Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John McTiernan|
|Based on||Nothing Lasts Forever|
by Roderick Thorp
|Music by||Michael Kamen|
|Cinematography||Jan de Bont|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$141.5 million|
Die Hard is a 1988 American action thriller film directed by John McTiernan, written by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart. Based on Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, it was produced by the Gordon Company and Silver Pictures, and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The film follows off-duty New York City Police Department officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) who is caught in a Los Angeles skyscraper during a heist led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).
Made for $28 million, Die Hard grossed over $141 million theatrically worldwide. Turning Willis into an action star, the film became a metonym for an action film in which a lone hero fights overwhelming odds. The film's success created the Die Hard franchise, which includes four sequels, a number of video games, and a comic book. In 2017, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Die Hard has been named one of the best action and Christmas-themed films ever made. The film also ranks No. 20 on Empire's 2017 list of the 100 greatest movies of all time.
On Christmas Eve, NYPD detective John McClane arrives in Los Angeles, intending to reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly, at the Christmas party of her employer, the Nakatomi Corporation. McClane is driven to the party by Argyle, an airport limousine driver. While McClane changes clothes, the party is disrupted by the arrival of a German terrorist, Hans Gruber, and his heavily armed team: computer hacker Theo, Karl and Tony Vreski, Franco, Alexander, Marco, Kristoff, Eddie, Uli, Heinrich, Fritz, and James. The group seizes the tower and secures those inside as hostages except for McClane, who slips away, and Argyle, who gets stranded in the garage.
Gruber interrogates Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi for the code to the building's vault and reveals that he plans to steal $640 million in bearer bonds, with the terrorist act merely a distraction. Takagi refuses to cooperate and is killed. McClane secretly watches, but accidentally gives himself away and escapes. He sets off a fire alarm in an attempt to alert authorities, so Gruber sends Tony to investigate. McClane kills Tony, pocketing his weapon and radio, which he then uses to alert the LAPD who snub him. Sgt. Al Powell is sent to investigate, Gruber sends Heinrich and Marco to stop McClane, who kills them both. Powell arrives and is greeted by Eddie, posing as a concierge. Finding nothing unusual, Powell prepares to leave, but McClane drops Marco's corpse onto his patrol car to gain his attention while Alexander strafes the car from the building with an M60 machine gun. Powell summons the LAPD, who lay siege to the building. McClane steals Heinrich's bag containing C-4 explosives and detonators.
James and Alexander use anti-tank missiles to disable a SWAT armored car before McClane drops C-4 attached to an office chair and computer down the elevator shaft, blowing up their floor and killing them. Holly's coworker, Harry Ellis, attempts to mediate between Hans and McClane for the return of the detonators. McClane refuses, prompting Gruber to execute Ellis. While checking explosives attached to the roof, Gruber encounters McClane; Gruber masquerades as an escaped hostage. McClane offers him a gun and Gruber attempts to shoot McClane, but the gun is empty, implying he saw through Grubers lies. Karl, Franco, and Fritz arrive; McClane kills Fritz and Franco, but is forced to flee, abandoning the detonators.
FBI agents take command of the siege, ordering the building's power shut off; this, as Gruber anticipated, disables the vault's final lock. Gruber demands a helicopter on the rooftop for transport, but the FBI prepare to double-cross him by sending helicopter gunships. McClane discovers that Gruber intends to detonate the explosives on the roof, faking the deaths of his team so they can escape with the bearer bonds. While making final preparations, Gruber sees a news report by intrusive reporter Richard Thornburg that features McClane's children and deduces from a desk photo that McClane is Holly's husband. The criminals order the hostages to the roof, but Gruber takes Holly with him to use against McClane, who in the meantime defeats Karl in a fight before heading up to the roof, killing Uli in the process. He sends the hostages downstairs just as the FBI appear and start shooting at McClane, believing him to be a terrorist. Gruber then detonates the explosives, destroying the roof and the helicopter; McClane barely manages to survive.
Theo retrieves their getaway vehicle, an ambulance, before Argyle hits the ambulance with the limo and knocks Theo unconscious. A weary McClane finds Holly with Gruber and his remaining men, Eddie and Kristoff. After knocking Kristoff unconscious, McClane confronts Gruber and is ordered to surrender his machine gun. McClane does this to spare Holly, but distracts Gruber and Eddie by laughing, allowing him to grab a concealed pistol taped to his back that contains only two bullets. McClane wounds Gruber and kills Eddie with a single shot to the forehead. Gruber crashes through a window but grabs onto Holly's wrist. Gruber raises a pistol in a last-ditch attempt to kill the pair, but McClane removes Holly's wristwatch and Gruber falls to his death.
