Ode to Joy: Why Die Hard Is Still the Best Action Movie of the Modern Era

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Ode to Joy: Why Die Hard Is Still the Best Action Movie of the Modern Era

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | July 16, 2013 | Comments ()


Twenty-five years on, it’s impossible to imagine what modern American action movies would be without Die Hard. It’s not just that it was a hit, earning $88 million domestically in the summer of 1988, equal to about $168 million today (and that it made that payday in an era before the bloated, hyper-budgeted tentpoles of the current comic book movie era). It’s not that it spawned four sequels of varying quality. It’s not even that it created a subset of action movie pitting one man trapped in an enclosed area against an army of increasingly dangerous enemies. Those things all happened, and they’re part of what made Die Hard legendary, but the film’s greatest success is that it showed us just how great a modern action movie could be. It casts a shadow over the genre because it stands as an example of how to tell a tight, exciting story with humor, suspense, and a kind of fluid grace that eludes almost every other action movie out there. After trying to crack different methods of looking at Die Hard — frankly, after being overwhelmed by how great it is and how much there is to talk about — I’ve decided to focus on three scenes that speak to different aspects of the film.

“Fists With Your Toes”: Setting the Stage

Die Hard is like a master class in the economics of storytelling. Everything works together perfectly, starting with the script from Jeb Stuart and Steven E. DeSouza and the direction from John McTiernan. McTiernan — also responsible for 1987’s Predator and 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, putting him pretty much at the epicenter of the era’s action movies — knows that the best way to keep a viewer hooked is to give them someone to root for and something to anticipate. Die Hard takes its time getting to the action sequences that would redefine the genre, but it does so in ways that are still smartly entertaining.

The opening scene is a perfect example. We open on John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he’s sitting in a plane, waiting for it to taxi safely to the gate. This is gonna be our guy, but he’s not some tank impervious to normal feelings or basic jitters. This isn’t Schwarzenegger. McClane’s first act in the film is one of nervousness and unease, and it takes a casual conversation with a fellow traveler to help him calm down. When the stranger tells McClane to go home and take off his shoes and socks and make “fists” with his toes as a way of shaking off the stress of the flight, McClane meets him with just the right mix of curiosity and amusement. “Trust me,” the guy says, “I’ve been doing it for nine years.” And then, once they land, we catch a glimpse of McClane’s gun as he reaches for his suitcase in the overhead compartment. He grins and says, “It’s OK. I’m a cop.” But he knows this doesn’t quite put the guy at ease, so he adds, “Trust me. I’ve been doing this for eleven years.” His cool evaporates when he grabs his package — a giant stuffed animal for his kids — and bumps into the flight attendant.

Establishing characters quickly, and doing so in a way that relies on visuals and normal dialogue instead of cheap exposition, is so hard to do. Think about how many times a character says something like “Mikey, you’re my brother, but you’ve just gotta” etc. etc., exactly like no one ever would in real life, just so we the viewers can be given the requisite cues to understand the story. But in just a few minutes, Die Hard has introduced their main character and shown him to be confident, flawed, resilient, humorous, and human. None of the dialogue feels out of place, and none of the interactions feel forced. The film’s tone — gritty but cocky, able to nimbly move between action and comic relief — is set up in an instant. No matter how many times you watch it, it still feels like a magic trick.

“She Never Heard Me Say ‘I’m Sorry’”: The Hero Alone

John McClane gets his ass kicked. A lot. In sharp contrast to the bulletproof slabs that powered through action movies of the 1980s, McClane is anything but invincible. McTiernan drives this home in the way the film expertly elevates the threat level as McClane fights his way through the horde of terrorists who have taken over Nakatomi Plaza. His first fight is just against one man, but it leaves him heaving and stumbling after they fall down a flight of stairs. Die Hard made it fashionable — practically mandatory — for action heroes to take their lumps. The best films that followed the Die Hard template always took time to show their hero struggling to stay in the game. Speed, which took the basic story idea and turned Nakatomi Plaza into a city bus, is a good example of this: its hero cop (Keanu Reeves) grows increasingly tired and frustrated, not to mention physically exhausted. I put it to you that it is not a coincidence that Speed’s director, Jan de Bont, was the cinematographer for Die Hard.

McClane’s low point comes late in the film, after a particularly brutal firefight that saw him walk across broken glass to escape. He’s tired, dejected, and trailing the thick dark jets of blood that signify some serious damage. He’s alone in a bathroom, picking shards of debris out of his feet and talking on the radio to Al (Reginald VelJohnson), his one remaining link to the real world, when he just starts to cry at the idea of never seeing his wife again. This is so crucial to what makes Die Hard work. It’s not just a story of a hero fighting a sea of bad guys, or even of a cop doing the thing he does best in an effort to save innocent people. It’s about a guy who wants to get home to his wife. The only reason he’s even there is to visit her and try to repair the leaning ruin of their marriage. The (mostly) nameless German hijackers don’t mean anything to him. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be in an action movie, which makes the action that much more grounded and realistic. McClane doesn’t want to kill these guys; he wants to do what he has to do to be reunited with his wife. That’s a vital difference.

