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With: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Bruno Doyon, De'voreaux White, Andreas Wisniewski, Clarence Gilyard Jr., Joey Plewa, Lorenzo Caccialanza, Robert Davi
Written by: Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza, based on a novel by Roderick Thorp
Directed by: John McTiernan
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 131
Date: 07/14/1988

Die Hard (1988)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Hard' Candy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the mid-1980s action stars belonged to a strict club. You were either a tough guy cowboy like Clint Eastwood, or a bodybuilder like Stallone or Schwarzenegger or a kung-fu star like Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. Oh, some stars bent the rules occasionally, as when Eddie Murphy took a screenplay rejected by Stallone and turned it into Beverly Hills Cop (1984). But for the most part things stayed the same until Bruce Willis got off the plane with his giant teddy bear.

In Die Hard (1988), Willis became an everyman who showed bravery in an extraordinary situation. He was not someone who barged in to the rescue or faced off with his enemies at high noon. He hid, spied and played dirty -- and he bled, sweated, and swore. But most of all, he was scared. After Willis, the boundaries came down and the door was open to anyone who wanted to be an action hero.

Now the Die Hard trilogy (CBS/Fox Home Video, $29.98 each -- or $79.98 for the collection) has been released in three spectacular new double-disc DVD packages.

Directed by John McTiernan and written by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart (based on a novel by Roderick Thorp), Die Hard's second-greatest gimmick was paring down the action to one single, limited location. Its greatest gimmick was the idea of Willis, as John McClane, wearing no shoes. You can't get much more vulnerable than that short of being completely naked.

In Die Hard, terrorists take over a huge Los Angeles building on Christmas Eve, ultimately hoping to get into the safe. They don't count on visiting New York cop Bruce Willis being in the wings when they attack. Willis takes them out, little by little, using his anonymity and his hiding places as his strengths. Though the film still works very well on a suspense level and a pure character level, it suffers from very bad supporting characters, such as the sleazy coke-sniffing office worker who tries to negotiate with the terrorists, the stick-up-his-hiney cop, and the annoying computer genius bad guy who keeps trying for clever one-liners. But Reginald VelJohnson as the Twinkie-munching cop, Bonnie Bedilia as Willis' wife, and Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber provide the movie's richest turns.

The Die Hard DVD comes with the best extras, including outtakes, trailers, magazine articles, a complete screenplay, a (rather dull) commentary track by McTiernan, and best of all: the cutting room. This feature allows viewers to cut together three different scenes, choosing from tons of alternate shots. You can then view your finished scene against the scene used in the final film.

Die Hard 2 (1990), which is often mistakenly called its ad campaign slogan "Die Harder," still plays fairly well today. It may even be better than the first film in regards to overall quality, though its extraordinary violence seems a little over the top. Rather than copy the formula of the first film, the producers found another novel, 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, to adapt. This time McClane arrives at the airport to meet his wife, just as terrorists take over the control tower. The ace up their sleeve is that they can make the pilots think that the ground is farther away than it really is, causing planes to crash when they think they're still airborne. Willis again provides the center of the film with his strong, desperate performance, and director Renny Harlin gives the film a more playful feel that McTiernan's work lacks. (Not surprisingly, Harlin's commentary track is far more lively as well.)

I was most surprised at how much I enjoyed Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), again, which I did not like when I saw it in the theater. I still think the final third collapses in a sea of illogical loopholes, but the first half, which has Willis and Samuel L. Jackson running around New York solving little puzzles designed by the evil villain "Simon Sez" is riveting and quite enjoyable. (Can anyone tell me how they actually solved the 3-gallon/5-gallon puzzle?) But the whole thing is only a diversion while the real crime is perpetrated elsewhere. A gaunt, death-like Jeremy Irons plays the bad guy (the brother of the deceased Hans Gruber, of course). Willis and Jackson have a good rapport, and New York itself is put to good use. John McTiernan directs again.

The extras on the two sequel DVDs aren't quite as exciting as on the first. We have the usual studio-produced "making-of" featurettes that make the film look like Citizen Kane, and other assorted stuff. But both films feature excellent outtake footage, especially the alternate ending scene for Die Hard with a Vengeance, which I much preferred to the theatrical ending. (It's a quiet little scene where good guy and bad guy sit down at a table and talk.)

The two sequels lack that wonderful freshness that the first movie had, but in a way, they've stood the test of time better. I admired how racially mixed the casts are and how the series uses African Americans as heroes and villains equally. I'm also continually impressed by how good Willis can be; he really brings a soul to this character when it could have been just another cardboard creation.

Though the words "Die Hard" now describe a particular, generic brand of action movie (i.e. "Die Hard on a boat"), the real thing still stands tall above its many imitators.

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