PCA Retro Review – Christmas Edition: Die Hard (1988)

Every year a dozen Christmas movies are made, but not all of them are good.  Throughout the Christmas Season PCA Retro Review features the best in Christmas films that will entertain, shock, delight…and not star Tim Allen!

Die Hard (1988) – Possibly one of the most unconventional Christmas films in the history of the medium, Die Hard has become a modern holiday films for people who hate holiday films!  Full of explosions, gun fire, classic one liners and the biggest body count of any Christmas film to date, Die Hard not only gave Bruce Willis his first box office success and Alan Rickman his film debut, but has become considered possibly the greatest action film of all time!

When New York cop John McLean (Bruce Willis) travels to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Beldelia), he is forced to meet her at her office Christmas party on the thirtieth floor of the Nakatomi Plaza.  After a tense reunion with his wife, McLean excuses himself to the bathroom to wash up and prepare for a passive aggressive evening of making nice with the obnoxious strangers that his wife works with.  However, McLean’s night becomes much more interesting when the party is taken hostage by a Germanic militant group lead by the evil Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who seeks to steal $640 billion in bearer bonds to fund his terrorist organization.  Executing Nakatomi’s head executive Mr. Takagi when he will not reveal the codes to opening the seven computerized locks on the company vault, Gruber sets his computer expert (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) to the long task of cracking the vault code.  Gruber’s plans would probably be simple, if not for the undetected presence of John McLean.  Now, outnumbered, outgunned and barefoot, McLean plays a cat and mouse game with Gruber and his men as he tries to contact the authorities, kill the bad guys, keep the office party alive, stop Gruber’s evil plans and save Christmas in the most explosive holiday films of all time!

Original casting for "Die Hard's" hero John McLean was not offered to Bruce Willis but to...Frank Sinatra??? Thankfully Sinatra, who was 73 at the time, turned down the role so that Bruce Willis could create his persona as a Hollywood tough guy!

When Die Hard first went into development, Bruce Willis was nowhere on 20th Century Fox’s radar to star on the film.  Instead, the first person offered the starring role was, as hard as it may be to believe, singer Frank Sinatra!  Based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, the source material was a sequel to Thorpe’s novel The Detective which had been filmed in 1968 with Frank Sinatra in the lead role of New York detective Joe Leland.  Fox thought it’d be a unique idea to bring back Sinatra in the role of Leland for a sequel, but when Sinatra, who was 73 years old at the time, turned it down realizing that he was not able to do a film as physically demanding as Die Hard, the writers made a number of sweeping changes to the script, with the most obvious being the renaming of the central character from detective Joe Leland to New York cop John McLean.  Other changes included creating the sub-plot between McLean and his wife.  In the original script Leland was in LA visiting his daughter whose office party was hijacked.  After Sinatra turned down the role, Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to play John McLean, followed by Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, who all turned the role down.  Turning to a short list of actors, which also was rumored to include Don Johnson and Richard Dean Anderson on it, Bruce Willis was finally offered the role.  Willis, who was starring on the popular detective/comedy series Moonlighting, had yet to find success on the big screen, and had not established himself as a Hollywood tough guy.  Instead the studio had u unsuccessfully tried to market Willis in comedic roles, including the forgettable romantic comedy Blind Date.  Running out of options and depending on Willis’ success on Moonlighting, the studio took the chance on Willis.

Having made his career on the British stage, "Die Hard" would be the film debut of Alan Rickman as the film's villain Hans Gruber

Furthermore, the studio also took a chance on casting Alan Rickman in the role of the film’s villain Hans Gruber.  At age 42, Alan Rickman had never before appeared in a movie.  Instead, he had made his career on the London stage in classical theater, and on a number of British based TV programs.  With no experience on a film soundstage, and no exposure to the American audience, Rickman was an unlikely pick for the film’s villain, but it was obvious to casting agents that he would be perfect in the role of a German terrorist.

