Movies That Settle: Die Hard

Posted: September 21, 2016 in Movies That Settle, Uncategorized

Recently, my brother told me that he and my nephew had watched the first John McClane action shoot-’em-up Die Hard together. I was shocked for a moment, until I realized that my nephew is actually 16 years old now, and I probably first saw Die Hard when I was twelve. And look how I turned out!

Anyway, my brother and I then discussed the movie for the first time in awhile. I honestly feel that he has embraced this fatherhood thing on a new level now that his kids are old enough to watch movies that he loved when he was younger, and now he gets to look at them through fresh eyes. As we discussed the movie, I sort of did this vicariously, as well.

I won’t get into the whole plot of the film, but in case you’ve forgotten, it should suffice to say that some call it the greatest Christmas movie of all time, while my Dad once referred to it as “The Guy in the Tower with the Bloody Feet.” Yes, the bloody feet is the lasting image for most viewers, but as my brother and I dissected it, I realized there’s a lot more to this one than one cop killing a bunch of bad guys.

The thing that separates Die Hard from all the knock-offs that came after it (including thegiphy actual Die Hard sequels that followed) was the personal touches to the characters, especially the bad guys. Hans Gruber, of course, played by the amazing Alan Rickman, in his big-screen debut, if you can believe it, unfortunately inspired a generation of less-amazing actors playing less-amazing villains, but Hans was superior because he actually felt like a real person, not your token raving lunatic. You get the feeling that Hans didn’t even really want to kill people. They were just standing in the way of his $640 million. Hans also is sympathetic to the pregnant woman that he has taken hostage, and agrees with Mrs. McClane that the hostages have to use the bathroom. No Bond villain has ever been that nice.

Hans’ right hand man, Karl, played by the late Alexander Gudunov (Boy, these Die Hard terrorists are dropping like flies!), also had real motivation after his brother became John McClane’s first kill of the movie. And it can almost be said that McClane didn’t really *mean* to kill him. I mean, it happened, and McClane certainly didn’t feel bad, but they were struggling and fell down the stairs and the guy broke his neck. Sorry, Karl. Can’t make an omelet…

There’s countless other little touches that make the terrorists into real people, from the one who steals the candy bars as he’s waiting to shoot the SWAT team, (Side Note: I just remembered another interesting moment from that scene: when Hans tells his men to “Just wound them.” He says it in that cold, Alan Rickman-way, but you get the sense that he kind of realizes these poor schmoes are sitting ducks, so let’s not actually kill them. They’re just working-class slobs, after all.), to the computer guy who actually scratches his nose after he kicks a guard’s dead body over. I mean, it has nothing to do with the plot, but terrorists are people, too, and people scratch their noses. I don’t recall any nostril penetration, but who knows? And if you want to get all psychiatrist on me, you could make the argument that it’s more twisted to scratch your nose after you help kill a guy, or that it’s more painful for Hans to “just wound” the SWAT team rather than just blow them away, but the point is, no other movie villains bother with these subtleties.

Even with all these small personal touches for the bad guys, no one in the movie represents the regular Joe more than the hero, John McClane. McClane is a cop from New York has is visiting his estranged wife in L.A., and just happened to be at the Christmas party when Hans and his boys showed up. As the only person who managed to get away, and because he still has a thing for his wife, it falls on him to stop them. Or at least not get killed. He obviously has no plan at all, which is what makes him such a great hero, and this such a great movie. Unlike Rambo or Chuck Norris or whoever, John has no real fighting skills, no special training that makes him better than his rivals, other than “cop.” He’s not really even in great shape. I mean, he looks great for an average Joe, but he’s not Schwarzeneggar or anything. All he has is a gun and his wits, and an attitude that allows him to push the envelope. Even as he encounters his first terrorist, Karl’s brother, and the terrorist says that he won’t shoot him because policemen have rules, John quips, “Yeah, that’s what my Captain keeps telling me.” So, we get the sense that even though he’s a regular guy, he’s not a regular cop. Or even a very good one.

Still, there are elements of him that are not like his action-hero contemporaries. When he is on the top of the building, which he knows is set to explode, the only way he even has a chance of surviving is to jump. So, as he ties a firehose around his waist, the only pep talk he can think to give himself is, “John, what the #@$% are you doing?” he then tells God that if he lets him live, he will never think of going up in a tall building again. I don’t recall Arnold ever uttering a prayer like that. In fact, Arnold probably would jump without the firehose.

explosion

Arnold also never had to deal with bloody feet. The story with that is that McClane’s neighbor on the flight to L.A. was a seasoned traveler who told him that the secret to surviving air travel is to take off your shoes and socks and make “fists with your toes.” It just happens that the terrorists attack just as John is practicing his toe-fisting, thus he spends the entire movie running around a building fighting terrorists barefoot. Now, come on, what action hero outside of Bruce Lee spends the whole movie fighting without shoes? Not only does John McClane do it, but he pulls it off without looking silly. It becomes a  bit of an issue when Hans orders his cronies to shoot out a bunch of office windows, but otherwise,… masterful.

I remember taking a screenwriting class years ago that
covered Chinatown, and how the studio was opposed to having the hero of the movie spend half of it with a bandage on his nose, but that’s what people remember about the character. It doesn’t take away form the character at all, but rather adds to it. The no shoes thing adds to John McClane’s struggle and makes you feel for him more, especially after the whole glass thing. I don’t even think any of the more established (at the time) action heroes could have pulled it off without looking a tad ridiculous. Bear in mind, Bruce Willidiehard_2_glass_600s was basically known as a comedic actor (the funny guy from Moonlighting) at this point. In fact, even with all my talk about how great a job Willis does at playing the “everyman,” the role was supposedly offered to many in the action hero community, like Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro, Charles Bronson, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Don Johnson, Burt Reynolds, and Richard Dean Anderson, and thank frikkin’ God they all turned it down. Can you imagine McGyver running around a tower with bloody feet? The movie would have bombed faster than Nakatomi Plaza!

The climax sees McClane at his odds-beating best (three terrorists, two bullets, what’s a guy to do?) McClane is able to K.O. one with the butt of his gun, leaving just two. However, Hans has discovered that he has his tormentor’s wife in the throng, and his holding her at gunpoint. McClane, recalling their earlier exchange about American westerns, tapes his gun to his back and, for all intents and purposes, surrenders, lacing hands behind his head, stating, “Ya got me.” He and Hans share a laugh as the German butchers the famous “Yippee-ki-yay, mother f*&%-er,” line, and when Hans has dropped his guard, McClane pulls out the gun and blows the final two terrorists away with his last two bullets.Hans does manage to hang on to McClane’s wife for a brief moment as he falls out the window, but John is able to rescue her, by unsnapping her Rolex (mentioned earlier in the movie as a gift for all her hard work. Nothing by accident…). Hans’ slo-mo demise is one of the few action movie cliche’s in the whole film, but it was the late-80’s so we’ll let it slide.

giphy-1

Like I said in the beginning, Die Hard holds up, and is separated from the pack of bad action movies that came, and is still coming, after, because it is written to be believable. Most Rambo movies are basically the same as this, where it’s one guy versus a billion and he just shoots them all. But this one is structured so well that you can believe that this one guy took out all these bad dudes pretty much one at a time, and did it with gumption and wits. It’s another thing I learned in screenwriting classes; if you’re going to write a movie that involves a time traveling car, you have to write it so that the audience believes it can happen. If you’re going to write a movie where one cop with no shoes is going to take out twelve money-grubbing terrorists, you have to write it to make us believe it can happen. Not that we know it will, but that we believe it will.

 

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