Starring Bruce Willis as a post-modern John Wayne, Professor Snape as a lovable villain, and Reginal VelJohnson from Family Matters as Willis’ love interest, Die Hard marries the wacky hijinks of the Home Alone franchise to Schwarzeneggerian violence and one-liners. This superbly plotted, casually racist action movie deserves its archetypal status in the pantheon of violent thrillers.
In brief: streetwise New York cop John McClain is in Los Angeles during Christmas to visit his estranged wife and their children. While meeting with his wife at a company party in the skyscraper where she’s become the #2 executive, German “terrorists” seize the building and cut off communication to the outside. McClain escapes into a stairway unnoticed, and spends the rest of the film sneaking/jumping/crawling/swinging around the building while picking off the terrorists one by one.
One of the strongest elements in Die Hard is its pacing. The first twenty minutes contain no action whatsoever; to fill the time, the audience is introduced to a series of caricatured stereotypes including a Mexican domestic, a cheerful/cheeky Black service worker in the mold of Chris Tucker, gay Californians, and a coke-sniffing asshole executive. The principal from The Breakfast Club also shows up later on. The slowness at the beginning of the film creates an extremely low baseline from which dramatic tension is gradually raised throughout the film. If Die Hard began with McClain fistfighting villains atop a moving, explosives-laden train, there would be nowhere for it to go; but beginning with over a quarter hour of bland credits and establishing shots, there’s nowhere for dramatic tension to go but up.
Another essential ingredient in the film’s effectiveness is its tripartite conflict. On the most superficial level, Die Hard is a story about man vs. terrorists, and this is done pretty well throughout the film. McClain is constantly scurrying around corners, running up and down stairwells, swinging over abysses, and improvising solutions to seemingly insoluble problems. For instance, when his path is blocked by a spinning ventilation fan, he wedges it with his gun barrel; when the police are about to leave the skyscraper after determining that McClain’s 911 call was a prank, he throws a terrorist’s corpse onto their cruiser. The fact that his only assets are those he loots from the bodies of his fallen enemies is important: McClain is without resources, relying only on his wits and determination. The guy doesn’t even have shoes, for heaven’s sake. All of this adds stakes and tension.
Plenty of McClain’s exploits are implausible, of course, from the hundreds of terrorist bullets that don’t hit him to his famous jump off the top of the skyscraper (he uses a fire hose as a lifeline, which somehow doesn’t burn up in the giant explosion that McClain’s jumping to escape from). Moreover, some of it is incoherent: McClain’s whole motivation in the first half of the movie is to alert the police that terrorists have overtaken the building, but he passes up chances to do so (e.g. why doesn’t he just fire a few shots near people in the adjoining skyscraper so that the LAPD comes running?) and sacrifices tactical advantages for no apparent reason (he first lets the Germans know he’s in the building and fighting them, and then lets them know that he’s able to listen to their radio conversations). In the second half of the film, police bureaucrats display enough arrogance and incompetence to make McClain appear, by comparison, mature and reluctant to fight (no small feat). But none of this matters, because Die Hard isn’t a documentary or a training film. It’s an action movie, with lots and lots and lots of action.
But in order for the audience to care about that action, we need more. Sweaty men punching and shooting at each other might be technically interesting, but it’s not dramatic. What is dramatic is McClain’s conflict with his wife, who left him to pursue her own career in LA. Just before the Germans attack, we see the two of them almost make up, then give in to old habits of argument. This simultaneously causes the viewer to sympathize with McClain and creates stakes for the action which follows: if McClain or his wife die, then they won’t ever reconcile.
The third and most basic conflict is McClain vs. himself. McClain gets the crap kicked of him throughout the movie, so in a sense the whole film is just one long endurance test. The progression of his physical appearance attests to this: first he’s clean, then sweaty, then slightly bloody with a few stains on his shirt. By the time the credits role, he’s got about half an inch of blood and soot caked onto his (eventually) shirtless body. There’s also a great scene depicting McClain pull shards of glass out of his bare feet while grunting one-liners to ValJohnson.
The third important element that makes Die Hard so wonderfully watchable is McClain himself, who, like most action heroes (James Bond and Indiana Jones come to mind), is largely a blank sheet upon which male viewers can project themselves. What’s McClain’s favorite food? Where did he grow up? What part of the police force is he on? All of this is deliberately vague; all we need to know is that he’s a cop (this is supposed to make his martial prowess more plausible) and his wife is a hostage (this gives him motivation). The nature of the conflict with his wife is telling: Die Hard came out in 1988, right when feminism was entering the mainstream. Their dispute is a metaphor for the conflict between traditional patriarchal values and women’s lib.
McClain, as I said earlier, is a postmodern John Wayne. Several times his banter self-referentially centers on the absurdity of his position as one lone hero standing against an army of goons. Example:
Villain: 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?
McClain: I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really liked those sequined shirts.
Villain: Do you really think you stand a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
McClain: Yippee kay yay, motherfucker.
What are we to make of a stereotypical action hero who discusses, in Bart Simpson-like quips, how absurd stereotypical action heroes are? Only that Die Hard exists within a culture that is so deeply ingrained by film and television that self-reference has become second nature.
Die Hard may well be a movie without faults: whatever is wrong with it, is wrong with what it is trying to be and not a problem of execution. Sure, it’s racist and reactionary and deifies the dreams of prepubescent boys. But criticizing it on these grounds would be like attacking a musical for having too much singing. Action movies exist so that immature White men may escape the banal pressure of minority politics and day-to-day life into a world where masculinity is identical to heroism, where women and minorities know their place, and where the good guys always win.