Director: John McTiernan
Writer: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza; based on Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
Producer: Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver
Cinematographer: Jan de Bont
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the first movies I wrote about for the blog, and having watched it again a couple years later, I’m surprised by how little I had to say about the film at the time. Some new thoughts below. You can read the original entry here.
I’ve seen this movie so many times, stating it's the 11th time is likely a conservative estimate. It wasn’t until my friend Tim showed us a strange, subtitled commentary that was included on an old special edition DVD that I understood how great of a filmmaker McTiernan is and why Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) is just as good, or in my opinion, better than the original. One of the most memorable comments involves using a triangular camera movement, in which through a combination of X, Y, and Z axis movements, the camera often reveals three pieces of information within a fluid take. It took me nearly a dozen viewings to comprehend the technique, along with the use of long lenses for some fantastic moments - such as when we follow the SWAT Team in the distance running toward Nakatomi Plaza, tilting down and racking focus, revealing Paul Gleason and Reginald VelJohnson in conversation. McTiernan is masterful at combining this type of information, in which nearly every single shot is created to convey as much information as possible; that is, except for the action sequences, offering nice breaks between the more deliberate arrangements.
While watching the film in LA wasn’t the same as the last time I saw it in Chicago, it provided the same raucous and interactive crowd. What most fail to realize is how funny this movie is, and I don’t mean condescendingly funny. I mean it’s hilarious and there’s truly no better way to watch the film for the first time than in a crowded theater with a full bar. All of the characters are so full of depth and personality, each possessing great and unique senses of humor that the crowd allows you the freedom to laugh
After working a long week, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to have to take the hour train ride downtown to spend a late night out, and while I was excited to see the movie, having seen it so many times I was nervous that, for as great as it was, the movie was becoming stale; reserved for half to full decade revisits rather than the bi-yearly play. Then the film began and the crowd was clapping and laughing at Argyle and John’s one liners, and while the introduction of Hans is one of the coolest shots of the film (a steadicam races back as a truck reverses in, with the men exiting, scattering, and then revealing Hans; not so much complicated as just a brilliant way to introduce the bad guy, as though McTiernan knew this was destined for cult status).
It’s once the paragon of virtue Sgt. Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the local sleazy news reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton), and the vacuous Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne Robinson (Paul Gleason) gets involved with the story that it begins to build some serious momentum, with Thornburg being introduced with another cool shot as the camera follows him through the newsroom as we watch the dorkish anchor get prepped on monitors as Thornburg talks to the staff about getting a truck.
The story explores some pretty heavy ideas about bureaucracy and procedure, and the role media was beginning to play in which bleeding reads translated to 24/7 infotainment, causing hungry reporters to do anything to get the story. We then go from the primary focus of John and his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their ailing marriage to that of a reporter, FBI, PCO, limo driver, evil mastermind, computer hacker, about a half dozen German terrorists, allowing the time to pass with lightning speed, marking the sign of any great film, action or not.
Die Hard never takes itself too seriously, it just takes all of the action extremely seriously. And this is why so few can replicate its greatness. Too many approach action films trying to be badass, often replicating the superficial elements that make for any great action film. I believe that most student and micro budget films that try to live beyond their means and the genre often fails for this exact reason - there’s no humor, terrible action, and no interesting characters. To blend these elements is of the highest importance in an action movie. It’s why Armageddon is amazing, The Rock (1996), Speed (1994), Con Air (1997), and so on. In fact, Live Free or Die Hard (2007; Die Hard IV) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013; Die Hard V) make this exact mistake - I can’t remember a single character beyond McClane and was often laughing at the films rather than with. Die Hard doesn’t have just one good character. It has eleven.
It’s a type of film that makes me wonder what other films are out there that are that much funnier in a public viewing. Even at the end, when I had once recalled Holly and John’s resolve was a cheesy, melodramatic scene, the theater roared with laughter as Karl (Alexander Godunov) returns and in another great long lens shot, Sgt. Powell shoots him dead. The camera racks from the barrel of the gun to Powell, burning paper starts falling out of the sky, the cherries are splashing, and even though countless people died the music plays as Argyle drives them off into the sunrise.
I also think this was the first time I fully grasped Hans’ entire strategy, as growing up with the film I failed to comprehend the caliber of actor Hans was at the time (this was Alan Rickman’s first major role) and how much nuance was packed into the character. While I knew they weren’t terrorists, it’s easy to get too caught up in the action to comprehend how cynical this defense is.
With equally fine craft, the story introduces the idea that they can only get into the vault by busting the seventh switch which is powered by an alarm external of the building, and therefore there’s nothing they can do to dismantle it. An important question to consider is - in the event of Takagi failing to provide the password - whether Hans’ deliberately ordered his crew to be more violent in order to more quickly attract the attention of the FBI. It seems very possible, as if the only way the seventh lock was getting turned off was for the FBI to shut down the power, why would he waste any time in trying to contain things beyond threatening to kill Takagi? I personally don’t think Hans thought for a second that Takagi would reveal the information; especially given how meticulously the FBI-plot was.
The piece I didn’t fully grasp this time around is that while Hans denies being a terrorist to the hostages and John, he professes his terrorist ties to Robinson and the FBI, going so far as to - when stating his demands - refer to his “comrades in arms” from around the world that he wants released from prison, specifically the Asian Dawn in Sri Lanka which Karl has never heard about and Hans admits to having read about in Time Magazine. He uses these groups to get a helicopter onto the roof where he’s planted a bunch of C4 explosives that he’ll use to kill the FBI and hostages, and use the chaos to escape. We later learn that in fact Hans was part of the West German Volksfrei terrorist group, and that in fact, maybe it was all an act of terrorism. Like the ultimate sociopath, we never know when Hans is being sarcastic or serious, as he’s able to shift his persona to whatever best fits the situation.
It is such an original and well crafted film, with every single element - from the photography to the makeup - receiving equal care and attention, which so many have tried to replicate and nearly all have failed. This is what an action movie is suppose to be. If you ever get the chance to see this in a movie theater - ditch whatever plans to do it.
BELOW: You don't realize how awesome this scene is until you're in a movie theater with hundreds of others
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