Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Andrew J. Douglas: Three Reasons Why I Love DIE HARD

Yippee-ki-yay! Bryn Mawr Film Institute kicks off its Summer Classics series tonight with Die Hard at 7:00 pm! The film will be introduced by our Director of Education, Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., and our Programming Manager Valerie Temple, M.F.A.  Keep reading for three reasons why Andrew loves the '80s action classic.

Three Reasons Why I Love Die Hard
By Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., Director of Education, BMFI

There are lots of reasons to appreciate Die Hard. Its witty repartee, modest twist, soundtrack that incorporates both Beethoven and Run D.M.C., and initiation of the slick, eurotrash phase of Hollywood villainy all deserve mention, as do a few other, more analytical reasons that we’ll be discussing in the class I’m co-teaching with BMFI programmer Valerie Temple, M.F.A., Action Films as Art, beginning tonight—the very night BMFI is screening Die Hard on 35 mm. But for now, I’d like to focus on three other reasons this movie holds a special place in my heart.

Without Die Hard, we wouldn’t have...

1) ... THE GLORIOUS CAREERS OF Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, John McTiernan, and Reginald VelJohnson, who would not be where or who they are today without their work on Die Hard.

Bruce Willis, co-starring in Moonlighting (1985-89) with Cybill Shepherd, was a roguishly charming television actor (back when they didn’t jump to the movies all that often) who’d starred in two duds for waning comic genius Blake Edwards, Blind Date (1987) and Sunset (1988), in which he played a man on a very bad date with Kim Basinger (redundant?), and silent-era western star Tom Mix solving a mystery alongside James Garner’s Wyatt Earp, respectively.

The Lone Ranger: John McClane (Bruce Willis) on the look out for terrorists in Die Hard.

But when Die Hard was released in on July 15, 1988, his career changed forever. While he would remain with Moonlighting for one more season, the success of Die Hard meant that the rest of Willis’s career (other than the occasional cameo on a show like Friends) would be in the movies. So, you can thank Die Hard for Willis’s work in Death Becomes Her, Pulp Fiction, Nobody’s Fool, 12 Monkeys, Armageddon, The Siege, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable. Of course, you can also blame it for Look Who’s Talking, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk, Striking Distance, Color of Night, and many, many more. Actually, I really like Hudson Hawk, but that’s another blog post for another day.

Alan Rickman spent the decade before Die Hard came along carving out a nice little career for himself on the British stage and small screen. But after Die Hard came his wonderfully dastardly turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), his romantic role in Sense and Sensibility (1995), a hilarious performance in Galaxy Quest (1999), and some work in a few movies about a child wizard that I never saw and have no interest in seeing. Why? That’s another blog post for another day.

Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) wants to know where his detonators are in Die Hard.

After graduating from the American Film Institute, John McTiernan wrote and directed the utterly forgettable Nomads (1986), and directed the ludicrously fun—and quite profitable—Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Predator (1987), before taking on Die Hard. After its success, McTiernan’s next film was The Hunt for Red October, which is, for my money, one of the best cinematic adaptations of a (dense, jargon-laden, at times dry) novel ever made in Hollywood. He would also go on to make the second best film in the series he began, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and the Pierce Brosnan-Rene Russo version of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), which, while flawed, is highly entertaining. Of course, he also unnecessarily revisited Rollerball (2002), brought the sickly Medicine Man (1992, launcher of a thousand poor Sean Connery impressions, including my own) to the screen, and helmed Last Action Hero (1993). This last film, despite having a reputation as one of the biggest bombs ever, actually has some things to recommend it. But that’s another blog post for another day.

Director John McTiernan (right) preps actors Rickman (left) and Willis (center) for battle.

Reginald VelJohnson starred in the saccharine sitcom Family Matters (1989-98), which ran for eight seasons on ABC and one on CBS for a total of 215 episodes. It gave the world Urkel, and also is, at least according to Wikipedia, “the third-longest-running U.S. sitcom with a predominantly African American cast, behind The Jeffersons and Tyler Perry's House of Payne.” I find this piece of trivia troubling on a few levels, but that’s another blog post for another day (and probably another blog, as well).

2) ... DIE HARD II: DIE HARDER (1990), DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, AND LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007), none of which is as good as the original, are all entertaining and all have something to recommend them.

