Friday, December 27, 2019

Green Phoenix - Die Hard Review

Die hard.jpg I know that the Nostalgia Critic just finished reviewing this film for his Christmas Day special, but I had this article ready for the past four weeks. I didn't copy him, I just wanted to talk about this film at Christmas too.

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Hope you all had a Happy Holidays! While I have taken most of December off to recollect myself and compile a stockpile of material for the coming year, I felt it would be a pleasant treat to give you all "Christmas" movie review to send the year off.

And what better movie to review than the most kick-ass Christmas movie of all time? An adaptation of the 1979 novel by Roderick Thorp's Nothing Lasts Forever, 1988's Die Hard has rightfully earned it place as one of the greatest action movies of all time.

Though the film's production history is one of false starts, recastings, and few expectations; it launched the action career of Bruce Willis and fundamentally shifted movie-goers expectations of what an action movie could be.

All with a wonderfully strange Christmas setting at its heart.

With that in mind, let's take a nice long look at Die Hard and end 2019 on a kick-ass action movie.

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  • Directed by John McTiernan
  • Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver
  • MPAA Rating: R
  • Running Time: 132 Minutes

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SUMMARY

NYPD Detective John McClane arrives in Los Angeles in order to patch things up with his estranged wife. While attending her company's Christmas party in the Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper, things take a turn when a group of terrorists take over the building and hold everyone inside hostage.

Now all alone and being hunted by both the terrorists and a confused and inept police force, McClane must rescue his wife, defeat the terrorists, and above all things...survive.

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REVIEW

Nanny Nanny Boo Boo!
I can hear the Scrooge's out there already.

BUT DIE HARD ISN'T A REAL CHRISTMAS MOVIE!!!!

Well to them I say...who cares? It's the holiday season and it's my movie review article.

Die Hard is a fan action-packed classic of the 1980s. It fundamentally transformed the careers of not only Bruce Willis, but also the perception of just what an action hero could really be. Films like John Wick and Taken owe so very much to Die Hard. And hey, it does take place during Christmas...so I think that counts.

And in the spirit of fun and a good time, let's take a look at this Christmas-set classic.

VISUALS - 8/10

It seems a little silly to be reviewing Die Hard and start with the visuals. This film isn't really notorious for its unique visual aesthetic, as much as it is for its story.

Image result for john mcclane
Trapped in a vent, talking to yourself. FUN! FUN! FUN!
That being said, this film does have a flair to it that is very much identifiable with its era of action movie. The film's utilization of its cramped and claustrophobic setting (a single man in a nearly empty skyscraper) is effective in making John McClane's struggle seem like an insurmountable one. In most action movies of this era, the usually eponymous action hero is almost always shown in a manner that makes them seem invincible. Comparing Die Hard with a film like Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes the real cultural impact of Die Hard all the more obvious.

If I had to give an action film that matched the tone visually of Die Hard, it would be 1982's First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone. Both utilize their setting and the visuals to give a sense of alienation and isolation in our main character. This goes so far in aiding the audience to empathize with McClane's struggle and root for a hero that isn't a superman, but an every-man.

And for that reason, I'm giving Die Hard a high visual score.

SOUNDTRACK - 7/10

The music of Die Hard was composed by Michael Kamen and even though it isn't a major piece of the film, used mostly to enhance the mood or sense of dread, there is a great deal more complexity under the surface.

Given the film's Christmas setting it should be no surprise that there are quite a few classic Christmas songs in the soundtrack. These stand on their own and don't really need to be mentioned other than how they totally help the film have a really unique holiday feel.

To be honest, there isn't a whole lot to say on this segment. The only thing I will make a point on is the use of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the section most commonly known as "Ode to Joy", as a leitmotif for Hans Gruber is absolutely spectacular and really gives him such a unique presence in the film.

For those of you unfamiliar, a leitmotif is a short musical phrase or piece that is tied to a specific character, place, or event. While the most important aspect of the leitmotif is to give a character a unique musical identity during a play, musical, or film; the leitmotif can be used for an even more critical feature. Using a leitmotif can give clues and hints in the narrative tied to a specific character or future event.

A great example, would be that of Darth Vader's theme in the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker has his own special theme and leitmotif throughout the Star Wars prequels. However, when Anakin does actions that are particularly villainous or not in alignment with his Jedi Code, you will often hear a few notes of Darth Vader's iconic theme. In this way, the film can subtly suggest Anakin's turn whole films before it actually occurs.

"Ode to Joy" works the same way in Die Hard, with the references in the film (and sequels in the case of Die Hard with a Vengeance) to Gruber always being accompanied by this bombastic holiday sounding classic. The fact that this song is also used goes a long way to show the disconnect at the heart of Alan Rickman's character. But I will go into more detail into that in the next section.

