By Kyle G. King. This is RETROGRADING, and now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.


THE FILM: Die Hard

THE TIME: 1988, when bam bam shoot ‘em ups had iron faced action heros who always had two guns, one objective, and zero social skills.

RECOLLECTIONS: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Chuck Norris kicked plenty of asses in that decade and all looked pretty macho cool while doing it. But when five-million dollar golden boy Bruce Willis arrived to the scene ($5 mil was a record deal at the time of his Die Hard contract), Willis brought with him the dry wit and caustic attitude that the genre severely lacked. John McClane was no robot-humanoid, he wasn’t a trained killing machine, he wasn’t part ninja. He was just a ornery New York beat cop, in the wrong damn place at the wrong damn time.

One of the most timeless and magnetic aspects of John McClane is his humanity. He misses his wife, he misses his kids, he’s all alone in New York and he’s across the country trapped in a building fighting a dozen terrorists all by himself. He never stands and fights any more than he has to — in fact most of the time his strategy is to shoot aimlessly while running in the other direction. He’s an underdog, and as such, he’s instantly worth rooting for.

The fact that he’s shoeless as a lost child for the film’s entire running time is yet another characteristic we can emphasize with. He’s the American Jackie Chan, before Jackie Chan came to America.

Along with the John’s lack of shoes, Die Hard has a dozen other very small character details and story elements that make it the touchstone of thrilling cinema it is. Both of the Feds are named Johnson, Sgt. Powell is seemingly obsessed with Twinkies, one of the henchman pauses before a gunfight to eat a candy bar — these are all very small, very silly things to put into an action movie, but all of them serve to remind us not to take everything so seriously. The people making Die Hard weren’t afraid to have fun and to show it, and the film benefits from that energy.

Which is not to say that Die Hard isn’t lacking in classic action movie moments. Willis is as cool muttering to himself as he is jumping off a building tied to a fire hose, or detonating C-4 down an elevator shaft. Die Hard lives on Willis’ performance, but the movie’s subtler flourishes have much broader, relatable, and yes, defiant ideas about the action genre as a whole hidden underneath its chutzpah.


THE DIRECTOR: Coming off the success of Predator, John McTiernan had his work cut out for him. But instead of going bigger and gorier and broader, he took a cliched script and turned it into a character-driven thriller. Making John McClane a “normal guy” simply caught in a situation with no other choice but to survive distinguishes Die Hard from its predecessors. It set a whole new tone for Hollywood action protagonists — and spurred a long line of inferior copycats (not to mention sequels).

Though McTiernan wasn’t the most prolific director — only 12 titles in 30 years of directing — Die Hard shook off any fears of a post-Predator sophomore slump, allowing him to continue his career working with top actors. (Most notably with Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October.) He went on to direct less worthy fare, like the notoriously inadequate Chris Klein vehicle, Rollerball, but McTiernan lives on in the hearts of cult action cinefiles through Die Hard.


THE CAST: It’s worth mentioning several more times that Die Hard would have been nothing without Bruce Willis. He was chosen due to his comedy work in the Moonlighting TV series, but was subsequently able to platform his career as one of the monumental action stars of our time from his performance as John McClane. But no hero is great without a worthy foe, and such grand worth is provided by the late Alan Rickman as mastermind German terrorist, Hans Gruber. In his first role outside of television, the British born actor gave Americans a fiercely smart yet ruthless performance. Just as McClane shook things up for the action hero paradigm, Gruber too provided a fresh breed of villain that always had the upper hand on his foe but lacked the grit to outlast him.

Reginald VelJohnson as street cop Al Powell gave Die Hard (and McClane) a constant backbone of support and heart. The bromance between the two cops is heartwarming as any meet-cute you could imagine — and their hug at the end satisfies the viewers investment. Die Hard is a movie anchored and driven by its engaging character study.


NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? A nostalgia-fest if there ever was one. As corny as it is fun and as original as it is trite, it’s the rare Hollywood diamond in the rough that can satisfy cinephiles and popcorn enthusiasts alike. Though the sequels it spawned are arguably less finely calibrated, Die Hard remains top of its 1988 class. In the wise words of Homer J Simpson: “Dear ‘Die Hard’, you rock. Especially when that guy was on the roof.”

RETROGRADE: 8.5 out of 10