The definitive 1980s action flick, Die Hard distilled the shoot-’em-up formula to its essence, trapping a cop – Bruce Willis as John McClane – in an office building while bad guys hold the employees hostage.
The movie’s greatest asset is its purity – perfectly streamlined even at 132 minutes, there is nothing superfluous to distract from the pyrotechnics at hand. That doesn’t mean Die Hard is brainless. McClane’s separation from his wife (Bonnie Bedelia), who works in the building, supplies just enough of an emotional foundation, while the repeating motif of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy makes for a nice contrast to the usual action-movie audio bombast. At its best, Die Hard both indulges and lampoons the blockbuster histrionics of its age (notice how the most macho characters are also the fools).
Also crucial is Shakespearean actor Alan Rickman, who brings a tony flair to the part of the villainous leader, Hans Gruber. Running his team as if they were part of a criminal theater company – he’s either savoring each line of dialogue or barking out stage directions – Gruber became one of the most memorable movie villains of all time.
It was Willis’ presence, however, that truly set the movie apart. He had hair then, and his trademark wisecracks were more impertinent than world-weary. Unlike Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Willis’ McClane had a healthy sense of humor, and even a sense of fear. He made the action hero human.