The Perfect Lean, Mean, Macho Machine

Essentially perfect, Die Hard is much more than an exciting and visually stunning film. Indeed, this flick portrays a sophisticated political discourse that deeply resonates with a variety of social and economic anxieties that characterized the Reagan years. Furthermore, Die Hard defined the narrative and visual structure of the action genre for the years to come, and delineated the popular representation of masculinity during the 1990s.

Since its memorable theatrical opening in the summer of 1988, Die Hard has spawned countless imitations and generated three official follow ups, Die Hard 2, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and Live Free or Die Hard. The Die Hard sequels not only give a consistent story-arc to its main character, the intrepid John McClane (Bruce Willis), but they are also faithful to the brutality and visual excesses that characterize the original. Thus, it should not be surprising that all these movies enjoyed overwhelming success at the box office. As such, the films in the Die Hard franchise are integral in the history of American cinema.

Unquestionably, Die Hard is one of the leanest films ever made. Indeed, the plot of Die Hard is so tightly constructed, that each and every single scene has an aesthetic and/or narrative purpose. As most movie buffs know, Die Hard tells the story of McClane, a troubled New York cop who travels to Los Angeles on Christmas day to attempt reconciliation with his wife, Holly Genaro (Bonnie Bedelia). A successful manager at a prominent Japanese firm located in the Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper, Holly works for Mr. Takagi (James Shigeta).

At the same time, a team of German mercenaries led by the ruthless Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) take over Nakatomi Plaza posing as terrorists. Showcasing a superb classical education, exceptionally good manners, and an exquisite taste for designer suits, Gruber may well be the most fascinating, intimidating, and heartless villain to haunt the big screen. Barely escaping the initial onslaught, and isolated from the exterior world, McClane spends the rest of the film playing a brutal game of cat and mouse with Grubber and his goons.

Die Hard further complicates the plot by presenting two intriguing double-crosses. First, Gruber is not a terrorist, but a thief looking to steal the $640 million dollars in bearer bonds kept in the vaults of the Nakatomi building. And second, the FBI promises unarmed helicopters to evacuate the terrorists and the hostages, but instead they arrive armed to the teeth and willing to sacrifice 25 per cent of the hostages in the ensuing shootout.

Die Hard is based on Nothing Lasts Forever, the rather obscure 1979 novel written by Roderick Thorp as a sequel to his previous book, The Detective (1968). The differences between the film and the book are actually telling. In the novel, Joe Leland (renamed John McClane in the movie version) is a retired police detective who visits his daughter in a Los Angeles skyscraper. And Anton “Tony” Gruber is a fanatical terrorist embracing an ideological agenda that condemns the greedy exploits of a transnational oil company.

From Die Hard (1988)

Thus, the novel’s aged hero agrees with the popular representation of masculinity from the era as exemplified by mature action movie actors in the likes of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, and William Holden. And the fact that Gruber is indeed a terrorist with a real and palpable political agenda probably was due to the terrorist attacks that occurred during the Munich Olympic Games barely seven years before the publication of the book. As such, even though Nothing Lasts Forever presents an exhilarating adventure, it underscores a well-worn ideological discourse which was a reflection of its time.

According to Thorp, he was inspired by The Towering Inferno (1974), the quintessential disaster movie of the era, when he wrote Nothing Lasts Forever. And truth be told, such a cinematic muse is clearly evident in the visual construction of Die Hard. Indeed, just take a look at the original poster of Die Hard, which features the Nakatomi Plaza building in flames with helicopters flying around. This image is rather similar to the poster for The Towering Inferno.

However, besides Thorp’s book we can also observe other strong literary influences that probably dictated the visual and narrative structure of Die Hard. One of these is J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, the intriguing 1975 novel that presents a futuristic high rise building that becomes a brutal battleground between several factions of residents. Completely isolated from the exterior world, the tenants abandon their moral codes and hunt, ambush, and kill each other. Rather similar to William Golding’s influential Lord of the Flies (1954), High Rise works as a striking metaphor for the isolationism and innate savagery that characterize Western culture.

