There are two ways to appraise the act of writing a piece on a film you saw a long, long time ago, one that predates the birth of the average, present day film student: a nostalgia piece, which can delve into cranky-old-fart syndrome; or just elaborating on why a particular movie you saw during its original engagement is still a damn fine film.
I’d prefer the latter, but Die Hard is special, so this is a mild nostalgia trip (bereft of farting crankydome), as well as a rallying cry to get a 70mm print back in circulation for what’s ostensibly, essentially, right down to the core, a great fucking movie.
The Bloor Cinema screened Die Hard Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and it was actually quite interesting to see who would come to see a 22 year old action film that’s readily available on DVD, Blu-ray, and for the impoverished student, ‘online.’
Apparently plenty cared, because the average age of the audience that filled ¾ of the Bloor’s floor seating was maybe 25-30-ish, plus a louder, similar aged group cheering merrily from the balcony.
My impression is that a good chunk had seen the film before (a few many, many times), and others were dragged out by their friends in an attempt (a valiant attempt, I’d say) to expose them to greatness. It’s not a perfect film, but a solid movie that provides 124 mins. of violence, reindeer jingling fun, wrapped in a ribbon of robust sound design.
Among the first laserdiscs I bought at Sam’s on Boxing Day was Die Hard, and it remained the test disc to show off my surround sound system to guests – a demo presentation as to why they too should buy a Pro Logic amp. The neighbours weren’t impressed, but the friends were.
The laughs at the Bloor screening happened where the screenwriters had pre-designed throwaway gags, visual gags, and goofy humour that humanized and lampooned our concept of what terrorists and thieves are.
The film’s opening – John McClane (Bruce Willis) listening to some guy prattle advice about walking around in bare feet with fist-curled toes) - still evokes chuckles, as does McClane slowly passing a hot stewardess and exchanging a tickling gaze, but in post-9/11 times, it is weird to see a cop allowed on board with a shoulder holstered pistol, as well as the mention of terrorists since that nomenclature pops up a lot more often now in the international news.
You get past it all because of further jokes, but there’s a strange innocence in which one could write a script a long time ago where those elements were funny without the cultural paranoia being close by; and you could also arrive at the airport with ease and less hassles. With pat-downs and the U.S. airline body IATA planning to stream travelers through tunnels (Tunnel #1: Relax, we like you; Tunnel #2: You look kind of funny, but most likely you’re just odd; and Tunnel #3: I don’t like your colour or name, so let me touch your junk for explosive liquids in excess of 100 ml), there’s a nostalgia for that time when flying wasn’t such an unpleasant experience.
The film has evolved into a classic eighties action film because while it may have been designed to satirize the idiocies of the disaster film – namely 1974’s Towering Inferno, with stupid people trapped in a fiery tower with floors that blow up time to time while firefighters attempt elaborate rescues doomed to fail in splendid, cinematic conflagrations – it’s wholly indicative of that perfect blend of action, action figure heroism, melodrama, pop culture riffing, and mayhem with specifically designed peaks and valleys like a rollercoaster ride.
Die Hard’s catch-phrases became classics, whether it was “Yippy ki-yay, motherfucker,” Hans… Bubby,” “Welcome to the party, Hans,” “Oh the quarterback is toast,” and the film spawned an immediate array of imitations.
Way (WAY) back in June of 2007, Norm Wilner wrote a piece on Die Hard clones, and while the MSN piece is no longer online (it went poof! in cyberspace), my archival mania had a copy of his rough list, which included 1991’s Toy Soldiers, Andrew Davis’1992 variant Under Siege (aka ‘Float Hard’), 1992’s Passenger 57 (‘Fly Hard’), 1994’s Speed (‘Drive Hard’), 1995’s Sudden Death (‘Skate Hard’), 1997’s Executive Decision (‘Fly Harder’), 1997’s Con Air (‘Fly Hard with Nicholas Cage’), 1997’s Air Force One (‘Presidentially Harder’), 2001’s Whiteout (which I never saw, so I got nothing to say, except maybe ‘Dam Hard’), 2002’s Panic Room (‘Jodie Fights Hard’), and 2005’s Flightplan (‘Flying Hard with Jodie’).
A friend also added Renny Harlin’s 1993 goof-fest Cliffhanger (‘Climb Hard’), 1992’s Hard Boiled (‘Chow Hard’), and I added two titles that simply had to be on that list: 1997’s Masterminds (‘Study Hard’), and 1994’s No Contest (‘Modeling Hard’) which actually earned enough freakin’ money (how?!?) that they gave director Paul Lynch (Prom Night, Humongous) cash for a sequel, 1997’s No Contest II (‘Modeling Hard II: Strut Harder’).
