A surprising number of movies on my “favorites” list fall into the action/violence genre. I don’t deliberately seek them out, I’m just looking for good story telling. On occasion, these are the kind of films to deliver just that.
Having watched Road Runner cartoons as a child, I must have built up an immunization toward violence in films because I have a high tolerance. I’m not talking about punch-in-the-nose type violence, but the kind that requires tourniquets or a nice little plot of dirt and a shovel.
Quite often, action films feature the every day Joe who is thrown into absurd circumstances, situations where poor Joe needs to muster up amazing courage to match, and free himself from the situation. We relate to Joe because he reminds us of our brother, our uncle, or the guy next door.
For years, Bruce Willis specialized in those kinds of movies and as of this writing actually has another about to be released. There was no better actor in the 80s and 90s to fill the shoes of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances as well as Bruce Willis. A perfect example is the movie, Die Hard.
When the film opens, Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has just stepped off a red-eye from NY with the intention of seeing his wife Holly (played by Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s Christmas party in Los Angeles. This is a last ditch effort to save their failing marriage. His lack of support for her transfer to this high-powered job across country, is at the heart of their heartbreak. Their power struggle seems huge and insurmountable… but then in walks Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who teaches us how huge a power struggle can really be.
Good Guy/Bad Guy
When a movie hero like John McClane faces an antagonist, his plight is only intensified by the level of heat coming off the protagonist. And with Hans Gruber, McClane is facing a three-alarm fire.
The company yuletide party is in full swing throughout the Nakatomi Plaza offices. McClane schmoozes briefly then retreats to change clothes and wash away five hours of airplane ambiance. Secluded from the party, he ends up being in the right place at the right time.
Hans Gruber, with the help of his twelve gorillas, announces to the building that everyone in it is now his hostage. The building is in lockdown; no one gets in and no one gets out.
Does McClane have his own team of tough guys? Of course not. What fun would that be? McClane is going to work through this single-handedly, not to mention barefoot. His only allies are his sense of humor and his service revolver - until he strong-arms another gun from the opposition, adding to his arsenal.
McClane’s sarcasm and comic bent make this a hero worth watching. When he gets fire trucks to approach the building he quips from inside, “C’mon baby, come ta papa, I’ll kiss ya’ bleepin’ dalmation.” Hiding from the terrorists, bleeding and bruised in an air vent, he recalls his wife asking him to come to LA, “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…” Smart-aleck retorts come at the height of tension in this film making them funnier than they might have been at any other time.
Gruber is a smart guy and very soon discovers his comrades disappearing at the hands of an unidentified fly in the ointment. Neither he nor his team can locate McClane as he crawls through air ducts, darts from office to office, from floor to floor, one cop wreaking havoc on a team of sophisticated Europeans in designer suits.
Eventually John McClane and Gruber communicate via hand radios, which become an important element in the story. It allows the two men to stay at arms-length, yet fling insults at each other. Midst their verbal confrontations, Gruber makes the mistake of assuming McClane is just a security guard.
Who's Winning Now?
The beauty of this film is the story telling, the screenwriters ability to find unexpected solutions to problems from the opening scenes to the rolling credits. When Gruber accidentally comes upon John McClane in the building he is without his gun. It's an uh-oh moment, and an opportune one because McClane’s hand is filled with iron, putting him in the winning corner of this serious cat and mouse game.
Director John McTiernan does a superb job with choices in this moment when Gruber has seemingly lost all control to McClane. The characters freeze, trying to figure each other out, wondering what each is doing wandering around in this remote part of the building. It’s a long pregnant pause, which is broken with pure genius when Gruber takes on an American accent and cowers from the gun pleading and begging with McClane for his life. McClane suspects this guy is an office worker who managed to escape Gruber’s men. This scene was written into the script and not part of the original novel, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp.
This is as good as it gets in storytelling. McClane and Gruber share a cigarette and small talk while the “how do I get the upper hand?” wheels turn in Gruber's head. But McClane does some thinking of his own and decides to follow his detectively instincts and keep a tight rein on Gruber. He puts him to the test by trusting him with his extra gun, offered to Gruber so he can supposedly protect himself from the thugs. This gun is like the best gift in Gruber’s Christmas stocking. His joy is short lived when he pulls the trigger to kill McClane and learns there aren’t any bullets. McClane’s signature smirk is all Gruber needs to understand what kind of pedal-to-the-metal, loose cannon he’s up against.
Every good screenwriter dreams of writing a sequence like this. The reversals in situation and the unexpected surprises are all vehicles that transport the movie-viewer to the Nirvana that is known as quality entertainment.
Gruber’s men show up and free their boss who returns to command central in Holly’s office. He has no idea why John McClane happens to be in the building at the time of the party and is oblivious to the fact that McClane is married to Holly, a member of the corporation’s brass.
The media usually has a way of gumming up the works in this kind of film and they do it superbly here when they barge into Holly’s house and interview the Nanny about the family. As Gruber watches the footage, the connection between the female executive and McClane the cop dawns on him. He gains tremendous leverage because Holly is in his grasp. Once again Gruber appears to be winning.
Successes and Failures
Almost without fail, each time McClane has a minor success in this story, it’s followed by a failure. To the audience it feels like riding in a car with one foot on the gas, the other on the brake, and both feet twitching. This screenwriting technique is the sort of thing that sets you on the edge of your seat and keeps your palms sweaty. There are several examples of this technique throughout the film.
When McClane manages to set off a fire alarm, a response team arrives only to be convinced by the terrorists posing as night shift employees, that it was accidental.
McClane’s hopes are raised as well as the audience’s when a police car arrives outside the building. He screams through the plate glass with no result. After appraising the situation and seeing and hearing nothing unusual, the beat cop heads off in his car. The audience stresses, thinking the opportunity is lost. But McClane does what any sane hero desperate to get attention would do. He sends a corpse plummeting down several stories to crash the windshield of the cruiser. Can you hear me now?
It’s not easy to find ways to keep a movie interesting when the setting is pretty much contained to one building. The cop with the corpse in his windshield later communicates with McClane via the radio swiped from one of the Eurotrash. A collection of useless police officers and FBI join the beat cop who comes across as Einstein compared to the other uniforms. He tries everything to get help for McClane but he just doesn’t have the power or the ability to convince anyone with clout.
Of course, McClane finds his way through a maze of complications and after battling it out for about 131 minutes, he triumphs over Gruber. Although this outcome is expected, it doesn't lessen the enjoyment of the heart-pounding journey Die Hard provides.
The Start Of A New Action Genre
There have been many extreme action films recently, so many that have similar plots and action scenes they seem like clichés. But in the 1980s, audiences had not yet seen the likes of the action displayed in Die Hard. They were strangers to an action hero who could be witty, outrun an explosion in an elevator shaft, jump off a roof tethered to a fire hose, crash through plate glass windows, and still save the day with shards imbedded in his bare, bleeding feet.
This action hero and his stunts were impressive and impacted Hollywood in a big way. Screenwriters pitched their action scripts to studios succinctly with, “It’s like Die Hard on a cruise ship”, or whatever the setting was. The Bruce Willis film became the barometer with which to gauge all films in this genre. It not only offered satisfying action scenes, but a story with enough glue to hold the seams together. That's something you rarely find today.
Three sequels followed the original Die Hard and another is planned for 2013.