If you’ve been following my writing for a while, you might remember a series of articles I did at Film School Rejects called I Have Never Seen… It was all about how I grew up in a household without cable and very few VHS tapes (I spent most of my time playing video games or reading books instead) and so I had never seen a ton of cult classics, or even regular classics, that bunches of other people my age (I’m 33) had seen.
It started with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I hadn’t seen at that point. In fact, I wanted the series to be called I Have Never Seen Indiana Jones, because that was the one that seemed to surprise people the most. However, the editors at FSR made the wise decision to shorten the title and not make it too confusing, like I’d be reviewing an Indiana Jones movie every week.
I watched Raiders (and 16 other movies) with fresh eyes, then recorded my thoughts about them. I discovered some pretty great films, like Robocop, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Tron. I also found some films that I just plain didn’t understand the love for, like Hocus Pocus and Monster Squad. (And that’s coming from someone who loves horror and the paranormal.)
I enjoyed writing them, but they weren’t huge traffic makers, so we moved away from them to work on other things instead, which was plenty of fun, don’t get me wrong, but I also missed watching movies I should have watched ages ago.
So, I’ve decided to bring it back now that I’m finished with my short horror story collection Other Gods (only $.99 until January 1!) and I thought the perfect way to do that would be by experiencing what a lot of people do every year: Watching Die Hard on Christmas Eve. (Even better: Amazon had a deal for $.99 rentals last week!)
Die Hard was one of the big action series I hadn’t watched, just like Indiana Jones when I originally started doing these, so it felt like a logical point to pick things back up, least of all because it takes place on Christmas Eve.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not a big fan of action movies. Every once in a while, one will come along that I like, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, which I watched three times in the theater, or Aliens. You may notice that those are also both sci-fi themed action films instead of traditional action movies. That should probably be pretty telling. I typically need another genre to mix in with my action for me to be interested.
So, I wasn’t sure what to think of Die Hard before I sat down to watch it. I had heard people declaring it “the best action movie ever” (and often the best Christmas movie as well). But that’s like saying a burger joint is great to someone who doesn’t eat red meat.
Late in the evening on December 24, I started the film. There’s a lot to like, right from the beginning. Bruce Willis is affable and relatable, not the typical musclebound action hero of the 80s. He’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, like he can’t believe the shit that’s going on either.
And Al Powell isn’t your typical 80s sidekick. He’s not a badass, he’s a guy who fucked up once and has been living with it ever since. He’s a desk jockey and technically shouldn’t even be there. But he understands McClane and the nature of the job far better than any of his fellow LAPD officers. Also, he gets a nice little redemption arc at the end, which was pretty great.
On that note, it’s a bit surprising for an 80s movie that there are four major roles played by black actors. There are also several Asian actors, though I’d describe only Takagi as a “major” character and he dies like half an hour into the movie. Still, I remember action movies of my youth being made up pretty much entirely of enormous white guys, so not bad at all!
And while plenty of 80s action films had “humor“, John McClane’s banter (in many cases with no one but himself) is legitimately funny and endearing. It actually surprised me a lot to learn after watching that they didn’t hammer out McClane’s personality until halfway through the shoot, because he seemed like a really well-built character from the beginning.
I was also surprised to find out just how close the film is to the original book. Sure, there are some differences here and there, but much of the plot, most of the characters, and even several big action sequences are straight from Nothing Lasts Forever. I think it says a lot about the filmmakers that they adapted it so well and cleaned up some of the book’s rough edges as well.
One thing I found odd was that the attitude of the story was very late 70s (when the book was written) and exceptionally late 80s. You have an American protagonist who is just a regular, street smart cop. He’s fighting German adversaries (many of them blond). They’re intimidating Japanese men and trying to get them to follow their whims (more on that in a minute). If no one’s done a thinkpiece about how Die Hard is some sort of bizarre allegory about World War II, someone should really get on that.
I also want to take a quick moment to note that Alan Rickman’s German accent is total bullshit. His American accent is pretty good, though! It’s weird that the filmmakers wrote scenes to showcase that, but didn’t even bother with his awful German accent.
The Japanese businessmen stereotype that the film plays on is very interesting. Japanese tech companies were a huge deal in the 80s, and America, which was at the height of a very pro-capitalism period, had a sort of respect for that. It’s where that whole “Japanese businessmen work super hard” meme started, and Hollywood ate it up on many occasions, though at least it’s played in a non-comical manner here.
I noticed an undercurrent of the film thumbing its nose at white collar culture and west coast elitism, too. The Nakatomi Corporation is filled with people drinking, openly doing drugs, and sneaking away from the company Christmas party to have affairs. Most of the employees, and the cops and FBI, are kinda dipshits, especially Harry and the police chief. And let’s not forget William “Dickless” Atherton as the snobby TV news guy who ends up getting punched in the face for being reckless with his reporting. Take that, first amendment!
John McClane, however, is a cowboy from the mean streets of New York. His wife ran away to join these liberal wackos and he wants to bring her back. He’s more of a blue collar kind of guy. He knows a drug user when he sees one. He can handle himself against “terrorists” when no one else in the entirety of Los Angeles can (or so it seems).
I also thought Gruber’s plan was pretty overly complicated, but it was also smart and never seemed too silly, so I rolled with it. In the book, the Germans were just regular terrorists and not thieves, but director John McTiernan opted to switch things up since he thought terrorists were “too mean”. He was Never Forgetting 13 years early! But I assume that’s why their plot was a bit hefty.
Speaking of multiple plots, one thing I really enjoyed was the variety of plot threads from other characters, which created a nice, rich narrative with a lot of moving pieces, but it never got too overwhelming or confusing. Apparently, that was a result of Bruce Willis being busy filming Moonlighting during the day and being crazy tired at night. They decided to bulk up some other characters’ parts, and so you get several mini-arcs where shit gets worse for John without him even knowing it.
I don’t know if I think Die Hard is the best action film ever (I still really like Fury Road) but I did enjoy its depth and great characterization. I don’t think I’ll be one of those people who watches it every Christmas, but it’ll be a good memory to think back on as I keep doing these.
I’ll be back next week (approximately, I haven’t decided on a schedule yet) with something different — a catch-up post where I look at all of the classics I watched in the two year gap since I last wrote one of these.
Feel free to get angry at me for never seeing this before in the comments!