This month’s classic film review analyses the ultimate Christmas film: Die Hard
Based on a little-known 1979 thriller, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988) is one of those films that many people will sit down and watch every Christmas. And why not? It’s set on Christmas Eve, and it has at its heart one of the oldest stories in the world: the triumph of good over evil. But before I review Die Hard, as is my wont with these literary film reviews, a word about the film’s literary origins.
Die Hard’s source material, the thriller Nothing Lasts Forever, was itself supposedly inspired by another movie: The Towering Inferno. When Roderick Thorp saw the film, he had a dream of a man being chased through a skyscraper, pursued by men carrying guns. The result was Nothing Lasts Forever. Many of the central ingredients of Die Hard were there in Thorp’s novel: a cop visiting a skyscraper in Los Angeles for a Christmas Eve party; his hosts being the owners of an oil corporation; the German terrorists who take the party guests hostage; the barefoot hero who has to save the day (or the night) single-handedly (more on Bruce Willis’s feet anon). Our hero is also assisted by a cop down on the ground, Al Powell.
What the screenwriters and director John McTiernan changed when adapting Nothing Lasts Forever for the big screen were mostly minor details: changing the name of the protagonist from Joe Leland to the more action-hero-sounding John McClane; making him younger (he’s nearing retirement in the novel); having his estranged wife, rather than his daughter, working at the company; making the oil company Japanese rather than Texan (too Dallas, that: and the Japanese connection reflects Japan’s increasing presence on the world-stage of business, as well as making them the allies of the Americans, against the Germans, rather than the Germans’ allies). The estranged wife adds another layer to the film: we can see exactly how a New York cop’s devotion to his job might alienate his wife and children, but we also get a sense that, if John McClane wasn’t quite so devoted to justice, his children would be motherless and fatherless by Christmas morning. The film achieves all this without preaching, without hammering home the emotional subtext. Originally the lead role in the film, by the way, was offered to Frank Sinatra, and then to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and several others before the then-relatively-unknown Bruce Willis was offered the part. (Sinatra as the lead isn’t as odd as it may sound: Ol’ Blue Eyes had played the lead in the 1968 adaptation of Thorp’s novel The Detective, to which Nothing Lasts Forever was intended to be the sequel.)
Die Hard adheres to the classical unities: the unity of time (the film is set over the course of just one night: Christmas Eve), the unity of place (virtually all of the film’s action takes place in a single skyscraper, the Nakatomi Building in Los Angeles), and the unity of action (we have a hero, a villain and his accomplices, and one major plot arc). Not that a film’s adherence to Aristotelian models for drama necessarily makes for a Great Film, of course. But it probably helps when you’re writing an action film. It’s for the same reason that, going against the grain, I think the film of Stephen King’s The Running Man works (kind of). Or at least works in a way that a more faithful adaptation might not.
But anyway: Die Hard. What does make it such a superlative example – perhaps the superlative example – of the action movie? It would be easy to wax lyrical about great performances, decent special effects, a satisfying plot, and the like. But such things have been covered extensively in other reviews of Die Hard, and are what people usually point to when praising the film’s virtues. So let’s take them, more or less, as givens.
The unity of time, I think, really does help. It means the action more or less unfolds in real time, which helps the tension and suspense. There’s a rumour that this was the result of Shakespeare’s influence: in the original script, so the rumour goes, the action in Die Hard was set over three days, but the director John McTiernan, supposedly inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, decided to condense the action into one night. I’m sceptical of this story, not least because Thorp’s novel has the action taking place over a single night. But it’s a nice story, even if it’s (regrettably) probably an urban myth. There are many other reasons why Die Hard delivers as a piece of entertainment, though. The dialogue is also full of crackling wit and inventiveness: ‘jerkweed’ remains one of my favourite insults as a result of Die Hard.
One other reason Die Hard succeeds, I would argue, is Bruce Willis’s feet. Bear with me here.
Bruce Willis’s vest is iconic in the film, even though it tries its best to ruin the film for him, changing colour inexplicably halfway through and providing little in the way of protection for him. (Terrorists always have the worst timing: he was getting changed when Gruber and his gang arrived.) But it’s not his vest that provides a window onto the film’s greatness. It’s his feet.
It all starts with Bruce Willis on a plane. We learn that he’s not a fan of flying. This is textbook hero stuff: make your hero more relatable and human by introducing a tiny flaw or weakness early on. Here, it’s that Willis, for all his bravery, doesn’t much like being up in the air. His fellow passenger tells him to combat the weird effects of flying when he gets to his hotel by ‘making fists with his toes’. Willis is engaged in such an activity, which he finds helps him, when Rickman turns up to poop the party. Later, Willis’s feet will once more show him to be the flawed hero (with not so much feet of clay as feet that are all-too flesh-and-blood) when broken glass cuts into them, making them bleed badly. This scene, often cut from television showings of the film, is perhaps the hardest to watch in the whole movie. Try watching it without wincing, at least a little. Explosions? Fine. Brains being shot out and spattered against plate-glass doors? No problem. Shards of glass in feet? Hellish.
These are by no means the only references to Willis’s – or McClane’s – feet in Die Hard. When he kills one of the German terrorists, he hopes to steal the man’s shoes, but they are several sizes too small since the man has ‘feet smaller than my sister’s’. While abseiling down the side of the Nakatomi Building and trying to re-enter through a huge window, McClane kicks futilely at the glass before realising that shooting at it might be a better way to loosen the pane before he attempts to crash through it. One could almost write a whole review article about ‘the iconograph of Bruce Willis’s feet in Die Hard’. But I hope nobody bothers.
Image: via Nam-ho Park on Flickr.