Favorite Xmas Trailer Theatre: Die Hard (1988)

This is the trailer that sold me on seeing DIE HARD. I remember the day well for some reason, maybe because it was the Friday first showing of John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE (1988), or maybe because of the goodwill I have for the film now. Hard to believe, but when Bruce Willis was given a five million dollar payday for DIE HARD, there was a lot of media indignation, especially since he’d only starred in BLIND DATE (1987) and Blake Edward’s little-seen SUNSET at that point so was considered unproven as a movie star commodity like other popular TV actors — this was also the year of THE PRESIDIO with Sean Connery…and Mark Harmon. I liked Willis on MOONLIGHTING, and he seemed like an amiable New York sort of guy, so I had no pre-considerations about him one way or another.

But. The poster for DIE HARD didn’t exactly grab me with it’s generic 80’s exploding building paste job. I assumed it would be a routine action film, a genre that was winding down by decades end after over-exposure by Stallone, Seagal, Norris, and even Arnie’s films needed a new direction (so he did TWINS). What I liked about this trailer is that they’re clearly pointing out that John McClane is trying to NOT be a hero, nor your standard 80’s Rambo or Commando mass killer. So this ad made me sit up in my seat and think, hey, this thing might be different. Plus I can tell you exactly when I decided to viddy DIE HARD: at 1:30. Actually, the pulsing music track used here (but not in the film) really sold me on the movie’s energy and potential — for Double Jeopardy, does anybody know who composed this theme?

My expectations were rewarded on opening day in a sparse theater, but I loved DIE HARD and immediately knew it was going into the pantheon of great American action films. Not only because of the exciting cat and mouse battles, but because the screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven De Souza was so damn smart, giving every single character a beat or moment for themselves. We’re even invited to revel with Alan Rickman and his gang o’ merry thieves when they finally unlock the Nakatomi vault. Rickman was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nod, but given a full-blown career and established the cliche of witty, erudite Euro-trash villains. John McTiernan’s stylish direction (and Jan De Bont’s slick camerawork) is a major asset too, and he captures a unique widescreen action scope here as he did in PREDATOR (1987) and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990).

Of course, Willis became an official Movie Star with this film, which I dragged people to see in the summer of ’88. Interestingly, DIE HARD didn’t open with a bang, it was a genuine word of mouth “sleeper hit.” Even Billy Wilder liked it (the thought of Mr. Wilder watching McClane leap off an exploding building makes me smile). Three weeks later, I saw it again with a packed, rousing, appreciative audience. So now the film is on my list of favored holiday classics next to A CHRISTMAS STORY, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE and BLACK CHRISTMAS. And I still get a tiny charge whenever I pass by the Fox building — which will always be Nakatomi Plaza to me. Fuckin’ California.

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45 Responses to “Favorite Xmas Trailer Theatre: Die Hard (1988)”

  1. DIE HARD IS MY FAVOURITE CHISSIE MOVIE OF ALL TIME!!! YAY!!!

    (yes, sad but true. i watch ‘die hard’ every christmas – either ‘eve’ or ‘day’ – and now my son is the same, looking forward to it every year. the mctiernan/de bont pairing for ‘die hard’ and ‘the hunt for red october’ is legend through and through in my book, and if i may be so bold as to suggest, de bont should have stuck with photography. yipeekaiyay, mutherfucker!)

    • You’re not alone, leah. There are a few others in our sad seasonal viewing habit with this film. Just as I like to watch THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE on New Year’s Eve if I’m home and time the capsizing with the midnight hour.

  2. “What is this?”
    “Christmas music!”
    Beat, bomp, BOOM!

    …and just what happened to John McTiernan? He hit three home runs in a row (okay, two home runs & a stand-up double) and then he just lost it. What a wicked game you play Hollywood (OMG, I just looked him up on IMDB, McTiernan directed the remake of “Rollerball”. God lord.)

    • your comment got spammed up. it is saved.

      McTiernan has worse problems than ROLLERBALL after his arrest for that wiretapping scandal. And like many directors, dude is only as good as his material.

  3. (sorry, CHRISSIE movie is what i meant to say, that might actually make sense)

  4. Saw this at a sneak preview with a girl I had a huge crush on in high school. We were both Moonlighting fans and other than Bruce Willis I didn’t really know anything about the movie. Loved it.

  5. Yeah, DIE HARD is pretty much one of, if not, THE best action film to come out of the 1980s and I agree that McTiernan was on a helluva role with PREDATOR, this film and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, films that I never tire of watching. It’s a shame that the subsequent DIE HARD sequels failed to really capture the magic of the first one (which is pretty much impossible anyway). Altho, the third one with Sam Jackson was a lot of fun and I even enjoy parts of the last one, even though it seems like they are trying to ape TRUE LIES or something.