Outside, McClane and Holly meet Powell. Karl emerges and attempts to shoot McClane, but is shot dead by Powell. Argyle crashes through the parking garage door in the limo. Thornburg arrives and attempts to interview McClane, but Holly punches him before she and McClane leave the area with Argyle.
- Bruce Willis as John McClane, a streetwise New York cop who has come to Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife
- Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, an extremist recently excommunicated from a West German political terrorist group, and the leader of the terrorists
- Alexander Godunov as Karl Vreski, Hans's second-in-command and Tony's brother
- Bonnie Bedelia as Holly Gennero-McClane, John's estranged wife
- Reginald VelJohnson as Sgt. Al Powell
- Paul Gleason as Dwayne T. Robinson, the Deputy Chief of Police
- De'voreaux White as Argyle, John's limousine driver
- William Atherton as Richard Thornburg, an arrogant reporter
- Clarence Gilyard as Theo, Hans's tech specialist
- Hart Bochner as Harry Ellis, a sleazy Nakatomi executive
- James Shigeta as Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi, Nakatomi's head executive
Additional cast includes Hans's henchmen: Bruno Doyon as Franco, Andreas Wisniewski as Tony Vreski, Joey Plewa as Alexander, Lorenzo Caccialanza as Marco, Gerard Bonn as Kristoff, Dennis Hayden as Eddie, Al Leong as Uli, Gary Roberts as Heinrich, Hans Buhringer as Fritz, and Wilhelm von Homburg as James. Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush appear as FBI Special Agent Big Johnson and Agent Little Johnson, respectively, Tracy Reiner appears as Thornburg's assistant, and Taylor Fry and Noah Land make minor appearances as McClane's children Lucy McClane and John Jr.
Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver, the film is based on Roderick Thorp's 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the sequel to 1966's The Detective. The novel was adapted into a 1968 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra and was a box-office success. When a movie based on Thorp's sequel went into production, the studio was contractually obligated to offer Frank Sinatra the lead role in Die Hard. Sinatra, then in his early 70s, turned down the project. The story was then changed to have no connection to The Detective. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined the role as he wished to broaden his appeal by attempting comedy in what eventually became Twins. Although it has been rumored that at this point the project was repurposed to be a sequel to Schwarzenegger's 1985 action film Commando, scriptwriter de Souza has denied this. De Souza has said he wrote the script as if Hans Gruber were the protagonist. "If he had not planned the robbery and put it together, Bruce Willis would have just gone to the party and reconciled or not with his wife. You should sometimes think about looking at your movie through the point of view of the villain who is really driving the narrative."
After Schwarzenegger the role was offered to a variety of other actors, including Richard Gere, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Don Johnson, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson and Richard Dean Anderson, all of whom turned it down. Fast running out of options demographic data from CinemaScore helping persuade the studio, the producers and director John McTiernan to offer the role to Willis.
At the time, Willis was largely known for his comedic role as detective David Addison on the television series Moonlighting and also had co-starred in the 1987 comedy film Blind Date directed by Blake Edwards. Willis initially turned down the role due to his contractual commitments to Moonlighting. However, after his co-star Cybill Shepherd became pregnant, Moonlighting was shut down for 11 weeks which provided sufficient time for Willis to work on Die Hard. Willis was paid $5 million to star in the film, a figure virtually unheard of at the time for an actor who had starred in only one moderately successful film, and normally only paid to major stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty. Then-20th Century Fox president Leonard Goldberg justified the cost, stating the film was reliant on its lead actor, while other sources within the studio would state that Fox was desperate for a star for Die Hard, intended to be its big summer action blockbuster, especially since they had already been turned down by so many other suitable actors. As the studio didn't believe in Willis's action star appeal the marketing campaign's initial billboards and posters reflected this, and Willis's face was not a focal point, consistent with CinemaScore's suggestion to emphasize the film's action instead of a star without experience in such films.
Willis's first day on set was on November 2, 1987, when they shot the nighttime scene of him jumping with a fire hose around his waist as an explosion occurred behind of what appeared to be the top of the Nakatomi tower behind him, following the completion of that day's filming on Moonlighting at Lorimar Studios (now Sony Pictures Studios) in Culver City, California. In reality he jumped from the roof of a five-storey parking garage onto an airbag. The force of the explosion blew him out to the very edge of the airbag. When upon completing the stunt Willis inquired why they hadn't filmed such a dangerous scene at the end of production, he was told that if they had, then they would have run the expensive risk of having to reshoot the whole movie with another actor.
