Sunday, December 30, 2018

Top 61 Things I Love About Die Hard (that no one talks about)

Every holiday season is a good reminder that it’s time to rewatch Die Hard. Not that we need a specific reason watch this film, as it remains one of the finest action films ever made. But here, I take a look at some aspects of the film that aren’t talked about a lot, including revelatory camera movement, audacious editing, violence depicted accurately, the joy in action, and why backdrops beat CG every time. Enjoy!

Shout out to anyone who has ever tried this, specifically because of this movie. (It kinda works, actually.)

Bruce Willis’ delivery of this line. It’s just one damn word, but it’s got such a New Yorker, false polite pessimism to it. The man is John McClane from frame one.

The businessman’s face when he sees McLane’s gun. Also, it’s difficult to fathom a time when someone could bring a gun on a plane.

McClane’s double take to the flight attendant who checked him out.

The music, the sound, the font choice, the gradient color – THIS is a great ‘80s action movie title card.

I know this has been talked about a lot, but while casting Bruce Willis as John McClane may seem like a no brainer today, prior to this film, Willis was best known for his work on Moonlighting, a primetime TV dramedy that aired on ABC. Everyone took a huge gamble on casting Willis, and my oh my, look how it paid off.

The DVD commentary for the film (featuring director John McTiernan and production designer Jackson Degovia, recorded separately) is an excellent track, and one I’ll be referring to a bit in this post. On the track, as soon as this shot appears, Degovia says, “I hated this house. I just didn’t think it was special enough.” Gotta love those little jabs from the crew.

Another perfect line reading. I’m so in love with his generally dismissive attitude.

I have nothing but love for De’voreaux White as Argyle in this film. He steals every moment of the film he’s in.

The way McClane pronounces Argyle’s name the first time.

These are the lines in the script that convinced McTiernan to make the film. He thought there was something inherently American about this exchange. He thought it captured that McLane was a basic American guy, as opposed to some Dirty Harry, fearless macho type.

I love that McClane is already showing signs of being tired. You got a long night ahead of you, pal.

This magic hour lens filter, giving these shots an appropriately L.A. vibe. This color wasn’t the actual color of the sky; you can tell by the way the pink color at the top of the frame follows the shot. Great choice by cinematographer Jan de Bont (who later directed Speed and Twister).

This is hilarious. McClane is told to use the directory to find where his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), works. And once he figures out she’s on the 30th floor, the security guard tells McClane that she’s at the company party, and they’re the only people left in the building. Why the hell didn’t the guard just say that to begin with?! (I know, I know, because McClane has to figure out that Holly is using her maiden name, but still.)

McTiernan said the purpose of the beginning of the movie is to establish the geography of the setting. So that, when shit goes bad, the audience has a good idea of where they are at all times. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but it is very difficult to pull off in a compelling way. McTiernan knows precisely how long to hold each of these introductory scenes. Once the action begins, we’re never confused about where we are.

I’m so in love with the way Willis plays McClane’s distaste for California. The expensive party, the cheap wine, the overly happy people. We immediately buy the fact that this guy is a New Yorker through and through, and hates being out here.

McTiernan initially didn’t want to direct Die Hard, because he classified terrorist movies as being very mean. In order to make the film, McTiernan was determined to put as much joy into the movie as possible. This includes adding in the snappy humor, making the main villain classy, using “Ode to Joy” as a recurring musical theme, and letting Hart Bochner (as Ellis), do whatever he wanted. McTiernan said Bochner created all of the most amusing aspects about Ellis – the drugs, the lame charm, calling bad guys “bubbe,” and so on. In short, I love that McTiernan let Die Hard be so much fun.

I love watching Bochner in every scene he’s in, even if Ellis isn’t the focal point. The dude plays such a convincing office sleaze.

This backdrop. Look at that damn thing. It’s so rich in color; it looks real and artificial at the same time, in the best way possible. It’s so ‘80s. I’ll take this over CG any day.

