Die Hard is the Rio Bravo of the 1980s, a reflection of both its taut structure and execution as well as the sorry intellectual backslide in the three decades between the two films. It's big and loud and exceptionally stupid, which is precisely what it's striving to be. In fact, the writers sabotage the film's potential political subtext almost instantly, revealing the terrorists who seize the gaudy, modern Nakatomi Plaza spouting radical rhetoric to be nothing more than a pose for a group of avaricious thieves.
The film does, however, put forward a gentle class subtext: its hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), announces his working class roots when he steps off a plane -- an experience in and of itself he clearly knows little of -- and finds a limo waiting to take him to his wife, manned by a young, hip black kid too young and too laid-back for his job. The boy, Argyle, admits he's never driven a limo before, and McClane helpfully responds, "That's OK, I've never ridden in one." He sits in the front passenger seat and chats with Argyle, who chats and plays rap tapes that convey how clueless the two of them are with these luxurious new digs. McClane, a New York cop, didn't follow his wife to her lucrative new job in Los Angeles, and Argyle is savvy enough with his own kind to figure out that McClane hoped the offer would fall through and she might return to New York (the inference being his frustration at not being the primary breadwinner).
Director John McTiernan does not let us ponder these questions for long, however. He spends less than 20 minutes establishing John, his wife Holly (who has reverted to using her maiden name), the conflict between the two and the potential romantic and class rival of Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner). At around the 17-minute mark, McTiernan locks the doors, both on the towering business building and on the metaphorical cinema doors the audience might have walked out of, and proceeds to unleash hell. Narrative, character, subtext (ha) all take a backseat to the pure rush of the action.
Die Hard has everything: explosions, gunfights, no-nonsense black partners to offset the rash, loose-cannon white cop, a vault heist and a British actor playing a German villain. Most importantly, it gives audiences an action hero with whom they'd like to have a beer. John McClane sports a wife beater, a bad haircut and, due to the shock of the robbers' break-in, no shoes. Were we not already informed that he was a police officer, we might assume he was on his way to L.A. to appear on some tawdry daytime television show that airs the results of paternity tests to trash of all colors and creeds. But McClane is quick, with a dry wit and a certain composure under pressure that could never be called "grace" but is more likely to keep him alive. Unlike the invincible Nietzschian superheroes played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis' McClane looks like he takes every hit we see him receive: by the end of the film, he's such a bloody, shrapnel-riddled mess he inspires more fear through his ability to somehow stay on his feet as those other '80s protagonists did by emerging unscathed.
Those of my generation, those who grew up with the bald, flexing Willis, may not appreciate how funny Bruce Willis can be if given the right material -- his recent, dead-eyed plodding through Cop Out clearly does not represent the right material. He hit fame with Moonlighting, and he brings his deadpan delivery to this role. Try not to laugh when McClane narrowly escapes from heavy machine gun fire and nearly falls down an abysmal elevator shaft before finally pulling himself into a ventilation shaft, sarcastically sighing, "Come to the coast! We'll get together, have a few laughs!" That sense of fatalism and "it figures" attitude gives McClane an edge and a humanity where future Bruce Willis action protagonists (including the sequel iterations of McClane) give us only supermen.
Hell, Die Hard bursts at the seams with amusing gags and lines, most of them split between Willis' Joe Six-Pack sarcasm and Alan Rickman's unique approach to line delivery. He lets words ooze from his lips reluctantly, as if simultaneously sneering at the lines he's deigned to speak and unwilling to part with them. As British comedian John Sessions noted in his stellar impersonation of Rickman, the actor's lower lip almost never moves. His Hans Gruber provides a nice foil for McClane as the erudite, well-dressed vision of pure greed. He and his cohorts are (mostly) German, yes, but these cats are less Baader-Meinhof than Karl Lagerfeld. He breaks into an office building that inexplicably holds nearly a billion dollars in bearer bonds and assorted trinkets -- including a suit of samurai armor, presumably because Japanese businessmen always have one on hand, right? -- in order to increase his own profits: in this case, the rich eat themselves. On the ground outside the plaza, McClane finds a kindred spirit in Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the cop who investigates the place on a call from the trapped NY officer. They both deal with the staggering incompetence of both the head of the LAPD (played magnificently by Paul Gleason) and the FBI agents (both named Johnson; "No relation," says one, ignoring the hint of their different skin colors) sent to relieve Chief Robinson. If Die Hard has a political message to impart, it's that those with the authority don't know jack about shit, and they will always hamper the efforts of the subordinates who actually do know how to get things done.
But that is all secondary to the insurmountable pull of both McClane and the ingenious staging of Nakatomi Plaza. Like Rio Bravo and Precinct 13, the tower is at once spacious and claustrophobic, with the dimensions of the building further shrunk by the clever restriction of action to the top floors. The action rarely returns to the same room, though some look alike, yet the open, mostly unfinished rooms offer nowhere to run and only fleeting places in which to hide. The action constricts further as McClane escapes into the "guts" of the building, surrounded by pipes and shafts as he shoots at other men with guns (just in case the gender tension at the start of the film wasn't obvious enough). Somehow, this large/small building can withstand the sort of pressure normally spread out over entire cities, as the series of explosions that rock Nakatomi Plaza can rival the effects of the most epic war movies. If you want to see "stuff blowed up real good," as Roger Ebert always puts it, you'll find no better venue than Die Hard.
In fact, I find myself groaning now when I see the fleeting attempts to give this story any weight. The rapport between McClane and Powell is surprisingly heartfelt, all the more impressive given their constant physical separation. But the insertion of a scene meant to openly and unmistakably unite them, a dull, plodding cliché concerning Powell's accidental shooting of a minor, saps some of the effortless chemistry Willis and VelJohnson share. Holly becomes something of a Hawksian female as the film progresses, proving to be as sharp as her husband and as capable of facing down Hans, but she's still underutilized and exists mainly to affirm masculinity in the final moments through her reconciliation with her husband. But the film's gender and social politics are warped, and I would venture to say that I'm drawing them through my own reaching, not through any intended themes set by the writers or McTiernan. Its swipes at incompetent authority figures and the egotistical drive of the press are funny but simplified and lazy; it accepts those in charge and those tasked with delivering information as the sinister enemies of the Common Man, which predicts the current climate of social hysteria among some circles in Real America more than it reflects Reagan's era.
In another film these would be critical flaws, but Die Hard attains a certain timelessness precisely through its desperate attempt to play into no social message other than the glorification of the one man army, and even that is subverted through the amount of abuse piled on its hero. Its attention lies squarely on the framing and pacing of the action, which doesn't so much slow burn as burst into a cataclysm like napalm and rage until there is no more forest left to burn. The film embodies the sort of stupidity that only someone very clever could conceive, and when it ends with bearer bonds drifting down like snow as Vaughn Monroe sings "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" it's hard to call Die Hard anything but the best action film ever made.