Twenty years ago today, a legendary force was unleashed upon this world. It was an awesome spectacle that, despite several plagiaristic, usurpatory attempts, remains potent today. It was fashioned of raw power, not able to be harnessed by mere mortals, but destined to live forever in the pantheon of the gods. It was a uniter.
Nothing has defeated it. Nothing has toppled it. Nothing, pray tell, ever will.
Twenty years ago today, Die Hard was released.
July 15th, 1988 to be exact.
In 1988, Bruce Willis was known as the star of TV's "Moonlighting." It was an undeniable hit in those days, creating watercooler buzz matched only by those L.A. lawyers. His sole film had come out early the previous year, and though Blind Date was a modest hit, it still finished behind those legendary spring '87 comedies Mannequin and Outrageous Fortune.
When 20th Century Fox offered Willis $5 million to star, the response was apoplectic. In those days, that figure rivaled those of the biggest stars of the time, and the thought of a TV star getting that kind of money was hard for people to swallow. After all, Michael J. Fox hadn't made that kind of bank on Back to the Future; he had to wait until the Light of Days and Casualties of Wars of the world came out.
Die Hard is, quite obviously at this point, my favorite film. Number one with a few thousand bullets. It's something that I've grown comfortable saying after years of pretending it was an afterthought to, you know, the respected classics. Oddly, though, Die Hard has slowly become just that. Entertainment Weekly recently named it the best action film of all time, shows like "Friends" and "How I Met Your Mother" use it as an example of great filmmaking with nary a hint of irony, and 19 years after its release, the third sequel becomes the biggest hit in the series. It continues to thrive, and - no exaggeration - has become a benchmark of modern cinema.
What follows is something that's been gestating in my gray matter for awhile. It's a running diary of the entire film, something that only true lovers of the film could possibly appreciate (that's a not-so-subtle hint to The Fiancee to stop reading now and just tell me later how she loved the whole thing). I apologize in advance for its length; just know what follows is the heavily edited version. I cut out my lengthy theories about Agent Johnson and Agent Johnson's obviously homosexual affair, a scientific study as to the relative absence of John McClane's son and the possible Freudian implications, and why it is vital to the future of civilization that "Gruber" can be rearranged to spell "burger." Among other things.
0:00: The 20th Century Fox logo. Say what you want about Rupert Murdoch, but he personally approved the then-exorbitant salary for Bruce Willis. Even the most liberal Fox News hater should pat him on the back for that.
0:01: "Fist With Your Toes." One of my many Die Hard-related fantasy baseball team names. Um, and even in 1988, were off-duty cops allowed to carry guns on planes?
0:02: John McClane carries a large stuffed teddy bear off the plane. Director John McTiernan also had Alec Baldwin carry a large teddy bear on a plane in The Hunt For Red October. Hidden meaning? Discuss.
0:03: "And no snooping around the house, looking for presents." This marks the debut of little Lucy McClane, who would later transform into college-aged hottie Lucy McClane in 2007's Live Free or Die Hard. Taylor Fry played Lucy in the original, but was apparently busy doing absolutely nothing acting-related and was replaced by the far more regularly employed Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Nobody noticed.
0:05: Argyle, like a motherfucker. One of the most underrated characters in the history of cinema. It's his first time driving a limo, but he doesn't fret in introducing us to some prime Christmas-themed Run DMC and his lady's unmentionables. And he's very fast, even when avoiding Ray Charles' gunfire in The Blues Brothers (yes, that's him) .
0:07: The first great shot of Nakatomi Plaza. Short story: In 1998, I made my first visit to Los Angeles as a college student covering the oh-so-important press junkets of Beavis and Butt-head Do America and Star Trek: First Contact. On my first night there, I looked out my hotel room window to find the 20th Century Fox headquarters - better known to Die Hard fans as Nakatomi Plaza. Instead of actually taking advantage of L.A., I spent two hours walking around the building. Little had stayed the same, but I was still able to imagine running into the locked doors, blowing up the glass windows, and sending little hockey pucks across the lobby to kill some bad guys. And trust me, ten years later, if I stood in that parking lot, my train of thought would be just as childish.
