Friday, 29 August 2014

Die Hard (1988)

When I was a film student at Stockholm University back in the 1990s David Bordwell paid us a visit and he also gave some lectures. The one I attended was about Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988) and Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski 1993), and Bordwell presented them as prime examples of a typical American film and a typical European film. I do not remember what he said but it was the first time I had heard anybody discuss a mainstream Hollywood film in a serious manner, analysing camera angles, editing, narrative, and pointing out that there is a lot of skill involved, as well as artistic decisions to be made, even in such a film. Sometimes you were led to believe (and some still seems to think so) that whereas European films are made by conscious people, American films more or less assemble themselves, without human agency. One way to appreciate the importance of the skills and ideas of the people involved is to compare films that are similar in style and genre, rather than comparing Die Hard with Blue you might compare it to the abysmal Money Train (Joseph Ruben 1995). But it is not important to compare Die Hard to anything in order to enjoy it, or to be dazzled by the skill with which it is made. It is a great film, which is perhaps why Bordwell chose it.

At the beginning of the film there is a shot from the arrivals hall at an airport (LAX I imagine), with the camera close to the floor and with the baggage carousel taking up most of the visual interest in the film. But in the far back is a staircase connecting the floor below with this floor, and suddenly John McClane, the hero played by Bruce Willis (his first appearance as an action hero rather than as a romantic comedian), appears there, not necessarily even noticeable if you watch the film on a small screen, although the screen is sharply divided into two parts, as you can see in the image below.

This is one of the best things about Die Hard, the fine, inventive and often quite beautiful cinematography (the DP was Jan de Bont). There is occasionally a Michael Mann-ish feel to it, but it is also a good example of McTiernan's interest in texture and reflections. (Among his films The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) are also great.) The spatial awareness in the film is another fine thing. McClane and the thieves/terrorists run around offices, staircases, ventilation shafts and so on, and a lot of care has been taken to make these spaces coherent and the layout comprehensible. If you pay attention there are a lot of signs and tell-tales to show the characters were they are and how and where people are in relation to each other. There is for example a little business with a photo collage of naked women that some workers has put up on a wall that is seen in several scenes, to help with the navigation and show that we have been here before, and the filmmakers probably did a calculated guess that the audience would primarily consist of young men and using photographs of naked women was something that they would notice and perhaps also remember where they were.

The script, which is both witty and clever, is also important, written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (based on a book by Roderick Thorp I have not read). It is not just the many one-liners but the way things are introduced, or delayed, or explained. Take McClane's bare feet. During the most part of the film he is without shoes or socks, the intention being that he shall come across as vulnerable and human. He bleeds a lot, and the bare feet are essential. But why would he run around with bare feet? Because he is afraid of flying. The first scene in the film, before the credits, sees him grabbing his chair as his plane is about to land. The man sitting next to him notice that he is afraid of flying and gives him the advice to put his feet on a soft carpet and "make a fist with your toes" when he is home. So when McClane has safely arrived at his destination, the skyscraper in which most of the film is set, he does just that. It makes him feel good, for a few seconds, and then the armed men strike and he has to run and hide, without the shoes.

In the film everybody takes it for granted that the bad guys are terrorists. But there is some confusion. "What kind of terrorists are you?" Mr. Takagi asks, accusingly, after they have taken charge of his building. "Who said we are terrorists?" answers their leader Hans Gruber. This is one of the things I like best about the script. These men are thieves masquerading as terrorists, and when people think they are terrorists they treat them with some level of respect. Then those who thought they were terrorists become disappointed when it turns out they do not have a noble goal, they just want to get rich. There is a funny scene in which Gruber demands the release of imprisoned members of Asian Dawn and his partner looks at him quizzically. "Asian Dawn?" he says. "I read an article about them in Time magazine." Gruber replies with a shrug. In today's climate it is unlikely that somebody who calls himself a terrorist would be regarded with an element of respect in a Hollywood film but here even a terrorist is seen as preferable to the money-obsessed men. This is a film about duplicity, fakery and greed, and there is a post-modern aspect to the film and these men; pretend-terrorists not bothered with ideals but only with money and a setting which is all glass and transparency yet hardly anything is what it seems to be, nothing refers to anything solid. The men are not terrorists, Ellis pretends to be McClane's friend yet is not, Holly pretends to be Ms. Gennero but is Mrs. McClane, the Japanese Mr. Takagi has lived in the US all his life. The only thing real is McClane's bleeding feet. (A difference from 1988 and today is that back then it was the rise of Japan that was on peoples' minds in the US, today it is the rise of China. Had Die Hard been made today it would perhaps have taken place in a building called Huang instead of Nakatomi.)

Having a vulnerable hero like McClane was in line with the times, coming as it did right after the first Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner 1987) with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as troubled cops who also bleed and suffer, Gibson's in particular. That film and many others before it, including 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill 1982) but going back further than that, had at its centre a mismatched duo, often a white and a black man. This would not work in Die Hard with its premise about one lonely man, but in a nod to that tradition there is still a buddy element. Sergeant Al Powell as the (black) policeman who first arrives at the scene of the crime and then develops an emotional bond with McClane over the radio. Their scenes together are also very well-written, and surprisingly moving.

But the one thing in particular that makes Die Hard such a great film is Hans Gruber, played to perfection by Alan Rickman. He is a ruthless thief but also clever, funny, good-looking and able to show compassion; the filmmakers clearly likes him, as do many who have seen the film (there are plenty of celebrations online). He has several of the best lines. Part of the appeal is also that unlike most other characters in the film he is neither stupid nor a weasel. Compared to Holly's co-worker Ellis, Hans is not such a bad guy and the police, the FBI and the media are all portrayed in a very unflattering light. But all the same Hans too is a fraud and a killer, and in the end he must die. He might be, as he says, "an exceptional thief" but he is not better than the rest. He is not even a terrorist.

The reason why Hans and his men attack the Nakatomi building is that its vault contains stocks worth over 600 billion dollars. That is what he is after. The vault has seven different locks or security measures which they have to work their way through, one by one. In the end the doors finally open and Hans and two others watch in awe as the interior of the vault gradually appears before them, while the music playing is the last part of Beethoven's Ninth symphony, called An Die Freude. It is like a religious scene, of these men seeing the light. But it is only money and that scene might be the apotheosis of the entire film, and capturing the greed and emptiness of the 1980s. The whole film is a battle between a working-class guy and both the system (such as FBI) and high capitalism. Bordwell does not approve of talks about films capturing the Zeitgeist, but I would like to suggest that Die Hard is a strong contender for being such a film.

The opening of the vault.

In Japan, Beethoven's Ninth is traditionally played at New Year celebrations but whether that influenced the filmmakers I do not know.


  1. You almost sound like a vulgar auteurist!

    1. McTiernan is for sure one of their heroes. (But the term "vulgar auteurist" has no real meaning, unless perhaps if used to refer to people who only like McTiernan, Hyams, Mulcahy and Anderson.).

  2. Great post about a great film. And here I thought that Hollywood was just a large factory where movies were put together mechanically ;) Would you say that this is a skill that has been lost in later years or do you have a recent example that you deem as good as Die Hard?

  3. Thanks! Well, good films are still made in Hollywood although recently (last five years or so) it feels like there are fewer of them. If you specifically meant mainstream action films of this century I think Nolan's first Batman (2005) is excellent, as are the Bourne films, at least the first (2002) and the second (2004), and Spielberg's Minority Report (2002).