    Another Xmas/seasonal film I love watching every year is THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Still shaking my head over the critical and commercial drubbing it took when it first came out. I think it’s a damn fine film in its own right. Plus, how could you not love the hula hoop sequence directed by none other than Sam freakin’ Raimi? But I digress…

    • I’d say it’s undoubtedly the best American action film ofthe 80’s, and I’d put in the top three of the past 20 years. It’s probably been more influential than any other since THE MATRIX too.

      The other DIE HARD films don’t countin my universe, tho I liked the playfullness of the third one.

      As fer HUDSUCKER PROXY, it just makes my brain hurt. Beautiful design and direction in the service of very little. I do love the Bruce Campbell cameo tho…the connection between the Coens and Raimi have been overlooked by many.

    • to JD and christian,

      just quickly, i chafe a wee bit at christening ‘die hard’ as ‘best action of the 80’s’, because that crown is clearly shared by ‘aliens’ (christian will have had a gutsfull of discussing that flick! ;-D ) which debuted a few years earlier. both ‘die hard’ and ‘aliens’ represent the last of the great kick-ass ‘in-camera’ action flicks before the advent of computer generated imagery, ironically heralded in by cameron with ‘the abyss’ and then blasted into the mainstream with ‘T2’.

      i think early mctiernan and cameron share certain sensibilities; both clearly understand the basic tenants of shooting successful action flicks: the necessity to build tension through effective storytelling and creating characters we care about/empathise with so that when they are in peril we FEEL it and root like hell for them to survive/prevail (this is where so many wannabees fail today, able to construct whiz bang action without understanding that without effective characterisation we just don’t give a shit and it’s all for naught), and the necessity to provide clear spacial context whereby the viewer can actually see/feel the physics of an action sequence rather than just a bunch of rapidly cut shots cobbled together so that when the action event is over we’re like, what the hell just happened???

      my two cents anyway

      • Well, I’d put ALIENS and DIE HARD and THE TERMINATOR together. I think Cameron is the better action director, but the script for DIE HARD is excellent and well-rounded for an action blast, especially it’s satirical components, as when the TV psychologist waxes about the Stockholm Syndrome as Hans’ gang drag a body past the other hostages.

        • true, ‘die hard’ is deliciously satirical and also deftly comedic. the screenplay is terrifically structured, but i think if some of the dialog was attempted by lesser talents than, say, rickman and bruce, who perfectly nails the delicate balance between ‘smart-assery’ and ‘earnest everyman-in-peril’, the film could have tipped over into trite eye-roll-inducing cheese territory, so i guess i regard the casting and direction to be pivotal to the overall result.

          (the only reason i didn’t include ‘the terminator’ – a movie i utterly ADORE – with ‘aliens’ and ‘die hard’ on the list of ’80’s best action’ is purely due to the fact i consider ‘terminator’ an experimental pioneer of ultra-low-budget guerrilla-style film-making rather than a mainstream flick with with high production values, but perhaps i’m being way too picky in that regard!)

          • And the reason I didn’t include ALIENS or THE TERMINATOR is because I consider them horror/science-fiction genre.

            Watching the first TERMINATOR recently, I was struck at not only Cameron’s expert, confident direction, but the scope for a lo-budget proto-New World picture is stunning. It seems less experimental than prophetic. Although I’m still not a fan of the sequel, it’s technical sophistication aside. But that’s another tale.

  6. I too saw this when it came out (I pity anyone who’s never seen it on the big screen) , and I remember when they got to the part where Bruce Willis jumps out the window with the fire hose tied around him just ahead of that big explosion my jaw was literally hanging open and I was thinking “This is some of the most amazing shit I’ve ever seen!” I’ve never been into action movies, but this one (pardon the pun) blew me away. Hardly seems this witty, clever film should be considered to be in the same genre as all that Stallone/Seagal/Norris crap.

    And while we’re on the subject of ass-kicking holiday faves, let’s not forget LETHAL WEAPON!

    • I’d love to see this on the big screen again and it’s shocking it rarely plays at big repertory theaters (or what’s left of them).

      Yes, Willis jumping off the building is a PERFECT action sequence, beautifully shot, edited, acted and suspenseful. Richard Edlund’s spfx are a big part of the film’s success, a fantastic example of how to combine them subtly. And Han’s fall is still breathtaking.

