From Wikipedia: “Retired NYPD Detective Joe Leland is visiting the 40-story office headquarters of the Klaxon Oil Corporation in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, where his daughter Stephanie Leland Gennaro works. While he is waiting for his daughter’s Christmas party to end, a group of Cold War-era German terrorists take over the skyscraper. The gang is led by the brutal Anton “Little Tony” Gruber. Joe met Gruber during World War II when Joe was a fighter pilot.
“The terrorists plan to steal documents that will publicly expose the Klaxon corporation’s dealings with Chile’s Junta. They also intend to deprive Klaxon of the proceeds of the corrupt deal by dumping $6,000,000 in cash out of the tower’s windows. Leland not only believes their claims, but also that his daughter is involved.
“Barefoot, Leland slips away and manages to remain undetected in the gigantic office complex. Aided outside only by LAPD Sergeant Al Powell and armed with only his police-issue Browning Hi-Power pistol, Leland fights off the terrorists one by one in an attempt to save the 74 hostages, including his daughter and grandchildren.”
Sounds familiar, right? In July 1988, a heavily made-up and made-over version of Roderick Thorpe’s crime potboiler from 1966, Nothing Lasts Forever, debuted as the movie Die Hard. Several action pictures had come before it. Infinitely more came after it, including a string of exceedingly weak direct sequels, yet none have really surpassed it in terms of what it was. The form, such as it is, received a little blip of life from the Expendables flicks, but the team up of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in this year’s Escape Plan did a hard dead-cat-bounce at the box office. Die Hard 5, or the jello-ankled actual title A Good Day To Die Hard, fell harder than that. The roughish tough guy mold was broken in recent years by Jason Bourne, and so muscular dolts with the ability to use anything at hand as a weapon has become something about as synonymous with the 1980s as suit jackets with sleeves rolled up to the elbows.
And with that all spilled on the table, that first Die Hard is still a blast to watch. And consider this: it debuted in eary July 1988 into a crowded field of summer films, a lot of which hung in for months at the box office. Know when I first saw it? Halloween night, October 31 of that year.
A little backstory is called for. That entire summer all my friends told me I had to go see this amazing action movie and I had to see it on the big screen. This was not something I could wait and rent on VHS, a practice that had already become prevalent in my life. The ads were just as demanding, shouting, “The movie event that will blow you through the back wall of the theater,” and, “The thrill ride of the summer” back when that was the first time studio marketing used the phrase, the thrill ride of the summer.
That evening my mom gathered me and my two younger brothers up to go trick-or-treating at the local mall. I was really just tagging along. I haven’t dressed up and busked for candy since 1979. I’m not entirely certain why we went to the mall that year, but I’m half remembering there some bad things happening in our township that year. The idea of sending kids out into the neighborhoods was problematic. It might have been the year that Mischief Night went too far and street trick-or-treating was quickly banned punitively. So we had just done the circuit of shops at the mall and landed at the Burger King. Dan looked at his haul. John had, by this time, gotten a burger and was indulging himself at the fixin’s bar and free-refills soda fountain.
My brother-in-law somehow found out we were there and swang by. “Hey Ma, can I hijack Buz to go see a movie?”
Having already graduated high school that year, and having struck out in the job search, it wasn’t like I was going to be waking up early the next day regretting I had stayed up so late. My mom said yes, I said yes, and we were off. It occurs to me now that only a scant few years later, that part of the mall would be renovated and a theater would be built scant feet from that Burger King. Instead, we needed to hit the Garden State Parkway and drive up to the Amboy Multiplex (before the gang violence and threats of the ground sinking into the river permanently shuttered it).
Everyone was right. To really appreciate Die Hard, it has to be seen on a big screen. It works like an action picture, but acts and looks like science fiction. John McClane (Bruce Willis) runs around the Nakatomi Plaza, guns blazing, like he was storming the Death Star barefoot. The bad guys, exemplified by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, are fun even though they are totally sociopathic. It is not necessarily a thinking-man’s movie but there was a lot of thought put into it, as it is a marvel of diligent plotting. Anything that is presented earlier in the movie will have, in some way, value and importance later on. Nothing is casually presented and then tossed aside. Small things, actions, and items have purpose down the line, and for a genre known mostly for getting to the gun fight and explosion, that degree of concern with how you got to that moment, and how you facilitated the “boom-boom” everyone was waiting for is admirable. It’s not an art film by any stretch, but it was artfully done.
That was a long time ago. Dan has a wife and three kids. John teaches English in South Korea. My sister and her husband have two kids, the youngest of which is in her senior year of high school. My relationship with my brother-in-law is strained. His days of driving us to the movies are over. There is a lot of water under a very long bridge. Mom died in 2000. 1988 seems as fictional as the Nakatomi Plaza which is, in reality a building owned by the Fox Film Company (probably still is).
So maybe a lot of this is more old-man-talking, this pining for days when a movie was such a cultural event, such a shared experience, that it could last an entire season and on into the next at the movies. Now, you get two, maybe three weeks if you’re a hit, you debut on Pay-per-view almost instantaneously, arrive on home video weeks later, and the movies are consumed on iPhones on screens smaller than wallets. If you had told me on that Halloween night that was where the medium was headed, I’d have thought one of the shopkeepers slipped you some tainted Snickers.
You too will, one day, miss things both of consequence and inconsequential. You’ll drive to these places that were once exploding with life and energy and find they’ve been closed for business almost a decade. You’ll remember friends you haven’t talked to for twice as long. Because of the rate of expansion, of sprawl, and of the massive damage that was done to the economy during the 2008 downturn, the changeover of our personal historical landscapes is unprecedented. It no longer takes a generation to render a town unrecognizable, all its landmarks refurbished or ground down. Now it just takes a couple years; maybe just one. John will be back from Korea, perhaps, in December and probably only for a couple weeks, and he may not be prepared for the changes that have occurred in the year he has been gone. That’s kind of scary. Time moves too damned fast.
And that’s why Die Hard, for me, is a Halloween movie. It’s not because I saw it for the first time on Halloween 1988. It’s because, packed inside the intended narrative, there are a hell of a lot of ghosts.