Revisiting the Nakatomi Plaza: Die Hard

With A Good Day to Die Hard currently in cinemas, Tom Jolliffe revisits the original Die Hard…

The fifth Die Hard has now exploded into cinemas. It’s been 25 years since the film world was introduced to Officer John McClane. The latest instalment has been pounded with a barrage of criticism and undisputedly called the worst of the series. Ordinarily a sub-standard, poorly written, soulless action blockbuster wouldn’t be given more than a second thought, but this is a Die Hard movie. True the previous sequels weren’t brilliant, but in the case of the first two, they kept up the formula and were satisfying. Die Hard 4.0 didn’t particularly feel like a Die Hard film but was at least entertaining and well made. It lacked any substance, substance that was clear in the first film – and to a lesser extent, the third – whilst Willis was less McClane and more just… well, Willis.

So with all the vitriol surrounding the fifth Die Hard film, did I go out and watch it this past weekend? Well no. I did the sensible thing and stayed at home, dug out the first, best, and action film benchmark that is Die Hard.

One moment in the film just really hit home to me. It’s not one of the more iconic scenes, or one that stands head and shoulders above other memorable moments. What it represented though was one small moment of well observed scripting, directing and acting, a piece of actual character that stood out. It was cool. It was, I can safely say without paying the ticket price and punishing my senses, better than anything in Die Hard 5. That moment saw McClane up on the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza under a hail of gunfire from a couple of badguys. All the while, on a helipad above all of it, Karl (lets face it, one of the best henchmen ever!) slowly stalks across to get into position to (try to) fire McClane into oblivion. The movement is a strange mix of robotic and animal. It’s just one little moment of brilliance in a film full of the stuff. It’s one more dash of Karl’s character which makes him memorable.

Die Hard’s major strength, amongst all the pitch perfect set pieces, is the fact that so many of the characters actually stay in your memory. Even down to supporting characters. There’s the magnificent douche-bag-edness of William Atherton as Richard Thornburg, there’s Paul Gleason as the incompetent Police Chief, or the wonderful sleaze of Hart Bochner as Ellis (“Hans bubby, I’m your white knight!”) and who can forget agents Johnson and Johnson (“No relation!”). Every character with some sort of important function in the plot is made to stand out.

So Die Hard isn’t a film that’s made purely to rest entirely on its hero and villain, but that said, in both cases you get two who have in time become archetypal. McClane is one of the best action heroes around. He’s fallible, tough, and always ready with a line. Willis really gave McClane a strong personality, but one which felt genuine. That began to turn more to caricature throughout the sequels, to the point where in the last two, McClane is just another indestructible action man. In the first film, despite all the death defying situations he finds himself it, it always felt somehow grounded, like it was simply needs must. You could call them the chair ejector seat moments, the truck surfing moments, the F35 surfing moments, but now McClane is truly within the realm of cartoon, with more and more emphasis on his outlandish cheats of death, and less emphasis on smaller moments of character. There are great moments between McClane and beat cop Al Powell who talks to McClane over the radio during the first film.

Then we have Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). He’s one of the best villains ever. Gruber is brilliantly methodical, calculated, adaptive and ruthless. All he lacks is the sheer wilful determination and heart that McClane has, and ultimately wins the day with. Rickman plays him brilliantly. It’s a great performance. There’s a lot of subtlety in it and he’s completely immersed in the role. It’s a well written part, but even more so, it’s magnificently played. There are great moments of playfulness with Gruber, that counter point moments of deadly intensity.

The key aspect in Die Hard is the man orchestrating all the set pieces and all the characters. That man is John McTiernan. The film features so many iconic action sequences, all expertly handled by McTiernan who had just a year previously proved his capabilities very assuredly with Predator. The script is great too and between the writers and director the film is loaded with so many great set up’s and payoffs. Things which might seem incidental at first, like the watch or fists with your toes, come back into play throughout the film. Then there’s the humour in the film. It’s really funny, but effortlessly so. It’s not trying hard to be, it just is. Die Hard may possibly be a film that’s as close to pure entertainment as you can get. It’s thrilling, dramatic, action packed and very funny, with a perfect pace.

So if you’re debating whether or not to see A Good Day to Die Hard then make the logical choice…don’t. See McClane as he should be. See a fresh Bruce Willis, giving it all, at the onset of his career, in the film that launches him. Don’t see a tired, bored Bruce, going through the motions, phoning it in. See the film that is now the benchmark for action movies, a film that’s been mimicked countless times in 25 years and never bettered. This is a film with great action, brains, comedy, heart and Al Leong (who’d be able to resist digging in at that candy stall? We don’t blame you Al!).

Tom Jolliffe