“I Promise I Will Never Even Think About Going Up in a Tall Building Again”: Explosions in the Sky

Die Hard’s also, you know, an action movie, and an amazing one at that. McTiernan masterfully controls the ebb and flow of the film, building toward increasingly dangerous fights between McClane and the villains that have taken over the building. The first shot isn’t fired until 17 minutes into the film, and that’s just a single bullet. The villains silently glide in and take control of the building, waltzing quietly into the Christmas party at around the 23-minute mark. In other words, the film spends about a quarter of its screen time just getting things in place, and doing so in a way that emphasizes mood, character, and the real danger that’s to come. McTiernan moves up and down, crescendo and decrescendo, orchestrating the ideal action story. There are major, bloody battles, but there’s also the fantastically tense battle of words between McClane and Hans (Alan Rickman), the antagonist, about halfway through the film. After each battle, McTiernan gives the viewer time to recharge, and he also never lets his love of dazzling set pieces get in the way of the basic building blocks of the story. If you stripped out the action scenes and just watched everything else, it’d still make sense.

But who’d want to miss these action scenes? McTiernan directs with a flair rarely seen these days, and not just because he’s relying as much as possible on physical effects. He provides a real sense of space, a visual geography that lets you know exactly where you are even in the heat of the moment. As opposed to impressionist action films that want to bludgeon you into the idea of excitement by presenting you with a lot of bright blurs, McTiernan knows that the best way to excite a viewer is by actually taking them through the filmic space, whether that means swooping in on helicopters as they fire on the building or running alongside John McClane as he fights for his life. Over the course of the film, viewers become familiar with Nakatomi and its ins and outs, especially as McClane makes his way again and again through the same spaces in an effort to hunt or evade his enemies. (The first time McClane cuts through a floor that’s under construction, he sees some centerfolds that the crew have put up; the next time he passes by, he just nods and says “Girls,” both greeting them and orienting himself. We get humor, character, and helpful storytelling, all in one instant.)

That’s what makes the action so compelling, 25 years later: you feel it. Every shot, punch, explosion, shout, fall, flail, and wound. You actually see them all, buoyed along by McTiernan and de Bont. The editing from John F. Link and Frank J. Urioste is judicious, too, never wasting a moment but never chopping for the sake of it, either. Here are some numbers:


In other words, Die Hard is an action film that actually lets you experience the action. As a result, you don’t come away with the sense of being pummeled for two hours, but with memories of moments like John McClane’s jump from the roof of the tower. It’s a huge moment precisely because it’s allowed to be huge. It’s not competing with itself, fighting for your attention among a stack of random action scenes. This is the set piece that the whole film builds toward, and what a reward.

But what is Die Hard really? It’s a human story. It works so well — and holds up — because it excels at what we want movies to do. That is, it tells a story we can relate to, and it does it with style. Movies are the way we talk about who we are and who we wish we were, and the best ones always find a way to make us sit up and take notice of something that holds up a mirror to the world we’re going to face when the lights come up and we file out to the parking lot. These moments can happen in any genre or era; all that matters is that they happen. I will never in my life be in a situation like the one in Die Hard, but I know every bit of what it’s like to worry that someone you love is hurt or in trouble; to feel scared about the ways we drive ourselves apart; to hope that maybe this Christmas is the one where things turn around. Every great thing Die Hard does is done to serve this goal of making a human connection. It’s a thriller and an adventure, but it’s also the best kind of drama because it uses those grand fantasies as backdrops for an enduring story. At its base, it’s a fairy tale, a crusade about one man storming a castle. That story lasts because it always has.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • DeltaJuliet

    Great write-up. I need to watch this (again) with Mr. Juliet tonight.
    And I mean, it has old-school Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. How could you possibly go wrong?

  • Tarn

    Great article! It made me want to rewatch Die Hard for the eleventy-squillionth time.

  • juzzlehizzle

    Great write up.

    A few things

    1. Best third act ever. The whole film builds up to it and when it explodes, it thrills you because it's earned.

    2. A scared hero is half of what makes an action movie work. McClane is terrified. If I'm to be convinced of the severity of a situation, then it helps if I can see the characters reacting plausibly to it. Die Hard does and it does it fantastically. Outside of coherent, properly produced action, it's the main thing the new Die Hards are missing.

