Die Hard: Even Better on the Big Screen

Sunday afternoon, I finally saw Die Hard in a movie theater. And not just any movie theater, but the Castro. I’ve liked this movie for a long time. But between the big screen, the powerful sound system, and the enthusiastic audience, it was a whole new experience.

And a great experience. I used to give Die Hard an A. Now I give it an A+.

To begin with, it has one of the great action hero plots. Very evil people, who don’t care how many innocent bystanders they kill to achieve their goal, take over a location where they control who gets in and who gets out. Luckily, one man (always a man) is in that location but out of their control. He plays cat and mouse with the bad guys, killing them one at a time while avoiding being killed.

By now, that plot is a cliché. But Die Hard did it first, and more importantly, did it best.

The movie’s power comes from its willingness to build a situation before the action starts. For the first 25 minutes, Die Hard is a relationship drama. NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in LA just before Christmas, hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). She relocated to California, with their children, for her job. She’s a rising executive; he’s a working-class cop. His attempts to reconcile turn into arguments; he acts like a sexist pig, then regrets it the moment she leaves the room.

All this happens in the new, not-quite-finished skyscraper where she works.

Then a dozen well-armed, highly-trained bad guys take over the building, kill a few people, then hold everyone hostage. But not everyone. They missed McClane. Barefoot and initially armed with only a pistol, he has to do what he can to stop them and save the hostages–including his wife.

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Willis doesn’t play McClane as a superhero. He’s obviously very clever when cornered, but he’s clearly a regular guy in a horrible situation. He spends much of his time talking to himself, wondering how he got into this awful situation and why he just did something stupid.

He’s also, it’s quite clear, a very annoying person. But in this situation, he uses that character flaw to his advantage. He makes the bad guys angry, and when they’re angry, they make mistakes.

Much of the film’s pleasure comes from his discussions, via walkie talkie, with the chief bad guy. Alan Rickman plays one of the great, suave villains. He’s civilized, well-mannered, well-dressed, and witty. But he’s also a cold-blooded murderer. The hero and villain come to respect each other, and enjoy their talks, even though each wants desperately to kill the other.

But this is an action movie, not a drama. It’s filled with gunfire, explosions, and impressive stunts. These action scenes are as well-staged and as well-edited as any you can find. They keep the suspense and the adrenaline running throughout the movie.

They’re also, I should mention, very violent. Die Hard earns its R rating, and not for sex or nudity.

I missed Die Hard when it first came out, and saw it a few years later on Laserdisc. I rented it several times–both on Laserdisc and DVD. Then, when I was researching an article for PCWorld , 20th Century-Fox sent me the Die Hard box set, containing the original and the three sequels released as of that time.

But on Sunday, I finally got to see it properly. (Okay, it wasn’t a 70mm print, but it was a very good DCP, and aside from some soft scenes early on, I can’t complain.) When the screen fills most of your field of vision (I was in the third row), and you can’t hit a pause button, McClane’s sense of entrapment feels personal. After all, you can’t glance at the bookshelf or get up for food (at least not without missing something).

But the audience really made this screening special. Applause, laughs, and cheers turned the matinee into a group experience. You don’t get that feeling when you watch Die Hard in the living room.

The movie is so much fun that, even though I find more implausibility each time I see it, I don’t care.

If you doubt how good the basic story is, consider how many rip-offs we’ve seen since the original came out in 1988. We’ve had Speed, Under Siege, The Rock, Sudden Death, Air Force One, and last year’s White House Down. And those are just the ones I saw and liked.

Sequels are another story. The only really good one was Die Hard with a Vengeance, at least until it fell apart in the third act. The sequels to the rip-offs aren’t worth discussing.

But the original is one of the great action movies. And it’s much more fun in a theater.

The Castro screened Die Hard on a double bill with Scrouged. But other responsibilities (including writing this report) kept me for seeing the second feature.

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