The legacy of ‘Die Hard’

In response to Dennis Farina, RIP; Die Hard & Midnight Run Both Turn 25 Years Old:

I was sad to hear Dennis Farina had passed on.  He made a great impression on me the first time I saw him.  He was on a TV series called “Crime Story” back in the late 80s, an effort to grab the “Miami Vice” audience that worked entirely because of Farina.  He had a rare gift for being a big presence without chewing the scenery; even in that comically masterful “Midnight Run” performance, there’s a certain ring of authenticity to his hilarious meltdowns.  I think Michael Shannon is the only big-time actor working today who does things the Dennis Farina way; every scene with his intensely weird ex-G-man in “Boardwalk Empire” leaves you wanting more.

Interesting to put “Die Hard” and “Midnight Run” together for an anniversary – I had forgotten they came out in such close proximity to each other.  They’re both phenomenal movies, but “Die Hard” was an outright phenomenon, a real game-changer.  How many action films have been released since that don’t have a bit of the old yippee-ki-yay running through their veins?  There’s an entire subgenre of films that try to recapture the “Die Hard” mystique by moving the action to a different restricted space – a plane, a boat, a space station, etc.  (And some of those, ahem, “homages” are surprisingly good, like Steven Seagal’s “Under Siege” films.)  There was even an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that put Captain Picard in the John McClane role, fending off a terrorist takeover of the Enterprise.

But most of the “Die Hard” ripoffs took the wrong lessons from the original masterpiece.  Hollywood’s clone factory squeezed various individual elements out of it, and turned them into tropes: action in a sealed area, the villains have a secret agenda, the authorities unwittingly figure into the villains’ plan, the hero is tough but vulnerable, the smooth and urbane arch-enemy comes unglued as the cowboy hero drives him nuts.  Bruce Willis himself became a trope Hollywood keeps trying to recycle, although he’s skilled and shrewd enough to keep from being completely buttonholed.

Unfortunately, what the rip-offs miss are the three great secrets of “Die Hard”: intelligence, grit, and clarity.  McClane fights a battle of wits with his terrorist enemies, who are themselves clever and generally competent.  He and Hans Gruber take turns getting the best of each other, and to his credit, Gruber quickly learns not to underestimate his foe, rather than stumbling around in a blind rage and shrieking “He’s just one man!” at his underlings for two hours.

McClane is a tough guy, but not a superman; following years of invincible Stallone and Schwarzenegger powerhouses, it was a revelation to watch a bruised and bloody Bruce Willis limping around on his mutilated feet.  His humanity raises the stakes and makes the action setups easy to understand; you can immediately grasp why certain options are foreclosed to the desperate McClane, because he can’t just wade through a hail of bullets, take out multiple armed opponents in a blizzard of kung fu, or make superhuman leaps to safety.

Above all else, “Die Hard” offers the viewer refreshing clarity.  No shaky-cam, no incomprehensible action choreography, no confusing action layouts.  The geography of every scene is clear.  The clockwork precision of the initial terrorist attack beautifully establishes their credibility as “bad-ass perpetrators,” as McClane later calls them.  We know how many of them our hero is up against.  We know where they are, and what they’re doing, at all times.  It seems like their plan would have worked without McClane’s interference.  Hans Gruber is a great villain because you can appreciate his craftsmanship; he’s vicious when he needs to be, but he’s not a cackling lunatic who kills for sport. 

“Die Hard” respects the audience and earns every one of its thrills.  Not enough of its imitators have imitated what really worked about it.  God knows its last few misbegotten sequels certainly didn’t; the last one turned McClane into a cartoon caricature of himself, yelling “I’m on vacation!” while he lays waste to half of Russia.  I’ll stick up for “Die Hard 2,” though, because it’s a pale but valid imitation of the original whose creators understood what they were imitating.