With two stars that had never seen box office success, 20th Century Fox had little faith in Die Hard, and despite it’s Christmas theme, released the film with little fanfare in July 1988.  Such little promotion was put into the film that Bruce Willis didn’t even appear on the initial posters.  However, within two weeks the film made 7.1 million dollars at the box office, becoming one of the summer’s blockbuster films, launching Willis’ fame as a Hollywood action hero, and Rickman’s film career in general, where he would go on to play bad guys in a variety of film franchises for decades to come. Die Hard would be nominated for four Academy Awards, and continues to appear on dozens of critic lists as one of the greatest action films ever made.  Maintaining a strong fan following, Die Hard would go on to become one of the most successful action film franchises, spawning into four sequels between 1990 and 2007.  Currently a fifth Die Hard film, A Good Day to Die Hard, is in pre-production for 2013 and the “wife beater” shirt Willis wore in the original Die Hard is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

"Now I know what a TV dinner feels like." "Die Hard" contains a clever script full of comedic one-liners that help relieve tension instead of making it a parody of itself.

With likeable characters that you care about, or at least love to hate, Die Hard is a pulse pounding action/adventure that never takes itself too seriously, but keeps enough pathos and drama to create a real sense of suspense for the audience.  Furthermore, the film is funny, with a number of clever one-liners that are cleverly inserted to relieve the film’s tension at key moments.  From Willis and Rickman’s punchy banter about American Westerns (Rickman: “This time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly”/Willis: “That was Gary Cooper, asshole”) to the frustrated police and FBI agents outside the building (“I’m Agent Johnson, this is Special Agent Johnson….no relation”) and of course the film’s signature line, and Bruce Willis’ most famous quote, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”, Die Hard is filled with more memorable and quotable lines then is usually contained in a film without it becoming campy.  Yet, Die Hard avoids its camp factor by having the actors take their roles seriously, and never allowing the film to become a parody of itself.  Although it is a simple plot, the true strength of Die Hard is dynamic performances combined with an excellent script.

Future "Family Matters" star Reginald VelJohnson co-stars as Sgt. Al Powell, John McLean's man on the ground, giving "Die Hard" another layer of drama, and someone for Bruce Willis to talk to

Joining Willis and Rickman is a colorful cast of supporting characters, both fun and despicable, that make Die Hard even more memorable.  Most notably is the film’s co-star Reginald VelJohnson as LAPD Sgt. Al Powell.  As John McLean’s guy on the ground,  VelJohnson gives one of the film’s most sensitive performances as the first officer on the scene, who maintains contact with McLean, keeping him alive and encouraging him from behind police lines.  The comradeship between Willis and VelJohnson adds an added emotional layer to the film, and gives McLean someone to talk so he can reveal what he is thinking instead of just having Willis talk to himself for the entire film.  Oddly enough, VelJohnson would find further fame playing a cop on the awful 90’s family sit-com Family Matters, as Carl Winslow, the patriarchal comedic foil to the annoying Steve Urkle.  Thankfully audiences can have a chance to see the dramatic talents of VelJohnson in possibly the best role of his career to date.  Other memorable characters include the likeable limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White), obnoxious Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), Holly’s lecherous coke-snorting co-worker Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) and terrifying white haired head gunman Karl (Alexander Godunuv).

Dead terrorists donning Santa Claus hats with yuletide messages written on them clothes their own blood is just one of the many ways "Die Hard" maintains its holiday theme

Although it is an nontraditional Christmas film, the holiday theme runs throughout Die Hard from beginning to end.  Beyond the obvious plot of John McLean saving a Christmas party from terrorists, the set designers fill the film with Christmas decorations and colorful lights.  One gag involves Willis writing a warning in blood on the sweatshirt of the first dead terrorist a message that reads “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”  Yet the most subtle element that keeps Die Hard festive is the film’s clever score by composer Michael Kamen who weaves together a symphony of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the Christmas classic Winter Wonderland in various ways to create different moods common to action films.  Attempting to stick with the Christmas theme, Die Hard 2 also takes place on Christmas Eve, but realizing that it would be far fetched for John McLean to get into trouble every Christmas, the producers of Die Hard dropped the Christmas element of the series for the third film.

“If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year's.”

Die Hard is a great alternative for Christmas viewing.  Not a part of the holiday cannon in the way that Miracle on 34th St or It’s A Wonderful Life is, Die Hard is something for the members of the family that have some testosterone to burn, or something to watch with older kids going through a cynical phase.  Great fun with not a single dull moment throughout it, Die Hard is best summed up by Argyle in the final line of the film – “If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year’s.”

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  1. jeffreydanger’s avatar

    Great review! Can’t believe it almost went to Sinatra. Are you doing Gremlins next?


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