Die Hard: Top 20 Moments
With part 4 on the way, Scott McKenzie takes a look back at the first three films
Here we have it: the first and best of the bunch. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the whole series, but parts two and three follow the structure and conventions laid down in part one. But Die Hard isn’t just a great action movie; it defined a whole new sub-genre of action movies. Without Die Hard, we wouldn’t have been ‘treated’ to the slew of terrorists (usually with European accents) taking over a <blank> movies: Die Hard on a plane ( Executive Decision, Air Force One), Die Hard in a school ( Toy Soldiers), Die Hard at an ice hockey game ( Sudden Death) or Die Hard in a British council estate ( Down Time). In an ironic twist, the production of Steven Seagal’s Under Siege ( Die Hard on a boat) even held up the production of the third film in the series because of the similarities in the screenplays at the time. The fact of the matter is that Die Hard is one of the most influential action movies ever made, which is why it has more memorable moments than any other movie in the series.
1. You’re just going to have to kill me
Die Hard gets its first twist in early. The terrorists that have taken over the Nakatomi tower aren’t actually terrorists—they’re common thieves (sorry, exceptional thieves) who are after the contents of the vault. Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber is one of my favourite bad guys and his performance here echoes throughout his other roles throughout his career, especially in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and as Snape in the Harry Potter series. Director John McTiernan also sets the R-rated tone early on by despatching Nakatomi big cheese Mr Takagi with a gratuitous shot of his brains hitting the glass door behind him. It’s this point that tells us we’re in for a macho movie that doesn’t hold back when the blood starts flowing.
2. Now I have a machine gun… ho ho ho
John McClane sends the dead body of his first victim down in the lift with a message for Gruber. He incurs the wrath of not only the leader of the bad guys but also big blond badass Karl, whose brother he’s just killed. This is one of the reasons why John McClane is such a well-loved character. Rather than just dumping the body for the bad guys to find, his sense of humour turns Die Hard into a battle of wits between McClane and Gruber as well as a battle of one man against a building full of men with machine guns.
3. Now I know what a TV dinner feels like
With an angry Karl and his squad of henchmen hot on his heels and no lift to jump on to help his escape, McClane is left with no choice but to hide in the ventilation system. Think of your favourite action movies and there’s a good chance one or more of them include a scene of someone crawling through a plumbing system or ventilation shafts. It works so well because it doubles up on claustrophobia and asks the viewer to question what they would do in this situation. Not only are you stuck in a building full of terrorists but you’ve got to sneak around by crawling through a metal tube that’s only as wide as you are.
4. I must have missed 60 Minutes
It’s always good to see an asshole get his comeuppance and in Die Hard this happens three times: Ellis, Robert Davi's Agent Johnson and reporter Dick Thornburg. Thinking he can save the day and ride off into the sunset with McClane’s wife, Nakatomi smoothie Ellis tries to get McClane to turn himself in but only ends up on the ever-growing stack of dead bodies. Not only does he take recreational drugs and fancy himself as a ladies’ man, he thinks he can use his hard-sell tricks to solve every tough situation and gets what's coming to him. A valuable lesson for salesmen the world over, I reckon.
5. You should be on f_____g TV with that accent
Our hero finally comes face to face with Gruber, who tries (unsuccessfully) to convince McClane that he’s an escaped hostage. The camera work goes all diagonal in the most tense scene in the movie as the two nemeses try to outwit each other and McClane tries to find out why Gruber wants the detonators so badly if he’s already used all the explosives. In a movie filled with gunshots and big bangs, this scene tones down the action and adds a dose of intelligence that is often sorely lacking from the action genre.
At just ten years old I was too young to catch Die Hard on its cinema release in 1988 and the first time I saw it was when it was shown on terrestrial TV in the UK in 1992. The only problem with this is that at the time, ITV were a bit over-the-top with their cutting and dubbing, and in a movie filled with violence and bad language, they felt they had to butcher the movie. One of the most heinous crimes was to dub McClane’s f-words with some bloke doing a terrible impersonation and because I watched my recorded video of TV-friendly Die Hard until the tape wore out, I’m forever haunted by the sound of “You think I’m really stupid, Hans” in the back of my mind, no matter how many times I watch it now.