I guess you could also include 1997’s Turbulence (‘Still Flying Harder’), but seeing how there’s only one protagonist, it doesn’t really count, though maybe one of the two utterly necessary sequels might. (Ahem.)
What a younger generation may not get is when Die Hard broke, it went beyond a blockbuster: it became a genre unto itself, which talent agents used to pitch some of the aforementioned projects as ‘Die Hard on a plane,’ ‘Die Hard in the basement of an angry wine merchant,’ or ‘Die Hard with cabbage monsters.’
For years this pitch nonsense went on, and the real Die Hard sequels didn’t help, because Die Hard II: Die Harder (1990), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2007) kept that sub-genre of eighties action films alive, which is probably why eighties and early nineties action films are so popular on home video.
Die Hard wasn’t a perfect script – the third film was a rewrite of a non-Die Hard script called “Simon Says,” and the fourth happened after years of delays and turfed script concepts due to the steady stream of imitators - and there were a series of articles as to who really wrote the script and / or touched up the dialogue, which were based on Roderick Thorp’s novel “Northing Lasts Forever.” (It didn’t matter in the end, because both credited writers enjoyed box office hits soon after, and were able to retire as key participants of the eighties action film.)
In terms of the Bloor crowd (which was amazing), they laughed and seemed to have fun with the action scenes in spite of them being copied and expanded in subsequent films, since the point of clones and legit Die Hard sequels was to top the original.
The most obvious cheers came when Hans (Alan Rickman) makes his first entrance, leading his flock of grumbly gun-toting acolytes into the main celebration room. The most unexpected cheers were for Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), buying Twinkies ‘for his wife’ and the local Quickee Mart.
Powell actually got a few laughs whenever he and McClane (Willis, in optimum shape, and sporting perfect hair/rug) had their radio chats about being cops, hardships of the job, and ‘hanging in there’ because ‘you’ll tell her that message of love yourself.’
The slo-mo death of Hans as he turns, loses grip, fires a gun and starts to freefall from the Nakatomi building also got some chuckles for being overwrought (I wonder how Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch would play to the same crowd), but newbie chauffeur Argyle got approving cheers when he pesters McClane about his wife, sitting in the back of the limo with a giant teddy bear, and clocks the computer geek in the finale.
Unexpected laughs actually came from the early limo chatter between Argyle and McClane: the mention of a “VHS” player among the limo’s luxuries, and the sight of an audio cassette tape being shoved into the limo’s stereo.
Hey, when I see a vintage mobile phone in a film – one of those angular bricks bigger than a cinderblock – I always break out laughing. The strap-on intercom boxes used by the reporters in Medium Cool (1969) are particularly funny, as is the coffee table-sized answering machine at the beginning of Winter Kills (1979).
It was weird, though, to see people talking on corded phones with fat ear and mouthpieces – things less and less people use because they have no land line and everything’s morphing into mobile toys.
(For the record: I use a vintage Northern Telecom Contempra for my phone interviews because it’s reliable, the land line guarantees it works during a power failure, and it’s drop proof – I plopped it many times 2 feet off a concrete floor as a kid. Beat that.)
Happily, the montages still worked, Michael Kamen’s score is assuredly a brilliant interpolation of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” / Symphony No. 9, and the montages and fight scenes are superb. The helicopter assault is a magnificent example of action filmmaking, and it looked incredible when the film was exhibited in 70mm, and when Kamen’s standout cue blasts in 6-track surround sound, it’s the key reason he became a name brand in Hollywood, and scored other films for producer Joel Silver, since the composer was part of the producer’s winning action formula.
Moreover, the fight scenes aren’t psychotically edited, so we actually see the actors beating the shit out of each other, with blood and emerging sores, and heads bashed into walls, metal railings or wrapped in chains before the whole body – in this case, poor Karl (Alexander Godunov) – is ratcheted up and swung over to a wall, where it smacks into concrete. It’s beautifully done, and functions as emotional payback for Karl hunting McClane for killing his brother.
In an earlier life, Godunov was a highly respected ballet dancer, and director John McTiernan exploited his gift for controlled movements in simple but memorable shots, such as Karl walking slowly towards the edge of the roof where McClane is hiding. With a gun held up, Karl’s a patient hunter, slowly honing in on his prey in a long shot that reveals character and creates tension without any manic intercutting.
