Basement Songs: “Die Hard”

Written by Basement Songs: 52 Saturday Nights, Film

Yippie-ki-yay! Scott Malchus looks back at “Die Hard” in this week’s Basement Songs.

“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”

Die Hard may not be at the top of my list of favorite movies of all time (although, considering the number of movies I’ve seen, the fact that it’s in the top 50 says something), but I may have seen it as many times as the ones at the top of the list. It’s one of those films that draws me in each time it shows up on Fox Movie Channel (which is at least, every Christmas) and it’s definitely one of the films that I sat through with my college buddies on several occasions.  This is a movie I had no interest in seeing. When I saw the huge cardboard standout in the lobby of the now defunct Great Northern movie theater in North Olmsted, I rolled my eyes and said, “Come on, Bruce Willis isn’t an action hero.” In my mind, Willis was a comedian. He excelled at being a smart ass and romantic foil, a la Moonlighting. Furthermore, he didn’t have the physical build of an Arnold or a Stallone. He was just… a normal guy. So began my first lesson in casting against type.

What makes John McClane work is that he’s an everyman. He’s you or me, that guy who tries to stay in shape, but struggles to maintain some kind of muscular figure. Sure, he works out, when he can, but he also smokes three packs a day, drinks too much coffee, throws back a couple of beers to unwind every night, and considers the take out from that greasy spoon just around the corner to be gourmet food. In other words, he’s just a normal guy, and being a normal guy makes John McClane a hell of a lot more relatable than musclebound superheros like Stallone’s Rambo or Schwarzenegger’s “Dutch” from Predator. The casting of Willis was genius because not only did he prove that he could pull of being action hero, he also held his own in the dramatic scenes. The following year Willis would really stretch his dramatic chops in Norman Jewison’s adaptation of Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country. As traumatized Vietnam vet, Emmett, Willis was very moving.

Die Hard is an action masterpiece. The script is tight and contains everything you hope for in this type of testosterone fueled adrenaline thrill ride. Explosions. Gunfire. Great one liners. A tortured hero. A villain so sinister that you cheer whenever he sneers. A strong willed heroine. Twinkie eating, street smart beat cops. Arrogant dumb ass FBI agents. Smarmy reporters. Succinct editing. And an intense, witty orchestral score. It’s the best action film of the 80’s and set the template for action movies for the next twenty something years. Screenwriters have been trying to write the next Die Hard since the first one first screened. “It’s Die Hard on a ship.” “It’s Die Hard on a train!” “It’s Die Hard in a shopping mall!” All imitators pale in comparison to the original. Hell, even the Die Hard sequels (three in all) failed to capture the magic of the first.

Behind the scenes, Die Hard was a who’s who of big budget action players. Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon produced it, John McTiernan directed the film, Steven E. de Souza (Commando, 48 Hrs.) co-wrote the screenplay with Jeb Stuart, Jan de Bont (who later went on to direct Speed)  lensed it and the late Michael Kamen wrote the orchestral score playfully incorporating Christmas carols into to backdrop of the film.  Die Hard gave Bonnie Bedilia one of her most recognizable roles and made a star out of Alan Rickman, whose performance as Hans Gruber goes down as one of the greatest film villains in motion picture history. And let’s not forget the three important supporting characters that don’t appear until halfway through the movie. I’m speaking of Reginald VelJohnson’s police sergeant, Al Powell, Paul Gleason’s Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and William Atherton’s jackass news reporter, Richard Thornburg.

My first time seeing Die Hard wasn’t in a theater or the comfort of my dorm room. It was in a large lecture hall sitting in creaky, uncomfortable wooden seats designed for note taking. The film was being screened as a part of the Bowling Green campus screenings and I was reluctantly dragged along by some friends and dished out my two dollars with some reservation. After all, I could have been drinking, right? Instead, I was blown away by a second generation print of a blockbuster, with sound that crackled and echoed throughout the lecture hall. To say the least, this was not the ideal way to watch a movie, but I was hooked within the first five minutes. I came out of the lecture hall wondering when I was going to see that movie again. As the years progressed, I think I watched Die Hard once or twice a year with my friends and walked around quoting some of the more memorable lines, such as “Mr. Takagi will not be joining us… for the rest of his life.”

Before that night in Bowling Green, I didn’t have much use for action movies. I saw them as escapist fare, purely for entertainment purposes. Oh sure, I went to see my share of Arnold flicks, but let’s face it, in the 80’s, most action films didn’t contain that much substance. And don’t throw First Blood in my face because I’ve always considered that film a drama first (most of the action comes in the last thirty minutes). Die Hard changed my view, and I believe it changed the view of Hollywood, as well. Action does not have to equate dumb and just blowing shit up. There can be depth and character development, as well. That’s why so many studios continue to try and make a new Die Hard. They want films with characters the audience will care about. That’s what leads to people returning to the theater two and three times to rewatch a movie. More importantly, that’s what makes a film a classic.

Here’s a preview of the next basement movie:

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