8 reasons why EVERYONE loves DIE HARD

Let’s think together about why the movie “Die Hard” has been such a spectacular success, and why EVERYONE loves it.

Rafał Donica

20 December 2022

die hard

Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like Die Hard, probably the most Christmas movie of all time? This film is like Keanu Reeves – everyone likes it, and if they don’t like it, they won’t admit it anyway, so they will be included in the statistics as the one who does. To sum up, the love of the cinematic electorate for John McTiernan’s cult slash classic film, is probably equal to 100%. The balance of our beloved action movie’s achievements include: 128th place in the IMDb Top 250, on Rotten Tomatoes an unprecedented unanimity of critics and viewers, as 94% and 94% fresh (no other action film has recorded such a score!). With a budget of $28 million, John McTiernan’s film earned 141 million.

die hard bruce willis christmas classic

Plus 4 Oscar nominations: for sound, editing, sound editing, and special effects (unfortunately losing to Eastwood’s Bird in the first case, and to Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the others). The film has excellent pacing and great timing, the exposition is short and to the point, and the dialogues, humor and action are given in perfect proportions. New characters are introduced to the screen every now and then, so the action doesn’t slow down and the film doesn’t bore even for a second, even though with a running time of 132 minutes it remains to this day the longest installment of the five-part series.

die hard bruce willis christmas movie

In 2017, Die Hard was added to the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress for cultural, historical or aesthetic significance. The costume department prepared 17 T-shirts of varying degrees of deterioration for the production, and in 2007 Bruce Willis donated one of them to The Smithsonian Museum. We wouldn’t have missed much, and we would have gotten a completely different film (probably even more brutal and with women’s breasts shown on screen), as Paul Verhoeven was attached to direct, and Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, with whom they made the unabashed Total Recall together two years later, to play McClane. And now let’s collectively consider why it has been such a spectacular success, and why EVERYONE loves Die Hard!

REASON 1 - John McClane / Bruce Willis

John McClane is probably the best role Bruce Willis has played in his career, tailored to his liking like the best suit tailored… to fit. You’ll admit yourself that it’s impossible not to love this character just for his name alone, sounding so very American, like, I don’t know, like John Wayne! Besides, even the leader of the terrorists at one point calls McClane a cowboy just like that. On top of that, John McClane is honest, charming, feisty, cynical, brave, self-effacing, human, such a peasant of his own. He’s not a pacer with a forty-pack on his belly, nor a superhero who catches bullets with his teeth, but rather a hero by chance, who gets into trouble not out of his own will or sense of mission, but because he falls involuntarily into the middle of it. The frames, in which, battered, tired and sweaty, with a cigarette lighter in his hand lighting his way, John squeezes through the air ducts, cramming through his teeth texts summing up his bottomless situation, have become a permanent part of X muse history. Willis took over the role of John McClane after Robert De Niro turned it down, opting for the set of the thriller comedy Midnight Run, which no one remembers nowadays, which is a shame, because it was cool. It’s also worth mentioning that Clint Eastwood himself originally owned the rights to Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever (in the pages of the novel, John McClane’s name was Joseph Leland), on which the film is based, and planned to play the lead character in the early 1980s.

die hard john mcclane willis john mctiernan

Fortunately, Dirty Harry eventually gave way to Willis, choosing the set of The Pool of Death, a rather average installment of Callahan’s adventures. Returning to our lucky actor, who was given the role of a lifetime, the actor with a sassy smile, who was already popular in the 1980s (his role in the comedy-sensation series Moonlighting opened the door to Hollywood for him), received a then unprecedented $5 million honorarium. However, the role in the comedy Moonlighting also had its dark side; when the first trailers for Die Hard appeared in theaters, audiences laughed at the scenes with Willis, thinking that it must be a comedy after all. For a short time, McClane’s face was even removed from the posters to prevent viewers from mistakenly expecting it to be a comedy, hence the use of the Nakatomi building itself on the posters. When the film finally entered theaters and received a great (and correct) reception, Willis’ face was added to the posters again.

die hard classic action movie

Ironically, playing an AMERICAN cop with a capital A (and the rest of the letters as you can see), Bruce Willis was born in West Germany, the son of an American and a German woman. Alan Rickman, on the other hand, the leader of the evil German terrorists, was English, while Alexander Godunov aka the dangerous Karl, who had to be killed twice to be killed, is a native Russian. Interestingly, in the version of the film for German TV, the terrorists were not from Germany, but from… Europe. Bruce Willis told in an interview that many of the real-life police officers he met with to prepare for the role, and who served as technical advisors on the film, had a very dark, even macabre sense of humor, which the actor then tried to incorporate into his performance. Ironically, action heroes are often criticized for their jokes in films, although, as Willis himself noted, telling jokes in tragic situations, as it turned out, is not at all uncommon.

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As the years passed, his best role, Bruce Willis, sadly, was reduced to the smallest of trifles with the sequels. In three he was still pretty much himself, the good old McClane we came to love, although we could see not the first, but rather serious signs of fatigue with the role. In four, there were still some vestiges of the good-hearted NY cop left; I’ll even insist that a coolly muscled and exhausted McClane spectacularly and bravely fought a truck against an F-35 fighter jet, in a doomed, uneven but hellishly spectacular duel. In the ill-fated five, not even a trace of the former glory remains. Bruce Willis, moreover, is now following in the footsteps of Nicolas Cage, starring in more and more B-grade, tape-shot cheap movies, dropping in for a day on the set, taking the cash and probably not even watching the poop made with his participation. Recently we learned about the actor’s illness, through which he decided to end his career, so there will not be another Die Hard 100% anymore.