6. Blow the roof
It’s back to big bang time as Gruber gives the order to blow the roof, intending to cover his escape with the contents of the vault. McClane manages to get the hostages out of the way in time but can’t do anything to save the FBI agents in the helicopter who are taking pot shots at him. We had the theme of claustrophobia earlier on, now we’ve got vertigo to deal with. Could you throw yourself off the thirty-fifth floor of a building that’s about to explode, only tied to the roof with a fire hose?
7. Yippee-ki-yay #1
What’s better than tricking the bad guy into thinking you haven’t got a gun, then shooting him and sending him tumbling out of the window? Why not deliver a clever catchphrase at the same time? It’s very cool in a James Bond kind of way but the writers created a rod for their own backs by feeling the need to include it in the other movies. Parts two and three could have done without the line but at the end of Die Hard it closes the book on the relationship between McClane and Gruber. Before Gruber falls, Holly has to lose her Rolex to save her life, a neat metaphor for abandoning the life that’s kept her and John apart. There’s not a lot of deeper meaning to be found in the Die Hard series but this is a neat inclusion.
8. Powell saves the day
Never mind that we last saw Karl hanging from a chain inside the building, seemingly as dead as his brother. Somehow he got outside and was reborn, still with his machine gun in his hand and it’s down to trigger-shy Sergeant Al Powell to save the day. It’s the first emotional pay-off of many at the end of the movie and necessary to complete Powell’s character arc and redeem him for shooting a kid years before. After talking on a radio for the whole movie, it’s predictable that he would have to do something heroic and even though this is a stock horror movie ending, it works for Powell.
9. Did you get that?
William Atherton took so much stick in real life for his performance as sanitation officer Walter Peck in Ghostbusters (according to Harold Ramis on the DVD commentary people would shout “Yo, dickless!” at him on a regular basis) that it’s surprising to see him crop up four years later as essentially the same character. His meddling with McClane’s family to get a scoop almost gets John and Holly killed so there’s a great emotional pay-off at the end of the film when Holly punches him. His acceptance of his sleazy hack status is confirmed with the line “Did you get that?” to his camerman.
Die Hard 2: Die Harder
Even though I’m a fan of Die Hard 2, I do think it’s the weakest of the three and it’s no surprise that there are fewer memorable moments in the first sequel than in the other two movies. Renny Harlin, bless him, does his best back in the day when he could still deliver the goods, but the plot is pretty much a re-hash of the original with William Atherton and Bonny Bedelia cropping up again, either through contractual obligation or a lack of imagination by the screenwriters. However, it’s worth noting that the Die Hard movies are all set at Christmas and this is the only one with snow.
10. Gunfight at the Annex Skywalk
Also known as ‘that bit with the guy out of Terminator 2’. McClane has to crawl through a ventilation shaft (ring any bells?) to stop a team of bad guys killing an armed team who are escorting a comms expert to re-configure the antenna so the airport’s tower can talk to the planes above them. It’s business as usual for Die Hard but we’re given that little bit extra with McClane stuck under scaffolding, trying to reach a gun on the moving walkway before the last bad guy does him in.
11. We’ve got you
This is the reason why Die Hard 2 has one of the highest movie body counts. Death from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey lowers ground level on the landing systems and crashes a plane to teach everyone a lesson for trying to fiddle with the antenna. Would the makers of a popcorn movie try a scene like this nowadays? Maybe, maybe not, but you can guarantee this will never be shown as an in-flight movie. A shot of an old woman on the plane before it crashes is meant to make us think it’s the plane that Holly is flying on, but dodgy editing and obviously different set dressing make this attempt to add extra emotion to the scene falls flat.
12. Whoah... oh s___!
Looking back, there are a lot of big explosions in Die Hard 2 and this one was the money shot for the trailer. Trapped in a plane and surrounded by bad guys throwing grenades at him, McClane straps himself into the pilot’s seat and pulls the ejection lever just before the plane blows up. The shot of McClane flying through the air looks a bit dated now but it’s an exciting scene and for once, Harlin pulls it out of the bag. However, McClane's comedy quip after he lands is one of the low points of the screenplay.
13. Yippe-ki-yay #2
Just when you thought you might have had enough exploding planes, here’s one more to round off the first sequel. Would snow soaked with aeroplane fuel ignite and blow up a plane that had already taken off? Again, it doesn’t really matter because it’s time for McClane to deliver his catchphrase and save the day. The final moments after he does are very similar to the end of Die Hard but the celebrations don’t sit as well with me this time. After all, a hell of a lot more people have died in this movie and everyone seems a bit too happy for my liking.
