When Die Hard first hit theaters in 1988, I was 12 years old. I remember my dad taking my brother and I to go see it, because he was a big action fan. I remember loving it, and I remember thinking how great Bruce Willis was because at the time, he was a big star on TV with Moonlighting. I watched a lot of television as a kid. Since that time I've grown quite obsessive with this film. I can truthfully say I've probably seen it hundreds of times since then. Sometimes I'll take a long break, maybe a few years, and then revisit it again and I'm still always surprised at just how great it is. Not just as an action film, but as a whole.
When I was visiting Austin, TX for a few days a month ago, I noticed that they had a planned screening of Die Hard at one of the local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's, specifically, the one known as The Ritz on 6th Street. The date was set for a Sunday night at 10 PM, 2 weeks from the day I was there. I knew that I just had to experience this classic on the big screen. Even though we were just there (we live 5 hours away), I begged my wife to let me go back in 2 weeks. I just had to fucking see this on the big screen. I mean, how many chances will I ever get again? Or would the opportunity ever pop up again in my lifetime? I wasn't ready to take that chance. Luckily, she was cool with it. I'm a lucky guy!
I live in a small town where we don't get any special screenings and we don't have any special theaters, so this was a big deal. I guess I've been lucky in that Cinemark does do the special screenings of classic films as part of their weekly "Classic Film Series". Though I kick myself for missing the screening of 2001, I am forever grateful that I was able to see other personal favorites like Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange recently. These experiences, especially Blade Runner, were simply amazing for a filmgeek like myself, and Die Hard was no exception.
One of the differences between these special screenings and seeing them when they're originally released theatrically is that most of the people attending these special screenings are huge fans of these particular films. They've already seen them countless times and they're going into these again as fans. It's almost a totally different experience. You already know what to expect, and that's part of the fun. With Die Hard, this fandom was on full display as the theater was packed with lifelong Die Hard fans. Every little quip, every little snarky remark, and every little smirk garnered a laugh from the crowd. The first moments that Hans Gruber uttered a word, the crowd was hanging onto every single syllable, laughing under their breath at how grande, cheesy, and completely memorable Alan Rickman was making the character. Still to this day, almost 30 years later, Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber remains one of the best villains to ever grace the screen. But that's the thing with Die Hard. It ultimately became the best of so many different things in so many different areas. But more on that later.
The crowd was on a natural high throughout the entire film. The presenter came out and spoke a few words beforehand on how special this film is, how it managed to get practically everything right, and why it's retained the title of best action film of all time, nearly 3 decades later. His words were spot-on and echoed the entire crowds sentiments. Shit, he even hit on the Johnson & Johnson FBI agents! He asked if there was anyone in the theater that had not seen the film before, and 2 women raised their hands. Nobody gave them a hard time though, just a slightly audible gasp was heard all around. But it was actually a good thing that there were a few who hadn't seen it before, because as the film played, you knew exactly who they were. They yelled, laughed, and had the most enthusiastic reactions to everything. It was awesome. A lot of us take for granted the fact that we've seen it countless times already, and we know what's coming next. We still react, but just not in the way we did that very first time. It's special that first time and the 2 women who were experiencing Die Hard for the very first time were so audibly enthralled that they just didn't care who could hear them. We all laughed, but with a genuine fondness for how endearing it was and remembering what it was like for us that first time all those years ago.
|Image courtesy of Bluray.com
It's all put together in such a clever way that nothing is dated, or feels forced. Even if you've seen it countless times like most of us have, you still laugh because it's still funny. So much of that falls squarely on Bruce Willis' shoulders. His timing is impeccable, and delivery even better. His snarky sarcastic sarcasm comes off as charming, when it would come off as being an asshole from anybody else. That was his superpower. He could make you like him, even when he was being a jerk because he was so fucking charming at it. At least for a time. I'll admit, I don't think much of the man he is today. He comes off as a moody old grump. Even in interviews today, he seems disconnected from everyone and acts as if he's too important to sit there and answer questions. Gone is the genuine enthusiasm and excitement. He used to be charming and funny. He just now comes off as arrogant and grumpy, which is pretty sad. I remember when he was trying to hit it big in the music industry while he was on his Die Hard high, though that passion began years earlier. Looking back on old footage of him performing at concerts, commercials and interviews trying to promote his alter ego Bruno, he just seemed like a lot of fun and a down to earth guy at the time.