But perhaps more dramatic is the evident influence of the legendary Jules Verne in Die Hard. Indeed, if you think about it, Verne’s The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1905) presents a story strikingly similar to Die Hard. In this timeless novel, Vasquez is the keeper of a lighthouse located on a small island near the tip of Cape Horn, one of the farthest regions of the globe. Totally isolated from society and civilization, Vasquez has to rely on his wit and guerrilla tactics to fight a band of ruthless pirates that have invaded the lighthouse. On a side note, it is rather unbelievable that this novel, with such an obvious cinematic power, has only been adapted to the screen once, in Kevin Billington’s The Light at the Edge of the World (1971) starring Kirk Douglas in the role of Vasquez.

Still, these well regarded literary influences work well in Die Hard mostly because of the aesthetic sophistication infused in the film by director John McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont. Recalling the claustrophobic cinematography seen in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), McTiernan and de Bont constantly frame McClane in doorways or between objects. Lighting is also effectively used to create menacing shadows that overwhelm McClane. In addition, the arrangements of objects in the frame tend to make McClane look small in the labyrinth that is the inside core of the Nakatomi building. And equally telling are the recurrent visual compositions that position McClane towards the edge of the frame, and it is only at vital times that he is allowed to cross the scene.

These visual techniques essentially “trap” the figure of McClane inside the cinematic image, just as he is trapped by Grubber inside the Nakatomi building. Therefore, the visual structure of Die Hard is just as important and effective as its narrative, and they adequately reinforce each other. Indeed, the cinematography confers the film with a palpable sense of menace, isolation, claustrophobia, and urgency.

But then again, perhaps such an aesthetic sophistication should not be entirely surprising. After all, McTiernan was fresh from directing the outstanding generic hybrid Predator (1987) and probably was very aware of the complex intertextuality and expectations of modern audiences. In this regard, it is important to mention that McTiernan also redefined generic conventions with Die Hard.

Indeed, Die Hard brings together characteristic elements from disaster, police, and war films. But perhaps more important, Die Hard makes evident how, even though the Western as a genre was essentially dead by the 1980s, its essence was reinvented, deconstructed, and assimilated by other narratives. For instance, Die Hard follows a narrative structure similar to the enduring Western classic High Noon (1952). That is, both films present a vulnerable and lonely hero, constrained to a small locale, forsaken by authority authorities, and in brutal combat with a well trained gang of out of town killers.

Furthermore, Die Hard appears to be self-conscious about its generic roots and constantly makes reference to Western iconography and mythology. For example, McClane and Gruber bring up the names of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Marshall Dillon. Even the finale of the flick showcases a climatic duel between McClane and the bad guys, and afterwards, McClane blows at the smoke emitted from the barrel of his gun.

However, even if McClane embodies the figure of a gallant old west sheriff, his attitude is actually much closer to the image of the postmodern hero that surfaced during the 1960s and 1970s. During these torrid years, the popular representation of a hero did not symbolize the attributes of authority institutions. On the contrary, military and police forces are shown as decadent and bureaucratic, creating more trouble for the hero than help to solve the problem at hand.

It is important to note that this cinematic representation is in strong contrast with the one found in most flicks from the 1950s, where the military and the police were effective and trustworthy. Arguably, such a shift was a reaction to the popular general discontent and frustration felt towards authority institutions following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Therefore, postmodern heroes often act unofficially, and if they are sanctioned by a government entity, they tend to go against the established rules. And clearly such is the case with McClane, who is not in the Nakatomi building conducting official business, and his daring actions only enrage the police and FBI. Equally important, both the police and the FBI are completely useless and ineffective in dealing with Gruber and his minions.

For example, a SWAT commando groans in pain when a rose thorn pricks his hand. And even more dramatic, not only the FBI is ineffectual, but its incompetence and predictable behavior are essential in Gruber’s plan to crack open the Nakatomi safe. In addition, the police, the FBI, and the news media, almost appear to conspire to create further obstacles for McClane. As such, Die Hard brings to mind the troubled heroes found in Bullit (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), Cobra (1986), and the Rambo (1982, 1985, 1988 and 2008) films.

Die Hard further complicates its political discourse when dealing with racial issues in a similar way as most interracial police buddies films do (such as in the Lethal Weapon flicks [1987, 1989, 1992 and 1998]). In Die Hard, McClane is in communication with the chubby African American Police Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), who gives him moral support, establishes a melodramatic background to assert the love for his wife, and defends his wild actions with the police chief.

