Die Hard is one of those movies that I never seem to grow tired of, despite having watched it over a thousand times. The great thing about Die Hard (other than the long-standing Christmas debate) is that you get two movies for the price of one. I think that’s why it still resonates with audiences thirty-five years later. While most films focus on one genre, the best action movies find a way to combine various genres into a satisfying whole. Raiders of the Lost Ark starts as an adventure serial but ventures into horror in its last act. Alien merges science fiction with a slasher film, with remarkable results. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day mixes old-school terror with non-stop action.
If you think about classic action pictures like Predator and RoboCop, you can view them as two movies in one. Predator begins as a typical action picture and then transitions into a horror ride. RoboCop, on the other hand, features atypical shootouts laced with a sharp satirical edge. Unfortunately, most sequels fail to capture the creative essence that made the originals great. For example, the RoboCop remake was nothing more than a bland action movie dressed like The Dark Knight, and every Predator sequel, except Predator 2, relied on predictable shootouts and standoffs without the additional elements that made the original so memorable.
Similarly, the Die Hard franchise deviated significantly from its roots. Of the four sequels produced, only Die Hard with a Vengeance found new ways to play with the formula. The others ranged from predictable but watchable schlock (Die Hard 2: Die Harder) to lazy retreads (Live Free or Die Hard) to action movies that happened to feature a character named John McClane (A Good Day to Die Hard).
However, the original Die Hard is nearly flawless in its execution. Director John McTiernan expertly builds tension in the opening act before unleashing explosive chaos in the second part. Die Hard begins as a cat-and-mouse thriller, with New York City Police Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) taking on a group of unsuspecting terrorists led by the notorious Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in a Los Angeles high-rise on Christmas Eve. Gruber’s gang initially remains unaware of John’s presence, allowing him to move about the building undetected while hoping to rescue his wife and a batch of hostages. This portion plays out like a game of chess. John makes moves, Hans counters, John calls the cops, and Hans counters again. John then resorts to tossing a corpse out a window to alert LAPD Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) of the unfolding crisis. Eventually, the LAPD arrives, escalating the chaos and forcing John and Hans to up their game.
At this point, McTiernan flips a switch and sends the movie into overdrive. Die Hard’s second half is packed with intense shootouts, brutal fistfights, and awe-inspiring explosions. At one memorable moment, a helicopter piloted by the FBI crashes into a fireball and flips over the side of the building, leaving John to execute one of those slow-motion, last-second leaps of faith, his silhouette outlined by flames.
Throughout it all, McTiernan never allows his characters to make dumb decisions. When a shootout breaks out between Hans, John, and the formidable Karl (Alexander Godunov) in an office full of windows, Hans instructs his men to “shoot the glass,” fully aware that John is barefoot. Later, after deducing Hans’ plan to blow the roof during the hostage evacuation, enabling his team to escape amidst the confusion, John fires his gun in the air to drive the civilians back downstairs. This action forces Hans to unexpectedly change his strategy, forcing John to take drastic measures to survive. It’s a delight to watch these characters, who only share roughly ten minutes of screen time in the 132-minute film, engage in a battle of wits. Every move has a countermove, resulting in yet another countermove that propels the plot forward, slowly escalating the intensity until it explodes in the final minutes.
Moreover, every action feels improvisational or thought up on the spot. Action scenes don’t materialize out of thin air. Instead, they happen due to a calculated decision. When the LAPD sends in “the car,” Hans’ men blast the vehicle to bits with rockets, and John responds by tossing C4 down an elevator shaft, effectively neutralizing the threat along with three or four stories. Hans’ shocked reaction says it all — no one knows what to expect from anyone in Die Hard.
Funny enough, the impressive stunt work gets lost in the chaos because you forget you’re watching a show. Nothing feels staged. At one point, in the middle of a shootout, a villain spots a candy bar inside a glass case, looks around, and steals it — a uniquely funny moment likely improvised on the spot. Later, John engages in a furious fistfight with one of Hans’ minions, and the two men toss each other around like ragdolls until someone dies. There’s another great scene where a bad guy surprises John, who pulls out his gun and tries in vain to de-escalate the situation. Again, every decision and character beat feels spontaneous. When Hans bumps into John, the villain throws on a fake American accent and acts like a hostage. John wisely asks for his name, eyeing a list of employee names as a guide. Hans replies that his name is Bill Clay and fakes a phony backstory. Back and forth, tit for tat, until someone slips up, allowing the other to gain the upper hand.
I could go on and on, but these moments make Die Hard stand out from others in the action genre. It’s rare to see action heroes/villains with an equal dose of brain and brawn.
As a minor criticism, I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment that the film needlessly portrays Paul Gleason’s stern LAPD Deputy Chief as incredibly obtuse. His dimwittedness contrasts John’s intelligence, but it’s an unnecessary step to prop up our hero. We know John rocks because we’ve already seen him kick ass for over an hour. Also, a few too many endings wrap everything up too neatly.
After John kills Hans and saves the day, Die Hard stumbles through its final few minutes when it probably should have just faded to black. Instead, Al gets his moment in the sun, followed by Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and Argyle (De’voreaux White), before everyone packs into a limousine and drives away to “Let It Snow.” Wouldn’t the LAPD have questions? Wouldn’t they want John to stick around and prove he’s not one of the bad guys? Wouldn’t Al have to be detained for shooting a man in a very public arena? Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Predator wisely skip these questions and cut to the credits, and they are better for it.
These are minor hiccups, though, in an otherwise flawless and extraordinary film. Modern action movies would benefit from studying the mechanics at play in McTiernan’s classic. Many have copied the idea of one man versus an army but often miss what makes Die Hard such a joy. This isn’t just a typical action blockbuster; it’s a smartly produced thriller that naturally evolves into an action-adventure featuring two A-listers at the top of their game. A film needs more than just Die Hard’s non-stop action to succeed; it also needs to capture its intelligence.
To that end, I raise a glass on this day, marking the 35th Anniversary of Die Hard, one of the all-time great films. Thanks for three-plus decades of smartly written, explosive fun!
Yippe, kay yay, motherf—er.