The Best Action Movie in the Last Twenty-Two Years

Okay, okay, it's violent and filled with bad language and the sequels were reportedly not very good, but Die Hard is just about the most perfect action movie ever made.

It shouldn't be. I mean, it should just be good but forgettable, kind of like Speed and Lethal Weapon. Guns, bank robbers, cops, FBI, a soupcon of romance: these elements are in a million action movies, none of which last much beyond the initial release.

What makes Die Hard so good is the pay-offs. Everything is paid-off; everything is paid-off successfully, and everything is paid-off smart.

Take the bare feet: paid off at the end with the glass; I'm not a huge Bruce Willis fan, but the final scene where he shows up bruised, bleeding, and limping is, well, awe-inspiring.

Take the walkie-talkies (thank goodness, they didn't have cell phones): paid off with the exchange of information between McClane/Gruber and Powell (with each being able to overhear the others which adds dramatic tension).

The walkie-talkie exchange: paid off when Gruber meets McClane and alters his accent. Also, paid-off when Powell shoots the last bad guy to save McClane's life. (I must mention that Alan Rickman all by himself makes this a great film.)

Jerk guy at the bank: paid off when he pretends to know McClane and gets shot for his trouble.

The detonators: paid off when one gets thrown into the elevator and the others blow up the top of the building.

FBI guys: paid off when the police chief says, "We're gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess."

The cowboy joke: paid off when Gruber repeats it at the end, and McClane uses the opportunity to get them all laughing.

Guy in the limousine: paid off when he rams the bad guys AND, glorious moment, when he picks up the romantic couple at the very end.

Speaking of romance, the husband-wife romance is paid-off, but that's just the obvious romance. The real romance, platonically speaking, is between McClane and Powell. Watch the moment when McClane comes out of the bank and meets Powell face to face: great romantic moment!

By the way, talk about trashing a building and city block! It's not like Ocean's Eleven where the audience is supposed to approve (I'm sorry: I love Ocean's Eleven, but I can never ignore the fact that shutting off an entire city's electricity is unbelievably dangerous and lethal); in Die Hard, we get to not approve but see it happen anyway.

I think this last factor is an important aspect of filmmaking. Even if the characters don't get what they want, the audience should still see it. For example, I think one of the smartest scenes in Apollo 13 is when Tom Hanks' character imagines landing on the moon. So, they missed the moon, and frankly, the accident is more interesting, but we, the audience, still get to see the landing.

Likewise, in Die Hard, we don't want the bank robbers to succeed, but we get to see them (temporarily) succeed when the bank vault opens (accompanied by great music).

Finally, the action in this movie is so well paid-off because it isn't easy. McClane has to take the bad guys out one by one (and he doesn't get every single one). He also has to do it intelligently. In fact, he is smart enough to know that he doesn't want to do it; he attempts from the beginning to involve others and only keeps fighting out of desperation. His main object is to stay alive; in defense, he steals the bad guys' weapons and undermines their plans. He has to use his wits. (And, unlike William Shatner in Star Trek: Classic, Willis' bare chest at the end is directly connected to the plot.)

Interestingly, the fact that McClane doesn't know the bad guys aren't terrorists increases his sense of danger but also (remember, this is the 1980s) ill-prepares him for their behavior. In the 1980s, terrorists were supposed to take hostages and negotiate. Now-a-days, we know better. Die Hard is oddly prescient. The bank robbers act like modern terrorists.

All in all, based on this movie, Bruce Willis was absolutely the right guy for Unbreakable.

Are action movies ever as good as this anymore?

(For those of my friends and family who dislike the excessive use of the "F" word and lots and lots of graphic fatal wounds, I don't recommend the movie. I respect that everyone has a line they prefer not to cross. For me, it was the fifth season of CSI.)


mike C said...

I agree that Die Hard is a truly great film, and is far better written and made than many people give it credit for.
While part 2 and 3 are really pretty pointless, Live Free or Die Hard is also really good- intelligent and action packed (maybe a bit over the top- Bruce VS a Harrier... ok, silly, but cool to watch). The only real downer is that since parts 1-3 focused on the couple trying to save their marriage, the fourth gives up on the premise and just says they're divorced. Sad, but a great time saver. Anywho, give it a watch and tell me what you think!

Eugene said...

Die Hard is a true classic. You'll never hear "Yippee-ki-yay" the way same again.

III and IV are worth watching. II is mostly awful. In II, they make the classic mistake of trying to convince us how bad the bad guys are by having them kill lots and lots of people. II is also technically implausible. IV is technically implausible, but in the same way that the computer virus business in Independence Day is technically implausible, meaning you can just go along for the ride.

Plus Justin Long (the Mac guy) turns in a surprisingly un-annoying performance playing right to type.