There are few movies that truly epitomise a genre. A film that encapsulates the experience of a particular genre archetype and represents it as complete as possible on screen, as succinct a definition a moviegoer could ask for. The horror genre is a particularly challenging one to consider, for me, maybe The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980) or possibly Halloween? (1978), although the latter may fall into the deep pit of subgenre as a slasher, these feature the tropes expected within the niche of their genre. Whilst being able to find a plethora of examples I always experience an internal struggle in narrowing down to just a singular movie. Of the many genre’s on offer it proves subjectivity and a huge amount of quality movies creates difficulty in selecting definitive. However, there is one genre that to many this may not be the case, action movies.
The basics for those who do not already know; Die Hard is a 1988 action film directed by John McTiernan, fresh from the success of Arnold Schwarzenegger testosterone-athon Predator, with writing credits from Steven de Souza and Jeb Stuart. It stars Bruce Willis as John McClane, a New York cop, visiting wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their two children in California on Christmas eve for the holidays in an attempt to repair their recently damaged relationship. He lands at the airport and is ferried by limousine to meet Holly at her employer’s Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza, a huge modern skyscraper, empty other than the 30 or so employees celebrating the festivities. On arriving, John has little time to reconcile with Holly as a group of East German thieves posing as terrorists arrive with the modus operandi to steal $640 million dollars’ worth of bearer bonds stored in the plaza’s high security safe. John escapes capture and begins a one-man fight to bring the group to justice, armed with only his Beretta, sarcasm and now trademarked white vest, he runs barefoot into battle. As the group become aware of McClane’s presence they begin to actively seek him out, resulting in multiple exciting action set pieces.
A significant part of Die Hard’s success and the references to it being the (almost?) perfect action movie lies within its simplicity. We have a relatable ‘everyman’ hero, a strong intelligent and brave supporting character in Bonnie Bedelia’s brilliant Holly and a bad guy that you root for almost as much as the protagonist. The late Alan Rickman (in unbelievably his first big-screen performance) steals the show as the leader of the terrorists, Hans Gruber. Part suave businessman, part ruthless dark-eyed killer, he is fantastic and his performance sits in my personal top three villains of all time. Hans is the straight and serious opposite to McClane’s repartee and once viewers finally see them interact it is incredibly rewarding.
For years Die Hard has been cemented in the pop culture zeitgeist and is often debated as the greatest action movie along with the eternal ‘Christmas Movie’ debate. As a controversial admittance from myself, it may be my favourite movie of all time. At the very least it is interchangeable for such an accolade with only three or four others, as I find it almost impossible to pick just one favourite. So, as most cinephiles will need little further discourse regarding plot, actors and such like I have compiled a small list of things you may not know about Die Hard. Feel free to relax, go barefoot, make fists with your toes and enjoy.
Things you may not know about Die Hard.
- Literary background and Frank Sinatra as John McClane.
Die hard, is based (loosely) on the Roderick Thorpe bestselling Nothing Lasts Forever written in 1979. There are, however, many differences between the novel and its movie counterpart, here are just a handful of the more noticeable examples. Firstly, a collection of lead characters in Thorpe’s books had their names changed for the cinematic version. Joe Leland became John McClane and was also much older than the Bruce Willis portrayal, Hans Gruber was known as Anton ‘Little Tony The Red’ Gruber. The McClane character is attempting to rescue his daughter Stephanie from the building and not his wife Holly, as we see in the movie (in stark contrast to the endings, Joe actually fails to save his daughter and she plummets to her death through a window along with Gruber). The narrative of the written work is set over 3 days and not just one as well as the group attacking the building being eco-terrorists instead of the smartly dressed thieves McTiernan gave us.
As a side note, when pre-production began on Die Hard and casting the picture, the producers had to approach the then 72-year-old Frank Sinatra for the starring role due to his part in The Detective (1968), a movie based upon another of Roderick Thorpe novels of the same name. Due to Fox contracting Sinatra for potential sequels he had to be offered the role again before they could consider a replacement. It is safe to say Die Hard would have been a very different movie if he had agreed.
