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‘Die Hard’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 15, 1988

 


Director:
John McTiernan
Cast:
Bruce Willis;
Alan Rickman;
Bonnie Bedelia;
Alexander Godunov;
Paul Gleason;
William Atherton;
Hart Bochner;
James Shigeta;
Reginald Vel Johnson
R
Under 17 restricted


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The new Bruce Willis picture "Die Hard" is a logistical wonder, a marvel of engineering, and relentlessly, mercilessly thrilling. It has masterfully executed effects, a pile-driver steady pace and a sleek, nonporous design. Add a percussive, big-star performance to the state-of-the-art mechanics, turn up all the knobs, and you've got a sure-fire, big-bucks, major-studio-style summer attraction. All that's left is to light the fuse.

So why am I not having fun?

"Die Hard" is all these things, but it's not a movie to like. It gets your heart pounding, then makes you hate yourself for it.

Set in Los Angeles' Century City, the film is about a crack international team of well-trained terrorists who seize control of the gleaming, high-rise headquarters of the powerful Nakatomi Corp. in order to claim the millions in negotiable bearer bonds stashed in the corporate vault.

Willis plays a New York cop named John McClane who arrives on Christmas Eve to spend the holidays with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who's moved out west with their kids to take an executive post with the firm. At the airport, McClane is picked up by Nakatomi's limousine driver, a gregarious, lean-bean kid named Argyle (De'voreaux White), and driven to the Christmas party being held high up in the company's 30th-floor offices.

On the airplane, McClane was given a handy tip: To combat jet lag, take off your shoes and makes fists with your toes. And since the intruders bust in at just the moment he's trying it out, Willis is able to run literally barefoot through the picture.

The film's early scenes, before the burglars arrive and the shooting starts, are tentative and unfocused. And Willis, who attempts to convey the sadness of a man whose family has fallen apart, struggles to fix the proper expression on his face. (The one he finally settles on isn't appropriate, but it keeps his face busy and we're happy for that.) At the point where McClane manages to slip away and begin implementing his own plan to knock off the crooks and free their hostages, the movie becomes a cross between "The Towering Inferno" and "Ten Little Indians."

The office building -- actually L.A.'s Fox Plaza -- is the sort of gleaming, steel-and-chrome tower that you may have dreamed of reducing to a mound of smoking rubble. And on the wish-fulfillment level, to see it blown to bits is enormously satisfying.

"Die Hard" is designed to present Willis as an action hero in the Schwarzenegger-Stallone mode, and he has the grace and physical bravado for the job. He can also be engagingly funny, an Olympian wiseacre.

But there isn't much opportunity here for him to flash his wits. For most of the film we watch Willis, barefoot and stripped down to a T-shirt, work himself into precarious jams, then, through a combination of cleverness, chutzpah and superhuman athleticism, work himself out again.

McClane's primary opponent is the suavely sinister gang leader, Hans Gruber. A terrorist turned common crook, Gruber is intelligent, cultured and utterly ruthless, and as played by the English-born Alan Rickman, he has the same sort of thin-lipped, sneering malevolence that Laurence Olivier gave to Richard III.

Throughout all this, the police and later the FBI make periodic and ineffectual attempts to flush out Gruber and his gang, including the homicidal Karl (Alexander Godunov), but essentially their role is that of well-armed spectators. One of the cops, a pencil-pushing sergeant named Al (Reginald Veljohnson), maintains radio contact with McClane, and the maudlin, brother-of-the-badge routines they play out together are about the closest the movie ever comes to character development.

These little rap sessions, in which the men divulge their innermost thoughts, take place only while McClane is catching his breath or patching up his wounds. There's time enough, though, for McClane to become the best of buddies with Al. And when the men meet at the end of the film, the battles fought and the building falling around their ears, they hug while the music builds and the light catches them in silhouette as if a great love were being born.

If McClane's reunion with his wife weren't far less spectacular (or if in general Bonnie Bedelia's talents weren't wasted), this might not merit much attention. But it points up how every detail in the film has been calculated purely for audience effect. The director, John McTiernan (who made last year's Schwarzenegger hit "Predator"), is unapologetic about his manipulations. But in a sort of addendum, we're encouraged to cheer when Al, who took himself off the streets because he once killed a kid, overcomes his fears and blows away one of the terrorists, and the movie crosses over from shamelessness into prurience. A body-intensive, cardiovascular workout movie is one thing -- one that asks us to cry for blood is another.

Die Hard, at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity and graphic violence.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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