DIE HARD: Benefits of a Classical Education

Die HardDie Hard (1988) – Directed by John McTiernan – Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush, De’voreaux White, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta, and William Atherton.

John McTiernan will never win an Academy Award for Best Director, but he directed Predator, DIE HARD, and The Hunt for Red October.

In a row.

So f*ck you, Oscar.

If you’ve been reading the Anxiety for any length of time, you darn well that the two greatest action movies of my lifetime are DIE HARD and Casino Royale. Make no mistake where I’m coming from here – I’m not giving these two films simply the compliments of genre. DIE HARD and Casino Royale are cinematic masterpieces that can stand alongside any film ever made in my eyes. That the Academy would never recognize a film like DIE HARD goes a long way to explaining why I think awards are bullsh*t. (That awards are arbitrary popularity contests goes a long way to completing that explanation. That I’m the kind of person that is eternally, creatively restless is the icing on that cake.) What films were nominated for Best Picture in 1989?

Rain Man, Dangerous Liaisons, The Accidental Tourist, Mississippi Burning, and Working Girl.

That’s right, Working Girl. The year DIE HARD was released, the Academy chose to nominate a romantic comedy about a secretary who uses her boss’ injury to climb the corporate ladder by hooking up with someone in power at the company and getting her ideas heard. It’s a paean to upward mobility, to the fact that working class has not only value in the world, but that they can do their superiors’ job even better than the bosses can. At the end of the film, Melanie Griffith’s Tess is rewarded for all the hilarity that has ensued by getting her own big fancy office, secretary, and paycheck.

Working Girl stars a bunch of popular Hollywood folk (Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Melanie Griffiths), was directed by Mike Nichols, and perpetuates that myth of the American economic ladder.

In contrast, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a guy the Academy doesn’t understand. Like Tess, McClane is a working class guy, but he’s not struggling to get his big break or looking for an opportunity to impress the corporate ladder. He’s flawed in a way the Academy doesn’t usually recognize: he’s not suffering from a disease or battling to overcome societal prejudices. He’s just a guy who gets up and does his job and doesn’t take care of his home life like he should. When his wife got her chance to climb that corporate ladder, he balked at leaving the comforts of New York for the new experience of Los Angeles. When he gets invited to the Christmas party at the fancy office tower where his wife works, he decides to head out west and finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and then spends the rest of the film simply trying to stop the bad guys.

Rain Man, Dangerous Liaisons, The Accidental Tourist, Mississippi Burning, and Working Girl are all fine films and I don’t mean to bag on their nominations as much as I want to point out that none of them are better films than DIE HARD, and that the glass ceiling that Tess and Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) smash through in Working Girl and DIE HARD is a ceiling even the best action movie of our lifetime can’t crack.

The ultimate difference between the two films is that where Working Girl celebrates the climb, DIE HARD celebrates the trenches.

By specifically not making him Superman – or, as Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) mentions in the film – by not making him John Wayne or Rambo, the makers of DIE HARD have created in John McClane (Bruce Willis) the ultimate working class action hero.

It’s McClane’s humanity more than his proficiency for killing that makes his heroism stand out. This is a guy afraid of flying, uncomfortable with sitting in the backseat of a limo, uncomfortable with being in the fancy Nakatomi building, and who spends the action portion of the movie without any shoes. His got a big ol’ individualistic streak in him and a smart mouth, so we recognize him as the latest cinematic action hero, but note how both Hans and Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) refer to him as a cowboy. Even McClane casts himself as a cowboy; when he doesn’t want to give him real name to Al because Hans is listening, he calls himself Roy, after Roy Rogers, the cowboy he told Hans he preferred over John Wayne and Marshall Dillon. We’ve got a cowboy in the middle of all this upward mobility and it’s only McClane and his trusty sidekick Al that are far more interested in who they are rather than where they’re trying to get.