- Other casting choices.
It is hard to think of anyone other than the extremely talented Alan Rickman in the role of Hans Gruber. However, he was not the first choice to play the suave villain. Jurassic Park (1993) and Event Horizon (1997) star Sam Neil was first considered and approached for the role. It also may be a shock to learn that Bruce Willis was not even on the radar in consideration to star as the main protagonist, in fact, he was literally the last actor they considered. In the hyper-masculine 1980’s action cinema movement, the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood etc were all big news and a seemingly perfect fit for John McClane’s shoes (vest). All were in the running but when all declined or were unavailable, Bruce Willis was approached as the final choice, who at the time had a starring role in sitcom Moonlighting and had little box-office bankability. His agent, Arnold Rifkin, advised he seek a salary of $5 million, an unprecedented amount of money at the time for an actor to receive. Rifkin was aware of how desperate Fox were and saw the opportunity for his client and asked for an enormous fee. Fox agreed and thus began the soaring fees for actors in the latter part of the 1980s.
- Alan Rickman and the fall.
The finale of Die Hard sees Rickman’s Hand Gruber crashing backwards through a window after being shot by John McClane and as he does so grabs Holly. Hanging out the window holding her arm there is a struggle and with John’s help she is freed and Gruber plummets dozens of stories to his death. The look on Rickman’s face as he is released is of total shock. That shock was genuine. After McTiernan rigged a set piece to incorporate a 30 foot ‘safe drop’ for the English star he promised to let him go on the count of three. Rickman, who was scared of heights was dropped unaware at the count of 2 and the shock on his face is perfectly fitting with his characters defeat and the actors real fear.
- The terrorists were German, but not really.
In the original theatrical release of Die Hard the German terrorist/thieves talk in their native language throughout a majority of the movie. Except, the language they use is not German but instead a fictional gibberish made to sound as much like German as possible. There were a few scenes that had German-language accurately spoken, the ‘shoot the glass’ scene for example, albeit it was still not 100% accurate. In following releases this was dubbed and had the correct language overlaid for authenticity.
- Alan Rickman injured his knee on set.
Two thirds of the way into the movie John McClane and Hans Gruber stumble upon one another as Hans is checking the explosives on the upper floors of the building. As Alan Rickman jumps down to face Willis he lands awkwardly and badly hurts his knee. Following the cut from his close up, he completes the remainder of the scene, in which he adopts an ‘American’ accent in order to fool McClane, standing on one leg due to the pain. The subsequent visit to the Accident and Emergency department spent the remainder of the shooting schedule on crutches with a leg brace, fortunately comprising of only a few remaining scenes.
Die Hard has become incredibly influential over the years since its release and could arguably be branded the definitive of its genre. Critics refer often to the movies that attempt to achieve the same level of excellence following its formula, referring to movies with the ‘Die Hard in a..’ moniker, Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege, 1992), Die Hard on a mountain (Cliffhanger, 1993), Die Hard in the White House (White House Down, 2013) and the list goes on. But at the heart of it, Die Hard is just a great, simple and brilliantly executed dose of fun. Well shot, well-acted, well written, great sound design and production it is such a complete and rounded piece of action cinema.
What then, of the endless and yearly debated Christmas movie status? As discussed on the December 2018 Empire magazine podcast the hosts revealed McTiernan, de Souza and Stuart admitting, despite Bruce Willis himself announcing that Die Hard is ‘not a Christmas movie but a fucking Bruce Willis movie’ on his episode of Comedy Central’s Roast TV show, that it most definitely is a Christmas movie. There you have it, so when the inevitable broadcast of Die Hard shows this yuletide season, crack open the eggnog and enjoy ‘Die Hard; How the Gruber Tried to Steal Christmas’.
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