Before we get things started today, some links to get to. Norma did a Snippet Sunday post at her blog. And check out our joint blog for a Snippet Sunday post. Today, however, it's time for a movie review....
Some people look to White Christmas, Miracle On 38th Street, or It’s A Wonderful Life as their ideal Christmas movie. Some watch A Christmas Story. I never have seen that one, actually. I see ads for it in the television listings each year, and that kid with the glasses staring back at me leaves me feeling like strangling him (sorry, Ralphie, but it’s true). Some must watch a Peanuts holiday special. Me? My Christmas viewings tend to go in other directions. I rather prefer something like Denis Leary breaking into a house on Christmas Eve and taking Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis hostage in The Ref. It speaks to my skewed sense of humour. But if you ask me what my favourite Christmas movie is, it must be Die Hard.
"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..." ~ John McClane
"You have me at a loss. You know my name, but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?" ~ Hans Gruber
"I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I can handle this Eurotrash." ~ Harry Ellis
"After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief." ~ Holly McClane
"We are both professionals. This is personal." ~ Karl
At the time this film was released, movie heroes were all too invincible. We had Schwarzenegger taking on entire platoons of enemies seemingly without getting scratched. Stallone was doing the same in the Rambo series, making war, taking no prisoners. So this film gives us something different in the form of John McClane, a man who bleeds, suffers, and is all too human, in his first outing in what would become a series. Based on a novel by Roderick Thorpe, Die Hard adapts the book to give us a New York cop (Bruce Willis) coming into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to see his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their children. Holly has been out on the west coast for awhile working as an executive, and there’s friction in the marriage. John meets some of her co-workers at the Nakatomi tower, including her boss Joseph Takaki (James Shigeta), a sympathetic man, and another executive, Ellis (Hart Bochner), a sleazy coke snorting weasel. His reunion with Holly is strained and uneasy... and he’s all on his own for a few minutes when something very bad happens.
Enter the other part of the equation. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and a team of mostly German terrorists arrive at the tower and quickly take control of the building before heading upstairs and taking hostages in the company party. McClane manages to evade them, heading away into other unoccupied parts of the tower to assess the situation, armed only with a service pistol and unfortunately leaving his shoes and socks behind. Gruber has come for a very specific reason- the millions in bonds in the corporate vault- despite his past in radical terrorist groups, he likes to think of himself as an exceptional thief. And he has no problem in showing people around him that he means business.
Thus McClane is left in the tower to deal with the crisis alone, his wife among the hostages, at odds with the terrorist group inside and the stubbornness of the deputy police chief outside (Paul Gleason), a dimwit who refuses to listen to anything McClane has to say. His chief ally outside is a sergeant, Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), a man who quickly becomes a friend. Their conversations by CB radio (this in an age before cell phones) gives the film so much of its humanity. The odds are stacked against him, and he’s up against a formidable enemy with his wits, his smart aleck mouth, and a handy way of shooting people in his favour.
Director John McTiernan took the screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven DeSouza and crafted a masterpiece action film from the results. He filmed much of the action in and around the corporate headquarters of 20th Century Fox, creating tense and exciting setpieces along the way. Most of the action is set at night, and the story features a variety of spaces- some of the floors being unfinished, it meant the sets were in a state of uncompleted construction, whereas others featured glass cubicles, elaborate furnishings, computers, and much more. It gives a variety of situations, lighting opportunities, and scenarios for characters to interact, either as a conversation or in a running gunfight. McTiernan assembled a crew that paid attention to the details to give us a sense of tension in so many scenes, and his cinematographers always manage to let the viewer keep track of the action- there’s no sense of what we see too often today in action films- shaky cam effects or rapid edits that just grate on the nerves. We’re always aware of where we are in the story and what’s happening.
The action sequences in the film have justifiably made this one considered one of the best action thrillers ever made; they are elaborate and feel dangerous, and as such work beautifully. He also makes certain to ground the film in the performances of the actors, each of whom brings their own qualities to their roles. Lastly, among the crew, I should make mention of composer Michael Kamen, whose work could be glorious at times, but also derivative of his other works (listen to Lethal Weapon, for instance, and there are times you’re hearing elements of his score for License to Kill). Here he composes music that is as tense and nerve wracking as the film itself. He tends to weave in Beethoven’s Ode To Joy into his score in different places, giving the film a mischevious air, used most effectively when Gruber and his people breach the vault, soaring to a glorious crescendo that actually leaves you, for a moment, rooting for Hans.
