#3 in my ranking of the Die Hard franchise.
#4 in my Ranking of John McTiernan films.
I’ve always wondered why I’ve liked this movie than what seems like the rest of the population, so going into this watching, I was determined to figure out why. I definitely figured it out, and it’s a solid thirty-minute chunk in the middle of the film. Everything around it is top notch entertainment, but that block of the movie’s runtime is kind of painful.
The main reason the movie works so well beyond that chunk is really Bruce Willis as John McClane. He’s the everyman (but also a cop). He gets roughed up but defiantly maintains a certain humor about his situation. He strikes a balance between taking the situation seriously and maintaining his sanity through the insanity that erupts around him. He’s a rather instantly likeable lead to guide the audience through. Across the way is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, and he’s just a fantastic bad guy. He’s smart, in control, and he has a plan. He only ever really breaks down once, when someone calls him a petty thief. He is an exceptional thief.
And when the movie is about these two antagonists working against each other, the movie works like gangbusters. McClane shows up at the Nakatomi Tower to try and reconnect with his wife at her company’s Christmas party, but Gruber shows up with a dozen men, intent on breaking into the company’s vault, killing whomever they need along the way. The game of cat and mouse that develops between Gruber and McClane is fun, until it stops for thirty minutes. It’s the second that Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson shows up that I begin to turn against the movie.
Robinson is aggressively pig headed and stupid. I’m sure there are many police administrators out there who are just the same in real life, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to compelling drama. He’s got Sergeant Powell standing next to him telling him how to do everything right (something that begins to grate after a while, to be honest) and Robinson is completely dismissive. He doesn’t seem to follow any known procedure, just throwing police bodies at a fortress without any concern. And, to make matters worse, John McClane can do almost nothing about it. He does end up saving the police after a while with a well timed application of C4 and a computer monitor, but watching our hero shout pointlessly at a window because everyone else is stupid is really frustrating. And then there’s Ellis.
I think if Robinson hadn’t been in the movie and Ellis had been exactly as he is, he wouldn’t bother me so much. But, right after Robinson is done being a complete idiot and derailing the central conflict, here comes Ellis to do the exact same thing, but smarmier and more 80s businessman. So, we get a full thirty minutes of two secondary characters dominating the movie by being idiots. Don’t get me wrong, the action of the failed police incursion is done well and the tension around Ellis’ failed negotiation works in isolation, but they push McClane to the sidelines.
Once that’s done, though, and the FBI shows up, the movie is right back on track. Now, the interesting thing about the FBI agents (Johnson and Johnson, no relation) is that they have a plan and fail at it as opposed to Robinson who had no discernable plan and just did stuff. Also, the FBI plan ends up successfully setting up the movie’s action climax and gives us tense action beats that actually directly involve McClane.
And that feeds into what, again, makes Gruber such a great villain. The FBI does what it should do. It follows a rule book, but Gruber knows the rule book and uses it against them. It’s a competent plan by the FBI being outsmarted by an intelligent bad guy in Hans Gruber. As opposed to the police incursion which is pretty much just Robinson hitting his head against the wall for no reason.
So, I’ve complained enough. My problems with the movie are really that thirty-minute segment in the middle of the film. Outside of that, I love the movie. Willis and Rickman are great. The supporting cast is really good. Action is great. Tension is palpable. The character of McClane strikes a delicate balance between indestructible and vulnerable while Gruber is really smart and very good at what he does, creating a great foil between protagonist and antagonist. I really like this film, I just kind of wish I liked it a bit more like everyone else.