Watching Die Hard today could not be easier. Simply add it to your digital basket and chances are you’ll be watching it in under 24 hours. Or the very same day. In 4K Ultra-HD if you are so set-up.
But, things were different for us UK action junkies who were teenagers when the film was released. First up, as was the fashion of the time, despite a US release date of July 1988, we had to wait until February ’89.
Now it is a BBFC certificate 15 (although DVD extras push it to 18). Back then the film was an 18, meaning another wait for video later in the year and then persuading a parent the film was worth renting. The final hurdle, if you lived in rural Northamptonshire as I did, was that 10 VHS copies of Die Hard had to cater for a town of 10,000 people. Meaning your name went on a waiting list, and classroom banter about this amazing movie became torture while you waited your turn.
Honestly, watching the film was almost as difficult as single-handedly battling a well-trained gang of ex-terrorists and mercenaries intent on executing the heist of the century. In a Los Angeles skyscraper with the very cool name of Nakatomi (actually the then-under construction 20 Century Fox HQ).
But, finally you were watching Die Hard and (even in that terrible pan and scan video version) action movie history was clearly blazing across the screen.
30 years on from original release (or 29 for the UK) Die Hard has embedded itself in pop culture. “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”, it’s potty-mouthed catchphrase, can be used in most situations for an easy laugh (bar funerals and christenings, weddings are fine). Even its TV-friendly version, “Yippee-ki-yay, Kemo Sabe” has a certain ring.
Hell, the film has even become a Christmas staple, complete with a full range of novelty jumpers.
“Die Hard in a…” is also short hand for describing the latest movie trying to bottle its lightning. There have been so many, and it is easy to see why. The plot is elegant simplicity itself: “hero fights bad guys in enclosed space”.
Speed is three Die Hard movies strung together (Die Hard in a Lift/Die Hard on a Bus/Die Hard on a Train). Steven Seagal’s Under Siege is Die Hard on a Boat. Jean Claude Van Damme’s Sudden Death is Die Hard in a Hockey Rink. Wesley Snipes’ Passenger 57 is Die Hard on a Plane, as is Nic Cage’s Con Air and Harrison Ford’s Airforce One.
Speaking of President Die Hards, both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are Die Hard in the Oval Office. Hard Boiled’s final hour is Die Hard in a Hospital (and Empire’s memorable pull-quote “More exciting than a dozen Die Hards” was splashed across Hard Boiled’s poster). Dolph Lundgren’s Command Performance is Die Hard at a Rock Concert. The Raid is Die Hard in a Criminal’s Lair. 12 Rounds 3: Lockdown is Die Hard in a Police Station.
This year we come full circle with Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper, which is Die Hard in a Skyscraper. We’ll allow The Rock this. After all, in a way he is already in Die Hard: Paul Gleason’s ineffective cop is called Dwyane T. Robinson and Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush’s arrogant no-relation FBI agents are both named Johnson.
But, frequently overlooked are Die Hard’s well-written and perfectly cast players. At a time when action heroes were steroidal meatheads (director John McTiernan’s previous film was Predator), Bruce Willis’ John McClane was an everyman (albeit a New York cop everyman).
Bullets, explosions and broken glass don’t slide off him, he is battered and bruised by his encounters. Time is allowed for a scene where a wounded McClane confides to Reginald VelJohnson’s on-the-ground support Sgt. Al Powell that he might not make it out the building alive. Back in the 1980s we believed him.
Chiefly because Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is such a formidable adversary. Famously, this was Rickman’s movie debut. A performance of pragmatic brutality, gleeful malice and dark humour made the actor a star and gifted cinema one of its most quotable baddies.
Part of Gruber’s impact comes from how much plot incident he announces before it arrives. Here was a villain one-step ahead of the cops, with twists and surprises to his fiendish plan.
In a subtle touch, the difference between McClane and Gruber is manifest in their wardrobe. The German villain is immaculate in tailored suits, McClane spends most of the film barefoot in a vest.
Willis was famously low down the list of potential McClanes when the film was casting. In a bizarre quirk of film fate, Frank Sinatra had first dibs on the role. Die Hard is based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was a sequel to his 1966 book The Detective.
Sinatra had starred in an adaptation of The Detective and his contract meant first-look at any sequels. Happily, he passed, as did Stallone, Richard Gere, Don Johnson and Clint Eastwood. Schwarzenegger was similarly uninterested when the script was pitched to him as a Commando sequel. Imagine that movie… and shudder.
Despite being unproven as an action man, Willis was tearing up the small screen in hit TV show Moonlighting and got the gig.
Die Hard also has Moonlighting to thank for the film’s many memorable characters, including Bonnie Bedelia as John’s estranged wife Holly, James Shigeta as Nakatomi CEO Takagi and Hart Bochner as quintessential yuppie douchebag Ellis. Willis shot the film at night while working on the TV show during the day, necessitating the need for meatier supporting characters to carry some of the plot.
This focus on ordinary folk caught up in the mayhem makes Die Hard a canny mix of action film and disaster movie. The Towering Inferno is a clear touch point, but there is a shared lineage with such action adventures as The Poseidon Adventure and the Japanese thriller The Bullet Train (whose premise about a train that will explode if it slows down directly inspired Speed). And with McClane in town to patch things up with his wife Holly, now one of the hostages, it’s a good old-fashioned romance too.
Watching Die Hard thirty years on, most surprising is how time has not dated the action. Nigel Floyd’s contemporaneous Time Out review signed off with “(McTiernan stages) the murderous mayhem and state-of-the-art violence as if he were born with a camera in one hand and a rocket launcher in the other.”
This remains true today. McTiernan knows how to shoot the gunplay in open spaces, the roof of the 39-story building or the vast empty floors, alongside claustrophobic lift shafts and ducts, all for maximum excitement. He despatched the sound team to record firearms on a rifle range to achieve the base wallop of automatic gunfire. He requested weapons in the film be modified to provide a more dramatic muzzle flash when fired. Elsewhere, real helicopter gunships perform tight turns around LA streets without CGI assistance.
Easy to forget now how mind-blowing Willis’ rooftop leap from the exploding building was. Die Hard’s tone is pitched so perfectly that this scene still works even after real life has shown peril in towering buildings to be anything but easy entertainment.
We could wax Die Hard all day. Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza’s script is a textbook show-don’t-tell. Just one example is how quickly they establish McClane as a regular Joe. He flies coach, looks lost at an airport, has never been in a limo, and passes on the champagne at the Nakatomi party after one sip. And he smokes. All the time. Then again, the film is a useful record of how much nicotine imbibing went on back then. As well as nonchalant views on pregnant drinking.
A five-star masterpiece of its genre, Die Hard will always be hugely entertaining and a perfect action film for all the family (provided the kids are aged around 13 or older). Andy Samberg’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine frequently cites it as the best cop movie ever made (and season 3 had a Die Hard-themed episode where the bad guys were disappointingly Canadian). Sequels of varying quality have not dulled its rapier wit or action verve.
So, grab that copy from the shelf (lucky you if you have the 4K), slam it in, grab friends and family, and simply say, “Welcome to the party, pal!” …