Die Hard is obviously a movie I’ve seen before, and is now firmly a Christmas tradition thanks to my in-laws. That said, as I’ve started writing this blog and thinking more seriously in movies about general, I watched it this year with a fresh pair of eyes.
When I was a college student who fancied himself a film student despite lack of a film major, I used to pontificate that Die Hard represented a sea change in the action movie. Gone were the days of Commando, where Schwarzenegger dispatches 50-some goons and the big bad guy with only a knife wound to show for it; John McClane could get hurt – and did. (As a huge Arnold fan in the 80s – he remains the only celebrity I’ve ever written a fan letter to – I kind of lamented this transition.) That vulnerability, I used to say, changed action movies.
That said, it was nothing like the change that came later. Comparing Die Hard to its sequels and its inevitable knock-offs, the first thing I noticed was the realness of it. There is no CGI in the movie. That’s an actual stuntman falling 100 feet at the end. That’s an actual police car going backwards off of a parking lot wall. Those are actual helicopters flying around downtown LA (this one even I couldn’t believe). In an era when 50 helicopters could buzz LA thanks to CGI, it makes the realness of Die Hard that much more impressive.
The second thing I noticed (and this is where my wife rolls her eyes at what I’m paying attention to when I watch a movie), is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of B roll, second unit, assistant director scenes. The one that blew my mind was near the end, when McClane is firing his gun to scare the hostages off the roof as the FBI helicopters circle. McTiernan shoots McClane in full and 3/4 shots from the roof, then the FBI agents in over the shoulder medium shots from the helicopter. During the FBI shots, in the background and not really in focus, you can see muzzle flashes from McClane’s gun and people running on the roof. This means that either the scenes were shot simultaneously (pretty doubtful), or McTiernan had people – whether stars, doubles, or extras – on the roof JUST TO BE IN THE BACKGROUND for the FBI shots. It would’ve been easy to have shot the helicopter scene in a studio, with some blurred lights standing in for the background. Or overhead the building for multiple takes with no one on the roof. But he didn’t. That’s commitment. (As an aside, McTiernan ascribes to a filmmaking philosophy called “zero point cinema” which requires the director to be “neutral” and move the camera only in relation to the “physical movement of the character” and not “emotions.” It’s not clear if this is behind his drive for realism, but it makes sense if the camera is capturing the action that that action be accurately represented.)
Even though it was fun to see these scenes in a new light, it didn’t diminish what Die Hard is. It’s tightly paced and edited (it clocks in at barely 2 hours – imagine how long it would be today) with a great premise and a great cast. In the end, though, it’s just a phenomenally fun action film. The AV Club had an interesting piece on the lack of action in today’s action movies, and it specifically mentions Die Hard. So while it may have been the “new breed” of action movie in 1988, today I think of it more as the gold standard.