    3. John Mctiernan is a fantastic director of action. Barring Spielberg and Cameron, I can't think of anyone else who uses the camera so well as a dramatic tool. The only director of action today who I think worthy of being mentioned in the same breath is Justin Lin. maybe.

    4. A sense of mystery brings so much to an action film. McTiernan employs it marvelously here as he does in Predator and Red October, his two best other films

  • Green Lantern

    This x 1000.

    It's a shame that the original holds up much better than its sequels ever did, though I expect you can say that for most film franchises.

  • Conor

    *Wipes away a manly, manly tear*

    That... that was beautiful.

    I'm watching Die Hard for the 437th time tonight.

  • zeke_the_pig

    This was glorious, Dan, thanks.

    'No matter how many times you watch it, it still feels like a magic trick' should be the sub-heading to every Die Hard write-up ever.

  • Niki Ganong

    You call this film Ode to Joy? This piece is an ode to joy!

  • n2th2n

    Great article, its nice to get back and reminisce what was probably the best action movie ever made. Die Hard 1 was my all time favorite, and just after seeing the ridiculous white house down that totally ripped off the die hard formula, atleast by reading this article made me consider watching this again.

  • I'm not sure which is McTiernan's masterpiece, Die Hard or Predator. Die Hard is probably more popular and respected. But Predator is one of the best monster movies and just flat out suspense films I've ever seen.

  • Some Guy

    It's really hard to deny Red October it's honors, either. Perfectly crafted.

  • Dense

    Great article, thank you. I shared it with friends who need a better appreciation.

    My local theater was kind enough to show the four movies prior to the premiere of the most recent (travesty), "Live Free...". Fuzzy Jesus, did that marathon bite them in the ass. Just spotlit the degradation of the series.

    But which is the *better* action movie? Die Hard or Raiders of the Lost Ark, (as I don't consider it a "modern era" movie, given it's serial inspiration)? I sincerely wrestle with this.

  • Batesian

    Argh! Same as my answer to Yaksman. Dammit; I need to cue up an '80s movie marathon.

  • The Kilted Yaksman

    As much as I like this, "Big Trouble in Little China" is the superior 80's action movie, IMO.

  • Batesian

    Ah, geez; that's like asking which of my kids I love more.

    (Not that I have kids, but hey, that's why metaphors.)

  • Kobie

    Easily in my top 2 or 3 films of all time. I absolutely love Die Hard.

  • Johnnyseattle

    "I'm not the one that just got butt-f***ed on national TV, Dwayne!"

  • SackBlabbath

    Excellent piece!
    'Die Hard' is the ultimate Xmas movie,too!

  • Michael M

    Whatever you say, grandpa!!

  • Alex C

    There is a small moment where Hollis is on the phone negotiating with John for the terrorists, and they bring him a Coke, and he has this look of confusion on his face making it clear that wasn't the kind of "coke" he was asking for. It took me about 10 years to get that joke.

  • Mentalcase

    Holy hippo tits! That's amazing if it's true. You know what? I might not be able to wait until Christmas to watch this like I normally do. I HAVE to see that scene and soon.

  • Boston Red

    I saw a screening of the movie for the 1st time in years the other night. My biggest takeaway -- who the hell has an office Christmas party on Christmas Eve? That and the audience laughed at the gas prices and Argyle's excitement over the VHS player.

  • Shemp Marx

    "who the hell has an office Christmas party on Christmas Eve?"

    Being that these were high-level executives at a giant multinational, I
    always figured it was less a Christmas party and more of a "Let's knock
    off early today and have some drinks. Say, 7PM. Oh, and tell everybody
    not to come in until lunch tomorrow. It is the holidays, after all" -
    type situation.

  • Boston Red

    Oh, so it's "ScroogeCo Industries"? That makes more sense...

  • JJ

    That was a fantastic read. There's a reason (read: McTiernan) that the first and third installments are the best of this franchise. Plus, it spawned some of the best TV edits ever.

    "Yippee-ki-yay, melon farmer."

  • emmalita

    Still not as good as "This is what happens when you meet a stranger in the Alps."

  • jenseoul

    Best villain = Hans. Alan Rickman played that role with such panache. Still remember his line to the doomed Mr. Takagi: "Nice suit. John Phillipps, London. I have 2 myself. Rumor has it Arafat gets his there."

    Die Hard had great action sequences, great LOL moments ("looks like we're gonna need more FBI guys"), and was a really fun thrill ride. Happy 25 yrs, and great article.

  • Fredo

    They keep putting it on HBO/Cinemax and I keep watching it. It's so good that it never, ever, loses its freshness.

