November 23, 2010
I love the popular Bruce Willis action film Die Hard. Of course I do: there are explosions, expletives and badly dressed German criminals. I also like the second instalment and believe that Die Hard With a Vengeance has one of the greatest openings of any film ever.
But this isn’t about the sequels. This is just about the original and best in the quadrilogy. The first time I ever watched Die Hard was in the middle of an event my brother and I named ‘Brucefest: The Triumph of the Willis’ and was originally just an excuse to watch Pulp Fiction again. The event was also the forefather of the annual Patrick Swayze Memorial Feast which entails an obscene amount of junk food and a Point Break/RoadHouse double bill.
Anyway, the first time I watched Die Hard it blew my pathetic little mind; feat it achieved on the second and third viewings. The fourth time I watched it I enjoyed it but I was too familiar with the intricacies of the plot for it to melt my fragile mind. However, by the fifth time I watched it some things just outright bothered me.
I’d become cynical, and more questioning of my audio-visual entertainment. There are just many things, little, niggling things that don’t make sense or fly in the face of professionalism.
1. Is Hans Gruber a Terrorist or What?
He isn’t. It’s very simple. He states quite clearly that he is NOT a terrorist. The plot of Die Hard centers on Gruber and his merry band or badly dressed henchmen stealing bearer bonds from the vault of the Nakatomi building. This is pretty clever, as bearer bonds are unregistered and legally belong to the person holding the paper. Essentially Gruber intends to exploit the ‘finder’s keepers’ loophole in American Law. Very few films (none that I can think of) center around the theft of bearer bonds; it is an ingenious plan: the work of a highly intelligent master criminal.
If you look at the efficiency of the robbery you can tell that these guys are pros; they’ve planned for this. Their sole objective is to obtain the cold hard novelty sized bank notes and leave. They take hostages, but they only start to be killed off when a John McClane shaped spanner gets in the works. And the people who do get killed aren’t really important. They are not political assassinations, and there is no other motive behind their theft of the bonds.
Terrorism is defined as ‘the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear.’
Gruber’s violence is not calculated— it is not part of the original plan. It occurs as a result of the plan going awry— and their goals, as stated, are not political, religious or in any way ideological.
Of course Gruber does claim to be a terrorist. He does this to draw attention away from the robbery, and just to fuck with the authorities because it’s his third favourite hobby after planning heists and cultivating facial hair. Its part of the plot: a non-terrorist criminal claims to be a terrorist in order to throw the authorities in the wrong direction.
It is also true that he has committed acts of terrorism in the past, but in the events portrayed in Die Hard Gruber is NOT a terrorist. This is explained to the audience more than once. Takagi asks Gruber ‘what kind of terrorists are you anyway?’
Gruber responds: ‘who said we were terrorists?’
The answer, of course, is no-one.
At least until the final credits, which lists Gruber’s henchmen under a banner that says ‘TERRORISTS.’
So are they terrorists or what? Gruber says he isn’t, and then pretends he is, but then the filmmakers themselves tell us that they are.
It’s this lack of attention/consistency that bothers me. But that’s only a minor annoyance. I’ll just assume that the credits lists the characters as terrorists for the sake of convenience and let it go…
2. The Heist Should Never Have Got Off The Ground
Because very, very early on John McClane gets hold of a radio and uses the emergency frequency to report the emergency. The woman on the other end is stupid, and terrible at her job.
McClane, as he angrily points out, does not sound like some prankster. It’s not like he’s using a radio from the Nakatomi building; it’s taken from one of the terrorists. It’s an outside radio performing an emergency function to report such an emergency. If McClane is just a prank caller then he’s the greatest actor in human history. He also gives an insane amount of detail. No-one puts that much thought into a prank call— usually it’s just giggling, swear words and maybe Bart Simpson-eque joke names.
She dismisses the distress call purely on the grounds that it’s probably just a prank because it’s Christmas Eve. Surely, if anything, the fact that it’s late on Christmas Eve is evidence for it being genuine. Okay, so maybe some crazy bastard decides to go all Orson Welles and fake a major incident. They wouldn’t do it on Christmas Eve because, well shit, it’s Christmas Eve and there are better things to do. And if someone did decide to pull a sick prank on Christmas Eve then surely they’d call the police using a telephone instead of going to the insane effort of obtaining a radio, finding out a tuning into the emergency frequency and then writing a one man soliloquy describing a terrorist attack.
