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Die Hard on the Big Screen

January 1, 2018

Over Christmas I watched the original Die Hard at FACT cinema Liverpool. The screening was arranged by my good friend Dan Slattery via Ourscreen, who had helped me arrange a screening of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer at FACT at the beginning of December. Needless to say, it was wonderful seeing the film in the cinema almost thirty years after it was originally released… and even better to see it over Christmas. Yes, I’m definitely in the Die Hard is a Christmas movie camp.

If you read this blog, I suspect you’ve seen Die Hard as many times as I have, so, instead of doing a traditional review, I thought I’d share some of the observations of the group I went to see it with, and my own musings, as we discussed the film in the bar afterwards.

Die Hard‘s screenplay has extremely tight writing: every plot point connects. Screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. deSouza clearly believed in the Chekhov’s Gun principle in narrative, and lots of little details that occur early in the film pay off beautifully as the story moves on, such as Holly Gennaro/McClane slamming down the framed family photo in her office.

Die Hard is considered a perfect example of a Three-Act structure: set-up, confrontation and resolution (thanks to Dan for pointing this out). It becomes increasingly clear during the second act that the terrorist plot will not succeed, but at the same time, the odds are never in favour of our hero John McClane surviving. Bruce Willis deserves great credit here – he created a hero that bleeds and the audience can almost feel every punch, kick, bullet and explosion he endures along the way.

As villains go, Alan Rickman balances malevolence with comedy perfectly and his performance started the trend of British theatrical actors playing villains in Hollywood films (and could have typecast Rickman). To my knowledge he only played one more major bad guy, a very over the top Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But, in Die Hard he gets the tone just right, relishing his evil lines and comic asides ‘Mr Takagi won’t be joining us for the rest of his life’, and never letting the all round excess of the story overwhelm his quiet menace.

The one scene I really don’t like is Sergeant Al Powell’s shooting of the terrorist Karl at the coda. It seems a triumphalist, utterly tone-deaf, way for him to overcome his accidental killing of a child years earlier which he confesses to McClane in one of the most touching scenes in the film. If it was being re-shot today, I doubt that scene would make it to the final cut. But in a way Die Hard never really ends. It was the beginning of a franchise that is still going strong today (let’s just forget about A Good Day to Die Hard), and spawned numerous imitators: Cliffhanger (Die Hard on a Mountain), Under Siege (Die Hard on a Battleship), and probably influenced the style of the later Bond films as well. Not bad for a Christmas movie.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2018 4:30 pm

    Re. Alan Rickman playing villains; check out the Australian ‘western’ QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER. Rickman is, as always, superb, but even Tom Sellick is quite good.

    • January 1, 2018 5:20 pm

      Oh gosh yes. I’ve seen it, but forgot about it. A little gem of a movie. I think in the early 90s Rickman tried to move away from villains but he never quite lived it down. You might say the weak willed husband in Love Actually, another xmas movie, is a villain of sorts.

  2. Dan permalink
    January 6, 2018 11:48 pm

    I would suggest reading the novel the movie is based on-“Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp. I would argue this is one case where I ultimately preferred the movie rather than the book-for one thing, I found the film characters much more interesting thanks to both the dialogue and the talent of the actors involved.

    Still, the novel is an entertaining pulpy read in it’s own right that is MUCH darker than the movie with some elements familiar to Ellroy fans. The main character is much older than John McClain, he suffers from self-doubt and guilt, and his adult daughter rather than his wife is one of the hostages. The terrorists have a more explicit political objective than stealing hundreds of millions of dollars (the daughter’s corporation in the book is involved in some shady dealings with South American military dictatorships). The set-up for the endings of both stories are similar but the novel’s ending is much bloodier and certainly not a happy Hollywood ending…

    • January 7, 2018 10:18 am

      Thanks for commenting Dan. Die Hard is one of those strange cases of a mega hit movie not really raising the profile of the book it was based on. If you look at the stronger entries in the franchise though they were all based on interesting source material


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