Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
The Dubious Legacy of the First Die Hard
Fashionable movies often suffer the same fate as fashionable clothes. If one forges something of a new and fresh style, it’s all the rage when it comes out. People can’t get enough of that fresh new funkiness, and its popularity inevitably spawns a tide of imitators looking to recycle the formula for success. Then times passes, styles change, and when you look back at the originator, it’s surrounded by so much excess and so many inferior carbon copies, it’s impossible to see how innovative that first style-setter was.
Then more time passes. Eventually, hipsters dig through the shelves at vintage clothing stories and video rental shops and borrow these styles ironically to try and forge something better out of the junk. If they’re ridiculously-talented flaneurs like the Coen Bros. or Quentin Tarantino or the guy wearing Miami Vice duds when all the other would-be hipsters are dressed in 70s vintage, then they succeed, and the Republic rejoices and showers them with hosannas and riches.
The first Die Hard is generally regarded these days as an extremely innovative movie, so successful at doing what it set out to do in the late 80s (provide smart, high-octane action in a cinescape littered with second-tier Arnold movies and the most decadent era of the Fall of Stallone*) that it became shorthand for people satirizing Movie Producer Speak: Producer sits down to power lunch and pitches his simplistic piece of crap script “idea” with one line: –”Die Hard on a Boat!” “Die Hard at Disneyland !” &c. And it has the good fortune of being one of the lucky ones that people actually remember as a trend-setter before the shitstorm. I myself bought this conventional wisdom on the movie, not having re-watched it for years.
But does Die Hard get too much credit? It may have been undeniably influential, but isn’t its influence a bit specious? It’s no doubt flattering to spawn legions of imitators, but when those imitators are the likes of Jan De Bont’s Speed 2: Cruise Control and Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2: Die Harder, how much credit does it deserve? It’s sort of like the feeling the guys in Blink 182 or Linkin Park must get when their album sales go quadruple platinum, everyone at their label tells them how cool they are, MTV wants to make reality shows about them–and then they give a concert and look out at on ocean of 14 year-old meatheads sniffing glue between songs. Is this who my art is speaking to?
To try and sort out whether we should remember Die Hard as joyful actioner that, through no fault of its own, spawned a series of inferior copies, or as just another kill-heavy 80s action movie, here’s a list of 80s action movie cliches featured in Die Hard , followed by the verdict on whether their use transcends the period or sinks the movie inextricably into it.
*Can you even fucking believe that Western Civilization survived Stallone’s Roman Numeral Cycle, 1985-1990 A.D.: First Blood: Part II, Rocky IV and V, Rambo III (which is not to mention Cobra, Tango and Cash , and Over the Top )?
80s Cliche: Japan is going to take over America
Explanation: Remember when everyone was paranoid that the Japanese were going to own all of America by 2000? That their second attack on American soil would be in the boardroom rather than the Pacific Theater, and that there was nothing we could do to stop them? Michael Crichton even blessed us with a book about it!
The Culprits: Mr. Takagi (President of the corporation bad German guys take hostage); The Sovereign Nation of Japan
Transcends the Cliche? When Willis arrives at the Nakatomi Corporation’s glitzy skyscraper, he finds –horror of horrors–a WHITE MAN forced to degrade himself as the doorman for the Japanese execs upstairs. Willis is then further confounded by the COM–PU–TER that he has to sign in at in this soulless, techno-worshipping Japanese building. “Cute toy,” he insouciantly wisecracks. “Yeah, you have to take a leak itêll help you find your zipper,” says the downtrodden, enslaved white man forced to cohabitate with this robotic sign-in thing.
Verdict? Nah. Seems kind of stupid now that Japan’s economy has long-since hit an extremely rough patch and we got all our beloved corporations back, but topical plot devices never age well. At least we get to hear Alan Rickman say, “Ladies and gentlemen: Due to the Nakatomi Corporation’s legacy of greed around the globe, they’re about to be taught a lesson in the real use of power. You will be witnesses. Now, where is Mr. Takagi?”