McTiernan did not want the villains to be terrorists, considering them too mean. He chose to avoid the terrorists' politics in favor of making them thieves in pursuit of monetary gain, believing it would make the film more suitable for summer entertainment. The film's ending had not been finalized by the time filming had begun; one result is that the truck depicted as transporting the terrorists to the building is too small to house the ambulance that was later revealed to be inside it. Other scenes also lacked context: production designer Jackson De Govia had built the building's computer room before they knew what it would be used for. Likewise, the character of McClane had not been fully realized until almost halfway through production, when McTiernan and Willis decided that he was a man who did not like himself very much, but was doing the best he could in a bad situation. In the original script, Die Hard took place over three days, but McTiernan was inspired to have it take place over a single night by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The corporate headquarters of 20th Century Fox, Fox Plaza in Century City (which had opened a year prior to the film's release), serves as the film's setting for both external and internal scenes. At the time of filming, the building was still under construction, and the setting for a scene of McClane exploring an unfinished floor complete with construction equipment was real—after filming (and construction) was completed, the room used for that scene became the office of former President Ronald Reagan. De Govia came up with the idea to use the building. The Nakatomi building's 30th floor, where the hostages are held, was a recreation of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house Fallingwater, including a large rock with water dripping from it. Govia's inspiration came from Japanese corporations of the time buying up American products, his rationale being that Nakatomi had bought Fallingwater and reassembled it in their own building. The building's logo originally was too reminiscent of a swastika for McTiernan; the final design is closer to a Samurai warrior's helmet. A 380-foot-long matte painting provided the city backdrop as viewed from inside the Nakatomi building's 30th floor. It featured animated lights and other lighting techniques to present both moving traffic and day and night cycles. As of 2011[update], the painting is still in Fox's inventory and is sometimes used in other films. For the film's night exterior shots, cinematographer Jan de Bont employed a 50mm T1.1 anamorphic lens - the fastest such lens available - and push-processed the film by an additional stop in order to capture the city lights.
The scene in which the SWAT Greyhound armored vehicle knocks over a stair railing at the front of Fox Plaza required months of negotiations with Fox to gain approval. The end helicopter scene took six months of preparation, and the production was given only two hours in which to film it. It took three attempts above Fox Plaza, nine camera crews, and no one but crew members were allowed within 500 feet of the line of flight. The scene of McClane falling down a ventilation shaft and catching onto a lower opening was the result of an accident after Willis' stunt man fell. Editor Frank J. Urioste chose to use the unintentional scene in the final film.
Die Hard was Alan Rickman's first feature film role. Rickman was cast after producer Joel Silver saw his performance as Vicomte de Valmont in the Broadway run of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. For his death scene, he was dropped 70 feet (21 m) on a green screen set. The shot used was the first take; Rickman was dropped sooner than he had been told he would be, so the look of fear on his face is genuine, an act that reportedly angered the actor. The DVD text commentary track reveals that the shooting script did not originally include the meeting between McClane and Gruber pretending to be a hostage; it was only written in when it was discovered that Rickman could perform a convincing American accent.
The premiere of Die Hard took place on July 12, 1988, at the AVCO theater in Los Angeles, California. Die Hard had its inaugural British screening at the London Film Festival on 27 November 1988.
Die Hard opened in limited release in 21 theaters on July 15, 1988, earning $601,851—an average of $28,659 per theater. The film began a wide release in North America on July 20, 1988, earning approximately $7.1 million from 1,276 theaters—an average of $5,568 per theater—finishing as the weekend's number three film. By the time Die Hard ended its theatrical run, it had earned $83 million in North America and a further $57.7 million from markets elsewhere, totaling $140.7 million.
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On release, Die Hard drew ambivalent reviews from critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it a less-than-flattering review, rating it a mere two stars out of a possible four. Despite considering it well made and performed (particularly Rickman's role) Ebert criticized the stupidity of Gleason's deputy police chief character, claiming that "all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie."
Retrospective reviews have been much more positive. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 93% based on 74 reviews, and an average rating of 8.53/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Its many imitators (and sequels) have never come close to matching the taut thrills of the definitive holiday action classic." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 70 out of 100, based on 13 critics, which indicates "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A+" on an A+ to F scale.
Some critics have ranked the film on respective lists of the all-time best Christmas films (see below, Status as a Christmas film, for further discussion):
- Digital Spy – #5
- Empire – #1
- Entertainment Weekly – #4
- Forbes – #1
- The Guardian – #8
- The Hollywood Reporter – #4
- San Francisco Gate – #1
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Sound Effects Editing (Stephen Hunter Flick and Richard Shorr), Best Film Editing, Best Sound (Don J. Bassman, Kevin F. Cleary, Richard Overton and Al Overton Jr.) and Best Visual Effects (Richard Edlund, Al DiSarro, Brent Boates and Thaine Morris). Michael Kamen's score earned him a BMI TV/Film Music Award in 1989.
