Die Hard for the First Time

(This week marks the 30th anniversary of Die Hard, arguably the greatest action movie of all time. To celebrate, /Film is exploring the film from every angle with a series of articles. Today: someone who has managed to not see this classic checks it out for the first time with a fresh perspective.)

This year is the 30th anniversary of Die Hard, an action classic starring Bruce Willis as John McClane and Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber. It’s part of the fabric of American pop culture. References to Die Hard still show up in movies and television shows to this day and Willis’ turn as McClane has been endlessly modified and copied over the years. It seems everyone has seen Die Hard. Everyone but me.

Despite being very much alive in 1988, I grew up in an extremely sheltered environment. By the time I’d even heard of Die Hard, it would’ve been the late 1990s. Never one to look back, I focused on present-day pop culture. Nothing against the film, I just never got around to it. Until now. Will Die Hard hold up to the scrutiny of 2018 storytelling? Will it be too much a product of its time to be enjoyable? Without nostalgia-goggles, will I even see what the big deal is? There was only one way to find out.

What I Think I Know About Die Hard

Die Hard stars Bruce Willis as an “Average Joe” who goes to a Christmas party at a skyscraper back before they were called Holiday parties. Unbeknownst to Willis, said skyscraper is in the crosshairs of dastardly Russians who want to ruin festive cheer for everyone. With a bomb, maybe? I don’t know why they hate Christmas, but Russians in 1988 didn’t need reasons for their evil ways.

Somehow Willis isn’t in the room where the anti-Christmas hostage situation takes place, so it’s up to him to save the day. And maybe his family? Is he estranged from his wife? Anyway, at some point Willis loses his shoes, crawls through the ducts (with a lighter, I think?) and yells “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker” as he vanquishes the Russians. Willis may or may not be wearing an American flag as a cape with a bald eagle whizzing by behind him as he yells this catchphrase.

How Well Did I Do?

Pop culture osmosis is an imprecise mistress. While I’d picked up on the basic gist — the Christmas party, bare feet, the famous catchphrases — the specifics got lost in transference. To me, some of the most interesting garbling involves me mistaking Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber for Russian instead of German. Without knowing the villain’s name, my brain just inserted the most logical nationality for terrorists in the 1980s.

Does Die Hard Hold Up In 2018?

I’ll be honest: I was hesitant to take this project on. Die Hard is an iconic classic and my fear was this would turn into a burning of a sacred cow. And honestly? I don’t need the Twitter hassle. But then my husband reminded me that Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine-Nine loved the show and Jake was a good guy.

Luckily for fans everywhere (and my inbox), Die Hard holds up shockingly well in the cold light of intersectional 2018. It’s funny, it’s got a cast of diverse characters, and the action is both suspenseful and full of explosions. Of course, it’s not perfect. But Die Hard is a pretty decent time capsule of what modern society looked like in 1988. Let’s break it down.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me Die Hard Was Feminist As Hell?

When Die Hard opened with married John McClane checking out scantily clad girls at the airport, I didn’t have much hope for progressive values. But writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza surprised me. The over-arching theme of Die Hard is don’t be a “macho asshole” or you’re gonna get killed. The terrorists, the cocaine-addled budget Wallstreet Wolf, the cops, the FBI, all the men that leaned into the idea that real men attack first and think later ended up dead. Only McClane, who fought with more tactics, won the day.

Now pair that message with the B-Plot of Die Hard: toxic masculinity almost ruined McClane’s marriage. At the beginning of the film, McClane and his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) are on the verge of divorce. Not because one of them cheated, or is just a bad person, but because Holly got an amazing job. In a reversal of the norm for 1988, Holly is the ball-breaking breadwinner and John has been kind of an asshole about it. But over the course of the narrative, he comes to realize he should be proud of his wife. By the end of Die Hard, McClane has shed the insecurities about the unspoken social contract about gender roles and supports his wife’s ambition.

Also, and I know this is a low bar, but Die Hard passes the Bechdel Test multiple times, including when Holly calls home and when she talks to her secretary about going to join the party. It feels pertinent to mention it since even Star Wars didn’t manage to pass until Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

More Action Movies Need Dialogue Like Die Hard

Ask a fan of Die Hard what they love about the movie, and most of them will mention favorite lines such as the aforementioned iconic “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker” or “Now I have a machine gun.” Levity by way of off-color humor is a key staple of action films. But no one told me how well Die Hard captures the idiosyncratic nature of how people talk under stress. Seeing Bruce Willis toss off one-liners is satisfying, but listening to him whisper “Fuck” in frustration or “I’ll kill you” as he fights for his life to choke out yet another blonde German feels authentic.

