To make an action film, it's crucial to make sure it has a purpose, something the audience can relate to, stakes that are realistic and motivations that make sense. It's no good just throwing action scenes at the screen and hoping they stick, the writing and construction of the story around it has to be precise too.
Arguably the greatest example of how to achieve this is John McTiernan's Die Hard, which celebrates the 35th anniversary of its UK release this February. A perfect blend of character, action and intensity, its stature has only grown over the years, with countless imitators trying, and failing to capture the same lightning in a bottle of memorable characters, quotable dialogue, awesome stunts and a relentless, rollercoaster energy.
Die Hard's inspiration came from a book titled Nothing Lasts Forever, which had been written by Roderick Thorpe in 1979 as a sequel to his 1966 novel The Detective. That book had been adapted into a film in 1968, with Frank Sinatra playing the lead role of Detective Joe Leland- fittingly Sinatra's final film, The Last Deadly Sin (1980) features the actor who would replace him in Die Hard, Bruce Willis, in an uncredited appearance as a man walking into a bar.
When the time came to adapt Nothing Lasts Forever, Fox was obliged to ask Sinatra to reprise his role, as the character was the central protagonist of the original story, which saw Leland fighting to rescue his daughter. Sinatra, who was 73 at the time, perhaps wisely turned it down, so the script was altered, with Leland morphing into Detective John McClane and the villain's first name changed from Anton to Hans. And, thus, Die Hard was born.
Although the film is not a direct adaptation of the book, many of the scenes are taken directly from it, with many of the brilliant set pieces expertly adapted by McTiernan featured in the original text. McClane crawls through the air ducts, drops a C-bomb down the lift shaft, jumps off the roof using a fire hydrant as a rope, strapping a gun to his back during the climax all come from Thorp's book.
On the page, they seem vaguely absurd, largely because Leland is well over 60. Had Sinatra appeared in the film, it may have backfired spectacularly. McTiernan, though, with experience from his previous film Predator (1987), can make them believable and heart-thumping. He takes the time at the beginning of the film to set events up clearly, then never takes his foot off the gas as he hurls the story towards its conclusion, never letting the audience stop for breath until ‘Let it Snow' plays over the end credits. McTiernan understands the importance of letting the characters dictate the action, not the other way around. The audience accepts McClane running barefoot across broken glass because they've gotten to know him, gotten to understand why he's risking his life, the forces that are driving him forward, even in the face of overwhelming odds.
The main reason why Die Hard works as well as it does is because its characters are so vivid. John McClane is no unstoppable superhero, he's a flawed, fallible human being who bleeds, makes mistakes, and is completely, utterly terrified of the situation he finds himself in. He's totally alone, even with the support of Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) talking to him through the radio down below. He's the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. McClane is written to be the antithesis of the bulging, invincible macho men popularised by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
McClane is a closer cousin to Indiana Jones, another action icon defined by his flaws and foibles. Like Indy, McClane gets hurt over the course of his mission, finds himself questioning his own decisions and isn't very good at expressing his feelings openly.
One of the main issues with Die Hard's four sequels is how they slowly move McClane away from the template established here, until by the lamentable last film, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), he can survive falling through multiple glass windows, walking round Chernobyl without protective equipment and several bruising fistfights without more than a few cuts. At the end of Die Hard, McClane is exhausted physically and mentally, limping off barely able to string a sentence together. In his final film, he shrugs it all off like he's just come back from a spa day. He's gone from John McClane to the McClaneator.
The film is unusual in the sense that the scriptwriters, Jeb Stuart, and Steven E. de Souza, write the film not from McClane's perspective, but from Hans Gruber's. His decision to rob the Nakatomi Plaza isn't just a spur-of-the-moment decision, it's taken months of meticulous planning. His actions drive the movie- without him, there's no story.
As de Souza later noted, “If Gruber hadn't planned everything and put it all together, McClane would have just attended the party and reconciled or not with his wife; sometimes you should approach your story from the viewpoint of the villain who is driving the story.” Passing himself off as a terrorist is all part of his scheme to hide his real motive for invading the Plaza —stealing the bearer bonds locked in the vault. The only thing he doesn't expect is the ‘fly in the ointment' McClane, which in turn, causes the plot to walk a tightrope- is the film going to do the unthinkable and have Gruber succeed? Will McClane succumb to his injuries before the film ends? It's not always clear-cut how things are going to go.
Crucially, Gruber is McClane's perfect foil — he isn't a trigger-happy terrorist who has blundered in, he's an intelligent, cultured, urbane and methodical man who is able to think on his feet (such as in the scene where he adopts an American accent to confuse McClane when they meet on the roof). The film often juggles the balance of power between McClane and Gruber, never letting one of them be in charge for too long- when Gruber thinks he's beaten McClane, he comes back for more. When McClane throws a spanner in the works, Gruber adapts to the situation. Both end up playing a key role in the other's actions, often forcing them to do things they hadn't planned on.
The big debate surrounding Die Hard is its status as a Christmas movie. As the story takes place on Christmas Eve, many claim that qualifies it as one — Thorp's original book is set on the same day. Others, including Bruce Willis himself, are adamant that it's an action movie that just so happens to be set at Christmas. The truth is, it's not really all that important.
By setting the film during the most festive time of year, an interesting contrast is developed, with the jolliness of the early scenes juxtaposed with the terror that unfolds later. However, the movie would be just as effective if it took place at the height of summer, or at Easter. The Nakatomi Plaza is the setting, regardless of whether there's a Christmas tree present or not- the hostages don't use one as an escape like Gene Hackman and his band of survivors do in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
It's impossible not to talk about Die Hard without being aware of the tragedies of what has happened to the two leads. Bruce Willis, of course, is sadly battling dementia and has been forced to retire from the job he loves, but his performance as John McClane is one for the ages. His wise-cracking, vulnerable portrayal of a man well over his head is the defining one of his career. Willis makes McClane real, warts and all, and it would be very difficult to imagine anyone else playing this role.
As for Alan Rickman, it has now been eight years since his untimely death from pancreatic cancer and he remains a huge loss to the film industry. The way he plays Gruber is as someone who knows what he wants and is prepared to do anything to get it, with perhaps even the slightest hint of respect for the man.
Rickman refuses to make Gruber just another terrorist, giving him more personality as a result. It was the actor's idea to have Gruber wear a suit, suggesting someone who regards themselves in very high esteem- even McClane learns to respect Gruber's reputation. For Rickman to produce a performance like this in his very first feature film was nothing short of genius and it's heart-wrenching to think of all the roles he will never play.
Action films have always lived in Die Hard's shadow and very few of them have ever managed to match it. With brilliant performances, a first-rate script, Michael Kamen's astonishing score and a plot that unfolds with absolute precision, it has rightly earned its reputation as a classic. Bruce Willis will tragically never make another film, and Alan Rickman has gone, but their legacy is assured by the dynamic they present here. As John McClane so eloquently puts it: “Yippee-ki-yay!”