The main theme from the finale of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (commonly known as "Ode to Joy") is featured prominently in Michael Kamen's score throughout the film, in many guises and variations (mostly as a leitmotif for Gruber and the terrorists), and thematic variations on "Singin' in the Rain" are also featured, as the theme for the character Theo. McTiernan said that he incorporated those themes into the film's soundtrack as an homage to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (which featured both pieces of music). Basing his score around thematic variations on well-known pieces is a concept that Kamen previously used in Brazil. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is playing during the party sequence near the film's beginning.
As the film has a Christmas setting, the score also features sleigh bells in some cues, as well as the Christmas pop standard "Winter Wonderland". Two 1987 pop songs are used as source music: near the film's beginning, limousine driver Argyle plays the rap song "Christmas in Hollis", performed by Run-DMC, and, later, while talking on the phone in the limousine, Argyle is listening to Stevie Wonder's "Skeletons". The end credits of the film begin with the Christmas song "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" (performed by Vaughn Monroe) and continue with Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
The film's final four minutes were tracked with music from two other Twentieth Century Fox features; these were temporary tracks which the studio decided to leave in the film. The music heard when McClane and Powell see each other for the first time is from John Scott's score for the 1987 film Man on Fire. When Karl appears with his rifle, McTiernan decided that he did not like Kamen's produced music for the scene and chose to use a piece of temporary score that the production had purchased. The piece was part of the score composed by James Horner for the 1986 science fiction action film Aliens.
Similarly to Aliens, the score by Michael Kamen was heavily edited, with music samples looped over and over and cues added to scenes. The most notable example is the "brass blast" heard when John slams the chair at the window as he confronts Marco, then Heinrich appears and he kills him, and later when Hans Gruber falls to his death.
The score as heard in the film was released by Varèse Sarabande in February 2002, but was limited to 3,000 copies. It was subsequently reissued by La-La Land Records in November 2011, in a two-disc limited edition of 3,500 copies. In addition to the Kamen score, this release also includes the Monroe and Beethoven end credits pieces, Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis," and the John Scott track from Man on Fire.
The film spawned four sequels: Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). In July 2007, Bruce Willis donated the undershirt worn in the film to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.
Die Hard established what would be a common formula for action films over the next decade, featuring a lone everyman against a colorful terrorist character in an isolated setting. Several of these films that followed this formula were often referred to as "Die Hard on a _____", such as Under Siege (1992, "Die Hard on a battleship"), Passenger 57 (1992, "Die Hard on a plane") and Speed (1994, "Die Hard on a bus"). Such a trend would continue until films like The Rock (1996, also dubbed "Die Hard on an island") changed the tone and feel of how action movies going forward were made, and which further changed with the evolution of CGI effects exemplified by The Matrix (1999). Other 1990s action films featuring the Die Hard scenario include Cliffhanger, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Sudden Death, Broken Arrow, Executive Decision, Con Air, Speed 2: Cruise Control, and Air Force One. Scott Tobias of The Guardian observed that none of these following films readily captured the complete effectiveness of the Die Hard story.
In 2001, Die Hard was listed at #39 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills, a list of America's most heart-pounding films. In 2003, Hans Gruber was listed at #46 on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains list. It was selected by Empire magazine as #29 on their "500 Greatest Movies of All Time" list. In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2006, Gruber was listed as the 17th-greatest film character by Empire. John McClane was placed at number 12 on the same list. In the June 22, 2007 issue of Entertainment Weekly it was named the best action film of all time.
Status as a Christmas film
In 2010, Die Hard was voted as "The Greatest Christmas Film of All Time" by Empire. In 2012, IGN listed it at the top spot on their list of "The Top 25 Action Movies". Debates have been had about whether or not Die Hard should be considered a Christmas film. Some feel that because the events of the film occur on Christmas Eve and its setting includes a Christmas party, that is enough to qualify it as a Christmas film, whilst others feel that since the film is not actually about Christmas and focuses on an action plot involving a lone police officer trying to stop terrorists, it should not be considered a Christmas film. On December 24, 2017, screenwriter Steven E. de Souza stated on Twitter that Die Hard is a Christmas film. However, at his Comedy Central Roast, Willis declared "Die Hard is not a Christmas movie! It is a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!" Acknowledging the debate over this, 20th Century Fox released a special Die Hard - Christmas Edition home media release in December 2018 (during the film's 30th anniversary), including a re-cut trailer to present the film as a heartwarming Christmas story.
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