Friday, December 19, 2014

Unorthodox Christmas: Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan
Based on the book "Nothing Lasts Forever" by Roderick Thorp
Composer: Michael Kamen (also worked on "Lethal Weapon")

John McClane- Bruce Willis
Allen- Reginald VelJohnson
Hans Gruber- Alan Rickman
Hollie Gennaro McClane- Bonnie Bedelia Culkin
Karl- Alexander Godunov (RIP 1995)
Deputy Police Chief Duane T. Robinson- Paul Gleason
Reporter Richard Thornburg- William Atherton
Argyle- De'voreaux White

Oscar Nominations
Best Sound
Best Sound Editing
Best Film Editing
Best Visual Effects


"Origin" Story
I don't remember the exact conversation, but roughly 5 years ago, we were talking about Christmas movies. My dad said "Die Hard" was his favorite Christmas movie. That gave me the idea to get him the movie for Christmas (along with "Invincible" because I enjoyed it and since it was a football movie, I thought he would too).

Previously that season at my college's animé club, we played a music video called "The Ballad of John McClane"... which showed scenes from the movie alongside an actual song, which discussed the plots of the entire "Die Hard" franchise. Worth checking it, it's a riot 8-)
[some spoilers included]

Anyway, I guess you could say the rest is history. Since that first Christmas, we'd watched "Die Hard" pretty much every year as part of our Christmas traditions.
Something that can't really be said about my previous "Unorthodox Christmas" entries, although I could make a habit out of "Lethal Weapon"... or any other Shane Black film that takes place during Christmas time...

The Story in a Nutshell

New York cop John McClane flies into LA for a Christmas Eve party at his estranged wife's company.
At the same time, the building falls into the hands of German terrorists who hold it hostage, hoping to steal millions of dollars from their vault.

Basically, John McClane (who was freshening up after a long flight, therefore not encased in the hostage situation) turns vigilante. He fights back against the terrorists, killing at least half a dozen, and (after a couple failed attempts) gets LAPD involved. With only a stolen walkie-talkie for communication with the outside world, John McClane also develops a friendship with Allen- the cop sent to Nakatomi after a couple "false alarms".

Actors and Characters

John McClane has become such an iconic character. I hadn't seen any of the other films in the franchise, but it's my understanding that he's become less realistic with each film. The latest "Die Hard" likened him to a video-game character because he came off "super-human."
But in the original, he's just a regular cop who really rises to the occasion when Nakatomi falls under attack. His reaction time is sharp and he thinks very quickly on his feet. Not to mention he accomplishes all of this bare-foot. (Someone on the plane randomly suggests "talking off your shoes and making fists with your toes" to calm down after a flight). The part of the movie everyone remembers is when he runs over broken glass to escape gunfire. That and his "yippee-kai-yay" comeback.

Hard to believe that this was a role so many people turned down (Tom Berenger, Nick Nolte, Sam Neill, Al Pacino) and others balked at the casting of Bruce Willis.
But then, I never saw "Moonlighting," Bruce Willis's current gig... where he supposedly played a goofier character.(Funny enough, he "moonlighted" as John McClane while filming the TV series in the daylight hours).

Earlier today, I mused to myself about who I'd cast in a remake... cuz I imagined Christoph Waltz playing Hans Gruber (he always plays such a great villain)...but I was at a loss about John McClane. Nobody I know in movies today has that killer combination Bruce Willis had: a dry sense of humor, good build and major ass-kicking skills.

As for whether I'd take John McClane or Martin Riggs in a bet on who's the bigger bad-ass...
Riggs would probably win...
in the sense of humor department, McClane might have the edge.

Reginald VelJohnson, I know as the father from "Family Matters" (part of the TGIF line-up that I, ironically, didn't really watch until years later via Nick at Nite reruns)... funny enough, he wound up playing a lot of cops in his career.
Although the two characters don't meet until the last 3 minutes of the movie, the chemistry between him and Bruce Willis and the developing relationship between these characters... one of the film's many highlights. Just love it.

