Die Hard at 20: The Ultimate Christmas Film

Tonight at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema, Die Hard (1988) was screened, marking its 20th year as both the ultimate Xmas movie, and best satire on the disaster genre, where a studly hero saves countless innocents from grievous mortal danger during the holiday season.

Said dangers within the genre involve errant electrical behaviour, tumbling chunks of concrete or metal, far too much rampaging water, or an old favourite, fire or the risk of being blown to bits in some grand conflagration – specific dangers that often pin the hero (in the seventies, it was always the guy who saved the day) into a corner before he saves the morally good and the twits with grey-level morality from imminent death, or being horribly killed for the time being.

Die Hard is vitally important to the action genre because it also codified a set of elements that became standard in action films involving a batch of villains holding a group hostage until they’re picked off by an overlooked underdog (Officer John McClane), and ending with a classic good guy vs. bad guy battle. Maybe a relative is thrown into the mix as well, like Karl (Alexander Godunov) avenging the death of his brother Marco in one grand fight prior to McClane rescuing his wife Holly, and bidding Hans “Bubby” Gruber a final farewell.

The film’s title also encapsulates the simple plot of a guy rescuing people (plus wife/daughter/whatever close relative) from baddies in some existing physical edifice or vessel, while using his wits and aspects of the edifice or vessel to his advantage. ‘Die Hard on a X’ was the catch-phrase of the day, although it was more fun to say Fly Hard (Executive Decision), Sail Hard (Under Siege), Study Hard (Masterminds), or Catwalk Hard (No Contest).

Okay, maybe the last two are my own facetious inventions (the films are quite, real, though), but you get the point. Die Hard became more than a title, and helped many screenwriters pitch ideas in less time, although once the best variants had captured mainstream attention, all that was left was generic direct to video/cable TV crap (like No Contest, with doughy Andrew Dice Clay as the Bubby variant).

Bruce Willis was paid a fortune at the time for his efforts, and his career was arguably rescued from further comedic crap like Sunset and Blind Date – the two theatrical flicks that were meant to parlay his comedic style within the familiar parameters of Moonlighting, the TV series that launched his career.

Willis still made a pair of straight comedies thereafter – Look Who’s Talking I and II (or “duh” as they say in French) – but they were the last occasions he partook in mainstream comedic banalities. Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) was a disaster, but you could see why he thought the book, the character, and the film’s pedigree would challenge his creative drive. Of course, there was The Whole Ten Yards (2004), but that was a mortgage movie – a kind of thing actors or directors make purely for cash (mortgage, divorce settlement, alimony, college tuition fund).

It’s why John Huston directed Phobia (1980), Jules Dassin made Circle of Two (1980), Richard Donner directed Bruce Willis in 16 Blocks (2006), and Die Hard’s John McTiernan probably made Rollerball (2002).

(Yes, those in the know can immediately see the connection: the first three films, all outright stinkers, were shot in Toronto, and the latter was filmed north of Montreal. Our cities were *not* responsible for each film’s qualitative deficits.)

When Die Hard was given a sneak preview at the old Varsity cinema (prior to its major expansion), it was double-billed with big (1988), Tom Hanks’ manipulative but cute fantasy/comedy. Soon after leaving the cinema, I felt dazed and blown away (‘scuse the pun), due to a kind of film I’d seen before.


It was satirical, smart, kinetic, ripe with pop culture references and bubbling wit, and was designed to give audiences the biggest ride of their lives in Dolby SR (if memory serves correct). TV ads pumped up the 70mm 6-track Dolby alongside Willis’ star power, and the laserdisc was the first 12” video platter you had to own, because its image and sound beautifully tested one’s brand new big screen big sound system (albeit it Dolby Pro Logic 2.0), and maybe annoyed neighbours and/or parents.

Die Hard also played at Toronto’s Cinesphere, the domed IMAX theatre at Ontario Place, when the theatre was screening classic epics (Lawrence of Arabia) and action favourites (Top Gun), although unless you were seated at or very close to chaise J25, your field of vision and neck would be tested by the theatre’s severe screen size and steep rows, and seat backs far too close to one’s knees.

The fact these iconic big screen films don’t get the kind of seasonal theatrical screen time as in bygone years is a shame, but one hopes this is a bit of change for Toronto. With less rep theatres around and some of the best mid-town screens razed (The Hyland), converted into ‘an events hall’ (The Eglington), or transformed into venues never intended (the York now houses a yoga studio. Ahem.), that leaves a few downtown locales for fans, so make sure to check out those monthly listings, and plan ahead.

The irony of this blog is that it was supposed to be longer and include a bit on the audience’s responses and track any perceptible nostalgia, as well as seeing the film with a friend who, I’m 99.9% sure, was at the same sneak preview screening back in 1988 (We didin't know each other then). Instead, I’m drawing from memories from 20 years ago, and the excitement I would’ve felt had I been able to attend the 9pm show.

My efforts were ruined when the Sheppard line was shut down for more than 20 mins. this evening (ironically?) due to a fire at the Don Mills station. No sense in whining or calling the TTC every name under the sun (tempting as it is), but here’s a suggestion to paying customers who use this public transportation system that only now is getting the cash to do the simple things better funded (European) systems enjoy:

- fix the P.A. network so we can hear more than “Brsup begrber inconvenience, brgrbr br delay.” The echoing mush that spits from speakers is actually worse than the harsh dialogue stems I used to edit on 16mm mag stock, and listen to using a squawk box. Seriously.

- secondly, get the ‘next train coming in X minutes’ displays setup on every subway platform so we know exactly when the next train is coming and can plan when John McClane isn’t there to rescue us from boredom.

- and finally, if there’s a delay (fire) that’s clearly going to take more than 15-20 mins. to address (like, uhm, FIRE), tell people. Actually say very clearly, very politely, ‘Due to a fire at station X, trains will be held at stations, resulting in a delay of up to 20-30 mins.’ This would allow people to hail cabs, hop on a bus, and not stand there as the clock ticks away, time is wasted, butts are chilled in a super-cooled platform, and our regard for the most under-funded, clumsily upgraded public transit system isn’t weakened.

Remember: those station announcements and LED displays in buses and streetcars and subway cars weren’t implemented until 2007-2008 because of some logical thinking, but a lawsuit brought on by a handicapped patron ill-served by a cash-strapped system. These features have been in use in Hamburg, Germany, since 2005, and we’re a bigger city, too.

The whole country’s, in fact.

Coming next: Black Christmas, and les editorial venality directed at civic-level knuckleheads.


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