One of the greats of the action genre, John McTiernan’s Die Hard turns 30 this year. The movie that made Bruce Willis a movie star and spawned four sequels of wildly varying quality returns to Blu-ray with a 30th anniversary edition that takes us back to Nakatomi Plaza. However, there’s not much new to this 30th anniversary edition; it’s the exact same edition of the film that was previously released by Fox Home Entertainment. If you already own Die Hard, there’s nothing new here for you to make the double dip unless you’re wanting to upgrade to the 4K edition.
In its early stages of development, Die Hard wasn’t anything similar to the action-thriller we know and love today. In 1966, novelist Roderick Throp scored a hit with The Detective. It was adapted into a film in 1968 with Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, playing the lead of Joe Leland. In 1979, Thorp wrote a sequel, Nothing Lasts Forever, which after a number of different iterations would eventually morph into Die Hard. A clause in Sinatra’s Detective contract obligated that any sequel be offered to Sinatra, meaning the 73-year-old entertainer was offered the lead in Die Hard. Eventually, 20th Century Fox was able to secure John McTiernan as the director, Jeb Stuart and Stephen E. de Souza to write the script, and got Bruce Willis to star as John McClane, the New York City cop who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Willis was considered a gamble in the lead role. He wasn’t considered an action star. The rising star was only known for his work on the TV show Moonlighting, which highlighted his comedic chops and not his ability to convincingly take down a high rise full of terrorists. Here is a gamble that paid off handsomely for everyone involved. Die Hard was an instant smash that reshaped the action genre. Bruce Willis was propelled to superstardom and became an action movie icon. 20th Century Fox had what would become a franchise, one that 30 years later is still a money maker with a fifth sequel rumored to be in development.
Die Hard spawned more imitators than most movies. “Die Hard on a…” became shorthand for action pitches. Speed was Die Hard on a bus. Sudden Death was Die Hard in a hockey arena. Under Siege was Die Hard on a battleship. White House Down was Die Hard in the White House. Die Hard 2: Die Harder was Die Hard in an airport.
Every knockoff and every Die Hard sequel (with the exception of With a Vengance) forgets what makes Die Hard so unique in its genre and why it continues to endure – vulnerability. John McClane has become synonymous with action hero tough guy, but in the 1988 original he’s much more fragile than you remember. McClane is vulnerable physically and emotionally on a level that’s rarely seen in these kind of macho shoot ‘em ups. Not only is the hero vulnerable because of his bare feet, but he’s emotionally vulnerable because of an uneasy reunion with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).
Counteracting the wounded everyman nature of John McClane is the educated villain Hans Gruber, played by the late great Alan Rickman. The role of Gruber was Rickman’s first major film role. As McClane navigates Nakatomi Plaza barefoot and improvising with each unexpected twist and turn thrown his way, Gruber is operating by a meticulous plan. The protagonist and antagonist operate as oil and water in their respective roles. There’s no ambiguity in the difference between these two, which makes their climactic showdown all the more fun when McClane is out of options and improvises a daring victory.
Die Hard is also great because it’s one of those movies that is overflowing with memorable characters in smaller roles. Hart Bocher as the coked-out would-be corporate raider Ellis leaves a remarkable impression in his short sniffle-filled scenes. Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) provides McClane with a sidekick he’s never met, a confidante who has to deal with the more bureaucratic law enforcement honchos (played memorably by Paul Gleason, Robert Davi, and Grand L. Bush). Argyle the limo driver (played by De’voreaux White) is one of those roles that would be practically anonymous in most films and yet he’s not only crucial to the plot but full of personality that leaves an impression. As the most memorable of Hans Gruber’s henchmen, Alexander Godunov chews the scenery as the menacing, vengeance-seeking Karl and Clarence Gilyard, Jr. has his scene stealing moments as the wisecracking techie dismantling the security systems at Nakatomi.
It’s been 30 years since John McClane first figured out what TV dinner feels like, and Die Hard still feels as fresh and thrilling as the first time it screened. It’s an iconic movie that has only grown in stature over the years. Of course, part of its increased relevance is the instance by people every year to remind everyone who never asked that Die Hard is a Christmas movie – yes, it is and so is Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and a few other action classics (some of which were not written by Shane Black). Die Hard is a great movie that transcends its genre, and it’ll be talked about for at least another 30 years.