What’s impressive is not just how many upwardly mobile-interested characters McTiernan and his screenwriters fit into this film, but that they run the gamut from decent, represented by Holly and her boss, Mr. Takagi (James Shigeta), who makes a point to mention to Hans that the company’s plans for India are not simply to exploit but to be a good community partner; to ass-kissing and bullying Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason); to slimy reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) and slimy corporate schmuck Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner); to downright evil: Hans and his crew. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be upwardly mobile, of course, but DIE HARD takes all of these shades of economic desire and mobility and plops two good, simple cops, John and Al, down in the middle of it to simply try and endure all the nonsense a desire for money can cause.

The core of DIE HARD is the radio-only relationship between McClane and Al (and Reginald VelJohnson is really fantastic here), making this one of the weirder buddy movies of all time. It’s pure bromance, two dudes falling in respect with one another over the radio during one of the worst nights of their respective lives. Their relationship is infinitely more important to the film than John and Holly’s relationship. When Holly is reunited with John, she might get the liplock, but it’s the first meeting between McClane and Al that gets the cinematic romantic treatment: they stare at each other over a short distance and through a crowd, the music swells, they slowly approach, and then they embrace.

In this way, the film slowly cuts Holly’s decision to be upwardly mobile and uproot her family for Los Angeles out at the knees. Sure, John gives a tearful apology about how he should have been more supportive, but tellingly, he gives it to Al, who is only to give it to Holly if John doesn’t survive. When John leaves Holly’s side to hug Al, the film is giving us an embrace between John and the only person in the film who really understands him. His reward for what he’s done is recognition by his peer.

Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is one of the best villains in cinematic history and I love how DIE HARD gives him almost as many great lines as they give Willis. It’s really good writing, too, that Hans’ great lines are delivered counter to McClane’s. Where the American’s lines are short and sharp, the German’s are often longer and dryer. Everyone will remember “Yippie Kai Yay, Motherf*cker,” of course, but I actually get a bigger thrill from Hans’ best lines:

“Nice Suit. John Philips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there too.”

“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. Benefits of a classical education.”

“I could talk about industrialization and men’s fashion all day, but I’m afraid work must intrude.”

“You ask for miracles. Theo, I give you the F … B … I.”

“When they touch down, we’ll blow the roof. They’ll spend a month sifting through the rubble and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach earning twenty percent.”

There’s great dialogue throughout DIE HARD and it feels very natural instead of a deliberate attempt to introduce a new catch phrase.

DIE HARD is impeccably cast. Not only does the film score with its main protagonist and antagonist, it gets all the secondary characters cast perfectly: Reginald VelJohnson, William Atherton, Paul Gleason, Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush, Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner, and De’voreaux White hit all of their notes perfectly.

Perhaps the most influential movie of the past 50 years, DIE HARD set a clear gold standard for action movies. It seemed like every movie for years afterwards was given a DIE HARD high concept pitch. John McTiernan’s direction is spot on, Bruce Willis delivered the performance of a lifetime. It’s almost hard to imagine that DIE HARD is now 25 years old, especially when you watch the film and it still feels like it was made this year. Other than some goofy ’80s hair on Hans’ henchman, and McClane doing a few things that couldn’t be done today (carrying his gun on a plane, smoking at LAX), DIE HARD could roll into the multiplex today and still kick everyone else’s ass.

DIE HARD is a masterpiece, and one of the best movies any of us will ever see.

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2 thoughts on “DIE HARD: Benefits of a Classical Education

  1. Two things about DIE HARD that never fail to crack me up: one of Gruber’s henchmen is a dead ringer for Huey Lewis and the expressions on Gruber’s face when Ellis calls himself trying to make a deal with him.

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    • Ha! I always think the same thing about Huey’s doppleganger. (Huey Lewis was the first concert I ever attended.) The thing I love about Ellis is that both Hans and McClane can’t stand him and talk to each other through him and over him. Great scene.

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