Die Hard, 1988 (Bruce Willis) 20th Century Fox

“Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”

Moonlighting in 1984 was like a breath of fresh air in the rapidly stagnating crime-drama genre of television. It was an effortless mix of hot topics and an urbane approach to comedy. Cybill Shepherd played Maddie Hayes, recently divorced ex-model whose husband took her for nearly everything except a detective agency that she decides to run as her own business. One of the detectives still in her employ is David Addison (Bruce Willis) and for roughly four years, the pair became the host of primetime television, but while Shepherd and Willis’ chemistry is what kept the show alive, the two hated each other behind the scenes.

I know Willis had a rough reputation, but stories of Shepherd’s antics were the stuff of legend. A couple of years into the show’s run, Willis started making movies. I remember his first full-fledged leading male-status role was in Blake Edwards’ Blind Date in 1986. Not a terrible movie, but forgettable, to be sure. He made a forgettable western/comedy that same year with the same director. Willis had an “everyman” charm about him, but he had yet to break through, until 1988 and Die Hard.

Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever was a dime-store sequel to his earlier book, The Detective, that was made into a movie in the late ’60s starring Frank Sinatra as Joe Leland, a retired cop and private detective. There are some subtle, interesting deviations from the source material. Leland arrives at the building to visit his daughter, Stephanie. The antagonist, Anton Gruber, wants to expose dealings between Stephanie’s employers and Chilean secret police. Leland believes his daughter was in on it and she winds up falling to her death with Gruber in the end.

Because Sinatra had first refusal rights to the character for any further adaptations, 20th Century Fox brought the Die Hard project to “old blue eyes” first. He turned it down, and then the property made the rounds to every name (and some non-names) actor in Hollywood from the ’70s to the ’80s. Locations, names, and motivations were changed but the bare-bones of the storytelling remained. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) leads a merry band of mercenaries to the Nakatomi Tower in Los Angeles to steal hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bearer bonds.

I don’t know much about bearer bonds, but I’d have to assume they are untraceable, or perhaps just as solid as currency internationally—whatever they are, Gruber wants them, and he’ll do anything to get them, and that includes taking an entire floor hostage during a Christmas party. Among those being held is Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) whose estranged husband, New York cop John McClane, has just arrived to spend time with his children. He stops off at the Nakatomi building just before the bad guys arrive and the building is locked down.

This enables him to move inside the building undetected and anonymous, at least until news reporter William Atherton (playing another in his proprietary line of “jerk” characters, Richard Thornburg) outs him as Holly’s husband. Between Atherton and co-star Paul Gleason, Die Hard is a veritable buffet of “jerk” characters. It’s up to this off-duty cop (with the help of Twinkie-loving Sergeant Al Powell on the 2-way radio) to save the day. I don’t know that Die Hard was expected to be a huge success, considering the $25 million investment in a movie with untested leads such as Willis and Rickman.

1988 was an unusual year in film. It was a year before the “Franchise Apocalypse.” The highest grossing film of the year was Rain Man, and Crocodile Dundee II and Rambo III were the only sequels to make the top ten that year. Die Hard seemed to be yet another “happy accident,” as it was based on a singular source, but then permitted heavy, character-driven rewrites to make the story cinematic. This is something audiences don’t understand when comparing movies to their sources. The movie is the adaptation of the screenplay. The screenplay is the adaptation of the original source material, if such exists.

It is Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman (and John McTiernan’s direction expertly shot by Jan de Bont) that make this movie work so well. It’s funny and spirited! A couple of years later, Rickman would be cast as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, again imparting equal parts wit and brutality, and being able to pull it off with such ease he would put a number of other actors to shame. Die Hard would, of course, be followed by a string of successful sequels, but none of them approach the audacity and sheer fun of the first movie.

For more Franchise Rewind, visit Second Union!

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