It’s a great narrative detail that isn’t utilized often. Unless your action is taking place under stealth conditions, most human beings aren’t silent fighters. Sure, McClane is a police officer, but a cop is far cry from Rambo, and Die Hard isn’t afraid to show that. McClane fights hard and dirty, shouting insults and hurling epithets when he’s injured. Die Hard‘s hero is written to show emotion, the antithesis of the “macho asshole.” He cries in fear and frustration, he screws up the plan and improvises a new one. Most importantly, McClane knows he can’t take down a highly-trained terrorist group alone. He doesn’t tough it out, but spends the first half of the film trying to get the police to show up, and the second half assisting the cops even when they think he’s a villain. Is Die Hard the most layered action movie of the ’80s?

Not Everything Holds Up, Though

It’s been three decades since Die Hard was released in theaters. The world has changed a lot since then. While it holds up remarkably well, no film that is a product of its time is perfect. The problematic elements, however, do not overshadow the work itself. Yet they’re still there.

First and foremost, there’s the casual sexual harassment at the beginning of the film. Holly is just trying to do her job and her coked-up co-worker will not take no for an answer. Cokehead knows she’s married, he knows she’s not interested, and I’m pretty sure Holly is his boss (or at least they’re the same level of employee). Yet she’s written to brush him off politely, despite later going toe-to-toe with Hans while he has a gun.

Despite having a more diverse cast than I was expecting, Die Hard still leaned in on cringe-worthy stereotypes for the character of Argyle (De’voreaux White), a black man who, playing a chauffeur who is drunkenly oblivious to the danger for half the film, is comic relief. There’s also more than a whiff of racism when the cop speaking to McClane over the radio is disparaged by his commanding officer. Then there’s McClane casually being shitty to Holly’s Japanese-American boss when the former wonders if the office party is weird because do the Japanese even celebrate Christmas? Dude, Takagi (James Shigeta) was born in America. How do I now that? Because Hans Gruber monologued it at me.

You Can’t Do These Things Anymore

Almost from fame one, Die Hard basically smacks modern-day viewers with culture shock. John McClane is sitting on an airplane. Carrying a gun. No big deal, he’s a cop. Except off-duty cops can’t carry their firearms on commercial flights anymore. In 2018, seeing a gun on a plane would be like seeing a unicorn. Or a terrorist. Or a terrorist unicorn.

The film spins right from the gun into a montage of “Wow, things sure have changed in thirty years.” McClane smoking a cigarette in baggage claim. McClane getting in a limo with a driver that doesn’t know what he looked like and has never driven a limo before. Holly and her secretary joking that late pregnancy Christmas party drinking is totally normal and fine. McClane just walking right into a high-end office building after hours and not having to be buzzed into the lobby and forced to show I.D. before walking through a metal detector. McClane just getting off the floor of his wife’s company and the elevator opening into the office and not an anteroom with another buzzer door.

Then there’s the technology. Obviously, Die Hard would never work today unless the terrorists also had a device to jam cellphone signals. But besides the “cell phones would solve this” issue that 99.99% of movies made before cellphones have, there’s a ton of little quirks of the ’80s. The bulky touchscreen monitor and the throwaway line about the radio being a “party line” are two stand out moments. But my favorite was hands-down the fold-away computer embedded within the desk in Takagi’s office. It just encapsulates what bleeding edge technological systems looked like. Opulent and ridiculous, just like today.

The real kicker in how society has changed since Die Hard though is the behavior of the L.A.P.D. Never in our post-9/11, domestic-terrorism plagued country would a cop get annoyed by what are clear shots of gunfire coming through the radio transmission. A man claiming terrorists were in a prime downtown location would mobilize whole teams today, not a lone cop irritated by the distraction. Heck, I’m not even sure if a corporation could call the fire department in the year 2018 and say “Just kidding, no fire here. Turn around.”

So, is Die Hard Good?

Yes. Whether you missed it the first time around and never got back to it or were simply not alive until well after 1988, Die Hard is worth the two hours. A surprisingly progressive action film, it sags a little in the middle as the gunfights blur together, but the unique cast of characters and emotional stakes still land even after three decades. If you’ve been holding out on catching up with this seminal classic, do yourself a favor and dive in.

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