According to a Slashfilm interview with screenwriter Steven E. de Souza, producer Joel Silver has three rules for a hit summer blockbuster. “Number three is: we're going to get an R rating anyway, so let's see some hot babes. Number two is: shoot as much comedy as you can. If it's too much, you can cut it out later. And number one is: these movies are hate movies.”
What’s a hate movie? The opposite of a romantic movie, of course. “In a romantic picture, a boy and a girl have a meet-cute, they have several dates, and they go off together,” Silver says. “In a hate movie, they have a meet-cute, they have several dates, and one kills the other.”
Director John McTiernan’s Die Hard, which de Souza wrote and Silver produced, mostly follows these three rules, as long as the definition of “hot babe” is expanded to Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. The legendary 1988 action movie remains fresh and vibrant because it’s one of the best hate movies of all time.
John McClane (Willis) is in Los Angeles at Christmas to see his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). He’s driven around in a limo by Argyle (De'voreaux White), although he sits up front because he’s not a snob. He’s just an everyday cop, which makes him stand out like a sore thumb at Holly’s company Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza. But even though he doesn’t know it yet, he’s not here to meet Holly. He’s here to meet Hans Gruber (Rickman).
Die Hard is bursting with personality at every turn. There’s Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), the computer hacker who describes Laker games before a killing, and the sleazy Ellis (Hart Bochner), who invokes Yiddish when trying to make a deal with Hans. And, of course, there’s Gruber himself, who will compliment your suit before he kills you and sends the cops on wild goose chases, demanding freedom for terrorist groups he read about in Time.
Die Hard, which was initially pitched as “Rambo in a building,” spawned a number of clones across all genres, from the hockey-themed Sudden Death to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Starship Mine.” Renny Harlin’s 1990 Die Hard 2: Die Harder was another, creating “Die Hard in an airport.” The action sequences are vivid, especially a plane crash, but the movie mostly recreates the ideas of the original without as much charm.
Far more successful is McTiernan’s return to the franchise, 1995’s Die Hard With a Vengeance. Vengeance is an underrated New York movie, finally putting McClane on his home turf. Eschewing the idea of trapping him again, now he must run around the city with Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), as he tries to survive a deadly game of Simon Says run by a former East German colonel (Jeremy Irons) with a personal grudge.
Vengeance takes full advantage of its New York setting, showcasing Harlem, Tompkins Square Park, Yankee Stadium, and a crowded street life that calls to mind movies of the 1970s like The Warriors or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Even scenes that weren’t shot in NYC, like those inside the subway, incorporated actual New York subway cars.
Giving McClane an active partner in Jackson also works, as the two bicker about race in America while learning to get along. And while nobody could replace Hans Gruber, Simon, with his very ‘90s blond tips and Gruber-esque sneer, comes close.
The series got a reboot in 2007 when expectations for action movies were changing. As CGI was gaining steam, Len Wiseman’s Live Free or Die Hard presented McClane as a “Timex watch in a digital age,” as big bad Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) calls him. Much of Die Hard’s trademark charm is offloaded onto a hacker named Matt (Justin Long), who complains about running for too long and being shot at so much, and an even nerdier hacker named Warlock (Kevin Smith), who is appalled that McClane doesn’t know about Star Wars.
Even though Live Free’s gray visuals aren’t much to look at, it provides a few fun action sequences, like a car crashing into a helicopter. And even as McClane entered the superhero era, the franchise made sure to keep elements of his Everyman personality. He and Holly are divorced. His kids hate him. There have been no rewards for any of his heroics. The only reason he keeps fighting, he tells Matt, is because no one else will.
There are good things to be found in all of the Die Hard sequels, save for John Moore’s 2012 A Good Day to Die Hard. Forgoing any idea of what either McClane or Die Hard is supposed to be, the movie sends him to Russia amid boring warring gangsters. It becomes what the first movie stood out against: A generic action movie.
With Willis retiring from acting, Good Day is the last movie in the franchise. But a far better send-off came in 2020, with Willis reprising the character in, of all things, an ad for Advance Auto Parts. As McClane struggles with dead car batteries, he encounters the hacker Theo, his one-time driver Argyle, crawls through small places, and just generally seems to be having a fun time.
Die Hard transformed Willis’ career and action movies in general, offering a sense of charm and improvisation that mixes seamlessly with flying bullets. It stood out from the arms race of Schwarzenegger and Stallone as a movie about an underdog clawing his way to victory one floor at a time. Die Hard sequels never quite recaptured that magic, although most of them find pieces of it along the way. Even among the lesser entries, McClane’s smirk and workaday attitude keep you rooting for him.
Die Hard and its sequels are streaming on Hulu until June 30.