The film also proved without any doubt that Germans are funny, particularly when they grumble about lazy Americans, mutter among incompetent co-workers, swear in English with German reserve, yell anxiously to be handed the next missile, or feel contempt for rebels like McClane who don’t understand order. (Drifting from the plan is wrong, and simply not correct.)
Lloyd Kaufman has insisted for years that monkeys are funny.
Monkeys are not funny; Germans are. Ende punct.
The sole weak spot in the film is the return of Karl for once last shootout, and sure, it validates Powell again as a pro-active, heroic cop, but it’s unnecessary.
Another aspect that also hurts is the way the melodrama builds between Powell and McClane, so when the two finally meet each other in person at the end, it plays goofy, if not homoerotic, because the filmmakers fell in love with their stupid temp track and not only scored the reunion with John Scott’s lovely theme from Man on Fire (yup, the first film version from 1987 that no one’s heard about because it’s been buried for 20 years), and James Horner’s Aliens. The latter cue accentuates a weird mushiness that kind of infers the two wanna kiss, but don’t because this is an action comedy headlined by Bruce Willis.
(Incidentally, key genre writer Shane Black, who similarly co-created the genre with Lethal Weapon in 1987 for producer Silver, lampooned all that machismo in 2005 by making the second half of his two-man hero team in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gay – mandatory for eighties aficionados.)
In any event, Karl’s final death did get a round of applause, and one audience member gave him a military final salute. Whatever.
In 1988, Fox was admittedly worried that their expensive action film starring a TV actor named Bruce Willis might suck, so the publicity was rather tame. I caught the film as the first half of a double-bill with big (1988) at the old Varsity Cinema. It was a sneak for the former, and we were all freakin’ blown away by this thing that rewrote the rules for the action film.
If I could re-experience seeing two films for the first time again, it would be Die Hard and The Matrix (both, coincidentally, produced by Silver), because they had us walking around in a daze, giddy with delight, thrilled for what they brought to the craft of commercial moviemaking.
(It is a craft, so stop frowning. The low end just happens to be No Contest with a donut-fed Andrew Dice Clay playing the lead terrorist figure.)
Fox’ subsequent campaign embraced the media’s good vibes, and the studio quickly realized they had a winner, so the ads trumpeted the release of 6-track 70mm engagements – a form of big screen exhibition that’s sadly gone the way of the Dodo. I later caught Die Hard at the Cinesphere (you know, the IMAX globe cinema several daft provincial bean counters wants to murder) twice, and it was always packed.
The Bloor’s screenings keep the original film alive in the consciousness of a smaller fan base, but here’s a message to Fox, if not other studios sitting on prints of films used for their Blu-rays: these movies may not draw massive crowds, but they are premium examples of mainstream commercial filmmaking made without contempt for audiences.
Fox may have wanted a blockbuster, but that’s the endpoint to their investment strategy; the movie was well-made, and it hasn’t aged into something like Armageddon – which was stupid (but entertaining) during its release, but is more entertaining now for aging into an unintentionally dopy sci-fi epic (ironically starring Bruce Willis), but written by committee and directed by a filmmaker who develops dramatic scenes like 30-second Amex adverts.
The Bloor’s print was well-worn around the reel changes, one reel had a deep emulsion scratch, there were some lost frames, the Fox logo was in smooshee-vision (forced anamorphic stretching of a non-anamorphic image) and the end credits were clipped, but the sound (a few buzzing streams excepted) was solid.
The original sound design was truly a landmark in the arts of sound editing, mixing, and engineering. Highlights include the engine rumble in close cuts of the police RV that gets ‘toasted’ by the mean Germans, massively elegant gunfire and ricochets, or the various levels of helicopter engines in the attack montage where McTiernan cuts in and around the copters from various angles and vantage points – goosed with differing levels of aggressive and passive sonics that shove audiences into the drama in movie theatres, and at home with a good subwoofer.
Where did everyone go after 1988?
For everyone connected with the film, Die Hard boosted careers, if not profiles within the next 5 years.
Bruce Willis finally broke free from that purgatory of shitty comedies (Sunset) and made imitative actioners (Die Hard 2), less shitty comedies (Death Becomes Her), a few serious roles (In Country) and some crap, plus the ego trip / guilty pleasure Hudson Hawk.
