What elevates Die Hard above every other cheesy action flick of the ‘80s?
Because make no mistake, this is precisely what it is. The sub-genre Alpha, the cheesy ‘80s action non plus ultra. What exactly differentiates it from, say, Above The Law, Steven Seagal’s debut released the same year?
It’s a scale thing. Most action films push to be bigger, more impressive. Die Hard keeps it small, confined. Look at John McClane, as we’re introduced step-by-step. It starts with a vulnerability: John McClane doesn’t like flying.
A stranger gives the invaluable advice to take his shoes off, make a fist with his toes. We’ll return to this later, but for now it’s time for the next step in our introduction: John McClane carries a gun. An action hero, maybe. Bruce Willis passes this off with easy charm. Don’t worry, I’m a cop.
Quickly, the pendulum swings back again: John McClane pulls a huge teddy bear from the overhead locker. It’s not a joke the way it would be if it was Arnie holding that teddy; not a sneer from an hard-man acting against type. It’s a warm little smile. This isn’t Arnie; it’s Bruce Willis. It’s different now, but at the time Willis was only known for his role in as the romantic lead of TV show Moonlighting.
Bruce Willis is a good everyman actor. An everyman with plenty of cool and a slight hard edge, but just a bloke like us all the same.
Lest we forget about that cool, though, we’re representing with a long shot of McClane and the bear, as he lights a cigarette and takes a single weary drag. In a series of quick signifiers – vulnerability, gun, teddy bear, cigarette – the character is laid out.
Of course, soon enough a bunch of Eurotrash terrorists take over Nakatomi Plaza and the running and gunning begins, but it’s vital that Die Hard took that time. The rest of the film cashes in what has been set up, hammering home McClane’s vulnerability over and over. He’s wearing a vest, showing all that soft squishy flesh, for a reason.
After all, most of the protagonists in action films are beyond relating to, either in what they can do or how they can act. Or, in many cases, both. To take a quick example from lower down the list, look at Arnie as the Terminator. He’s physically hardy– we see him take explosions to the face –but his behaviour is similarly inhuman, strong, invulnerable. (Which is kind of the point, as the whole film is him overcoming this and learning to be a person, but nevertheless…) It’s an interesting comparison with the other action films I love; take next week’s film, which emphasises the humanity of its heroes even more, but gives us people capable of incredible feats. John McClane is a bloke with a gun.
Die Hard goes to great lengths to set up its hero’s vulnerability, how supple and soft the flesh is, before it takes out the first nail and starts to hammer it in, as the gates and shutters come down and lock us inside Nakatomi Plaza. Looking at other action films, it’s remarkably small. John McClane isn’t saving the world, he’s fighting for the dignity of a single building. Relatively speaking, the stakes are pretty low, but they’re well established.
It’s claustrophobic, full of air vents; closed where most action films are open. The enemy are finite, laid out precisely: one guy versus twenty. Knowing the exact odds, there’s a simple mathematical pleasure to seeing them slowly climb in McClane’s favour with every baddie he takes down.
At the end of the day, Die Hard isn’t transcendent of its genre. It is precisely a cheesy ‘80s action film. But in its execution it is a masterclass, taking every opportunity to set up a credible threat. More importantly, taking every opportunity to create a fully human action hero, one who can be hurt. Most importantly, making us care that he might be.