The sequel to the original lives up to its unofficial subtitle by raising the stakes and painting on a bigger canvas. While this eliminates some of the tension and intimacy of the original, it allows for bigger action, grander set pieces, and more colorful characters, like Dennis Franz, the blowhard police chief of Dulles International Airport (where the bulk of the film is set) and Fred Dalton Thompson, the Foghorn Leghorn-like Chief of Operations at Dulles. There are also snowmobiles, exploding jetliners, John Amos, and William Sadler (Heywood in The Shawshank Redemption) doing martial arts while naked. Why is this worthy of praise? That’s another blog post for another day.

By 1995, the careers of both Bruce Willis and John McTiernan had cooled. Sure, Willis was acclaimed for his smaller turns in movies like Pulp Fiction and Nobody’s Fool, but he’d been starring in dreck like Striking Distance and North, and very few people had the refined taste needed to appreciate his so-called vanity project, Hudson Hawk. McTiernan had scored with The Hunt for Red October, but then proceeded to damage his reputation by directing Medicine Man and Last Action Hero. The (relative) career desperation that led this pair to re-team for Die Hard with a Vengeance was a blessing for fun-loving movie fans everywhere. While this second sequel raises the stakes yet again and uses an even larger canvas (Manhattan), it recaptures some of the magic of the original by:

  • pitting McClane against another euro-baddie, this time deliciously played by Jeremy Irons
  • combining the narrative duties of Al Powell and Holly into the alternately combative and supportive Zeus (a refreshing Samuel L. Jackson)
  • staging and shooting the action in a fresh and exciting way, which is one of the things McTiernan brought to the original and Renny Harlin couldn’t find (with a map and a flashlight) for the first sequel. If you don’t believe me, go back and look at the dynamic camera movement during the high-speed chase/shootout on the parkway, or the cab ride through Central Park, which also features one of the best-delivered mime jokes of all time. Why is disregard for mimes a touchstone that, in this case, is used to signal the working-class, everyman nature of John McClane? That’s another blog post for another day (and probably another blogger, as well).

Twelve years later, Willis would return as John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard, directed by the whiz kid behind the Underworld movies, Len Wiseman, whose real claim to fame is that he got Kate Beckinsale to marry him. (I don’t think the magnitude of this achievement requires another blog post or another day to establish or explain, at least not to anyone who’d be reading a very lengthy blog post on Die Hard.) The stakes don’t seem quite as high in this one (it’s about a cyber-attack on the U.S. infrastructure, which is only slightly more engaging than a trade embargo), and the canvas—the whole Northeastern U.S.—is too arguably too big, but there some things worth recognizing in this third sequel:

  • The family is brought back into the mix, in the form of McClane’s now college-aged daughter, after sitting out the 1995 installment. This is a key ingredient to the appeal of the series, and one that was almost entirely overlooked in the second sequel.
  • Kevin Smith has a small role as a geek who lives in his mother’s basement. This shockingly bold casting choice here is worthy of praise in and of itself.
  • Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q, as the two main baddies, were surprising choices for these parts, and they add some class and grace to the proceedings.
  • It has one of the best titles possible for an action movie. Not only is it patriotic, and not only is it an ultimatum, it is also a state motto—New Hampshire’s motto, in fact. I think there should be more movies with titles derived from state mottos and nicknames (that AREN’T directed by Zach Braff), and I have some ideas on this front, but that’s another blog post for another day.

3) ... (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER) SPEED, UNDER SIEGE, PASSENGER 57, THE ROCK, AIR FORCE ONE, TOY SOLDIERS, EXECUTIVE DECISION, while certainly having their share of flaws (and in some cases, more than their share—I’m looking at you, Passenger 57), are among the (variably) entertaining movies that are undeniably derived from Die Hard. What makes each of these movies entertaining to one degree or another? Once more, with feeling: “That’s another blog post for another day.”

Dr. Douglas received his Ph.D. from the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He will introduce BMFI's 35 mm screening of Die Hard tonight at 7:00 pm and is also co-teaching the four-week class Action Films as Art (with Valerie Temple), which begins tonight.


  1. Andrew, it was a great first class on action films. Interesting note about Willis: He turned down the lead in Ghost with wife Demi Moore beasue he said he "didn't get it." My guess is that he accepted The Sixth Sense, realizing he wasn't going to make that mistake again.

    Gus Cileone

  2. i agree with you die hard really nice movie ever and ever