While comparing "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon," as great as Gary Busey was as Mr. Joshua... Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber was an even better performance.
So I was stunned to learn that this was Alan Rickman's first film role. With the accent, he's very intimidating, but he has his unique gentlemanly charm and dry sense of humor. Probably one of the best movie villains of the 80's.

Interestingly, the bad guys are supposed to be German, yet none of the actors are from that country. (And Bruce Willis was actually born in, then, West Germany). The casting apparently focused on people with imposing on-screen presences.

A Russian Segway

And of all those people, Alexander Godunov is easily the most terrifying. Who can blame him, since his brother was the first casualty at the hands of John McClane. Yet in real life, he's the exact opposite of his character. He was a ballet dancer who trained with Mikhail Baryshnikov...

I recently encountered Baryshnikov as part of "That's Dancing," a documentary about dancing throughout the heyday of Hollywood. He was much younger back then. So I not only found him attractive, but also a very engaging host of that particular portion. And after seeing some of his dancing on YouTube, I must say I'm impressed...

Never mind that Russia (more specifically, its figure skaters) has been on my mind a lot since the Sochi Olympics... I just found this fascinating... that these two men knew each other.
Although, as I understand it, their professional relationship fractured in later years.

Alexander Godunov died at the age of 45 (according to Wikipedia) of hepatitis, brought from chronic alcoholism. And apparently his defection from the USSR (another thing he and Baryshnikov had in common) caused a diplomatic incident during the Cold War.

The Jerks

Aside from our hero, our hero's love interest, our hero's partner, our villain and his comrades, we have two groan-worthy jerk-ish presences that need to be addressed.

Coincidentally, one of them played an equally, if not more, jerk-ish entity in "Ghostbusters."
William Atherton was the EPA guy who shut down the gird where the Ghostbusters were storing the captured ghosts.
In "Die Hard," he plays a sleazy opportunist TV reporter... what kind of person threatens to report a Latina babysitter to Immigration if she doesn't let him in the house to interview the McClane kids?
The character in "Ghostbusters" may have been in the right, but there's no excuse for that... THAT should be the reason why random people pick a fight with this actor.

(But then, "Ghostbusters" fans can be very hardcore when it comes to that movie...)
Because of his newscast, Hans Gruber learns who Hollie really is and takes her as his own personal hostage.

The other jerk in question is Ellis... Hollie's co-worker who's clearly interested in becoming more than friends and therefore annoyed at John McClane's interference with the Germans for his own selfish reasons.

Both of these guys get what they deserve in the end and they're definitely worthy of celebration.

While on the subject, I could also discuss Paul Gleason for the umpteenth time. After his shenanigans in "Trading Places" and his cutthroat authoritative attitude in "The Breakfast Club"..
Here, he plays another position of power: a deputy police chief. He's only trying to do his job, maintaining control of the situation, but we automatically buffer against him because he doesn't believe John McClane is an asset. He has to be the so-called "voice of reason."

But for a refreshing change of pace, he does get knocked down a peg when the FBI shows up.

Final Comments

Like "Lethal Weapon," we have great memorable characters and a balance between comedy and drama....
While Alan Rickman brings the better villain performance (ok, not necessarily better, but more enjoyable), I like the depth in Mel Gibson's character more than John McClane... even though he was the character that launched the vigilante archetype

Both movies have a running time over two hours. Watching "Die Hard" the other day, I felt like it just dragged in places during the third act. We're slowly building to the climax where Hans takes Hollie hostage and the bad guys start making their getaway... I wouldn't necessarily take any scenes out, but things just took a little too long.
The laughs also get fewer and further between during "Die Hard"... nothing but drama and action until the bad guys are thwarted.

As for the Christmas content... the movie takes place on Christmas Eve night, we hear Christmas songs throughout... but nothing beats hearing "Let it snow" when the end credits roll.

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