Thirty-Day Film Challenge: Day Five

Thirty Day Movie Challenge:

Day Five:  Favorite Action

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
By Gabriel Ricard

I’m still pretty easy to please when it comes to a ridiculous, gleefully stupid action movie. The problem is that it’s a lot like my problem with horror films these days. It just takes a lot more to impress me and keep my attention than it used to. I should also keep in mind that they just don’t make action movies like they used to. That’s actually a good thing for the most part, but I do get annoyed by films released over the last few years claiming to be smarter, more sophisticated affairs for a more sophisticated, smarter audience. That’s a load of nonsense. A dumbass movie is a dumbass movie. No matter how prettier it gets, no matter how hard it tries to rip off the editing style from the Bourne films and no matter how aware of its own silliness it pretends to be. I can still embrace a stupid movie, but I would at least prefer the movie just admit it’s stupid. It’s okay. I won’t judge. I’m already watching the damn thing.

I actually think cinema junk food is pretty essential to the whole diet. I’d like to think I was able to express this when writing about 2012.  I can’t just watch Criterion titles, obscurities from the dustiest corners of an endless film vault. I have to be able to tune out once in a while. It’s the same thing with those broad comedies, and it’s why I’m never the kind of person who’s going to have blood shoot out of my eyes. Just because you happen to like a movie I can’t stand. That’s stupid. Like whatever the hell you want, but at least try to be honest about what you might want from a movie in a given moment.

This was another category with a lot of front-runners. Die Hard won out when I thought about for a second and realized how many times I had seen and enjoyed it as though I was watching it for the first time. I can’t remember when I saw it for the first time. It’s just one of those movies that feels like it’s playing in the background somewhere since I was four years old. I’m a good deal more conscious of when the three sequels came out. I’m guessing I saw the first one somewhere in that time period of whenever it came out on video. Some movies just seem to be permanent fixtures in my life. In my case it’s probably a couple films too many. It’s not my fault there’s such a wide range of things to choose from.

Waffle House takes all kinds. Not like those stuck-up bastards as Denny’s.

If you’ve never seen Die Hard and have no interest in seeing it, then there’s not a lot I can say. It’s one of the best pure-action movies I’ve ever seen. I think it’s held up better than most like it through the years. That’s probably because it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. The movie comes by its charm so easily that it never seems to drag, show its age or take itself too seriously. John McTiernan was pretty good sometimes at making films that could be unadulterated entertainment without making you feel stupid or in need of a spiritual cleansing of some kind (Michael Bay movies, for example). He hasn’t made one of those in quite a long time, but here he’s at his best with a great script from good source material (the novel isn’t bad at all), a memorable Michael Kamen score and some of the best editing and cinematography of its time. Most of all he has one of the best casts ever assembled for an action movie. It’s hard to imagine now that Bruce Willis was at the time considered an unlikely action star, and that Die Hard itself would be a surprise hit of 1988. As much as I like other elements and talents I can’t see this movie working with anyone else. I don’t think it’s an accident that Willis is still hanging around after twenty-three years later. He casts a presence that I never really saw in any of the other action stars of the 80’s and 90’s. I don’t even think there’s anyone today primarily known for that genre than can hold even the most painfully dumb movie together better than he can. I wouldn’t throw him in the same category as someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s not that kind of actor. I do think he’s good though, and I’ll even go so far as to say he’s great as the certain types of characters he plays. I’m not directly comparing him to someone like John Wayne in terms of perceived greatness, but I think they both go about being great at those certain types of characters in the same way. Some actors simply cast a presence that can dominate a film and even make it tolerable if nothing else comes together. It keeps them working a lot longer than most of their contemporaries. Willis has had a knack with that for years, and he’s only gotten better as time goes on.


Alan Rickman getting the Wile E. Coyote moment every European actor in a U.S. action film dreams of.

Die Hard succeeds on Willis’ constantly overwhelmed, surprisingly durable hero, but it still owes a lot of its energy and humor to the rest of the cast. Alan Rickman almost got typecast after this, but he still set down one of the best movie villains of all time. He’s easily as much a pleasure to watch as Willis. He proves (as he still does this to this day) that a good actor can stretch even the most simplistic character into something memorable and engaging. It doesn’t have to be deep (but an actor like Rickman can do that, too). It just has to be the best within the context of that particular film and genre. He steals every single scene he’s in.

A lot of performances in Die Hard are like that. Bonnie Bedelia gets a lot out of a thankless role and proves to be a perfect match for Willis’ McClane. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to see how those two got married. Reginald VelJohnson will probably never be known for anything but playing cops, but he’s still great at playing those kinds of cops. The same can be said for William Atheron and the late, great Paul Gleason, and how well they could make you despise them within about two minutes of showing up on screen.  Everyone adds to that sense of fun Die Hard would struggle to repeat in its three sequels. All of them were all entertaining in their own ways, but they never quite captured the same battered, frantic magic of this one. McTiernan would never be better at carefully maneuvering us from one hectic moment to the next as he would be here. The movie drops us into the war zone pretty early on, and it rarely lets up until the end. Willis is a good companion for that. He never stops cracking jokes while looking exhausted from losing more blood than the human body generally contains. The movie never stops putting him through one circle of hell after another (while even inventing a couple), as we careen along the walls, causing explosions and destroying everything in sight over as McClane staggers closer to the moment when he finally gets his hands on those stupid, stupid bad guys. It’s a tired plot, but it can be a lot of fun under the right mindset and circumstances. Here it’s as fun now as it was twenty-three years ago. I don’t debate for a second that there’s probably something wrong with enjoying revenge movies. I don’t debate it, because I just don’t care. Sometimes it’s a relief to still be able to do that.

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