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Die Hard Is as Brilliantly Engineered as a Machine Gun

If youre not with John McClane, youre an idiot. Isnt that one of the basic lessons of Die Hard? 30 years after the classic Bruce Willis vehicles release, that advice still goes to explain one of the movies enduring pleasures: frustration.

Thats the word that comes to mind when I think back over the countless times Ive watched the office employees of the Nakatomi Building (L.A.s real-life Fox Plaza) fall prey to the wily manipulations of Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his sharp-jawed, trigger-happy cronies, none of whom seem overly smart. It accounts for the constant fuck-ups of everyone else in the movie, too: the police-phone operators who dont take McClanes warnings seriously, the dumb hubris of Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), the sleazy overconfidence of Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), the obliviousness of McClanes hilarious limo driver, Argyle (Devoreaux White).

Theres only one absolute villain in Die Hard, and thats Gruber, abetted by his team of tall, German, machine-gunning fellow terrorists. Yet watching the movie, I always find myself angrier at everyone else. Die Hard is so sleekly engineered to get you on John McClanes side—so successful at assuring you that hes the good guy doing the right thing, no matter how clear it is that hes also, technically, a cop gone rogue—that it goads you into hating any character who gets in his way, as if they, too, were the bad guys. Villains, at least, are villains; if theyre trying to stop the hero, theyre doing their job. Whats everyone elses excuse? But never mind. As anyone whos seen the movie knows, these people will get their due.

Its hard not to be impressed by how persistently satisfying the movie is. No matter how many times I watch it or how well I know the plot beats, each time it begins, its like my mind gets wiped clean, and Im surprised anew by every pivot in the story, by the way the movies deceptively simple setup steadily grows into a monster of a premise, full of complicated relationships—some of them, like that of McClane and Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), McClanes one ally in the L.A. police force, between people who were otherwise complete strangers.

Thats in part thanks to great writing—Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, adapting the movie from Roderick Thorps novel Nothing Lasts Forever, managed to fashion a heroic thriller that is both incredibly efficient and, frankly, elegant. Intricate. Thorps novel was, as is by now well-known, the sequel to an earlier 1966 volume titled The Detective, which had been adapted into a Frank Sinatra movie in 1968. Sinatra, by contract, had first dibs on the role of McClane in Die Hard. He was 70 at the time. Can you imagine? “Yippee-ki-yay” by way of “Fly Me to the Moon!”

Willis got the role instead, of course, and one measure of the movies success is that his undershirt and machine-gun swagger has so thoroughly invaded the pop consciousness—to say nothing of the genre of American action movies or Williss subsequent career—that we forget just what an unpopular choice this was at the time. As Jason Bailey of Vulture recently reminded us, Williss $5 million paycheck was a big deal—specifically for a guy who, to that point, was primarily known as a TV actor, at a time when television and film acting werent so fluid as they are today.

No one now would dispute what a genius move it was to cast Willis, whos always been valuable, as an action hero, for his constant griping—he wears his frustration on his sleeve. How much time do we spend watching McClane watch those around him dropping the ball, or second-guessing himself (“Why the fuck didnt you stop them, John? Cuz then youd be dead, too, asshole!”)? When he has to act, McClane is sharp, quick on his feet. Give him downtime, or put his life in the hands of someone else, and you can see him seething with impatience.

Willis on set with cinematographer Jan De Bont and director John McTiernan.

From 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

Williss performance is the perfect mix of he-man brawn, confounded frustration, sex appeal (no one ever did more for sleeveless undershirts—not even Stallone), and deadpan comebacks. When the body of one of the terrorists emerges bullet-ridden and wearing a Santa hat, with Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho written across the guys chest, you have to laugh. John McClane is seemingly everything an action movie needs: a hero, but human, with a sense of humor borne of working the hard, gritty, no-nonsense New York streets of movie myth.

Its still such a funny idea—a New York cop in L.A. A meaningful distinction, somehow, but to what end? It reminds you that, for McClane, being a cop is apparently more than a job. Its an all-consuming obligation—which is why his relationship with his wife, Holly Gennaro McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), is on the rocks. A conflict that comes up a lot in cop shows and movies is the question of jurisdiction—and McClane is way, way out of his. As asshole exec Harry Ellis says, “His job is 3,000 miles away.”

No, Harry—you just dont know John McClane. But the rest of us do. And even as time spins forward, and our public attitudes toward rogue cops, terrorists, and every other archetype in action movies like Die Hard has changed, this movie still floats, carefree and unbothered, above the fray, satisfying and somehow beyond reproach. The movie limns its potentially knotty politics (just who are these terrorists, anyway?) so smoothly that you half forget theyre there—a lesson action movies have learned only too faithfully. Against our better judgement, we will stan a morally righteous rogue cop who breaks the rules only to uphold them. When one of Grubers henchmen wisely points out that McClane, being a cop, cant hurt him because “there are rules for policemen,” McClane says, “Yeah? So my captain keeps telling me.” That I can love that line—that I can love that disregard for what we typically consider to be true justice—spells out the keen difference between real life and the movies.

In his directors commentary on the films 2002 special edition DVD, John McTiernan says, “My principle concern going into this was that it was a story that concerned terrorists, and terrorist movies are usually mean, filled with all sorts of mean, nasty acts. And I didnt say yes to this project until we figured out some ways to put, in essence, some joy in it.” Somehow—even as, to name just one example, the Nakatomi Corporations head exec, Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi (James Shigeta) gets shot in the head so mercilessly that his brains splatter in meaty chunks across his office window—what McTiernan says rings true. The movie is violent, but not crass; its got political-terrorist villains, but it isnt political. There is, as McTiernan says, literal joy in it: the action-movie music peppered throughout the film has more than one variation of Beethovens “Ode to Joy.”

“A number of decisions that show up over and over again,” says McTiernan on the commentary track, “were all on that basic theme of: how do we take the meanness out of a terrorist story and turn it into something that is essentially summer entertainment?”

Maybe thats why Die Hard is still so fun: it was engineered to be. Everything about it thatd be displeasurable was neatly excised from the movie. I've grown to be pretty cynical, but after all these years, even as I know better, the movie's infinite pleasures—it's thrilling sense of perfection—still defeat me.

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