      To me DIE HARD is a borderline satire, which might be why I respond so much to the screenplay. I particularly love Hans undercutting the virtues of Takagi’s big development plans: “I believe you. I read about it in Forbes magazine.”

      LETHAL WEAPON I like for Gibson’s crazed performance (one of his best) but I find the film rather pedestrian and its action scenes weak sauce.

      • No love for LETHAL WEAPON?! You’ve got Gibson’s 3 Stooges shtick in that one scene, Danny Glover saying that he’s getting too old for this shit and Gary Busy being… well, Gary Busey!

        I will say that Shane Black’s finest script is still THE LAST BOY SCOUT which is such a wonderful guilty pleasure taking the down on his luck P.I. to new, surreal levels.

      • christian, i was so looking forward to posting a reply above to your 2:11 comment that was even narrower than your column, but it wouldn’t let me! bummer.

        anyway, interesting point about ‘terminator’ being ‘prophetic’, that’s a terrific, apt description, i like that.

        (the direction of ‘terminator’ is wonderfully clear and assured; the car chases sequences are so well staged and edited, you feel the propulsion, the anxiety, right up there with ‘the road warrior’ in that respect)

  7. Never saw it on the big screen but it’s a “Drop Everything” occasion anytime it comes on TV, which is, fortunately, quite often. I think it remains the last classic action movie – period (no special forces or different dimensions, just plain good guy v. terrorist). I won’t get into really defending True Lies too much here as the best of the 90’s, but even that doesn’t hold a candle to Die Hard.

    Also, no other film has influenced my view of its sequels. Even if I hate Die Hard’s 2-4 (which I don’t), I still love them through the lens of the original.

    • I’d agree it’s the last action movie. And the effects are so well integrated you don’t notice them — today it would be a CG building and flames and people.

      But I think the film has a lot of dimension. It’s loaded with metaphor, the most obvious being that Holly’s expensive watch is yanked off causing Han’s death, but symbolizing the end of her executive career. Things like that. With explosions.

  8. Playing at the Egyptian on Dec. 20 on a double bill with DIE HARD 2, so you know where I’ll be that night. Boy, do I love this film. I know a guy who once offered the opinion that, to him, DIE HARD was the last great all-optical effects job, coming as it did so close to digital taking over. I’ve never come up with a better possibility and without a doubt the effects in this film couldn’t be better. Everything about the movie is flat-out fantastic. Remember when a movie like this could come out and be such a surprise? Those were the days.

    • No fucking shit? We are SO there! Let’s organize a posse! The movie godz are smilin’ today…

      And did you know one of the German bad guys in OUR MAN FLINT is named Hans Gruber?

  9. That’s very cool, I didn’t know that. I’m always amused at how the original source of DIE HARD is basically the sequel to a movie that starred Frank Sinatra…and what do you know, your next post is on Sinatra!

    • Everything is connected. I have to watch THE DETECTIVE next…a much different creature. Frank doesn’t jump off an exploding building.

  10. The site of seeing Frank Sinatra jumping off an exploding building in a movie is something we were sadly denied. Hope to see you at the Egyptian on Sunday!

  11. I said in my comments that this is on TV quite often – and I wasn’t joking, especially around Christmas. I’ve just watched it on Encore yet again.

    There is a burning question that has come up again, though. When Hans tells Karl to “schiess den Fenster” and then repeats the command in English, is it just McTiernan winking at the viewer or what?

    • Just got back from a big screen showing at the Egyptian. Talked to Steven De Souza and had a nostalgic blast watching it with an appreciative audience.

      And I LOVE that moment when Hans tells him to “Shoot the glass.” For some reason I think that’s Rickman’s best acting moment in the film. Karl can’t hear him, so that’s the perfect way to impart their plan to the audience. I like that the bad guys don’t have subtitles but you can ascertain their relationships, like Karl to his brother.

      • That’s awesome – I would love to get the chance to see this on the big screen with an audience instead of in my living room for the millionth time.

        I bet the jelly exploding legs during that glass shooting scene looked pretty gnarly on the big screen, too.

  12. I thought I spotted you and was going to say hello but you left right after the first film ended! Oh well. Next time around.

    • I was going to tell you to look for the Charlie Brown scarf and we had to bail. Honestly, the other DIE HARDS don’t exist in my dojo.

      But it was great seeing the film on the big screen again, but it’d be greater to see a 70 mm version as I did back in 88…

  13. I really wish Bruce Willis would stop shaving his head and grow all of his hair back. He looks harder with hair.

  14. Bruce Willis should also get a lifetime achievement award for the many great films that he had `

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