The beat McClane takes before he confronts Holly about her using her maiden name. You can just see the wheels spinning in his head. This is such a human moment between a troubled couple.

McClane’s dismissive, “…Hi” to Holly’s assistant.

McTiernan and Willis had a lot of discussions about the fact that John McClane probably doesn’t like himself very much. I love how that comes through in moments like this.

No bullshit, this is one of my favorite movie shots. The parallel action of both cars going in the same direction, then one sneakily diverting down is genius. Again, a composition like this may seem easy to come up with, but “simple” shots like this one would be very difficult to pull off.

The camera movement in Die Hard was revelatory at the time. Traditionally, big American movies were never “allowed” to cut while the camera was still moving, but McTiernan saw that as an arbitrary rule and ignored it. In fact, he tried to move the camera so much on Predator, that the studio nearly fired him. So for Die Hard, he sought out a cinematographer and editor who would be on board with constant camera movement. Even a shot like this, which quickly tilts down as Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) kicks the security guard over, was not common practice on a major American film at the time. Die Hard really deserves a lot of credit, especially for film nerd stuff like this.

The slow push in, the careful blocking, the music swell for the reveal – this is a flawless way to introduce a film character.

Theo is humming “Singin’ in the Rain” here, which is an intentional nod to A Clockwork Orange. When Theo starts breaking the equipment, he even moves in the same manner during the same parts of the song as Malcolm McDowell did.

This careful look Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) takes before locking the building down.

Shout out to anyone who has tried this move on a slim staircase. (And failed miserably.)

Who the hell has a carpeted bathroom?

All the guys gearing up as Hans stands still.

Another great reveal of Hans Gruber. Who gets two amazing character reveals?

McTiernan about this shot, in which the camera moves down, below McClane: “You’d never see that in an American movie. A simple, expressive or subjecting move like that was only in European films at that point.”

Hans adjusting his shoulders here, almost as if he’s irritated by all the noise.

I love that Takagi (James Shigeta) and Hans introduce themselves to the employees of the Nakatomi Corporation in the exact same manner.

Ellis nervously shaking his head at Hans, to suggest that he isn’t Takagi.

I love that this is the exact opposite what how you think Hans is going to greet Takagi. Where the hell was Rickman’s Oscar nomination?

These two were clearly betting on whether or not Hans would kill Takagi, and I love that Karl (Alexander Godunov), the homicidal maniac, took the bet that Hans wouldn’t do it.

Hans having a little snack as he tells the employees that Takagi is dead.

Hans stammering during this line. It’s the first time we see him flushed.

Karl catching this bag in the air, without breaking stride.

The reveal of how close Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is to Nakatomi Plaza. Again, this movie is expert at establishing micro and macro geography. (Also, gas was 74 cents a gallon. Can you imagine?)

Karl taking this weird, Samurai death stance before he goes in for the kill.

The way Willis throws this line away after McClane sees this shaft. There’s so much fear in his voice.

In this wide shot, the stuntman was actually supposed to grab the first vent, but kept falling. So in editing, they cut it together so that it looks like McClane fell and grabbed another vent, when in reality, they cut to the close up shot of the stuntman actually grabbing the first vent. That’s how you save a movie in editing.

How cool and assured Holly is in her scenes with Hans.

This SWAT guy getting his hand poked by a thorn.

Chief Robinson’s (Paul Gleason) final order to enter the building. He’s such a pompous dick.

William Atherton’s breathless but thrilled delivery of “Tell me you got that,” after McClane detonates C4.

Ellis finally realizing that he’s in way over his head. Oops.

The news anchor not knowing where Helsinki is.

Agent Johnson (Grand L. Bush) and Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi) walking in from the smoke to a clear close up.

The Dutch angles used during McLane and Hans’ interaction.

McClane getting hurt by the glass should not be overlooked. How many action movies have we seen in which the heroes aren’t fazed by razor-sharp glass? There’s an authenticity to the violence in Die Hard that I really appreciate. Obviously, this level of realism isn’t universal in the film, but I appreciate that they spend at least some time showing that glass does indeed cut.

