Die Hard at 30: how Bruce Willis led to Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston
Donald Clarke on the film’s enduring legacy, literary roots and Willis’s breakout role
Thirty years ago I went to see Die Hard. I genuinely wanted to see Die Hard – it sounded awesome – but I would have gone to see almost anything. I was living in New York City and, as anybody who has survived a year there will attest, the climate veers between extremes so appalling they count as spiritual revenge for the original sin of European colonisation. Essentially, New York goes from Vladivostok in the winter to Yangon in the summer. Such is the humidity that punters will take any excuse to enjoy an air-conditioned cinema. Only that can explain why I’d been to see Short Circuit 2 a month earlier.
Anyway, John McTiernan’s film didn’t exactly land like a V2 rocket. It was only the third-highest grossing film during its first weekend on wide release. Performing in a fashion that simply wouldn’t be allowed today, Die Hard earned its loot over the baking weeks that followed. Even then, it did not take in as much as Crocodile Dundee II, Twins or Coming to America.
There were many good reviews, but a few of the snootier critics weren’t impressed. “Watching Die Hard is like snorting pure oxygen,” Vincent Canby puffedin the New York Times. “But it doesn’t clear the brain as much as it whistles through it. It leaves no trace whatsoever.”
Yet those of us who enjoyed Die Hard knew immediately that it had more to recommend it than refuge from the sauna outside. The inner engineering of the action sequences had a smooth efficiency that invited applause. The high concept was so clean it felt drawn from myth: one man can save a captured building from faux-terrorists. There was a self-consciousness that anticipated the arrival of Quentin Tarantino a few years later.
Addressing Canby’s remarks in his 2004 book Blockbuster, Tom Shone summed up the coming mood. “The only problem with this view . . . is that Die Hard happens to agree with you,” he wrote. “Die Hard knows it’s bad for you. It says so.” Shone goes on to quote a famous line from Alan Rickman’s wicked Hans Gruber. “Who are you?” he wonders. “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo?” It jarred a little to hear that reference to a current hero: Rambo III had just left cinemas. Die Hard was, perhaps, the first self-aware action film of the 1990s.
You won’t need to be told the plot. Gruber’s snide remarks are, of course, directed at visiting copper John McClean. During a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles, Gruber and his henchman produce machine guns and take all present hostage. Played by an endlessly smug Bruce Willis, McClean, who is composing himself elsewhere, must figure out the villains’ true intentions and send them to their various makers. The script contrives to leave him with bare feet. Nice touch.
A rumour persists – let’s pretend it’s true – that Fox paid Willis the implausible sum of $5 million as a way of artificially inflating his cinematic status
Die Hard has an odd history. It is based on Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever and, thus, stands as a kind of sequel to Gordon Douglas’s 1966 film The Detective. That picture, derived from an earlier Thorp novel featuring the same character, starred Frank Sinatra and, the contract still applying, Fox was required to offer Frank the role. He turned it down.
This was probably good news for us all, but the notion of a 73-year-old Sinatra swinging towards the plate glass on a fire hose has its undeniable attractions. Die Hard was offered to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a sequel to Commando. Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Don Johnson and Clint Eastwood are also said to have declined the role.
What’s most interesting here is who said yes and what subsequently became of him. When Willis signed up for Die Hard, he was known as a TV star – famous for the slick detective show Moonlighting – who had yet to make an impact on the big screen. An orthodoxy then prevailed that almost nobody made that transition successfully.
Clint Eastwood did manage it, but he had to take an unconventional route: Italian westerns shot in Spain. James Garner made some fine films, but he remained best known for series such as Maverick and The Rockford Files. A rumour persists – let’s pretend it’s true – that Fox paid Willis the implausible sum of $5 million as a way of artificially inflating his cinematic status.
Whatever the truth of it, Willis was among the first actors to go from A-list TV star to A-list movie star. He thus paved the way for the likes of Will Smith, George Clooney, Jenifer Aniston and Michelle Williams.
How times have changed. This month everyone’s watching Amy Adams in Sharp Objects. Movies now offer a route into telly.
Oh, and Die Hard really is a Christmas movie.