However, Powell has a more subtle function in the visual structure of Die Hard. Let us recall that as Die Hard begins, it is revealed that Powell is unable to fire a handgun because of a psychological trauma. Thus, Powell is showcased as overweight, racially different, and metaphorically emasculated. In this regard, Powell plays the crucial role of defining and highlighting the hyper masculinity of McClane.

Therefore, it is perhaps ironic that in spite of McClane’s hyper masculinity, his patriarchal authority is dramatically challenged by his wife. Clearly, as the movie begins, McClane, as an allegory for the paternal figure, is absent from his family and totally ineffectual with his attempts at reconciliation. Thus, the obvious professional success of Holly at Nakatomi, which led her to forsake her husband in New York, is presented in Die Hard as a metaphor for the threat of feminism to the family institution and to the established patriarchal social order.

Nonetheless, Die Hard subscribes to a conservative gender ideology. Indeed, by film’s end, masculinity overpowers feminism, forcing a return to the established normal order. Such a resolution is presented in Die Hard through a Rolex watch that symbolizes Holly’s success in Nakatomi. As the bad guy threatens to pull Holly down from the 30th floor with him, McClane saves his wife by breaking the Rolex’s wristband. Interestingly, such an outcome brings the couple together and closes the melodramatic story arc of the movie.

It is important to note that, in a sense, Holly’s threat to McClane’s masculinity is due to the influence of the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation. When McClane confronts Holly as to why she uses her maiden name at the workplace, she explains to him that Japanese companies expect single women to work for them. According to Die Hard, Japanese culture and business practices appear to detest the idea of a married professional women. However, such an attitude merely reflects the xenophobia that permeates Die Hard, which ultimately dictates the main political discourse of the film.

To fully appreciate the political discourse of Die Hard let us remember that, during the 1980s, Japan and Europe became global economic powers that threatened the financial stability of the US. For instance, as American car manufacturing companies were closing plants across the nation, Japanese automakers opened new ones on US soil. Not to mention the deep penetration of Japanese electronics in American households. Therefore, the xenophobic political subtext of Die Hard establishes that foreign corporations aim to destroy the working class in America along with their cherished family values.

In this regard, it is ironic that Die Hard, the quintessential symbol of modern action cinema, ultimately relies on an ultraconservative representation of evil by bringing back the villains from World War II, Germany and Japan. This idea is actually reinforced by Mr. Takagi, who tells McClane after commenting on the success of Nakatomi in America, “Pearl Harbor did not work out, so we got you with tape decks”.

But then again, Die Hard not only revisits WWII, it also re-imagines the Vietnam War. For example, McClane uses the type of unconventional warfare tactics that became popular during the Vietnam conflict to fight Gruber and his band of mercenaries. In addition, Die Hard uses the well armed, but completely ineffectual FBI as a signifier for the US military, and reminds us of the American defeat in South Asia. Furthermore, when one of the helicopters explodes outside the building, it blasts McClane into a fancy fountain full of water and vegetation and making him look as if he was in a Vietnamese battlefield. Such an image clearly relates McClane to the heroes from Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and the Missing in Action series (1984, 1985 and 1988).

Arguably, Die Hard is a militaristic fantasy that serves as an allegory for an outnumbered and outgunned America, giving fierce battle against a technologically sophisticated foreign enemy that threatens to destroy our social, family, and moral values. As such, Die Hard is a clear reflection of the Reagan years, when the former US President publicly urged the country to build advanced weapon systems to fight the “Evil Empire”.

Furthermore, let us recall that one of the major domestic accomplishments of the Reagan administration was to attack the welfare state as incessantly bureaucratic and utterly incompetent. Just as the postmodern heroes of the era, Reagan had to fight Congress and skeptical citizens to carry out his political agenda. Therefore, it is undeniable that McClane swiftly embodies the national strengths and conservative political ideology promoted by Reagan.

In this regard, Die Hard continued the trend that characterized most of the 1980s, where the perfectly muscular bodies of the heroes embody nationalistic, sexual, racial, cultural, social, and moral ideologies. In Die Hard, as with most action flicks of the era, it is the muscular body, rather than the voice or intellect of the hero, which ultimately offers the resources for a triumphant resolution to a critical situation.