REASON 2: Action scenes

The superb action scenes, shooting and explosions, which, in addition to John McTiernan, who had an excellent hand and eye for on-screen mayhem (see 5 REASONS why PREDATOR is the most MANLY movie of all time), are also, and I don’t know if not primarily, due to the author of the excellent, dynamic, energetic cinematography, Jan De Bont, pulled from Europe (from the sets of Paul Verhoeven’s early films), later creator of the great Speed. The spectacularity of the action scenes is also due to fantastic sound design, and old school pyrotechnics; most of the exterior shots of the building showing explosions are real, full-scale explosions that took place in and around the building itself.

Only the shots showing the external damage to the Nakatomi Plaza building, were filmed with miniatures. Personally, I love the shot with the burning helicopter (that’s also a miniature) slowly sliding down the wall of the building in a ball of fire. But my two most beloved moments in the film are Argyle listening to music in the limo while a bullet-riddled police car with Sgt. Powell at the wheel charges in reverse behind him, and the scene when the door opens, Hans’ men rush in through it, and John, screaming and firing his rifle at them, starts running away at the same time – what dynamics, what emotion, and Michael Kamen’s fantastic soundtrack!

When John McClane stood among the shards of glass on his bare feet, Willis wore special rubber boots designed to look like his own bare feet (sort of a prototype of the Hobbits’ feet, only without the lint). Returning to the action, one can’t forget the spectacular jump from the roof in slow motion with a wall of fire behind him, entering a skyscraper through a window with his feet forward through the glass, or the cottage industry-made caché-monitor-photo bomb dropped into the elevator shaft. During the shoot, incidentally, it’s rumored that Jan de Bont himself, like McClane in the shaft, got stuck in the elevator, which gave him the inspiration for the opening scene of his Speed, as famous an action film as Die Hard, though obviously not as good. Though really good.

REASON 3: Hans Gruber / Alan Rickman

Die Hard gave the world of X muse one of the best (and there are arguments over whether not the best) villains in the history of action cinema, created by the irrepressible Alan Rickman. In my personal ranking, his Hans Gruber stands in a row alongside Mr. Joshua from the first Lethal Weapon and Stansfield from The Professional. A sword-and-sorcery character in an action film is a must, without a good villain the main character might as well go home, for he has no reason to act.  Alan Rickman, who created a merciless yet unabashedly charming (although devilish) villain, gave McClain plenty of reasons to act and spilled a lot of blood. And how was the perfect antagonist player found? In the spring of 1987, producer Joel Silver and director John McTiernan were at a performance of the play Dangerous Liaisons, in which Alan Rickman was playing the evil Vicomte de Valmont. Silver and McTiernan immediately realized that… they had found a replacement for the role of Hans Gruber (reportedly, Sam Neill himself had previously been tried on for the role).

alan rickman john mctiernan die hard

Rickman, for whom his performance in Die Hard was – would you believe? – a film debut(!), almost gave up the role of Hans Gruber. He had just arrived in Hollywood and was appalled at the thought that his first role would be a villain in an action film. To a certain extent, Rickman was right, as the role of Hans Gruber was highly praised, and the patch of black character specialist clung strongly to the actor, which he himself helped (see the performance in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves of the two Kevins). Interestingly, the scene in which Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman meet for the first time was not rehearsed beforehand to create a greater sense of spontaneity between the actors. Willis improvised similarly, saying to Holly Hi, Honey when he met her under Gruber’s barrel in the film’s finale (hmm, that sounded a bit unfortunate) and the same was done in the scene of Hans’ fall; the horror on Rickman’s face was genuine, after all, the mattress he was about to land on was set much lower than he expected.

Subsequent installments of Die Hard, in which the level of villains dropped from part to part, were to confirm all the more the masterful level of Hans Gruber’s character from the original film. Even Hans’ brother Simon didn’t grow up to his heels, the villain from part four sat below the heel at all, and in part five I can’t even remember who tried to mess with the already tired role of Willis and his son Jai Courtney, spoiling every film with his presence. In an article marking the 30th anniversary of Die Hard, Bonnie Bedelia (who played Holly) stated that the first thing she thinks of when someone mentions a McTiernan film is Alan Rickman. The two became friends, by the way, and had lunch every day during the filming of the movie. The actress talked about how charming and gentle Rickman was in real life.

REASON 4: The power of love

The power of love, the driving force behind a million or more movies. A universal motif that always works, and it also worked in the bloody and brutal Die Hard. McClane’s marriage is falling apart, John and Holly are already getting along on average, they change their names, etc., but as soon as the spouse is in danger, the brave husband rushes barefoot across the glass to rescue her (and, by the way, other hostages) from the hands of the sleuths who have raised their hand against his woman. Thus, John grows in the eyes of the audience almost like Cookie in the second part of Shrek, inspiring widespread respect not only from street people. In general, for the power of love, this paragraph came out rather short. But this is action cinema after all, who would want to read any longer sweet-talking platitudes about this overrated feeling. Despite the fact that John saved Holly’s life, and will save her a second time in the next part, she’ll leave him anyway, and he’ll go on a splurge in the third part. Love is not there, there are only hallucinations from malnutrition.

Die Hard

Rafał Donica

Rafał Donica

Since watching "Blade Runner", he has been passionate about cinema, loves "Akira", "Drive", "Escape from New York", "North by Northwest", the underrated "The Hateful Eight" and "Terrifier 2". Author of the book "Frankenstein 100 years in cinema". Founder and editor-in-chief (in the years 1999 - 2012) of the Polish film portal FILM.ORG.PL. Since 2016, a professional reportage photographer.

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