On their most recent episode the guys over at Battleship Pretension were talking with Mike Schmidt about their favorite cops in movies. At least, that’s what they were trying until Tyler revealed he had never seen Lethal Weapon. Understandably the conversation stopped dead in its tracks at that point, because really how can you record a show about movie cops without having seen Martin Riggs in action. But this blog isn’t about Lethal Weapon, it’s about Die Hard, the other brilliant cop movie from the ’80s and one of my favorite movies of all time.
Ultimately the conversation between Tyler, David and Mike went to Die Hard, a movie about an ordinary cop in a very extraordinary situation. I suppose everybody knows the story: John McClane travels to Los Angeles to spent the holidays with his wife and kids, who moved there six months earlier. He arrives at his wife’s workplace, the towering Nakatomi plaza, during the annual Christmas party, but at the same time a group of criminals infiltrates the building to take the building hostage. John manages to stay hidden and he starts to singlehandedly take out the bad guys one by one. Even if you haven’t seen Die Hard (what the heck are you doing with your life if that’s true) you probably have seen one of the numerous copycats that it spawned: Under Siege, Cliffhanger, whatever else. None of these movies, however, come even remotely close to the brilliance of Die Hard.
The brilliance of Die Hard lies in the fact that it employed the everyman hero so effectively it made the movie extremely relatable for audiences. Casting Bruce Willis in the role of John McClane was a stroke of genius. He isn’t some muscle-bound superhero who can punch his way out of a situation without so much as a scratch. This is a guy who isn’t even really that nice to begin with. He is a gruff cantankerous macho asshole who loses his temper all too easily, especially when talking to his wife who just wants to make a better life for her family. Actually, we are not supposed to like John that much at the beginning of the movie. He has to earn our trust and sympathy. He has to show us that he is capable enough to diffuse this extremely volatile situation. It really isn’t until we see Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) shoot Mr. Takagi in cold blood that we see the shock on his face and we know then that he is one of us. He is horrified and runs, he bumbles his escape and nearly gets shot. From that point on we are with him for we know he is a human being. When a few scenes later he has to make his way across a floor full of shards of glass and we get to see the aftermath in which he has to full glass from his foot we feel for him unconditionally and we have forgotten his negative traits, even though he does show his snarky cynical side every so often, but that’s more for comedic purposes.
Coincidentally, during my Harry Potter marathon, I was constantly thinking of Hans Gruber when Alan Rickman appeared on-screen as Snape. Rickman’s Gruber was branded upon my very soul as one of the most awesome villains ever thought up for a movie. His understated demeanor, sophisticated manners and brilliant delivery of some very iconic lines (“Shoot ze glass!”) were so fresh and unexpected. He wasn’t some scumbag who used physical force to get what he wanted. He used his charm and words to get to his prize. Of course, when that didn’t work he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger, as witnessed when he dispatches Mr. Takagi without so much as thinking about it. Absolutely horrifying to realize that somebody can have such a schizophrenic way of doing things. You just didn’t know what to expect from Gruber after that moment in the conference room.
John McTiernan knew exactly how to make us root for John McClane by letting him improvise his way through the movie. Nothing McClane does goes smooth and without a hitch. He has to do outlandish stuff like dangling from a gun strap in an elevator shaft, throw explosives down another shaft and jump off the roof of a building with a fire hose strapped around his waist to escape a huge explosion. Never do we get the sense that John knows what he is doing. He improvises without knowing if what he is doing is actually going to work. We are right there with him when he jumps off the roof and hope to God that the hose will hold. Die Hard is an incredibly tense movie and unique in its sort. Even the sequels couldn’t recapture the same feeling the first movie bestowed upon us.
Next to being incredibly tense Die Hard is also very funny, but the comedy is never used at the expense of the situation. When McClane has to crawl through an air conditioning duct and he bitches about being there (“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…”) it is funny, but we also get his frustration. There are so many moments like this where you have laugh-out-loud moments that are also very uncomfortable, because you are feeling like you are there with John. That makes Die Hard one of the best action thrillers out there. It is thrilling, funny, tense and ultimately totally unforgettable.