0:12: Ellis does coke in front of the worst sunset backdrop ever. I swear, I love this film. We're just about to get to the good part.
0:17: The Pacific Courier truck comes in. The biggest "goof" attributed to this film is that the ambulance (seen later) could not fit into the truck. Fine. Whatever. It's Die Hard, so fuck you. I do like that it's an Atlantic Courier truck that blows up a building in 1995's New York-set Die Hard With A Vengeance.
0:23: Boobs. Because it's the '80s.
0:30: "What kind of terrorists are you?" That brings up a good point, really. The Die Hard films are generally thought of as "Bruce Willis vs. Terrorists," but there are very few acts of actual terrorism in the series. "Terrorism" is generally defined by the reasoning behind it - if the act's ultimate goal is political or ideological, we use the T-word. But a bank robber isn't committing an act of terrorism. So, to sum up, Die Hard isn't about terrorism; it's about thieves simply masquerading as terrorists (the lip service paid to "Asian Dawn," for example). Die Hard 2 fits the bill a little more, as the bad guys' goal is to free a Central American general and drug lord. Die Hard With A Vengeance is once again about thieves. And Live Free or Die Hard mixes it up a little: bad guys with goals both political and financial.
0:31: The real joy of Die Hard is in the details. After Hans kills Takagi, look in the background to see Karl and Theo settle a bet. Funny stuff.
0:34: I've never seen Die Hard on the big screen. When it came out, I was 12, and not allowed to see R-rated movies unless my parents previewed them first. So one night in July 1988, they went out for dinner and a movie, and I practically paced until they returned. My dad eventually walked in with a goofy grin on his face, and started a long spiel. "That is about the best movie I have ever seen. I mean, just great. Josh, you are going to absolutely love it. Wall-to-wall action, doesn't let up, I mean, really, probably the best movie I've ever seen. It'll be your favorite too, I guarantee it!" So, I asked, will you take me? "Oh, absolutely not. Too much cussing." See, those were my parents. I could see bodies being disemboweled by boob-baring women for two straight hours, but when it came to cursing and actual sex - two things I would find much easier to copy, in their estimation - it was a no-go. I'm reminded of this story because of minutes 34 and 35 of the film, in which the following words are uttered by Mr. Willis: "Fuck ... asshole ... goddamn ... goddamn ... fucking ... motherfuckers ... fucking."
0:37: Here's a tip for your movie enjoyment: When John McClane is fighting somebody, don't pay close attention to his face. Let's just say that Bruce Willis most definitely didn't do his own stunts. Like, seriously, not one of them. (This isn't McClane's finest moment, by the way. With a gun to a bad guy's head, he instead elbows him and almost intentionally gets into a brawl. Not to mention he seems to drop his gun with incredible ease.)
"I'm about to film The Bonfire of the Vanities and Hudson Hawk! Noooo!"
0:40: "NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN. HO-HO-HO." Holy shit, I can't believe I've never thought of this as a Halloween costume. I mean, a gray sweatshirt, a Santa cap, a little fake blood and a red marker. Oh man, I'm wearing that one for the next 25 years.
0:42: Boobs. Because it's the '80s.
0:42: Karl freaks out over the death of his brother. I always wondered if he's extra sad because he was a bit of an asshole to him during their last meeting, cutting those pipes with the chainsaw. I feel bad for Karl.
0:44: "No fucking shit lady, do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?" My favorite line of the film. They should have worked this into all the sequels instead of "Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker." In Die Hard 2, Fred Thompson growls "What are we talking about, a hijacking?" And McClane responds, "No fucking shit lady, do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?" In Die Hard With A Vengeance, Sam Jackson howls "You don't like me because you're a racist!" to which McClane retorts, "No fucking shit lady, do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?" In Live Free or Die Hard, the Mac Guy yells "You just killed a helicopter with a car!" and McClane responds with "No fucking shit lady, do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?" The best part is, the audience would knowingly applaud every time. Dammit, I should write Die Hard V.