    Three things that I think make it standout atop all that you said:

    1. Everyone is smart at what they do: if characters make mistakes, it's borne not out of stupidity, but out of a reliance in what they are believing in. The SWAT guys act like SWAT guys. The FBI Agent Johnsons function given what they think of terrorists. Even the terrorists act knowing that their actions and demands will effect certain responses from the authorities. The only monkey wrench in the works is McClane

    2. For a dated movie, it doesn't feel out of date: think back to how many 80s shoutouts are in this movie. Rolex, Forbes, John Phillips, TV dinners, Newsweek, Christmas in Hollis, Wolfgang Puck, etc, etc. This movie is practically crawling with 80s-ness. And yet, the story is simple enough and the characters universal, so that you can watch it today and not feel like it's a different time from our own. Except for the big mobile phones.

    3. The odds are impressive but not outrageous: It's one man versus 12 terrorists. Yes, it's a dangerous situation. Yes, the odds are great. But this is nowhere near the cartoon-level odds that the sequels would bring. You can believe that through force of will, wits and luck, John McClane emerges the victor. There's no riding a fighter jet or jumping five stories down through glass windows while fighting a military chopper.

  • latvianluck

    The one shot that makes me wistful while watching this delightful movie is when Al first gets the "suspicious activity" call while in the convenience store. As he steps out and looks at the Nokatomi building, the gas pricesign is in the shot.

    Price of a gallon of gas?

    79 cents


    The good ol' days...

  • Nieve 'The Threadkiller Queen'

    This is my all time favourite movie, I watch it Every Christmas because it has become synonymous with Christmas to me and I can never turn over if I catch it flicking through the channels. This is my Test movie: if you don't like this film we are not going to get along-True Story I was on a date with a guy and he asked my favourite film I said 'Die Hard' and he just stared at me then burst out laughing I said 'No really, I love that film its one of Alan Rickman's finest roles, Bruce Willis is excellent in it and it has everything you want in a film-humour, romance, action, terror, awesome one liners, its brilliant' and he just looked at me and spluttered 'But you're an actress! You like literature and Shakespeare and art, you have a degree I thought you would like something more intelligent, you're really selling yourself short saying something like Die Hard ,why don't you try again?'
    I WISH I had this to whip out and smack him with, instead I excused myself to the toilet and climbed out the window

  • katenonymous

    I remember seeing this for the I-don't-know-how-manyth time in the late 1980s (because I'd already watched Die Hard a lot even by then), and a friend said, "This works because if you were smart enough, and quick enough, and agile enough, and experienced enough, and trained enough . . . you could ALMOST do what John McClane does in this movie."

  • hM

    and lucky enough!

  • katenonymous


  • Mike DBF

    I had the best time watching this during Spring Break, doing my active duty time aboard the USS New Jersey. Few things can compare with the enthusiasm of the Marine contingent aboard a battleship watching "Die Hard" for the first time.

  • katenonymous

    Funny--the friend was a Marine.

  • This was awesome.

    I can see myself watching Die Hard 20 years from now and still loving the hell out of it.

  • Dr. Merkwurdigliebe

    Let's hope they never get to make Die Hard 20. ;

  • Wrestling Fan

    I couldn't possibly agree more.
    This is one of the best film dissections I've read in quite a while.
    I have just one little moment to contribute to this.

    While waiting for the swat team to enter the building, Al Leong's character, Uli, sets himself up at the newsstand. He looks around, and seeing that nobody notices him, he reaches into the counter and steals a candy bar.
    That is one of my favorite character defining moments not just in Die Hard, but in American cinema. In midst of a massive assault on a skyscraper, as Hans is working on stealing millions of dollars, as he is preparing to help massacre the swat team, He is such a shifty, weaselly little creep that he needs to make sure nobody can see him shoplift.

    It is such a perfect moment. I don't know if it was scripted or adlibbed, but that one shot tells you absolutely everything you need to know about Uli.

  • mats19

    That one shot to me has ALWAYS made me laugh and also seemed so incredibly poignant and I could never place why and you just so perfectly placed it for me. It is actually one of my most favorite "human moments or touches" in a movie bc it's something so normal happening during something so not normal.

  • So endeth the lesson!

  • AudioSuede

    This is perfection.

  • John W

    "Come out to the coast...we'll get together...have a few laughs..."

  • NateMan

    That was great, and absolutely right. It's a big, loud, in many ways incredibly stupid movie. And at the same time it absolutely succeeds.

  • the_wakeful

    Huh. I've been under the assumption that my favorite action movie of all time was released in the xmas season.

  • Semilitterate

    I cannot recall a list of "best Christmas movies" that does not include Diehard at or near the top. Go figger.

  • I loved this.

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