I just saw this on the AFI big screen with Will and my nephew in from Spain, Julian. A great holiday classic.
John McClain (Bruce Willis), a NYC cop who is flying to LA to spend some time with his kids over Christmas, drops by his estranged wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) holiday party in the gleaming high-rise, Nakatomi Plaza. Unfortunately, he arrives just when the party is crashed by a terrorist gang led by the slick and debonair Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). The terrorists had the perfect plan, but they did not foresee a rogue cop picking them off one by one.
When I first saw Die Hard, I was impressed such an efficient, commercial, cop-against-the world shoot ’em up could be so deft and clever. Most contemporary blockbuster cop pictures were devoid of humor; featured laughable, deadly serious male leads spouting leaden dialogue and women relegated to looking 80s video hot; invariably starred Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal; and sucked. The only outliers were vehicles for established comedians (Beverly Hills Cop) or buddy pics (48 Hours and Lethal Weapon).
Willis, in his first big role, is winning. When the terrorists strike, he is in his wife’s private office bathroom, shoeless and clad in pants and a wifebeater. He’s vulnerable, put-upon and even giddy, and his charm is infectious. He’s the perfect guide.
He’s assisted by an intricate, charming villain. Rickman eschews stock heavy, opting for an amused persona that hides a deeper ruthlessness :
The film also features numerous secondary characters who resonate even with limited screen time. Reginald VelJohnson is the patrolman first on the scene and McClain’s link via walkie-talkie to the activities on the ground, with a tragic backstory of his own; Alexander Gudonov is the number 2 for the terrorists, infuriated because McCalin has killed his brother; Bedelia becomes the de facto leader of the hostages and has a few nifty exchanges with Rickman; and William Atherton (the haughty EPA investigator in Ghostbusters) is a convincing slimy television reporter. Most notable is Hart Bochner, the coke-snorting LA cool cat who works for Bedelia. I always thought Bochner would be a big star and the scene where he tries to “negotiate” McClain’s surrender damn near steals the picture.
Finally, Jeb Stuart’s writing is fresh, cynical and all the more surprising given this was his first picture. Stuart writes for all characters, providing great, unobtrusive repartee.