CHARACTERS - 9/10

Let's be honest. Most of you all know the characters in Die Hard. They have long entered the halls of iconic action characters. This is also helped by a largely small cast filled with eclectic and instantly identifiable personalities. There are 5 major characters at the crux of the film's primary story.

  1. John McClane - the protagonist cop trapped in the building
  2. Holly Gennero-McClane - John's wife who must hide her identity from the terrorists as John's exploits begin to gather their attention.
  3. Hans Gruber - The primary antagonist of the film, he gives off the image of a calm and collected sophisticate, but is, in truth, little more than a thief.
  4. Karl - Hans' second-in-command whose brother is killed by John McClane early in the film, becoming a secondary antagonist to our hero.
  5. Sgt. Al Powell - A disgraced Los Angeles cop who befriends John and becomes his ally on the outside of the building, as McClane battles not only the terrorists but an inept Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI.
While there are a handful of other characters, these five are the ones who go through the most growth and play the largest role in the film (though the douchebag reporter, played by William Atherson, has a fairly major third act impact that still pisses me off to this day).

What I find so incredible, especially in retrospect, is how good Bruce Willis is in this film. While he is now held among the high echelon of action movie stardom, before Die Hard, Bruce Willis' career was largely limited to playing the male lead in romantic comedies. The primary draw that Willis had was his lack of action movie chops, which helped to sell McClane's everyman aspect and made the film all the more stressful. Director John McTiernan really took a risk with this film by hiring Willis, but I feel like it was so incredibly necessary. The key to this film's pacing and tense is in John McClane ever present mortality, the sense that he could die at any moment and has no control over anything but himself. In most 80s films, you never doubted the lead characters power. In Die Hard, McClane's powerlessness is his most endearing trait.
Image result for hans gruber
I wish I could look that cool when I didn't give a shit.

But McClane's everyman nature is only one-half of the puzzle. What is a hero without their accompaniying villain, Die Hard has one that has gone down in history as one of the greatest action movie villains in history. In many 80s action films, the villain is some big muscular meathead, or some power-hungry dictator with a powerful army (see the Rambo movies or Commando). In Die Hard, Hans Gruber, played by the late great Alan Rickman, has the appearance of a beleaguered businessman. He is constantly giving off a front of sophistication, when he is little more than an ambitious thief. But the sheer charisma and charm, overlaying barely contained frustration and violence creates someone who is more cerebral and unpredictable than your standard action movie villain. GOD, RICKMAN WAS SO DAMN GOOD IN THIS ROLE. I MISS HIM!!!!


In summary, the characters in this are absolutely incredible. Even as I find myself frustrated and cussing out the inept police department, the egomaniacal FBI agents, or laughing at the good-humored and fairly jovial terrorists; this film instantly makes you identify and sympathize with McClane's plight, which ultimately aids in getting us as the audience invested in the story.

Speaking of...

STORY - 9/10

Die Hard is such a great story, especially for an action film. Most action films from this era don't exactly have a great track record on subtlety and subtext, preferring to be loud and exhilarating. But at the heart of this film is a critique of the shallow theater which characterized American culture in the 1980s. John McClane is a no-nonsense police officer who neither understands or participates in the strange show and dance that his wife engages in at her workplace, and this inability to act has estranged the two. He is quite literally without shoes and supplies, trapped even before the terrorists attack the complex.

Image result for Harry Ellis
God that smile is so...sleazy.
Those terrorists speak to the same theme as well. Using Gruber's history of poltiical extremism, they off the appearance of political dissidents but are little more than ambitious thieves. Hans Gruber gives the appearance of an intelligent sophisticant and, in many ways, is more similar to Harry Ellis, the sleazy businessman seeking Holly's affections. Ellis is treated as a counterpart to McClane, the quintessential 1980s metrosexual business executive (almost straight out of something like American Psycho). And when placed in the same situation as McClane, Ellis fumbles and ultimately loses his life.


Die Hard is a criticism of the shallowness and emptiness of 1980s American culture, and even its setting of Christmas time speaks towards that theme. A time of giving and family is surrounded by greed and estrangement. My goodness this story is so incredibly good and now I want to watch the movie again.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It's Die Hard. One of the most famous and most critically acclaimed action movies of all time. The fact that it has a Christmas theme was honestly just an excuse on my part to geek out about a wonderfully written and performed action drama.

Strong characters trapped in a stifling and cramped setting creates a seriously stressful and frustrating battle between an all too mortal man and a seemingly unstoppable and intelligent opposition. Add in a period-standard inept police force, a cold unfeeling governmental agents, and drunk 80s business folks; and you have a recipe for by far my favorite 80s action movie.

I only wish the sequels had managed to maintain the same level of quality. But it is what it is.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and I will be back next week with a short editorial looking back on my articles for 2019 and seeing what you all read, liked, and disliked.


VISUALS
  • 8/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 7/10
CHARACTERS
  • 9/10
STORY
  • 9/10

 FINAL SCORE - 8.25/10

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