Die Hard (1988)
Dir: John McTiernan
The Detective Turned Super Cop
by Jay Maronde
In the summer of 1988, a Christmas movie was released. This movie, staring a then-upcoming actor named Bruce Willis would later be described as the standard to which all other action movies must be compared, and with this director John McTiernan gave birth to a franchise of movies so epic that that fifth in the series is due to be released this week, 25 years later! Of course, this movie is the original Die Hard, and as we moviegoers eagerly await the release of this year’s Die Hard 5: A Good Day to Die Hard, the fine staff at Flying Houses have decided to give you a little recap in case you may have missed or forgotten anything in the past 25 years.
Die Hard was adapted from a novel titled Nothing Lasts Forever written by Roderick Thorpe. Mr. Thorpe had previously written a little book called The Detective, which was so popular that it had been made into a 1968 movie starring none other than “old blue eyes” himself, Frank Sinatra. After the success of The Detective, Mr. Thorpe wrote a sequel with full intentions of it being made into a movie. Praise was lavished on this book from many venues and eventually Twentieth Century Fox agreed to begin production. As he was contractually obligated, Sinatra was given the right of first refusal to play the lead role. He refused, and from here began one of the most extensive searches for a lead male actor in Hollywood history. When I say extensive I truly mean it, as the role of John McClane was offered to a laundry list of the best male actors in a generation before Bruce Willis finally accepted the role. This list included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Nolte, Richard Dean Anderson, Don Johnson, Sly Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Tom Berenger, Robert Deniro, and Charles Bronson.
When Bruce Willis was finally convinced to take the role it was in no small part due to Rupert Murdoch’s personal offer of five million dollars. With a lead actor signed, a director was needed, and after being approached numerous times John McTiernan eventually agreed with the stipulation that he be allowed to “lighten the edges” of a script which he had already twice refused claiming that it was “a real nasty piece of work.”
John McTiernan then began, scene-by-scene, to assemble what we have already described as the pinnacle of the entire action movie genre. First and foremost, the original script called for terrorists who were really terrorists, and McTiernan immediately turned them into thieves masquerading as terrorists so that “the audience could enjoy them stealing a boatload of money.” Further, the original “Detective” was more of a super cop, and McTiernan had this idea that the role should be more of an “everyman.” As such he felt Willis was perfect for the role and with some more minor tweaks to the original story, the Die Hard we all know and love came about. McTiernan’s vision was not small though, and as such a massive moviemaking process was undertaken, it was greatly due to this big comprehensive vision that Die Hard is such a great movie.
Besides his script work in order to make the movie lighter and more fun McTiernan also demanded the highest caliber of music from his sound designer Michael Kamen. The idea to use Beethoven as the theme music for most of the movie was McTiernan’s, and initially Kamen staunchly refused, saying that he would gladly butcher the entire catalogue of Wagner or Schubert for the movie, but the thought of using lovely Ludwig Van was too much for him to stomach. To counter this, McTiernan explained to him that he wanted the movie to feel inspired by the Ultra Violence of Director Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and Kamen, being a Kubrick fan himself, eventually consented.
This however wasn’t McTiernan’s only slick move to make Die Hard the fantastic film that it is: he also decided that he needed a real life office tower to shoot the exteriors of Nakatomi Tower. Being that not too many buildings of that size are unoccupied and or available for almost complete demolition, he came up with an interesting solution: he would use 20th Century Fox’s brand new 90% completed office tower (and of course Fox charged themselves rent on their own building). They also required the production team to import from Italy enough marble to retile all the plazas and stairs outside the building.
Besides a great set, great action, and a great hero, any good action movie needs one final thing to really reach the other plateaus that the Die Hard films have reached: a resoundingly evil villain. To fill this role the producers and director gave a British stage actor (of very high repute) his first role on the silver screen. At the time the directors and producers were sure he would be good, but Alan Rickman was so good in the role of Hans Gruber, that over two decades later he’s still the man to call when you need a really evil villain. Rickman is exquisite, and McTiernan’s particular high intensity directorial style was essential in achieving this wonderful performance from a film novice. The clearest example of this delightful collaboration comes later in the movie when McClane meets Hans. In the original script there was never a meeting between these two lead characters and the producers had lamented this extensively. One day during rehearsals McTiernan discovered that Rickman was quite talented at faking an American accent and as such the scene was born. The part of this scene that really highlights both of their genius is while Hans is speaking quite convincingly with a Midwestern American accent, McClane offers him a cigarette, and while non smokers may have never picked up on this subtle detail, Hans smokes like a European. This subtle nuance—along with many others—added a level of detail to the movie that is a big part of the reason why it stands out. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s quite apparent that McTiernan went scene-by-scene to make this movie as utterly fantastic as it is.
While I could go on and on about how delightful this movie is, it would be completely remiss not to mention the outstanding co-stars. Bonnie Bedelia is fantastic as John McClane’s estranged wife—beautiful, but not someone that an Everyman couldn’t attain. Reginald Vel Johnson as the first cop on the scene and John’s radio ally on the outside was perfectly cast, especially considering that at that time he was already America’s favorite police officer from being one of the stars (opposite one Steve Urkel) from television’s Family Matters.
John McTiernan had a tremendous vision for Die Hard that was so well executed that it has become the seminal action movie. By really demanding the best from all his actors and production staff he made a movie which has not only stood the test of time, but 25 years later still has America clamoring for more.