It’s scary to remember that I first saw ‘Die Hard’ at the London Film Festival of 1987, at a packed early morning screening at the Odeon West End, several months before it was released to cinemas and the rest of the world caught ‘Die Hard’ fever.
Up until that point, Bruce Willis had been a hairline-challenged New York bartender with a likeable charm and a cocky swagger who had lucked out with a little show called ‘Moonlighting’ but been thwarted as a movie idol by the failure of his first two films, the Blake Edwards’ directed ‘Blind Date’ and ‘Sunset’.
It’s weird to think of Willis as primarily a comedy actor, a kind of street-smart Cary Grant wannabe, now that he’s pretty much synonymous with action hero roles and his most recent ‘comedy’ vehicle, Kevin Smith’s ‘Cop Out’ was a turkey.
But, in those naive early days, director John McTiernan was taking an interesting if risky punt on casting the lightweight comedy actor from Moonlighting’ as tough New York cop John McClane, trapped in his estranged wife’s office building while terrorists were threatening to execute everyone after clearing out the vault downstairs.
It was a gamble that paid off, although – with time as hindsight – Willis got a better deal than McTiernan, who went on to make the shambles called ‘Last Action Hero’ and whose career never quite recovered.
But that Sunday morning in 1987, I had the most life-changing cinema experience of my life up until that point, and I’d had my life changed by the movies several times before then.die-hardnewpic56_1287617364
‘Die Hard’ made my pulse rise. It truly put me on the edge of my seat. It was exactly the roller coaster that advance word from the US had promised – smart, violent, funny, aggressively twisty and turny, with a perfectly constructed miracle of a screenplay by Steven DeSouza and Jeb Stuart that borrowed very little from Roderick Thorpe’s sparingly written novel, and an action hero who was gutsy but vulnerable and not simply a muscle bound deus ex machina. This guy was getting hurt. This guy was flip-flopping tensely from frying pan to fire to hotter frying pan to blazingly hot fire and (this is 1987, remember?) this guy was played by a TV actor and it was a one movie deal and, who knows, he might not even make it out by the end.
No, really, the first time I saw ‘Die Hard’ I really thought that could be the twist. After all, it was breaking every other action movie rule by genuinely having a brain and a well-constructed story, so even killing off the hero at the climax seemed like a possible.
‘Die Hard’ was / still is a perfect film. At the time I was writing sketch comedy for now long forgotten BBC TV shows and ‘Die Hard’ made me want to turn my back on all that television nonsense and hitch my star to the movie wagon.
Okay, so that hitching thing never worked out too well, but it’s a demonstration of the impact ‘Die Hard’ had on me. I’d always been passionate about the movies but the way McTiernan’s film made me feel — actually wanting to stand up and cheer every time Willis escaped another trap / narrowly avoided certain death — it was a cinematic buzz I’d never felt before.
I was hooked. Two hours later I stumbled into the harsh daylight of Leicester Square a changed man. A hopelessly ‘Die Hard’ junkie.
As soon as it was released on ridiculously overpriced VHS I spent £80 to buy it. Honest. The sell-through market was pretty small back then because people rented rather than bought, so film companies forced the obsessed anoraks like me who wanted their own slice of John McClane heaven to pay through the nose for it.
It was a full-screen pan and scan version (most tapes were in the eighties) which meant, when ‘Die Hard’ was rereleased as a widescreen several months later, I had to buy that too. And my scary ‘Die Hard’ collecting lasted for a good fifteen years, wearing out several versions on VHS only to be replaced by DVD versions from the US, the UK and Australia (because I lived in New Zealand at the time) whenever there was a glittery new edition, an extra special feature, or shiny special packaging.
See? I told you I was obsessive.
What’s unbelievable to me as I write this is the realisation that, after admitting all that, I haven’t owned a copy of ‘Die Hard’ since I left New Zealand and returned to the UK almost ten years ago. That’s an oversight I’m going to have to correct very soon.
The important point I want to get across is what an effect that movie had on me, and how sensational it was to audiences at that time.
When Renny Harlin took the directing reins to make ‘Die Hard II: Die Harder’ a couple of years later, he did a decent job but lifting John McClane out of the claustrophobic pressure-cooker of the Nakatomi building so that he could run around an airport in a race against time facing another group of terrorists and a befuddled-looking Franco Nero was a mistake. And William Sandler’s villain was no match for Alan Rickman’s wonderfully sneery Hans Gruber, the arch nemesis of ‘Die Hard’.
The audience response pretty much echoed my reaction. ‘Die Hard II’ was nowhere near the critical success of the original outing.WillisBer92
So it was a few more years before John McTiernan (thankfully still pre ‘Last Action Hero) returned to direct ‘Die Hard With A Vengeance’ and – in retrospect – it was a better movie than ‘Die Hard II’ with a much more charismatic villain in the surprisingly toned shape of Jeremy Irons (Brits do make the best bad guys, even when their characters are supposed to come from unidentifiable parts of Europe with inexplicably camp neo-Nazi accents) but, once again, giving John McClane the oxygen to cat and mouse the enemy around Manhattan couldn’t reignite the pure ventilator shaft-squirming adrenalin pounding rush of the first film.
I can’t comment on ‘Die Hard 4.0’ and I probably won’t be able to comment on the soon-to-be-nationwide ‘A Good Day To Die Hard’ and here’s why…
..,like the people who believe Woody Allen’s earlier, funnier films were his best, and then he lost the magic…
..,I believe the ‘Die Hard’ trilogy that featured a John McClane with hair… however sparse it was looking by ‘Die Hard III’.., are the only ones worth watching. They’re the ones when John McClane was still a lot more than just a wise-cracking cartoon character indistinguishable from every other gun toting, terrorist-wasting supercop.
And not even II or III could match the magnificence of the very first ‘Die Hard’ — the film that looked like it was just going to be a one-off standalone sensation, before a wonderfully three-dimensional blue-collar hero was whored off into the Dante’s Inferno of ever-more preposterous sequels.
I still have respect for Willis as an actor (although once he started taking the action man gig seriously, he sadly lost all the sweetness that had made him such a likeable comedian) and have no doubt that the new ‘Die Hard’ and its predecessor will and did tick all the thrilling action movie boxes and kept the genre fans satisfied, but McClane wasn’t designed as an action hero. He was a good man in the wrong place at the wrong time fighting to save his wife and survive to see his family again. He was never built to be a franchise. And in ‘Die Hard II’, when Willis and Harlin realised they had to address the elephant in the room by jokingly asking “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” … that was the clue, guys. They already knew it was wrong to go there.
Simply because it couldn’t happen to the same guy twice. It wouldn’t have happened to the same guy twice. And three, four and five times should never have happened at all.
And now, according to the trailer, McClane’s got a sidekick. His son.
If Bonnie Bedelia makes a reappearance, please don’t tell me. I might pull a Hans Gruber of my own.
A Good Day To Die Hard?
Yep. But only the first time round, that legendary Sunday morning in 1987.
26 years later. Not so much.
Yippee-Kay… oy vey! Forget about it…

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at