80s Cliche: Woman who’s only in the movie to show her breasts
Explanation: One of the few good things there is to say about the 80s as a decade cinematically is that it was an age where any movie not specifically aimed at kids had to feature a shot of a woman’s breasts. Since most movies were long on the action and short on the romance, devices to expose breasts were many and contrived.
Transcends the Cliche? The breasts in question happen right near the beginning of the film, when a terrorist bursts in on an anonymous couple making whoopee in an office and pulls the woman out, breasts flopping everywhere. It’s pretty obvious that producer/slimeball Joel Silver ( Xanadu, Richie Rich ) required director McTiernan find some way to get tits in the movie, and this is what he came up with. The sighting itself is quite short and the breasts are unremarkable, at least from the angle we get.
Verdict: Why not? A breast sighting is a pure good.
80s Cliche: Wise-Crackin’ Good Guy
Explanation : To encourage the working class audiences action movies are aimed at to identify with the hero, action movie filmmakers often try to make the protagonist “just like them.” This meant heroes, more often than not, had a pain-in-the-ass boss, got jerked around by a stupid, unwieldy bureaucracy, and generally got shat upon from above. Their only defense mechanism against this –besides killing dozens of bad guys–was their salty sense-of-humor.
The Culprit : Oh boy. Willis’s entire career was built around the wise-cracking blue collar guy, and Die Hard is his Book of Genesis for this character. For the record, Willis’s brand of Acting Cool that he’s selling as a movie star boils down to this: He is constantly on the verge of falling asleep, and acts annoyed every time someone asks him something and he has to answer it. Hence constant lines like “You always ask this many questions?” or “Just drive the car, man.” Seriously. Check it out. It’s uncanny.
Did you know? : In addition to being a hugely popular recording artist, Bruce Willis was also once an ACTOR !! (It’s true!)
Transcends the cliche? More like creates the cliche. Another specious distinction, but Willis pretty much cast the mold for all action heroes to come with this movie.
Pop quiz, hotshot: You’ve paid professional wise-cracker Bruce Willis to carry your big-budget movie. But Willis spends most of the movie sneaking around an office building by himself, and Carl from Family Matters doesn’t show up with his CB to function as Willis’s straight man until over halfway through. How do you get the most bang for your crack-wise buck?
Answer: Imbue Willis’s character with a mild, benign case of clinical psychosis so that he holds one-way conversations with himself at all times. “Think, goddammit, think!”, “Son of a bitch, fists with your toes.”, “Why the fuck didn’t you stop them, John? Cuz then you’d be dead too, asshole!”, “Nine million terrorists in the world* and I’ve got to kill one with feet smaller than my sister.” People like this usually end up riding city buses all day long, rather than foiling the plans of Euro-trash terrorists.
Verdict?: No. It was fresh and happening at the time, I’m sure, but Willis’s shtick, thanks to movies like Hudson Hawk, The Last Boy Scout, and The Whole Ten Yards, has become nauseatingly stale. Plus, come on: Whenever McClane sees a gay person or a hot blonde, he shakes his head and says, “California.” to no one, as if his voice is being broadcast to a stand-up stage somewhere on the Upper East Side.
*McClane apparently gets his figures from the George W. Bush Terrorist Census Bureau.
80s Cliche: Sophisticated European Villain
Explanation: McClane, quintessential working class hero, needs his nemesis needs to be the height of aristocratic decadence. And why not find a villain from the place that invented aristocratic decadence?
The Culprit: Master thief/terrorist Hans Gruber, played by English actor Alan Rickman.
Transcends the cliche? Has anyone ever so visibly enjoyed speaking more than Alan Rickman does? Listen how he mulls every word over in his larynx like itês a priceless Bordeaux, savoring every nuance as he luxuriantly slips it out of his mouth, enunciating every syllable like it was written by Nabokov and put to tune by Beethoven.