Alan Rickman only went upwards, reaching international audiences with Truly Madly Deeply and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (and yes, I’m ignoring January Man). Character actor Riginald VelJohnson went for the security of TV, and dropped his cop uniform to play opposite that thing called Urkel in Family Matters from 1989-1998.
William Atherton had a brief film career boost after having started out in feature films during the seventies (The Sugarland Express, The Day of the Locust, and singing the title tune “What’ll I Do” for The Great Gatsby), and Bonnie Bedelia continued to make straight drama and genre projects (Presumed Innocent) in film and TV.
The late, great Paul Gleason (The Breakfast Club) seemed happy to play assholes we’d all feel no guilt in beating to a pulp for being a mouth, and Hart Bochner mostly worked in TV, with the odd directorial project (like the rude / guilty pleasure PCU, filmed at the University of Toronto, and co-starring Jon Favreau as a dreadlocked stoner named Gutter).
Alexander Godunov never managed to find anything worthwhile, appearing in just a handful of direct-to-video shockers (North, excepted), and he failed to find a role as strong as the pacifist in Witness (1985). He died at the ridiculously young age of 45 in 1995. When the actors were doing press for Die Hard in 1988, Bonnie Bedelia told a nice story to City Lights host Brian Linehan of asking Godunov to do a little pirouette for her, and to Bedelia’s absolute delight, he did.
No one seemed to know what to do with Robert Davi because he wasn’t an emotive actor, but he had a unique screen presence. Already a hard-working actor in TV and film, he played the lead villain in the Bond flop License to Kill (1989), a cops in Mimi Leder’s overheated The Peacemaker (1990) and Joel Silver’s Predator 2 (1990), and managed an effective quiet performance as a stoic handler in Zalman King’s Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue (1991). Drivel and banalities followed – he played the lead cop in Lynch’s No Contest – but he was kind of fun in the short-lived series VR5 (1995) and a sleazebag in Paul Verhoeven’s neon trash heap Showgirls (1995).
Director John McTiernan was a top action director of the period, and followed up with the smart The Hunt for Red October (1990) before his talents were wasted on Medicine Man (1992), Last Action Hero, based on a wonky script co-written by Shane Black, and Rollerball (2002), which MGM emasculated by removing graphic violence (not that it would’ve helped the cinematic turkey). He did made The Thomas Crown Affair in 1999, which I’ll defend as one of the few great remakes & re-imaginings of a classic film done with thought, class, boobery, and style.
Screenwriter Jeb Stuart did make some crap – there’s no dignity in Leviathan (1989) nor Another 48 HRS (1990) – but he regained some of his reputation for writing Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive in 1993. Co-writer Steven E. de Souza co-wrote Willis’ ego trip Hudson Hawk as well as Die Hard 2, and when his fledgling directorial career flopped with Street Fighter starring Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1994, he seemed permanently tainted, and wrote mostly crap. (Knock Off was, unfortunately, his too.)
Michael Kamen had already scored Lethal Weapon for Joel Silver in 1987, and while he was involved in the sequels of that franchise as well as the first two Die Hard sequels (he died in 2003), he scored a memorable mix of commercial and little films. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves may have been his biggest hit (and Hudson Hawk was fun), but Kamen’s quiet scores for Peter Medak’s The Krays and Let Him Have It are superb (and deserve proper & complete CD releases).
Producer Joel Silver milked the heck out of his Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises (not to mention Predator), and continued his association with Shane Black via Ricochet, as well as further Willis films (Hudson Hawk, and Shane Black’s The Last Boy Scout) and Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin (although the Andrew Dice Clay guilty pleasure The Adventures of Ford Fairlane kinda ended that love affair).
And then there’s Jan de Bont, whose elegant lens-flared cinematography propelled him to the forefront of A-list DOPs. After further adventures with producer Silver (including the oddball TV movie Parker Kane) and photographing McTiernan’s Hunt for Red October, he took whatever knowledge and inspiration he gleaned from various directors and helmed Speed (1994) and Twister (1996).
His further efforts – Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) and The Haunting (1999) - proved he sold his soul to the devil, as the dual stinkers made one wish he’d return to pure cinematography, but that was never to be. Perhaps the years with Verhoeven in Holland (art films) and America (beaver films) exhausted his zeal for photography. Besides a few producing credits and directing Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003), he’s been awfully quiet. He’ll likely return, because his interest in throwing large moving objects at actors is far too attractive.
Coming next: reviews of the eighties action tribute series Human Target, Bear McCreary’s music, and an interview with the composer.
Mark R. Hasan, EditorKQEK.com