Die Hard With A Vengeance
John McTiernan returns to directing duties and delivers are return to form with a vengeance. No longer stuck in a building, McClane’s job is to stop a bomb going off in a New York school, set by Hans Gruber’s brother, Simon. With puzzles set by Jeremy Irons’ bad guy, this is a thinking-man’s action movie and I have just one complaint with part three…
14. I hate n_____s
Die Hard With A Vengeance lays on the theme of racial tension too thick for my liking. Now, I didn’t live in the Big Apple in 1995 and I know the NYPD have a shady reputation, but Samuel L Jackson’s character’s overt ‘reverse’ racism is jarring and an unnecessary addition to the film. His character arc is to learn to cooperate with a white man after telling his nephews not to let white people help them, but Jackson is better than the source material and it’s testament to his acting that Zeus remains a likeable character.
The movie opens with a hung-over McClane being challenged by Simon to stand in the middle of Harlem wearing an offensive sandwich board and the events to come are summed up by Jackson’s line “You are about to have a very bad day”. In a blink-and-you’ll miss it shot, the old lady who sees McClane when he gets out of the police van is the same old lady that Eddie Murphy gives the expensive earrings to in Coming to America. I’ve no idea if this is a reference to that New York movie but I like to think it is.
15. Very cool stuff
We’re dealing with a bad guy who uses binary liquid bombs that have to mix together before they can be triggered and… Are you keeping up here? Using fancy bomb technology in a movie means you have to get the device exposition out of the way as quickly as possible early on if you want the audience to stay awake. Luckily for us, we’ve got Charlie to help us out. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a geek myself, but I’ve always got a soft spot for geeky characters. Charlie doesn’t get much screen time but he’s a well-written character that (almost) gets his moment of heroism later on and here he shows us how the technology works that is central to the movie with a combination of suspense and humour.
16. I was working on a nice fat suspension, smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo
One year before Die Hard With A Vengeance, Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson both starred in a little movie called Pulp Fiction. This line is a nice reference to the song that Bruce Willis sings along to as Butch but it’s delivered in such a throwaway style that you’ll miss it if you haven’t seen Quentin Tarantino’s movie. That might seem obvious but in so many supposed comedies and spoofs, references are made in such a heavy-handed way that you know it’s there whether you’ve seen the source of inspiration or not. I’d rather watch these five seconds of screen time over and over again than any number of Scary Movies.
17. Are you aiming for these people?
Got to get across ninety blocks of New York traffic to stop a bomb going off on a subway train? Easy, just nick off with a taxi and drive through the park, then call in an ambulance to follow to carve through the gridlock. It’s a long, exciting journey and goes out of its way to throw in credible facts about New York (e.g. it wouldn’t have been possible to follow an ambulance all the way to Wall Street because of the way the hospital districts are organised). The only problem with this scene is that the journey is intended to be impossible but Zeus actually makes it to their destination on time. If McClane had been with him, what excuse would Gruber have had for setting off the bomb?
18. What has four legs and is always ready to travel?
Again, you might be watching a movie full of explosions and gunfights but this is the scene that will have you talking long after the credits have rolled. To stop a bomb going off, McClane and Zeus have to measure out exactly four gallons of water using a three gallon jug and a five gallon jug. The best thing about this scene is that you don’t get the answer, only part of it, and it’s up to you to work out the rest. Have you worked it out yet? If not and you’re anything like me, it’ll be bugging you for ages.
19. I'm glad you talked me out of jumping
So the bad guys are sailing away with trucks full of Federal Reserve gold and you find yourself on a bridge above the ship. What do you do? That’s right; you hook the winch on the front of your SUV onto the boat and try to climb down. It’s probably the dumbest idea McClane’s ever had and it’s no surprise when they fall from a great height but the guy standing on the boat probably wasn’t expecting to be sliced in half by the winch cable.
20. Yippee-ki-yay #3
Instead of McClane and Gruber facing off on the boat full of gold, we get a showdown between them at a port on the Canadian border. This sequence feels a little tacked-on but true to form, McClane saves the day by getting an electrical cable caught in the blades of Gruber’s helicopter. The movie ends with our hero calling his estranged wife Holly and now, twelve years on, we’re about to find out what’s next for Lieutenant John McClane…
Editorial by Scott McKenzie
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