we just want to escape explosions that are not of our own making. Goodness knows that in a world where Christmas makes many feel alienated, the very least we can do is unite around the television set or the theatre and sit mindlessly with one another while we grip tight.

Share the popcorn.

It’s all mutual Nakatomi space, really.

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jackie1

** I can’t really comment or go into much detail on vulgar auteurism yet because I’m still parsing the term. However, here are a few arguments and counter arguments (and examples) to digest:

http://www.villagevoice.com/2013-05-22/film/fast-and-furious-vulgar-auteurs/

http://letterboxd.com/hartofcinema/list/essential-vulgar-auteurism/

http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/vulgar-auteurism-contemporary-movie-criticism.php

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2013/06/vulgar-auteurism-history-of-new-wave-cinema.html

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*** Make your own Die Hard Shirt like I did with a sharpie and a dollar store shirt: https://twitter.com/JacqValencia/status/414575384529608704/photo/1

Seriously, ‘Die Hard’ Was A Novel Before It Was A Movie and A Good One

How Commando 2 became Die Hard

The Strange History Of The Die Hard Movies

Turns Out Die Hard And Home Alone Tell The Same Story

A list of SOME (note some) of my favourite Christmas films:

1. Die Hard

2. Polar Express

3. A Christmas Story

4. Black Christmas (1974)

5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

6. Bad Santa (the Citizen Kane of Christmas movies, if you ask me)

7. Elf 

8. The Hudsucker Proxy

9. Santa Claus: The Movie (I LOVE DUDLEY MOORE SHUDDUP)

10. Rare Exports: Christmas Tale

11. Scrooged

Time for egg nog now and running in the snow. HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

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3 thoughts on “On John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988).

  1. Awesome review, Die Hard is my Xmas fave movie too. Last night while channel surfing, I came across it on the Spanish language channel. What a laugh (Ho-Ho-Ho!!!)

  2. Pingback: “Especial 69 joyas de los 80″ – ‘La Jungla de Cristal’ – El hombre en la caja | El Club de los Cinefagos Muertos

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