Continuing on with my weekly column, we arrive at 1988. The nominees for best picture were "RAIN MAN", "The Accidental Tourist", "Dangerous Liaisons", "Mississippi Burning" and "Working Girl" – 5 excellent, well deserved choices. I’d –however- substitute “Working Girl” and “Dangerous Liaisons” for darker, more memorable fare such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation Of Christ”, Pedro Almodovar’s tasty “Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown”, Charles Chrichton’s “A Fish Called Wanda”, Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or even Penny Marshall’s “Big”, featuring Tom Hanks at his playful, irresistible best.
However, and this might be a bit of a controversial pick, my top choice would be John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Just like last week’s 1987 pick –“The Princess Bride”- McTiernan’s movie already had one bad thing going for it; Its genre. The action genre isn’t exactly something the academy has warmed up to in the past. One can think of such non-nominated classics such as “The Terminator”, “The Killer”, “The Matrix”, “Speed”, “The Bourne Identity”, “Aliens”, “the Dark Knight”, “Enter The Dragon”, “Face-Off” and “Kill Bill”. All of these have aged wonderfully well and were more than deserving of a shot at best picture. The only exceptions that actually did get nominated are “The Fugitive” and Ang Lee’s artful take on the action picture “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
McTiernan’s “Die Hard” isn’t high art but it got the job done in high octane fashion and set the standard for what an action film should be like in the 21st century. It spawned numerous rip-offs in the 90’s and still does today, none of which have attained the excitement of McTiernan’s original. It is in fact not overblown to say that “Die Hard” is the perfect modern action movie, a film with well sketched characters and a script that just doesn’t let up. It might not make you think much but it does make you feel as excited and pumped up as any movie can. Bruce Willis’ John McClane is the film’s heroic action figure, yet at the same time Willis doesn’t play the role too seriously as if winking at his audience by saying “hey, this is just a movie”. It’s a snarky, perfect performance that eventually sent Willis into superstardom mode and spawned a slew of sequels afterwards.
Willis’ McClane is the average man caught in a non-average situation. We tend to recognize ourselves in his character; whatever he does we understand why he does it. He gets shot, he bleeds. He panics, he cries. He’s not a perfect man, he’s flawed and we look up to his flaws as being part our own. This sort of identity to the main hero is what lacks in many of today’s action movies (“The Expendables” anybody?) where we can’t identify with anyone, the heroes are cardboard and the viewer is isolated and ultimately disappointed by the experience.
For an action movie to be great its hero has got to be likeable and humane -Willis does that job very well here- but a great action movie has got to also have a great villain and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is just that. Gruber is not a one dimensional terrorist; he is a manipulating, well versed and educated man that knows exactly what he wants to do. Gruber is methodical and is patient with his intentions. His charm and intelligence make him seem like someone who wouldn’t cause harm but he can. He is in fact very scary because he is very real. Rickman, with his well trimmed goatee, gives us a grueling, intense portrayal of evil.
The film is a great example of what happens when all the pieces of a film fall together in the right place. There are no flaws, no plot holes and no letdowns. Its 131 epic minutes are not wasted and don’t let up right up until its very last shot. In short, “Die Hard” puts you on the highest of highs and McTiernan reaches a peak he has since never attained again. His film redefines the “action movie” and the “action star”, presenting a new language to the genre and re-inventing the game with an incredible balance of character development and action. Of course Oscar didn’t come knocking, why would it anyways? Action movies are not the Academy’s thing and for good reason. They are –most of the time- loud, abrasive, dumbed down and ultimately artless films (‘The Expendables” anybody?) but sometimes a movie like “Die Hard” goes beyond genre and achieves something special through sheer perfection of the craft. Yipee-ki-yay indeed.