As a consequence, the body of McClane is constantly under attack. Interestingly, the injuries that he receives, in conjunction with the state of his clothes, not only reflect the brutal action and the relentless progression of the film, but also have an important metaphorical representation. Indeed, these changes in his appearance suggest that McClane is progressively reduced to some primal state of savagery, which is necessary in order to confront the evildoers. Furthermore, such a visual and moral regression is actually a recurring symbol of the entire franchise.

From Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995)

In any event, following the tradition established by the movies that featured the bulging bodies of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean Claude Van Damme, Die Hard places the male body at the center of an eroticized action spectacle. However, in spite of his obvious fitness, McClane is not nearly as muscular as the Governator or Sly. In this regard, McClane looks like a vulnerable ordinary man who has been trapped by extraordinary circumstances, and he is as effective with his wisecracking comments as with his muscles. As history has shown, Die Hard’s representation of masculinity would become emblematic during the 1990s.

At the same time as Die Hard redefined the popular representation of masculinity, it also proved to be influential on defining the visual and dramatic structure of the action genre in the years to come. Just think about it, the promotional materials for most of the action flicks from the 1980s tended to highlight its principal character/actor. Consider, for example, how the posters for Commando (1985), Raw Deal (1986), and Predator (1987) prominently display Schwarzenegger in full combat gear, and not much else. On the other hand, the original poster for Die Hard devotes equal space to both, Willis’ worried face and the Nakatomi building in flames.

Therefore, Die Hard shifted the emphasis from the hero towards the location where the action takes place. In a sense, Die Hard displaced the audience’s interest from an eroticized spectacle of muscles drowned in steroids, to scenes of apocalyptic devastation and mayhem. As special effects became more sophisticated with the introduction of computer graphics in the early 1990s, the scenes of destruction that characterize the action film just became more excessive.

The several movies spawned by Die Hard reflect this much. That is, the basic narrative structure of Die Hard was transplanted from a skyscraper into a battleship (Under Siege [1992]), a cruise ship (Speed 2: Cruise Control [1997]), a nuclear submarine (Agent Red [2000]), a passenger bus (Speed [1994]), a train (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory [1995]), a passenger airplane (Passenger 57 [1992]), a prison airplane (Con Air [1997]), the presidential airplane (Air Force One [1997]), a prison (The Rock [1996]), a hockey stadium (Sudden Death [1995]), and even a mountain (Cliffhanger [1993]).

Thus, it should not be surprising that Die Hard 2 also conforms to the visual and narrative structure defined by the original Die Hard. Loosely based on 58 Minutes, Walter Wagner’s little known action novel from 1987, Die Hard 2 moves the action of Die Hard from a skyscraper to an airport. And even though it feels derivative at times, Die Hard 2 successfully manages to retain the sense of menace, claustrophobia, xenophobia, and exhilaration that characterized the original flick.

In Die Hard 2, a group of former American Special Forces led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) take over Washington Dulles International Airport. Once again, these are not terrorists embracing an ideological agenda, but mercenaries handsomely paid to liberate the nefarious Latin American dictator General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), who was arrested and scheduled to arrive at the airport aboard a military transport.

While strong foreign economies were the allegorical threat in Die Hard, third world fascist regimes and drug cartels are the source of trouble in the sequel. Arguably, the character of General Esperanza was inspired by General Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama. Let us recall that in December 1989, General Noriega was arrested by the American government after a swift and complex military operation that involved the massive deployment of troops across the Central American country. However, it is quite unfortunate that Die Hard 2 ultimately fails to present a sophisticated political discourse as the original did.

But nevertheless, Die Hard 2 remains a visually stunning film, which in 1990 ranked as the most violent film ever made. In a sense, the visual and editing style that Finnish director Renny Harlin used in the action sequences of Die Hard 2 bring to mind the aesthetic sensibilities of Sam Peckinpah, but they also look forward to the excesses and frantic pace that characterize the movies that John Woo, Michael Bay, and Jerry Bruckheimer have been making since the 1990s.

For instance, the brutal shooting between the airport SWAT team and the rogue soldiers that takes place inside the airport terminal reveals such a remarkable sense of aesthetics. In these scenes, the demise of each character is accomplished through the use of multiple shots. Additionally, a fast editing, of nearly one shot per second, keeps the pace relentless.

