Jee-zus, has it really been almost twenty years?
I remember when the wham-bam style of films like Raw Deal, Cobra and their ilk were comforting in their predictability of character and story. The good guys were long on jaw-lines and short on dialogue. The bad guys had five-o’clock shadow and wore aviator sunglasses 24-7. The side-kick – pick your minority of spunky woman, jive-ass black guy or Mensa-IQ Asian geek – always died by the second or third reel. And how ’bout them bookends: the hero who’s shown at the beginning to struggle with something (like, say, flying a small plane) will, by the film’s climax, be forced to master that same something BUT ON A MUCH LARGER SCALE (like, say, flying a passenger jet).
What distinguished Die Hard from its predecessors – more so than even Lethal Weapon‘s spec-ops-grade tactics, hardware and action – was the human vulnerability that drove the story, and the attention to detail (like sparing a thought for your stock villain). (This aspect has been covered endlessly and much more intelligently elsewhere so I’ll keep it brief.) In Die Hard, Bruce Willis‘ John McClane isn’t cleaning out the Nakatomi Plaza just because he’s the hero – his wife‘s in there. But even that goal isn’t clearcut: he’s in Los Angeles to save his marriage. And his relationship skills border on, shall we say, the prehistoric.
Let’s not forget the baddies – they were a revelation: trained, armed and motivated, these were no strawmen waiting for the FX supervisor to blow their squibs. Each mano-a-mano clinch McClane goes into, he’s trapped, outgunned and outnumbered: sometimes luck helps but otherwise he has absolutely nothing to lose. Sure the baddies die one by one, but they get some good kickin’ into our hero before their demise. And Alan Rickman‘s urbane, sophisticated and meticulous villain has rarely been equalled since.
Nowadays, film baddies seem to have reverted to the Commando school of baddies where although you can outnumber the hero, you’re just there die in swathes of automatic gunfire. And if you’re the villain, ‘s like all you need is to be able to laugh maniacally or grit your teeth enough to have a vein throb on your forehead.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as immersed in a character’s situation as McClane’s first escapade. I was there with him, goddammit. I identified. The Die Hard 4.0 reboot mayn’t take me anyplace new or even exciting – but at least I’ll always have the memories.