It’s the actors that do such fine work creating these characters. Gleason is stubborn and inflexible as Deputy Chief Robinson, a loudmouthed blowhard who thinks he’s in charge of the situation from outside and quickly finds out that’s not the case. He’s unable to appreciate the fact that he actually has an asset inside, and spends much of the movie going out of his way to alienate the one man who can make a difference. He’s not that bright a guy- though he does have moments of comprehension, particularly when two Feds (both named Johnson, no relation) take over things and go all gung ho. William Atherton shows up as a sleazy (that’s an understatement) journalist who’ll do anything for a story, eager to get promoted to network jobs. We quickly see him for the weasel that he is. Hart Bochner is a complete sleazeball in this film (he does tend to play those roles), and he plays that element of his character to the hilt, an operator who thinks he’s a lot slicker than he actually is.
Reginald VelJohnson is a surprise in this film. As John’s primary contact on the outside, Powell is the first responder on the scene. He’s eager to get home to his wife, and he has tragedy in his professional past. He quickly strikes up a friendship by radio with McClane, and there is a tremendous warmth and sympathy in the character. The audience gets to like the man a lot.
Among the gang of terrorists, two of the supporting characters are worth a mention. We first meet them when they’re walking into the front lobby of the building. Clarence Gilyard is Theo, the American computer expert who’s good at what he does and likes to chatter. Gilyard gives him something of a manic energy with a wicked sense of humour, particularly as he uses cameras to direct an assault on the LAPD SWAT team. His counterpart is Karl (Alexander Godunov), a savage blond haired man driven by the death of his brother at McClane’s hands early in the action. Godunov was once a ballet dancer, and we see none of that grace in his performance. Instead we see a man driven by rage, a brutal and angry killer who’s willing to do whatever he must to avenge his brother. Godunov’s performance in the role is scary... it’s like a force of nature.
Bonnie Bedelia plays Holly here in the film, and it’s a complicated performance for her. She has to play on the tension with Willis- neither character is perfect, and these are very human traits they play off of. We see her anger early on, the strain that her character must feel. And as she finds herself in a crisis, held hostage, we also see another side of her, a blend of calmness under pressure and an underlying defiance. As we see the layers of the character, we get to see inner strength there.
It’s the two adversaries I must finish up with. Alan Rickman was an accomplished stage actor in Britain when this film came out, but this is the one that made his reputation on this side of the Atlantic. He plays Hans in many ways. There is the decisive leader, acting quickly and without hesitation. There is the cultured, charming man who knows the ways of the world, likes the cut of a good suit or the taste of a fine wine and understands history. And there is the utterly ruthless, driven man who has his goal in mind, is willing to do whatever he can to attain it. In his mind, he’s not the villain- he’s just a man who’s motivated to get what he wants, and unfortunately there’s someone who keeps getting in his way. In fact, one could argue that if you look at the film in a certain way, he is the protagonist, and his antagonist is this annoying cop who keeps screwing up his plans.
Bruce Willis firmly established himself in this role after television work. He’s a guy who doesn’t particularly like himself- that’s the impression he gives the character. He has an attitude, he has his flaws as a person. He’s smart though, particularly street smart. He notices things, small things that tells him a lot about a person. And in this crisis, a strange sense of humour really shows itself in the character; he really is a smartass, and that shows itself in his CB radio taunts of Hans here and there, or his defiance at the stupidity of Robinson. At the same time, Willis grounds the character in so much humanity. Much of that is related in conversations with Powell, the two men understanding each other. He regrets the state of his marriage, worries about his wife, wonders if he’ll get out of this alive. It gives the character a much more compelling angle than if it had been played as an invincible warrior archetype. John McClane bleeds, suffers, and is in mortal danger.
Die Hard has firmly established a place for itself as one of the greatest action films of all time. Its story gives us a protagonist to root for, a thrilling and taut narrative, and a villain we can’t help but like despite himself. And it’s also taken on a life of its own as a terrific Christmas film. Just not the sort of Christmas film you watch with cranky old Aunt Agnes. She tends to wag her finger at everything.