Gruber is the kind of villain who shows off his education by quoting Plutarch–“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer,” and then chuckles and tacks on, “Benefits of a classical education.” Gruber and his band of thieves are German, because I guess only Germans would be dastardly enough to carry out a plot like this, but clearly the screenwriters meant to make him British. Germans really aren’t so well known for their foppish, useless Cambridge educations; besides, Rickman can’t do a German (or American, for that matter) accent to save his life.
Verdict: Yes! Alan Rickman is usually the best part of any movie he’s in, and this is no exception: he takes a hugely cliched part (he even has a scene where his only reservation to killing someone is that it’ll ruin their suit, because he recognizes the tailor it was bought from in London) and makes it into one of the most memorable villains of the 80s.
80s Cliche: Produced by Joel Silver
Explanation: The greatest of all the angels, Lucifer, looked upon God and was jealous at all that he was lord and master of. He gathered about him the angels that he could and challenged God. For his hubris, Lucifer was cast into Hell and renamed Satan. Satan then put Joel Silver on this earth specifically to make shitty films to sink the lowest common denominator somewhere beneath Hell.
Transcends the Cliche? Hold on, get a load of Silver’s producing filmography: Xanadu, Brewster’s Millions, Commando, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Action Jackson, Road House, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Hudson Hawk, Demolition Man, Assassins, Fair Game, Father’s Day, Exit Wounds, and Gothika, to name just a few.
The Verdict? The fact that he also produced The Matrix, Streets of Fire, and Predator in no way exonerates him from the crimes against humanity he’s unrepentantly committed. The next time you walk out of a movie theater enraged that you just spent $14 on a complete piece of shit, drive to Joel Silver’s mansion and punch him in the face.
80s Cliche: Second-in-Command Strongman Who Must Be Killed Before Main Villain
Explanation : Most evil masterminds in 80s action movies are effete, foreign pansies who have others do their dirty work for them–in direct contrast with the blue collar hero who’s got to do all the fighting himself. Audiences would never buy the hero getting beaten to the edge of his life before miraculously winning the fight by using his wits to horribly maim his opponent with an innocent seeming tool lying around (e.g. a chain in Die Hard , a lead pipe in Commando , the molten steel in Terminator 2 , &c) to a villain the filmmakers have taken great pains to suggest is gay. For this reason, smart villains always keep a muscleman around who’s bigger than the hero and will fight him in hand-to-hand, to-the-death combat about two scenes before the final climax.
The Culprit : “Karl”, Aryan Nation poster boy and Hans Gruber’s right-hand man, who makes his hatred of McClane “personal” after McClane inconsiderately kills his brother.
Transcends the Cliche? As a blonde guy myself, I’ve noticed that Hollywood tends to portray blonde guys as sweater-over-their-shoulders preppies. So it’s nice to see one who isn’t a total pussy, and manages to beat John McClane up real good, before being hung by a chain, surviving this hanging with what would have to be almost unbearable throat damage, and then getting shot five times in the abdomen by Carl from Family Matters .
80s Cliche : Protagonist Burning with Reagan-like, Neoconservative, Irrational Hatred for Crime
Explanation: The very raison dêtre of 80s action films.
The Culprit: Limo driver Argyle asks McClane why he didn’t move out to L.A. with his wife when she landed a high-paying V.P. position at a growing multinational firm, an excellent question considering that she probably would make a salary seven times what cop McClane does. McClaneês answer? “Cuz I’m a New York cop. I got a six-month backlog of New York * scumbags I’ m still trying to put behind bars. I just can’t pick up and go that easy.”
Other culprits: McClane killing over a dozen terrorists, McClane jumping off a 40-story skyscraper with only a firehose tied around his waist, McClane walking barefoot across thirty feet of broken glass so he can continue killing terrorists.
Transcends the cliche? Personally, if I were stuck in a building that had been taken over by a team of highly-trained, armed-to-the-teeth terrorists, I would find a dark corner on another floor and hide until they were gone. This is probably because I’m not a registered Republican living in pre-Giuliani Manhattan , sitting up late at night listening to rapes and muggings outside my apartment while I customize a shotgun so that I can carry it under my trenchcoat on the way to the subway.
