The 1980s brought a rejuvenation in the very definition of action films. The likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Steven Seagal released huge commercial success after huge commercial success playing alpha males who could fight their way out of any situation. In the Christmas of 1988, one actor, with no background in action helped create one of the most iconic action heroes, a man who was just an ordinary New York City cop placed in extraordinary circumstances. That actor was Bruce Willis, that cop was John McClane and that film was Die Hard.
Visiting his wife and daughter in Los Angeles for Christmas, Officer John McClane (Willis) finds himself stuck in the Nakatomi Plaza when devious German terrorist, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his cronies take hostages while trying to rob gold bullion from the tower. Managing to outwit his enemies, McClane must stop the terrorists before they get away and hopefully get to spend Christmas with his family.
The plot is simple, but the effect is fantastic. From the tension-filled vent scenes, via the scenery-chewing Germans to the memorable Christmas-themed one-liners, Die Hard is as iconic as it is brilliant. Willis’ McClane is he epitome of ‘average Joe’ who finds himself in a bad situation relying on his wits against enemies who outnumber and outgun him at every turn. His over-the-microphone relationships with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) and Rickman’s Gruber give him the ability to crack-wise and despite getting beaten up, shot at and blown up he continues to keep a smile on his face and a Christmas song in his heart.
Despite Willis being the lead, he owes the super stardom he received after Die Hard to Alan Rickman. The celebrated character actor is on startling form as he chews scenery and curls his lips as he pronounces every word. He is the dark, shadowy, sinister heart of Die Hard and his exchanges with McClane form the basis of all the tension and drama that the film has to offer. With there help the plot barely gives you time to pick at any plot holes and you’re having too much fun to even try.
So successful was Die Hard that it launched a franchise that is still running to this day and while some of the sequels, notably Die Hard with a Vengeance are very good, none are able to reach the giddy heights that the original climbed to. It has become part of our social consciousness and every action film cliche can be traced back to Die Hard. There’s the quippy one-liners, the FBI taking control of the scene, the bungling head of the police force and the honest-as-salt journeyman cop saving the day both in and out of the Plaza. Plus it’s a pretty good Christmas film to boot.
Die Hard has it all and stands at the apex of the action film genre with almost no equal. Stallone had Rocky, Arnie had The Terminator and Willis has Die Hard and these three men especially redefined what it meant to be called an action film. Without them the new generation of action films would never have been made. While Die Hard is a tough film to sum up in a few short words, Officer John McClane even has that covered: Yippie kay-yay motherfucker