The vault opening sequence is priceless. “Ode to Joy” blaring on the soundtrack, the careful framing, the beautiful lens flares, the wind blowing Hans’ hair back, Hans’ excited face – it’s executed like a big hero moment, which makes us temporarily forget that we aren’t supposed to be rooting for these guys.

I love McClane’s little whimper here, to suggest that he’s afraid, when really, he’s ready to throw down.

The sound design of the blows that are landed during McClane and Karl’s fight. It’s the same low bass sound that accompanies some of the gunshots in the movie too.

Rickman’s frenzied but articulate delivery of this line. Hans is finally starting to show signs of panic.

Now this is a damn hero shot. Most any other director would put a clear light on Willis’ face, but McTiernan trusts that McClane’s silhouette is enough.

Somewhat famously, the stuntman was supposed to let Rickman go at the count of three, but dropped him on two, which helped capture Rickman’s shocked face, thereby creating one of the best slow motion shots in film.

One final thought from me, Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, it’s the Christmas movie. Ho-Ho-Ho.


  1. YES!!!!!! Someone here with common sense. It isn't a Christmas movie. IT IS THE FUCKING CHRISTMAS MOVIE!!!!!! My brother-in-law believes it's a Xmas film. My father as well. Fuck It's a Wonderful Life. Seeing the ending that SNL did more than 30 years ago where George, his wife, and a friend beat the shit out of Mr. Potter should've been the way the film ended. Instead, nothing happens to that asshole. And having thought about it for a while. It's a Wonderful Life is overrated as fuck.

    Now back to topic.

    There's so many things about this film that when you re-watch it. You either see something new you might've missed or find yourself reciting some lines. I was hoping to do a 10 Reasons about this film to celebrate its 30th Anniversary but the titan that was Orson Welles basically wore me out. I'll try again five years later.

    There's a lot about this film that I love. Alan Rickman should've gotten more recognition for that role and this was the first movie he did believe it or not as he mostly did theatre and TV. Plus, you're spot-on on that reaction he did towards his death as that was actually the real thing. I also loved the scene where he first meets McClane where he puts on that American accent and acted liked a scared bitch. THAT IS ACTING. Every acting student needs to watch that scene and learn. "Clay... Bill Clay".

    The details you mentioned in the film are so noting as I remember watching this over and over again. That part where the newscaster Harvey said "Helsinki Sweden". I was like "It's Helsinki, Finland you stupid fuck!"

    It's a shame that the sequels of the 2000s really missed the point of who John McClaine is. The guy is a regular NYPD cop that is more street smart and vulnerable like every other cop. He's not invincible and he's not some stoic badass. He's just a regular guy who forgot to put on some shoes while using cowboy humor to get things going.

    There's so many things about the film that can be said but I'll save it in five years. Have a Happy New Year.

    1. Love this! And man, your comment about McClane's transition from a regular guy to essentially being a superhero is so spot on. It's really a shame that they kept going after Die Hard with a Vengeance, but oh well. And Hell. Yes. to your praise for Rickman. That guy nailed every aspect of his performance in this film. He never got the credit he deserved for this.

  2. Yes! I LOVE Die Hard! It's just the perfect action movie. It's a must see Christmas movie for me along with Home Alone and Christmas Vacation. There is not a dull moment in the movie. The casting is also spot on. I highly doubt this movie would have worked as well as it did if they had gone with some of their first choices for McClaine like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Bruce Willis was born to play this role. My favorite small moment in the movie has to be when he keeps passing the nude poster or calendar in the building and covers it up at one point. I don't know if that was in the script or not, but i feel like that was an ad lib by Willis. Alan Rickman was also perfect in this movie. He definitely deserved an Oscar nomination. One of many he deserved, but sadly never got. Just the scene where he has to pretend to be a German guy pretending to be American should be enough. The supporting cast were also all great. I can't really think of a single weak point of the movie. I also like to pretend that Reginald VelJohnson is just playing Carl Winslow and this is the event that made him move his family to Chicago before meeting an even worse faith with Steve Urkel.

