Die Hard 30th Anniversary: Yippee Ki-Yay, Mother Of All Action Movies

What more can I say about such an important movie in my life for the past 30 years. Little more needs to be said about what a perfectly executed action movie Die Hard is. It even finally made it into the National Film Registry for future generations to study. I figured I’d look at what Die Hard has meant to me from when I was 10 to now that I’m 40, and I’ll bet you some analysis of the film’s indelible qualities will still creep in there.

Die Hard in a…

The Die Hard scenario captivated me before I even saw the movie. The idea of one hero trapped in a place with an army of villains sounded awesome. I mean, heroes defeating villains in open spaces were good too, but the pressure cooker and the necessity of using only what’s available in the confined space increased the excitement exponentially.

The premise was so strong it need not only be confined to Die Hard and Nakatomi Plaza. I still liked all the “Die Hard in a…” movies it inspired because there were plenty of other exciting places than a building: a boat, a plane, a train, another plane, Alcatraz, the President’s plane. I dispute the claim that Speed is Die Hard on a bus. There’s only one bomber and he’s not even on the bus. That one’s more of a rolling disaster movie.

There had been Stallone and Arnold movies where one man took out armies, but they were sort of unquantified armies. Even the police force in First Blood (Die Hard in a forest?) was joined by an unspecified number of locals who were no match for John Rambo.

12 terrorists gives Die Hard a countdown. Not even all the Die Hard knockoffs were that clear. I don’t know how many men Tommy Lee Jones brought with him in Under Siege and Con Air was full of convicts, but you really only noticed the celebrities. Ed Harris’s men in The Rock were distinct enough to keep track of who’s left and Passenger 57 had a small enough crew on a plane but Die Hard really keeps track of Gruber’s men as McClane wears them down. The screenplay by Steven E. De Souza and Jeb Stuart and John McTiernan’s direction build the suspense so each terrorist is harder to defeat than the last, and so that you understand exactly where McClane is in the building, even when he returns to the same floors.

Growing Up Die Hard

I was sophisticated enough as a child to understand the marital problems as character motivations through the action. But once I became an adult, and a divorcee, then I could feel the adult relationships of Die Hard. The movie continues to deepen the more life I live.

Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) keeping her maiden name for work may have been the first time the idea of a maiden name ever came up in my life. Even as a kid I thought John shouldn’t make a big deal of it. Holly’s great, he should let it go so he can be with her. A few years later I would start to understand how fragile male egos actually were, especially in the ‘80s. Even then, I got that the crisis made John realize that all the other fights were petty, but it was probably another decade or so before I started to realize he really did the self-reflection and came to terms with his own insecurities and how he was destroying the healthiest relationship in his life.

I think as a kid, I liked seen a smartass like John McClane win. I was a smartass kid and it was validation that my jokes at other people’s expense would persevere. Now, the terrorists of Die Hard deserved to be mocked, but I think the theme was that kind of humor only makes enemies. So it’s not good to use amongst your family. I think a similar theme came through in movies like Taken, where the same skills that make a hero vital in a crisis make him impossible in day to day life. They aren’t going to make Die Hard movies about the day to day life of John McClane pissing people off, but you can infer, and the hope is that he learns. Temporarily at least, because the cycle repeats with his children, but then real people only learn things temporarily too.

Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) was the pal everyone wants to have. He is there with the support at McClane’s lowest moments. He believes in McClane. He has his own redemption he needs. The story of a beat cop who accidentally shot a child is unfortunately more relevant than ever today. The difference is Powell feels guilty for it and retired to desk duty. Today’s cops would never apologize for a mistake, let alone punish themselves. In the last few years I’ve questioned that pulling his gun on the final terrorist is the right redemption for Al Powell. It’s just more violence, but I get that it’s positive that Powell can use his sidearm for defending others again.

I think as a kid I understood Ellis (Hart Bochner) was a jerk and a creep but certainly didn’t understand the drugs and yuppie mentality until way later. Perhaps on first viewing, I thought he was misguided fool to think he could broker peace between Gruber and McClane. Now I know the type all too well, the know it all who takes everything into account except reality. He thinks he can handle anyone, but the reality of Hans Gruber is non negotiable.

30 Years Of Die Hard Viewings

The premise got me in but the movie kept me coming back for 30 years. I loved Die Hard so much that for years I would watch the Pan and scan VHS, or a copy taped off HBO, not only cropped but stretched like a compressed anamorphic film print. Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman had really long faces but Die Hard is so good it transcended the worst presentation ever. Man oh man, was I happy to finally have a proper widescreen edition on dvd.

Die Hard is the movie I’ve seen the most times in theaters, although it’s only six times. That seems low for a cinephile like me, but I wouldn’t see most movies more than two or three times in their first run. I was seeing a movie or two or three every weekend, but I would always see something new.