The filmmakers do a pretty good job making it look like McClane doesn’t have much of a choice but to take the extreme guerilla actions that he does; and, moreover, McClane gets the shit thoroughly beaten out of him several times over as he fights off the terrorists, adding at least a token dose of “realism.” This plays perfectly and decisively to Willis’s greatest acting asset: his wincing. The guy does Man in Pain better than almost anyone else. Remember how nasty and sweaty and bloody he was throughout most of Pulp Fiction ? Or how about when he pulled out his front fucking teeth in Twelve Monkeys? Here, he makes you feel every shard of glass in his feet, every kick to the face from a steel-toed German boot. Plus, the terrorists have unwittingly taken McClaneês estranged wife hostage, making it personal.
*Kudos to the screenwriters for this ultra-realistic piece of dialogue in which a New Yorker annoyingly tries to work the fact that he lives in New York into every single sentence in every single conversation he has with non-New Yorkers.
80s Cliche: High-Voiced, Funny Black Sidekick
Explanation: Eddie Murphy’s dominance of American comedy in the 80s meant that nearly all comic relief had to come from a black guy. To avoid confusing audiences about who the Real Man in the film is, black sidekicks almost invariably had high-pitched voices, were small and fragile, and were boastful when the coast is clear but got really scared when things got dangerous. Examples riddle the Apocalyptic landscape 80s movies wrought on our culture: Hollywood from Mannequin , Motormouth from the Police Academy cycle, and the “Hey, man, I got five kids to feed!” guy from Total Recall , just off the top of my head.
The Culprit: Die Hard gives you maximum bang for your buck by providing not one but two effeminate, “funny” black sidekicks, Argyle the limo driver and The Computer Geek, whose performance I refuse to dignify with a look at the IMDB to get his character’s name.
Transcends the cliche? I guess the cliche is that these comic relief characters are in no way funny, unless you are ten years old. Let’s take a look at each one in turn, evaluating them on this basis.
Argyle: Fairly harmless limo driver that definitely gets on your nerves when he’s onscreen, but not unforgivingly so. His presence driving the limo that McClane gets into at the beginning of the movie apparently justifies the filmmakers’ use of RUN DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” (Remember when rap was new?) The single strangest moment of the film occurs when Argyle, who’s just picked McClane up at the airport and has never met him before in his life–and who we are led to believe is straight by his constant cell phone calls (remember when cell phones were new?) to his honeys–offers McClane–a total stranger, mind you–a place to stay if it doesn’t “work out” between him and his wife.
Argyle’s a fairly benign but nevertheless borderline-offensive manifestation of the Sleep’n’Eat black stereotype (so named in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled ), spending most of the movie goofing off in the limo in the parking garage on the company’s time, calling up women and trying to convince them it’s his limo (Pssst! He’s black, so he’s poor and has no control over his huge libido!). Not a real proud moment in black portrayals in film, but certainly not the worst.
The Computer Geek: The single worst thing about the movie. I remember quoting his “Oh, and the quarterback is toast!” line when I was a kid because I thought it was hilarious. Retrospectively, not a real proud moment in my life. But, again, certainly not the worst.
Verdict? No, suh.
80s Cliche : All Authority Figures are Pricks
Explanation: To underline the populist appeals they butter their bread with, action movies often portray authority figures as total dicks, pricks, or assholes. The pricks allow working stiffs McClane and Carl from Family Matters to bond over being unappreciated by police captains and effete German terrorists.
The Culprit: Nearly everyone who qualifies as an authority figure. In the LAPD of Die Hard, shit definitely rolls downhill. The L.A. detectives are pricks, the captain is an even bigger prick, and the FBI guys, when they show up, are the biggest pricks of all. Each level of police authority totally dismisses any information or advice from the level below it, until you end up with the FBI guys flying around in a helicopter with machine guns and sniper rifles, ready to trade off a 25 percent hostage casualty rate in order to kill the terrorists “just like in Saigon!”