0:45: Reginald VelJohnson makes his first appearance as Sgt. Al Powell. Last month, my fiancee saw him in a commercial and called him "the dad from 'Family Matters.'" I almost broke up with her on the spot.
0:46: Gas prices in 1988? Seventy-four cents a gallon. Dammit.
0:48: Boobs. Because it's the '80s.
0:51: "Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs." They could have at least worked that one into Die Hard 2. Do I have to think of everything?
0:57: "I need backup assistance now! Now, goddamn it, now!" One of my favorite sequences in the film. McClane drops a terrorist corpse on Powell's car, the car speeds backward, and there's a priceless shot of Argyle just as the dead body is ejected 15 feet into the air. One thing I never understood, though: who is firing the machine gun out of the window?
0:59: Willis and Alan Rickman have their first verbal interaction, over walkie-talkie. Looking over 1988's Best Supporting Actor nominees, I find it hard to believe Rickman wasn't recognized. Dean Stockwell in Married to the Mob? Martin Landau in Tucker: the Man and His Dream? Alec Guinness in Little Dorrit? I mean, what the holy fuck is Little Dorrit? Twenty years later, and Rickman is still looking for his first nomination. The Academy sucks.
1:00: "Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker." Oddly enough, like my 20th favorite line from the movie.
1:03: A mention of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who McTiernan had just directed in Predator. Ooh, meta!
At least Holly's fashion sense is timeless...
1:04: Paul Gleason is Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and don't you fucking forget it. About eight years ago, I was in a Los Angeles hotel bar and sitting at the next table were Gleason and Robert Duvall. I mean, I get it, I was supposed to be more excited to see Duvall. The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, yadda, whatever. The entire time, though, I'm freaking out like a Die Hard fanboy (go figure) and fighting the urge to walk up to their table and gush, "Mr. Gleason, I'm a huge fan. I could be a fucking bartender for all you know!" I mean, how many people approach those two and recognize Gleason? I walked out that night already pissed I didn't act, because he might have actually gotten a kick out of it. When he died in 2006, I regretted it even more.
1:06: McClane's wife Holly, played by Bonnie Bedilia, informs the terrorists that a pregnant hostage really needs a couch. And that's a good cue to tell you we have a pregnant woman to thank for this movie: Cybill Shepherd. Willis originally had to turn down Die Hard, but when "Moonlighting" had to be shut down due to Shepherd's pregnancy, a window suddenly opened for him. So thanks, whoever knocked up Cybill Shepherd in 1987!
1:10: One of the invading cops pricks his hand on an outside bush, and reacts like a little girl. A little throwaway, blink-and-you'll-miss-it detail, but it's part of what separates this movie from the rest.
1:12: "Send in the car. Send in the caarrrr." If I was that guy, I'd have spent the last 20 years going, "You know, I was in Die Hard. Seriously, listen - 'Send in the caarrr.' Yeah, that was me! 'Send in the caarrr.' Yeah, Bruce and I are tight."
1:16: John McClane sends C4 down the elevator shaft and blows up the entire first floor. One of the most badass gut reactions in the history of cinema - even though I'm still not sure what it was supposed to accomplish. But it was fucking badass. Did I say that already?
1:18: "Glass? Who gives a shit about glass?" That's called foreshadowing, kids.
1:26: "Asian Dawn." Another one of my Die Hard-related fantasy baseball team names. There's going to be a quiz.
1:30: John McClane and Hans Gruber meet face-to-face for the first time. Now at what point does McClane see through Gruber's false American facade? I've always thought it was when Gruber didn't flinch at the European cigarettes, lighting one up like it was old hat. Thoughts?