One of the highlights of this recent experience at the Drafthouse was that the theater played a long list of video's, concert footage and commercials from the early days of Bruce Willis's career. It's pretty fucking hilarious and the perfect accompaniment to the presentation while we waited for the film to start.
Director John McTiernan had just come off of directing Predator the year before. Before that, his only other film was a thriller he wrote and directed called Nomads, which was a straight-to-video release. It's crazy to think that this guy came out of nowhere to deliver 2 genre defining films in the span of just a year or two. You can say that with this one-two punch, McTiernan solidified his status as one of the best action directors on the planet for a short period of time. He wouldn't hold onto that mantle for very long though.
Script duties went to Jeb Stuart and 80's action legend Steven E. de Souza, who cowrote the razor sharp script together. Really, if you are a fan of 80's and 90's action, these two men need no introduction. Jeb Stuart began his career writing this film, and went onto to deliver other hard-hitting films like Leviathan, Lock-Up, Another 48 Hrs., and The Fugitive. de Souza however has been a powerhouse of talent going all the way back to the early 70's. His big peak was in the 80's and 90's writing certified genre classics such as Commando, The Running Man, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, 48 Hrs., Ricochet, Judge Dredd, Streetfighter, and a whole slew of others. The man's a legendary genius in the action genre.
Bruce Willis had already starred in 2 other films (comedies) before this career-defining role, and was nearing his end as the co-star of Moonlighting, which would end the following year in 1989. Willis could easily have stayed on this trek and continued to do nothing but action films, but for either good or bad (you decide), he took this opportunity to try different things, dipping his toes into nearly every genre out there, including family films almost immediately. It makes sense though as his big break came in comedy and it was a genre he was comfortable with. He used his star power to fund projects as well, most notoriously Hudson Hawk (1991), a huge misfire. It's one of those you either love it or hate it kind of films. I personally don't like it. I tried watching it once and just couldn't finish it. It was all too silly for me. Though he mingled with dramas, independent films, comedies and even guest stints on shows like Friends, he always came back for an action film. Sometimes you'd even forget he was still around as his stature began to decline a bit, only to see him strike gold again with something like Pulp Fiction (1994), a rare gig where he was part of an ensemble rather than the star. I wish I could say that he's still a big deal, but the sad truth is that he's not. I think some of that is of his own doing though. The guy is still crazy busy though, never taking any time off. It's just that now when you see him in something, it's more of a gimmick.
I think one of the craziest things you notice as an adult that you didn't when you were a kid is just how weird the group of terrorists are in terms of nationalities. Like, Hans Gruber is German, but his large entourage of bad guys are all over the place, coming from the U.S., Italy, Germany, Al Leong!!, and Austria. It's a small little tidbit you don't put too much thought into until you're an adult, and then you think "How and why are these guys working for Hans Gruber?".
When it comes to the inevitable sequels, I stick to the original trilogy strictly. I will admit that it took me a long, long time to fully appreciate Die Hard with a Vengeance. At first I didn't like it for a number of reasons, but when you compare it to any of the Die Hard's that came after it, well it's damn near a masterpiece compared to those. I've since learned to like and embrace the things I didn't like about it initially. With Die Hard 2 though, well that's always been my favorite personally. Sure it's pretty similar to the first one, but there's just something about it that I love so much. In fact, I revisit Die Hard 2: Die Harder more than I do this first film. It's not a better film, but for me, it's a more enjoyable one, and compared to the first one, DH2 looks and feels much more like a Christmas movie than this one does. I watched Live Free or Die Hard once, and will never watch it again. And I have no desire to see any that came after. What bothers me the most, aside from the look, feel, and bad direction, is that John McClane does not look or act like John McClane anymore. He's somehow turned into an invincible superhero, and with the whole shaved head look and leather jacket, well that's just not the John McClane I want to see in a Die Hard film, even if he is 30 years older.
Having seen this film more times than I can remember, getting to revisit it as an adult inside a packed theater with others who are just as passionate about it, if not more, as I am was a completely different experience altogether. My 12 year old self enjoyed what I saw that very first time in 1988 (as much as a 12 year old kid can), but my 40 year old self this past Christmas was captivated and I'll never forget it.