The news anchor is a stupid prick (he thinks Helsinki is in Sweden). The psychologist they interview for the newscast is a know-it-all prick, using his book knowledge about terrorists to make smug, totally off-base guesses as to how the situation is progressing. But King Prick of them all is the Geraldo Rivera-like reporter played by William Atherton, best known as Walter “This man has no dick” Peck from Ghostbusters , the master pricksman of them all.
Verdict? Yes. It gets tiring to have to watch so much prickery on-screen, but it’s finally effective in getting you to sympathize with McClane and Carl from Family Matters .
80s Cliche : Short, Suit-Wearing, Cokeheaded, Sexual-Harassing Minor Bad Guy
Explanation: Two hot-button topics of the 80s come together in one character: White collar use of cocaine, and the discovery in the late 70s that sexual harassment in the workplace might not be the greatest thing in the world.
The Culprit: Super-yuppie Harry Ellis; the Hollywood system.
Transcends the Cliche? Imagine a character who, literally, sniffs every five seconds when he’s onscreen. Now imagine him saying these three lines:
1 In response to John McClane’s wife’s decline of a dinner invitation because she was thinking she might go ahead and spend Christmas Eve with her husband and kids: “Actually, I was thinking mulled wine, an aged brie, and a roaring fire.”
2 To same, when she points out that trying talking to a group of terrorists who are very willing to kill hostages might be a bad idea: “Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Euro-trash.” (turns to terrorist) “Hey, Sprechen Sie talk?Ó”
3 To diabolical mastermind Alan Rickman, with total, coke-fueled confidence, while several Germans point guns at his head: “Hans! Boobie!…I’m your white knight!”
Verdict? Oh lord yes. Who cares if he’s a cliche? I love this character deeply. Perhaps only Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way and David Patrick Kelly in Commando played more memorable yuppie cokeheads.
80s Cliche: Directed by James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, or John McTiernan
Explanation : Between these three directors’ films during the Golden Age of Action Movies, more money, resources, and explosives were used than in all of World War II.
The Culprit : This movie was directed by John McTiernan.
Transcends the Cliche? John McTiernan was the prestige action picture director-for-hire par excellence in the late 80s early/ early 90s, the Golden Age of Action Movies. His early hot streak–the string of great movies every director worth his salt makes at the beginning of his career and then unsuccessfully tries to live up to for the rest of it–looks pretty good from where I’m sitting: Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October. McTiernan certainly belongs up there somewhere in the royal court of the Golden Age of action films, between the King (Cameron), the Court Jester (Verhoeven), and even the inbred Crown Prince skulking in the corner, waiting for his turn behind the throne (Jan De Bont).
But McTiernan remains stubbornly anonymous in the public eye. I don’t recall ever seeing an interview with him, have no idea what he looks like or (until his movies were re-released on DVD with commentary tracks, which doesn’t count) what he sounds like. His style is efficient, crisp storytelling shot with a lot of rich blacks and warm light, but isn’t flashy or distinctive enough to really qualify as a signature style. He lacks Cameron’s ability to generate his own material (as well as Cameron’s dark side: the Titanic-sized ego), so he doesn’t get talked about as an action auteur. And he lacks Verhoeven’s trashy aesthetic, the joyful tastelessness that make his movies still very watchable, if impossible to praise without acrobatic explanations of what Verhoeven’s “really” doing in his films. McTiernan would have been right at home in the real Golden Age of Hollywood, a contract director for a studio churning out quality genre films and remaining just a name on the credits, to be rescued by future generations of cinephiles when they sit down and finally see his very talented fingerprints all over every frame of his pictures.
Verdict : McTiernan was on a roll. Not as good as I remembered it, but Alan Rickman’s Euro-trash, the Cokehead Guy, and the last half hour win out in the end over all the 80s cliches and the “Oh, and the quarterback is toast!” guy. Yes.