This certainly wouldn’t have happened in a post-9/11 world. But why should it even happen in the more innocent late 1980s? Surely her job is to check out and investigate reports of major crime, regardless of how implausible they may or may not sound. Her job is not to determine what reported emergencies seem genuine, but to respond to emergencies reported.
Had she responded to McClane’s distress call within a reasonable time they would have had the man power and time to prevent Gruber from carrying out his plan. They wouldn’t have got into the vault as that relied on the electricity grid being shut off which happens as a direct result of her initial and repeated negligence. Gruber wouldn’t have anything to gain by shooting hostages and thus they would have survived.
It’s not quite on par with the guy who decided that the escape pod at the beginning of A New Hope ‘probably just ejected by accident or something’, and didn’t fire because there were no signs of human life despite the fact that that everyone is aware of the existence of sentient, free thinking robots who are, incidentally, capable of storing vast amounts of information. Like, say, Death Star plans or holograms intended for well spoken English thespians.
In that film the Empire then goes after the pod anyway, but it’s too late. They blow up Alderaan for no other reason than to annoy Carrie Fisher, but they hang back on the escape pod which ultimately brings down the Empire. If they’d just shot the fucking pod they’d have saved a lot of innocent lives and a lot of their own time.
It’s exactly the same situation in Die Hard. It wouldn’t have hurt to just check out the call to be on the safe side, but they don’t and end up losing a lot of innocent lives, shutting off an entire electricity grid on Christmas Eve, causing a shit ton of fire damage to the elevator vents and roof and taking ten times more time and man power in resolving the situation.
3. William Atherton is Even More Dickless Than He Is In Ghostbusters
This is fairly self-explanatory. It’s not really the fault of either the screenwriters or Atherton himself. He just happens to play an annoying asshole in two of the greatest films ever made.
In Ghostbusters he plays Walter Peck, who undoes several months of ghostbusting by ordering the storage device be switched off despite not bothering to test the safety and validity of the storage device, or look into the possible effects of an immediate shutdown. It’s not even as though Environmental Protection is his motivation; it’s the fact that Bill Murray insulted him in hilarious fashion. In Die Hard Atherton plays an equally self-obsessed character who puts John McClane’s wife in greater danger by broadcasting that fact all over the news like the prize bastard he is. In the film we see a New York cop rescue hostages/prevent a major crime and we see a desk bound cop who has been afraid to use his firearm in years find redemption by saving Bruce Willis, and yet the moment Bonnie Bedelia punches him in the face is by far the most satisfying moment of the film.
4. I Want The Bearded Guy To Die
Action films tend to follow a fairly simple premise: good versus evil. It’s a narrative that’s had us rooting for Jesus in the Bible, the Allies in WWII, and the Rebels in Star Wars.
But for this premise to work you have to want the hero to save the endangered innocent civilians, and making the bad guys look like bigger chumps than the 2008 Detroit Lions in the process.
This concept works for 99.9% of Die Hard and the three sequels. Okay, Justin Long is a bit of pussy in Die Hard 4, and although Lucy McClane is quite annoying we still want her to be saved because a) she’s pretty, and b) hasn’t that family been through enough already?
But there’s one guy in Die Hard who can’t die soon enough. It’s not like I’d cry any tears if William Atherton had been eviscerated either, but this guy… I want this character to be shot in the face; this sleazy, badly dressed, stereotypical ’80s coke user Harry Ellis. I want to see blood and brains getting tangled up in his awful, awful beard.
Alan Rickman makes my dream come true.
Compared to Ellis Gruber looks like a fucking hero. His suit is much more elegant and understated, his beard is fuller, and despite being one of the best at what he does he remains rather humble about it. He has some funny line… he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He does accents, and feeds the authorities misinformation based on magazine articles he’s read.
He is way cooler, and way more likeable than the professional sleazeball that is Harry Ellis.
He hits on Holly, a single mother, on Christmas Eve— despite the fact that she is still married. The job in LA and McClane’s desire to stay in New York is the reason they are separated at that point. Sleazy ‘80s guy also knows that her husband is flying in in an effort to resolve their coast-to-coast separation. That is totally not cool.
He then decides he can totally deal with experienced terrorists-turned-robbers based on the fact that he ‘negotiates million dollar deals for breakfast’ like the arrogant dickweed he is. He sits in the most overconfident, dickweedish way possible (reclined back, one leg crossed over the other) whilst he has a shit-eating grin plastered on his face, a can of Pepsi in his hand like he’s Marty McFly, and dreams of being a hero.
He then proceeds to give Gruber extensive information about John McClane. First he tries to fuck McClane’s wife, and then just goes right ahead and fucks him instead. He thinks he’s being a hero, when he’s endangering McClane AND the other hostages.
