80s Movie Challenge Week 50: Die Hard (1988)

Well, here we are, after forty-nine instalments and over 80,000 words (more than Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) exploring some of the most culturally important films the 80s had to offer, Paul Childs rounds off our Great Year Long 80s Movie Challenge with one of the decade’s most beloved action films. Which also happens to be one of the decade’s most beloved Christmas films.

That’s right, it’s 1988’s explosive festive thriller Die Hard.

This article contains SPOILERS for the end of the film.

Forty-nine films. That’s a lot of films. That’s how many movies from our #80sMC I’ve watched this year, one per week as we’ve featured it in our weekly column – even the ones I didn’t write about. This is my twenty-fifth piece in this series, with the rest of the team taking on the remaining twenty-five between them – it was my labour of love after all! Yep, forty-nine films is a LOT of films.

“But hang on,” I hear you say. “You’ve written twenty-five, and the WGN Crew have written twenty-five. That’s… fifty innit?”

Yes it is, but you see, I haven’t watched this week’s film yet.

I know, I know. How will I write about a film I haven’t watched yet? Well, I don’t need to watch it, because I’ve seen it so many times. Aside from Star Wars, it’s probably the film I’ve seen more than any other. But don’t fear, I’m not going back on my promise to watch all fifty of the 80s Movie Challenge titles. It’s just that there’s a proper time to watch Die Hard and that is on Thursday next week – more popularly known as Christmas Eve.

Now I’m not here to reopen that ridiculous annual argument because anyone who argues that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film is clearly wrong. I’m here for one last time in this series to do what I do best and that’s to tell a rambling nostalgic story about when I first saw it and throw in a few behind the scenes tidbits along the way.

If you’ve been following the #80sMC series, you will by now be familiar with my friend Mez who introduced me to many of the films on our list, including The Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop, Robocop, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Aliens, The Blues Brothers, The Lost Boys and First Blood. He was hugely influential on my film tastes – but he DIDN’T introduce me to Die Hard. That honour goes to a friend called James Bennett. I was talking to him about a clip I’d seen on a TV. It looked dead exciting but I wasn’t entirely sure what the film was. “I think it might be the new Indiana Jones,” I said (Last Crusade was still a year off, but I was well aware that it was in production), “but it looked like he was in the city this time, not the desert or the jungle. He was going down the side of a tall building on a rope and trying to smash a window to get in, so he had to swing out and shoot it to break the glass…”

“You dolt,” said Bennett (for we all called him by his surname – slightly embarrassing when I rang his house, his mum answered and I asked for Bennett). Dolt was a particular favourite insult of Bennett for the stupid. “That was Die Hard!” he said.

“Oh, okay,” I chipped in and left it at that. I’d never heard of it. Looked okay from the clip though. I made a mental note to check it out on video (I was about to turn fourteen and extremely unlikely to get into that film at the cinema (due to my height I could already get into 15 certs but it would be another year and a half before I managed to get into an 18 – and that movie was Total Recall).

And then I forgot all about Die Hard. Until one night – Friday 1th of June 1989 as it happens – when Mez came round to see if I wanted to get a film out to watch together.

“What a coincidence,” I said, not inviting him in. “We’re going down to Anne’s Videos right now. Want to come?”

Of course, he did. In fact, Mez had a very specific movie in mind. The day before, Die Hard had come out on VHS and that, we decided, was the film we were going to rent – using my mum’s membership card of course as we weren’t old enough to get it ourselves. When we got there a few minutes later we were all fired up. This was gonna be WICKED! We burst into the shop ready to head to the display on the right, reserved for brand new popular releases.

Crikey, It was quite busy. Busier than normal. A lot busier. Odd.

We fought our way through the crowds to be greeted by a sight, both wondrous and horrifying. Forty-nine (yep, there’s that number again) copies of Die Hard on the shelf – and all of them with a little ticket marked “OUT” stuck under the sleeve. This was TERRIBLE news. We made our way to the counter to find out when to expect a copy back in.

“Any time now,” said the woman behind the counter (presumably Anne). “Most of them are due back tonight.”

“Great,” we said. “Can we put our name down for the next one in?”