The next two sequels, Die Hard: With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard, do not follow the standard narrative formula that made Die Hard such a revolutionary hit. Most probably, by then most imitators had completely exhausted the claustrophobic locales that could be taken over by a band of mercenaries posing as terrorists. Instead, these two flicks take place in the chaotic urban jungles of New York City and Washington DC respectively.

Therefore, Die Hard: With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard redefined the visual and narrative characterization of the series. As such, the Die Hard movies can be better defined by their exaggerated reality, exhilarating pace, unbelievable stunts, fierce gunfights, unrestrained violence, preposterous situations, deafening explosions, and excessive scenes of destruction. At the same time, the series reinforce the notion of the postmodernist hero, while the bad guys continued to be a group of well trained and motivated mercenaries, posing as terrorists and performing a complex double cross. As such, perhaps the most notable cultural product that faithfully follows the distinctive structure of the Die Hard films is the hit TV series 24 (2000-2007).

Die Hard: With a Vengeance saw the return of McTiernan to the director’s chair. In this flick, Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) appears to want to get even with McClane for the death of his brother Hans in the first Die Hard. However, it is eventually revealed that Simon is playing a daring double cross, as he is merely interested in the gold stored in the Federal Reserve in Wall Street.

Perhaps the most notable feature of Die Hard: With a Vengeance is its rather amusing racial politics. Samuel L. Jackson outstandingly plays Zeus, an African American living in Harlem who basically hates white people. A racist at heart, Zeus ends up helping McClane on his quest to stop Simon Gruber. Needles to say, such an uneasy match leads to several amusing moments. However, even though Zeus has a strong personality that initially poses a threat to the masculinity and social order embodied by McClane, by the film’s climatic finale, Zeus ends up serving the traditional purpose of defining and highlighting the superiority of the white hero.

In Live Free or Die Hard, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) is a disgruntled former US Department of Defense consultant who takes over all the computer systems, civilian and military, in the Washington DC area. As his nefarious predecessors in the series, Gabriel upholds an ideological agenda, but he is really after a monetary bounty in the form of a gargantuan NSA digital archive.

Live Free or Die Hard clearly hints at Gabriel as an embodiment of the threat of ubiquitous information technologies and domestic terrorists. In doing so, Live Free or Die Hard exploits the fears that characterize our modern world: the destruction of national landmarks, cyberterrorism, identity theft, and the use of weapons of mass destruction on government buildings.

Unfortunately, from a cultural context, Live Free or Die Hard remains the most disappointing and unsatisfactory entry of the series. This is particularly true considering that this the only Die Hard film made after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it totally avoids the difficult and complex cultural issues associated with terrorism. But nevertheless, what Live Free or Die Hard lacks in political subtexts, it compensates with truly mind-boggling action sequences. As if a speeding car knocking down a hovering helicopter is not enough, we also get to see a F35 strike fighter destroying highway overpasses while chasing a semi-trailer truck.

All the exhilarating action and interesting political subtexts of the Die Hard series can be enjoyed once more thanks to the truly eye-popping blu-ray disc presentation courtesy of Fox Home Entertainment. Presented in full 1080p high definition video, the four Die Hard movies have never looked this good on home video. And quite probably, they did not look this pristine in most cinema theaters. Of course, even though the first couple of flicks show the grain typical of the film stocks of the 1980s, the image and audio quality of these blu-ray discs are superb.

In terms of extra features, these blu-ray discs simply rehash most of the content found on the Die Hard: The Ultimate Collection DVD set released a few years ago. These include audio commentaries, trivia text tracks, deleted scenes, mini-documentaries, and theatrical trailers. Thus, true fans of the series will have to safe keep the old DVDs just for the sake of the missing extra features not found in this latest incarnation of the movies. Unfortunately, no meaningful HD bonus content was developed for this blu-ray presentation.

Overall, the Die Hard movies form a true rollercoaster of visual excesses guaranteed to raise the viewer’s adrenaline levels. At the same time, they also convey intriguing ideological and cultural subtexts that deal with race, gender, masculinity, and social anxieties. It is quite unfortunate, however, that their political discourse consistently avoids the real ideological and cultural complexities associated to terrorism. But in any event, it is undisputable that these four films are cornerstones in the characterization and evolution of American popular culture.

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