It is also because of this guy that Gruber and the press know who McClane is, which gives Gruber an advantage when William Atherton’s character starts broadcasting the fact that McClane’s wife is one of the hostages. No doubt sleazy ‘80s guy would have got to that had he not been shot in the face so soon.
But the problem here is that we want the guy to die. We want McClane to fail to save him. We cheer and praise Gruber for ridding the fictional world of such an asshole. The scene does the job of heightening the threat for the audience by showing us that Gruber is more than willing to shoot the hostages, but he shoots the one hostage we could all do without, which kind of undermines it.
5. Other Than McClane and Powell Every Character Is (Dangerously) Terrible At Their Job
Right from the start of Die Hard we are presented with a world of lacklustre professionals. Argyll, the limo driver, has almost no experience whatsoever in limo driving and talks to McClane like a cab driver, because that’s what he is. But he also plays rap music to a white guy at a time when rap hadn’t fully reached mainstream popularity, and years before it was kind of okay for white guys to listen to rap music without looking like they were just trying to be tolerant.
Whilst Argyll is waiting for McClane he puts headphones on and has a one man rave in the back of his limo. This is grossly unprofessional; imagine that McClane didn’t get to stay with Holly, and rather than dealing with a hostage situation he just wanted to check into a hotel and listlessly masturbate over pay-per-view porn and down a few beers? He’d get down to the limo to find Argyll acting like a game show winner.
In fairness though at least Argyll’s lack of professionalism doesn’t cost any lives.
We’ve already covered the incompetence of the woman at the other end of the emergency radio, but when the LAPD do actually turn up and try and do something they assume that McClane is the terrorist. Meanwhile the Chief of Police just repeats everything Powell says and takes the credit for it. It still takes a few big explosions for them to take the situation seriously, even though Powell’s patrol car has been flipped and is riddled with bullet holes.
William Atherton is technically quite good at his job, grabbing hold of a story before anyone else. However, as a journalist/human being he should adhere to a code of ethics and plain old common sense. He discovers an interesting angle on the story pretty quickly: the guy trying to save the day is married to one of the hostages. That’s a great story, but it comes at the cost of broadcasting that fact to everyone— including Gruber. This gives Hans a pretty big advantage, and if John McClane wasn’t so mindblowingly awesome both he and his wife would have been killed for the sake of a scoop.
The FBI are possibly the most retarded of all, and they’re such arseholes about it as well. They’re super-confidentand super-smug but they launch the most inept secret service operation since the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Also, they never actually show any credentials. Mulder and Scully always flashed the badge— for all we know these chumps could be a Blues Brothers tribute act coming home from a Christmas party.
Despite the fact McClane keeps telling them that the roof is rigged with explosives they send a helicopter up there to take the hostages. If it wasn’t for McClane they would all have died, effectively at the hands of the US government.
They then decide to just off an entire electricity grid on Christmas Eve for reasons that don’t really make much sense. Unsurprisingly the Nakatomi building has a back up power supply, whilst the shutting off of the electricity is exactly what Gruber wants and needs to get into the vault.
Which reminds me: As good as Gruber is, his plan relies on everything going exactly as he plans. Had the FBI decided to do something more effective than trying to switch the lights off he’d never have got into the vault. He has no contingency plan… no margin of unpredictability. He doesn’t consider someone like McClane acting like an office block Rambo. He relies on the assumption that the electricity will be switched off. Okay, so he manipulates things to go as he planned, but ultimately he just gets lucky.
Powell goes above and beyond the call of his duty. He is the only one who responds to the threat immediately, takes it seriously, and acknowledges McClane as being on their side. He’s also the only one who maintains professionalism after Alan Rickman falls out of the window. Whilst John and Holly reunite amongst an entire squad of FBI agents and LAPD officers a lone German comes running out seeking revenge. Powell is the only one who notices, and the only one to draw his gun and shoot— despite the fact that he hasn’t pulled his weapon in the five years since he accidentally shot a kid.
And obviously John McClane is the most competent of all, fighting not only international criminals, but his own lack of shoes, and the incompetence of his supposed allies.
Despite these things I still fucking love Die Hard. It’s a film where the flaws are miniscule next to the sheer awesomeness of the overall piece.
I love Die Hard so much that there are only two things stopping me from marrying it:
1. It’s a bit older than I am
2. I also want to marry the female host of popular British teatime gameshow Countdown, and also a really lovely Scottish girl from Deal or No Deal.