The American action movie genre has produced some truly classic films. Over the decades there has been a bounty of spectacular, explosion entertainment starring the modern day embodiment of the arena gladiator. These muscle-bound heroes were – and are – gods among men; they seem unbeatable from the second they set foot on the screen. Perhaps that is why it is so surprising that the greatest American action film, the true masterpiece of the genre that you can point at and say “that’s where the water broke,” stars not a handsome demigod or a kung fu master, but a guy with a receding hairline, a foul mouth, and no shoes. John McTiernan’s Die Hard sets the standard. It made the mold and it did action better than anybody before or after.
Released in 1988, Die Hard was a huge hit that turned Bruce Willis into a bona fide action star. Before the John McClane character, Willis was largely associated with television comedy, a notion that seems strange nowadays. Certainly, Willis was on his way to being a huge star, but it was Die Hard that really made him click. He had a natural swagger and presence, a sense that this was the part he was born to play. Like Harrison Ford as Han Solo or Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, it’s damn near impossible to imagine anybody else in the role of John McClane other than Bruce Willis.
Die Hard works so well not just because of its lead actor, but rather because nearly every inch of the movie is perfectly cast, acted, written, and directed. Director John McTiernan doesn’t waste a single moment in Die Hard. He creates a fully realized world for these characters with ease, giving everyone quirks, motives, and flaws beyond the usual “bad guy and good guy” action film norms. The script is so tight it’s damn near waterproof, a slick and mean blueprint for decades’ worth of action movies.
The action is brutal and violent. There’s very little grace or elegance in John McClane’s fights. Bullets tear the scenery apart and what is left is usually blown to pieces in an explosion. Every fight feels like the battle of John McCalne’s life; the viewer is always thinking, “he might not win this one.” It’s that intensity and suspense that makes the action in Die Hard so special. John McClane isn’t a weapons expert or a karate master or a one-man army; he’s a cop who is in way over his head, and it shows. He’s fighting to stay alive and if that means he has to fight dirty, he’s going to fight dirty.
The movie doesn’t hold its lead up on a pedestal, which is one of its greatest strengths. McClane is more lucky than he is skilled. His only real talent seems to be in pissing people off. He’s constantly unsure of himself, talking out loud often about how badly he just wants to be out of the situation he is in. Unlike so many other action heroes, McClane is not driven by a sense of honor or vengeance or justice. He wants nothing more than for somebody else to show up and handle everything. In other words, McClane feels real. He feels like a guy we all know, deeply flawed and conflicted.
The same amount of character and nuance is given to Die Hard’s villain, Hans Gruber. Now, I don’t want to oversell this, but it’s pretty clear that Hans Gruber is one of – if not the – greatest cinematic villain of all time. Alan Rickman absolutely shines as the mastermind thief. He’s ruthless, calculating, and charming, completely in control of nearly every situation. Rickman is nothing short of brilliant in this role, a villain that is menacing and vile, but one you sort of cheer for. Admit it, when Hans and his team finally break into the vault and the music kicks in, you were kinda happy for him. Don’t deny it.
This is just scratching the surface. Die Hard is filled with superb performances, from Reginald VelJohnson’s Al Powell to Hart Bochner’s Harry Ellis to Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly Gennaro to Paul Gleason’s Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson. John McClane’s world is so damn compelling and interesting, it’s no wonder it spawned (with diminishing returns) 4 sequels. You just to know more about this guy and the people he interacts with. Die Hard sets the par for supporting casts in action movie so high, it’s fair to say no has come close to surpassing them.
Die Hard is a true masterpiece. There simply has not been a better action movie to date, and it’s hard to imagine one coming out in the future. From start to finish, it is utter perfection, a movie that works on nearly every level. It even spawned a sub genre of its own; when action movies that feature an outgunned hero trapped in a specific setting often referred to as “Die Hard in and (insert place here).” Really and truly, Die Hard is quite possibly the greatest thing the American people have ever created.