1:40: McClane picks glass out of his feet, and bonds with Powell. An honestly touching moment, but not much fun to write about - so how about a quiz? True or false: The first person to play John McClane was Frank Sinatra. If you said false, you're - well, sorta correct. But only sorta. Alright, let me untangle this web: author Roderick Thorp wrote two novels featuring the same cop character: 1966's The Detective and 1979's Nothing Lasts Forever. The former was turned into a 1968 Sinatra film of the same name, and when Sinatra turned down a sequel, the latter eventually became - you guessed it - Die Hard. Thorp's character in the books and the first film, however, was named "Joe Leland"; the name "John McClane" was an invention of the Die Hard screenwriters. Thorp's story, however, remains largely intact: a group of German terrorists - led by a man named Gruber - take over a Los Angeles highrise and are ultimately foiled by a lone cop. So, ever so technically, Die Hard is a sort-of sequel itself.
1:42: Even stranger: Sinatra's The Detective featured the work of actor Lloyd Bochner. His son Hart would go on to play Ellis in Die Hard. Spooky.
1:46: John McClane cries, apparently after a heated debate on set as to whether an action hero has tear ducts. But again, not fun to write about. So how about a fun fact? The list of actors who turned down Die Hard is legendary: Sinatra first, then Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere, and even Burt Reynolds (remember, by 1988, Reynolds wasn't the guy from Smokey and the Bandit. He was the guy from Rent-a-Cop). I like the work of every one of those guys, but Die Hard couldn't have been DIE HARD without Bruce.
Yes, that could have been Burt Reynolds.
1:48: McClane and Alexander Godunov's Karl go mano-a-mano in what is really the only real fight of the film (McClane v. Karl's brother is over pretty quickly). Godunov was a classically trained ballet star who defected from Russia at the age of 29, leaving a wife behind. He moved to Hollywood, only to become the William Zabka of the late '80s, playing cads of varying degrees in Witness, The Money Pit and Die Hard. He barely worked after this film, likely due to severe alcoholism - which killed him in 1996. The more you know...
1:53: "Just like fuckin' Saigon, eh Slick?!" Beat. "I was in junior high, dickhead."
1:54-1:56: The tightest editing you'll see in any action movie. It's amazing how much tension McTiernan and Co. packed into those three minutes. (I've tried to find this clip on Youtube, but can only find the entire film. Fox's legal team needs to get on the ball.)
1:57: The helicopter explodes outside the window, McClane reacts by turning his head to the left. Seriously, they might as well have hired a black woman to be Willis's stunt double if they're going to be that obvious about it. A different nose, a different hairline, etc. I love, love, love this movie, but they could have gotten Willis to swing his head in that shot. He was just a TV star, after all.
2:05: Sgt. Powell gets his own little character arc as well, when he gets to shoot the still-alive Karl. To the tune of the Aliens soundtrack, oddly enough. Apparently McTiernan used a cut off the sci-fi classic's soundtrack during editing, and liked it so much it stayed. So you'll hear the same music when Karl meets his maker as when Ripley finally ejects the alien into space. Did you know that five minutes ago? Didn't think so.
2:06: Final "terrorists killed" score: McClane 9, Powell 1, two still alive. Maybe they'll return in part 5.
2:07: Ok, I'm a total nerd, I get it - but I do have an ever-growing collection of international Die Hard posters from 1988. Not only is it my favorite film, but it seems to have the most interesting, different, and at-times hilarious foreign titles. A sample: The Glass Jungle (Spain), Hard to Kill (Latin America), A Hard Nut to Crack (Russia), The Glass Trap (Poland), Too Tough To Die (Greece), Assault to the Skyscraper (Portugal), Operation Skyscraper (Norway), and my personal favorites, Hungary's Give Your Life Expensive and Thailand's Big Building Fight. I assume they didn't emulate those titles up to the present, with Give Your Life Expensive With A Vengeance or Live Free or Big Building Fight.
2:08: Fun credits fact, from Wikipedia: In the German dub of the film, the terrorists are turned into a mix of English and Italian baddies. The names "Hans" and "Karl" become "Jack" and "Charlie."