Anne pointed at the large crowd we had just barged our way through. “Join the queue.”

Our jaws dropped. On our way to the back of the queue, we did a quick headcount. About 30 people. What were the chances that nineteen had already been taken out tonight and wouldn’t return until tomorrow? Slim, we calculated.

But still, we somehow persuaded my mum to join the queue with us against her better judgment.

An hour. That’s how long it took for our copy to come back in. Yes, we got one but it was an incredibly stressful time, watching people walk through that door, hand over tapes in that familiar black and yellow Anne’s Videos box and waiting to see if that translated to a blue OUT ticket (signifying it had been hired on Thursday) being removed from the box. When we got to the front of the queue, forty-eight copies had a green OUT ticket (back on Saturday). That’s right, we got the forty-ninth copy. After us, there was only one more due to come back. As my mum paid for the rental (plus another film she’d picked up for herself – it wasn’t like she hadn’t had the time to browse the shelves) we noted that there were going to be a lot of disappointed people that night, bringing home a different movie, ruining their Friday night.

We, however, were set for a good time!

We picked up some snacks and drinks from the shop next door and leapt in the car. When we got back we headed upstairs, leapt on my bed and settled down for two hours and six minutes of what had been, up to that point, the most exciting movie watching night of my life. Maybe queueing up for so long had hyped us up, but we both agreed it was the best film we had ever seen.

By now I was fairly used to big-budget, big-action action films starring the likes of Arnie, Stallone or Clint Eastwood. I didn’t realise, however, that the guy out of Moonlighting and Blind Date was in it. He was a comedian and singer, right?

Brude Willis brought to the role of John McClane a vulnerability, sensitivity and wit that I wasn’t used to in my action heroes. Here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to admit he’d made mistakes, who often got beaten in a fight, who ran away from trouble as often as he ran towards it. What was this that I was watching?

A question that, apparently all of Hollywood asked following Die Hard‘s release. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, the stereotypical action hero began its descent from popularity. Out were musclebound lunks who dispatched bad guys with an uzi and a wisecrack and in were smaller, weaker, more realistic looking action heroes who talked about their feelings and relied on their friends as much as their weaponry to bring down the villain. Die Hard opened the gates for blockbusting adventures like Point Break, The Rock, Backdraft, Enemy of the State and Broken Arrow. Even Clint Eastwood ditched his tough-guy act for In The Line Of Fire, the first movie in his already thirty-eight year long career in which he shed a tear on camera.

And of course, Die Hard gave rise to the Die Hard On A… genre which features films like Under Siege (DHOA Boat), Passenger 57 (DHOA Plane), Speed (DHOA Bus), Lockout (DHOA Space Station), Cliffhanger (DHOA… er… Cliff) etc.

Eastwood had turned down the role of John McClane, returning the script to the studio with “I don’t get the humor” written on the front page. Sylvester Stallone also rejected it. As did Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Gere, James Caan, Nick Nolte, Don Johnson, Rich Anderson, Burt Reynolds, Robert De Niro and Harrison Ford.

They were all second choices, however. The role was actually created for Frank Sinatra. In 1968 Sinatra starred as Joe Leland in The Detective which was based on Roderick Thorpe’s novel of the same name.

Leland appeared again in Thorpe’s 1979 follow-up novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, an action thriller about a group of terrorists who took over a tower block and took a member of Leland’s family hostage.  Having appeared in The Detective, Sinatra was actually contractually obligated to appear in the sequel, but by the time the project got off the ground, he was already in his 70s and felt he wouldn’t do the part justice. After releasing Sinatra from his contract and going through basically every male lead action her in Hollywood, the part was eventually offered to Willis, the thinking behind that decision being that he could bring the same sensitivity to the role that Sinatra had twenty years earlier.

By the time John McTiernan came on board, the title had been changed to the far more macho Die Hard, and it was no longer officially a sequel, with the lead character’s name changed to John McClane. McTiernan also insisted on more pyrotechnics, including a scene where the entire rooftop explodes and McClane escapes by abseiling down the exterior with a firehose. Leland’s daughter in peril was changed to McClane’s wife, and unlike the novel, her life was spared. One of the biggest changes, however, was that McTiernan felt terrorists made for unsympathetic bad guys – he wanted us to begin to like them, and terrorists were, in his words, too mean for that. Therefore he changed the assault on the tower to a heist, giving the movie more of a heist caper feel.