    The sequels to this movie however are very hit or miss. Die Hard 2 was very disappointing in my opinion. It's just the same plot again beat for beat, but in an airport. It also got a little too dark and lost a lot of the humor from the first one. The first Die Hard blended the humor and action flawlessly, but this one is just kind of bleak. It also didn't really have any memorable new characters. The only thing i remember about the villain was that he did nude yoga at the beginning. Renny Harlin is also far from as good of a director as John McTiernan. Die Hard with a Vengeance however was the perfect sequel. McTiernan is back and it really shows. This is also how you should do a sequel. Don't just rehash the first movie, but put the characters in a new story and environment. I just love how hot and sweaty this movie looks. If the first Die Hard movie is the perfect Christmas movie, then this one is the perfect summer movie. Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons were also perfect additions to the movie. Jackson and Willis have some brilliant chemistry and i could have just watched an entire movie of just those two driving around and bickering. Irons is also great as the bad guy. Not quite as good as Rickman, but he comes damn close. The only thing that drags this movie down a little for me is the ending. The next two sequels are not really worth mentioning. The fourth one is a fun action movie, but it's not a Die Hard movie, and the less said about the fifth one the better. I can't believe they are actually talking about making a John McClaine prequel as well now. Who wants to see that? It's a ridicules idea and i doubt i will even watch it if they actually make it. No, i'm gonna stick to Die Hard and Die Hard with a Vengeance.

    1. Here here. The original and Die Hard with a Vengeance are the only ones I care about. The stuff about Carl Winslow made me laugh. Terrorists or.... Steve Urkel. Wow....

    2. Die Hard with a Vengeance ROCKS. I love the hell out of that movie, and I love that it relies so heavily on Die Hard, while completely ignoring Die Hard 2.

      Henrik, great comment, and I agree with everything you said. I love when Willis runs by that nude photo for the second time and goes, "Girls..." Again, that is a great way to establish geography. We see that the second time and know exactly where McClane is.

  3. I love that technical flourish at 46:20 to 46:32 where the camera pans 180 degree pan from McClaine being held down by two terrorists on the roof that finishes on Karl creeping across the helipad like the Grim Reaper, all the characters moving into their positions like pieces on a chessboard. That kind of clarity to the action sequences should put Michael Bay to shame.

    1. GREAT comment! Couldn't agree more. What McTiernan got right is that he didn't treat his audience like they were idiots, which most action films do today. He put so many expert technical flourishes into Die Hard, which is one of the main reasons we're still talking about it today.

  4. AWESOME EPIC POST. Die Hard is one of me and my sister's favorite movies. We saw it in theaters earlier this year for the anniversary, and seeing it on the big screen helped us notice a lot of things we hadn't before. Totally agree about the casting with Bruce, seeing him as a big action star now but realizing he broke into the genre with this movie. AND ALAN RICKMAN to snag this role as one of his first film roles is a crazy accomplishment. I learned a lot, too many things to name, about Die Hard from this, so thanks! I'd also like to point out what a good job Reginald does as Al, and the relationship between him and John really grounds the movie from all the crazy shoot-em-up scenes. I miss these kinds of movies that knew how to pace the story, characters, and action. McTiernan did an amazing job. If you haven't seen the Honest Trailer on youtube for this yet, I'd recommend it.

    I honestly can't believe there's a debate about Die Hard being a Christmas or not. It totally is - one of the best ones too.

    1. So happy you're such a fan! I love the Honest Trailer for this movie. It's always fun when they make one of those for a genuinely great film. And yeah, that Christmas Movie vs. Non Christmas Movie debate was so silly, for a few reasons. Mainly because, yeah, this is the ultimate Christmas film. No debate.