So I only saw Die Hard once in the summer of 1988. I wouldn’t see it theatrically again until I moved to L.A. and the old Mann Plaza theater in Westwood (now a condo) showed ‘80s movies at midnight. Fortunately, a few years ago the New Beverly started showing Die Hard every Christmas Eve and this year I saw my first ever DCP of Die Hard, only because Bedelia was speaking after the movie and I’d never met her before.

Beginning in the ‘00s, it became popular to watch Die Hard every Christmas, so that gave me a connection with other Die Hard fans, especially after social media made it easy to follow anyone who was watching it. There was a silly think piece about why Die Hard is not a Christmas movie, silly because who cares what people watch at Christmas? People can watch Apocalypse Now at Christmas if they want, what’s it to you?

Yes, it is sort of a John McClane smartass move to watch a violent action movie at Christmas, but it is about the repairing of a broken family, the Christmas holiday is integral to Gruber’s plan, Christmas decorations are a major plot point in the finale and “Winter Wonderland” is part of the fucking score. Apparently in the upcoming Comedy Central Roast, Bruce Willis says it’s not a Christmas movie. I’m sure he’s being funny and whoever wrote that joke for him was just playing on the popular debate.

What Cinema Owes To Die Hard

Thanks to Die Hard, my intake of action movies would increase exponentially. Not only did Willis join the ranks of Sly and Arnold, giving me 1/3 more action movies to watch, but the “Die Hard in a…” subgenre gave vehicles to action heroes outside the big three. Willis made it so that action heroes could be scrappy. They need not be hulking behemoths, although by the ‘00s they need not be action heroes at all. Respected thespians got in on the action franchises, which is good that they saw it was not a genre that was beneath them, but also a shame we don’t really have specialists anymore.

Die Hard made me an Alan Rickman fan for life and as his first movie, made his career. His trifecta of villain roles included Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and a personal favorite Quigley Down Under. Then he broke himself out of the villain typecast and didn’t really play one again. The closest he got was Harry Potter in which the whole point is don’t judge a book by its cover. Snape has all the optics that would scare kids, but he’s actually Dumbledore’s closest friend. He does teach in the Hogwart’s house that all the evil wizards come from, so they should just get rid of Slytherin altogether but Snape could still teach Hufflepuff.

Alexander Godunov could have also had a long career as a villain or henchman, but unfortunately he died in 1995. His only major role after Die Hard was spoofing his Witness role in the Bruce Willis flop North. He had wonderful presence and hair that I wish were still in films today.

The success of Die Hard made a franchise inevitable, although the sequels always struggled to figure out how to make another one. For my money, Live Free or Die Hard was the most Die Hard of a sequel, for figuring out what Die Hard would be in a post-CGI world. Die Hard 2 showed that just finding another confined location wasn’t enough, although it really works on its own so that if it weren’t compared to the greatest action movie of all time, it would be just fine. With a Vengeance had a great title, but also showed that just another Gruber wasn’t enough to make it Die Hard. Nobody thinks A Good Day to Die Hard is a good Die Hard or even a comprehensible movie, but there are still things I like in it. McClane bonding with his son fighting terrorists and doing the Yippee Ki-Yay for his kids are nice moments.

I’ve heard people say that Die Hard is so self-contained they should have never made any sequels. I understand disappointment that the sequels never lived up to the original, but the idea that they never should have tried seems strange, John McClane was a cop. Was he never going to have any other adventures ever again?

Reading Die Hard

I don’t know why it took me 30 years to read the book Nothing Lasts Forever, but I only did this year. Even though it’s a Joe Leland sequel, I still pictured Bruce Willis. I was impressed how exciting the story still was in prose. I was worried it would be a lot of padding between action scenes, but Leland only flashes back when it pertains to the situation he’s in and how it will impact his desperate action.

I was also surprised how much of Die Hard remains faithful to the book, down to “Tell Karl his brother is dead” and writing “Now I Have a Machine Gun” on the body (the “Ho Ho Ho” was added for Die Hard). The running on glass happens a lot earlier and wears Leland down considerably, and he even did the firehose jump from the roof.

The major differences from the book are noteworthy. There’s more Gruber in the movie because they wrote more for Rickman once they saw how good he was. There are a few female terrorists in his gang in the book, and Leland feels worse about killing women. I suppose in 1988 they decided movie audiences weren’t ready for that. It would be Die Hard with a Vengeance before McClane would face a female villain. And police chief Dwayne T. Robinson has a much different fate, something I don’t think they could even have gotten away with in a movie because Al Powell plays a direct role in it.

Still, it was fun to still discover new things in Die Hard 30 years later, and I hope I continue to discover more for another 30 years. I’ll certainly never tire of watching Die Hard. It’s like a piece of music. It works so smoothly that any time you watch it, it captivates you and pulls you along for the entire ride.

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