Alan Rickman was, at the time, an unknown. Die Hard was his first movie. However, wanting a suave European to play the villain, he was soon signed up. When asked what accents he could do, Rickman thought they meant American, so he showed them his Californian accent. This led to the creation of the scene where McClane and chief villain Hans Gruber meet – something that had provided something of a headache for the writers – how would they meet at the middle of the film without immediately shooting each other. Rickman’s accent solved that particular problem.

Rickman was very hands-on and even insisted on performing the stunt where Hans plummets to his death at the end of the film. This required a forty-foot drop over a blues screen onto airbags. McTiernan told Rickman he would count “One, Two, Three” and then he would be dropped. He then secretly told the stunt coordinators to drop him on One instead of after Three. This resulted in exactly the reaction and facial expression McTiernan hoped for – abject terror – which was one hundred per cent real, and not acting! Rickman later said that this was the last scene he shot for the movie – they couldn’t afford for him to be injured if the stunt went wrong halfway through the shoot! It was originally Leland’s daughter who would plummet from the building but McTiernan wanted a happier ending.

Another change McTiernan insisted on was to increase the humour. Original screenwriter Jeb Stuart struggled with this and found himself sacked from his own movie in favour of Steven E. de Souza who had worked on wisecrack-filled action adventures like Commando, 48 Hours, The Running Man and Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

With a script and star in place, a ready-made filming location (the partially completed Fox Plaza, which doubled for Nakatomi Plaza both inside and out) and a relatively trouble-free shoot in the can, cinemas began screening trailers for the film – and they were met with either a chorus of boos or laughs when the romantic-comedy TV star appeared on the screen. So bad was the response that some cinemas pulled the trailer altogether. Fox’s response was to reduce Willis’s presence on the poster, vastly reducing the font size of his name and making the building the main attraction instead.

Worried executives needn’t have fretted though, as great reviews coupled with word of mouth ensured that Die Hard became a huge hit and finally, after a few false starts, made a movie star of Bruce Willis. In 2018 Fox finally embraced the film’s festive connection (it originally came out in July) and gave it a brand new 4K remaster to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Blu-Ray disk was decked out in a sleeve designed to look like a knitted Christmas jumper.

So, on Christmas Eve this year, my wife and I will crack out the mince pies, pour the mulled wine, light the fire and pop Die Hard on the TV while playing the Die Hard: Nakatomi Heist board game she got me for my birthday earlier in the year. We will, as we do every year, root for the goodies, boo the baddies, say their lines before they get the chance, advise them against terrible decisions we know are coming and have a jolly good, action-packed, laughter-filled, thrilling, exciting, but most of all Christmassy time.

And that’s your lot our Year Long 80s Movie Challenge. You can check out our other pieces in the series right here, but it just remains for all of us here at WGN to wish you a very Merry Christmas.

Thank you for reading.

Oh, and if you were wondering… #80sMC might now be over (sob) but we will return in the New Year with more nostalgic ramblings, behind the scenes shenanigans and modern-day reevaluations of classic films in our BRAND NEW SERIES which is imaginatively titled… The Great Year Long 90s Movie Challenge.

#90sMC kicks off on Paul’s birthday, Friday 8th January 2021, when he takes a look at 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

TONIGHT on Friday 18th December, Paul Childs, Andrew Lyall and Jane Roberts, as well as writer Libby Harris, podcaster and folklore expert Icy Sedgwick, Bram Stoker nominated author Gemma Amor and Jed Shepherd, creator of this year’s smash horror movie HOST, will each be reading a spooky tale at the Zoom based Night Of Ghost Stories For Christmas – a festive fright-fest which begins at 7.30 pm (GMT) and promises to be a good night. All proceeds are in aid of Multiple Sclerosis Society.

At the time of writing only a few tickets, costing £5.50 each were still available and you can get yours here.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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