There are many ways to spend your Christmas Eve: last-minute shopping, visiting friends and family, assembling gifts for someone while getting drunk off of spiked eggnog (try it, its fun!). But for off-duty New York City detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), who is visiting his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bediela) and their kids in Los Angeles, he gets to spend Christmas Eve battling a dozen bank robbers posing as terrorists in a sealed-off 40-story high rise office building. Led by the dignified but deadly Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), this gang is out to rob the company Holly is employed by for a cool $600 million while the FBI and LAPD, thinking they are dealing with terrorists, fumble about outside. But with his wife’s life at stake, McClane is only more than happy to do the job for the feds and screw with Gruber’s holiday plans.
When the ads for Die Hard began to pop up in the summer of 1988, I had my doubts about it: the guy from Moonlighting fighting terrorists” in an office building, and it’s directed by the guy who made Predator, an sci-fi action film I wasn’t all that enamored with when I saw it the year before (but has since grown on me)? This was starting to look like a film I could safely avoid.
However, my then 19-year old craving for graphic onscreen violence and destruction had gotten the best of me, so I went and checked it out. And, as is usually the case when I make snap judgments like this, I was wrong. So much so that I would have to say that John McTiernan’s Die Hard is, next to The Road Warrior, Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1993’s The Fugitive, one of the best action films made in the past thirty years.
What has made Die Hard stand the test of time? Well, may things: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza’s clever screenplay, chock filled with great characters, dialogue and situations; the film’s expert pacing, slow and intense buildup of the story and staging of action scenes courtesy of McTiernan’s directing as well as the great use of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy throughout the film.
But what really set the original Die Hard apart from the rest of the pack for were the performances by Willis and Rickman. Willis gives McClane an everyman type of quality that instantly allows the viewer to connect with the character and buy into his situations without hesitation. He also displays great onscreen chemistry with the entire cast, while delivering his memorably profane one-liners like nobody else. Rickman’s Gruber is a perfect blend of dry humor and menace who dominates any scene he is in without chewing up the scenery. Rickman has had many memorable roles over the past two decades, but this one, the actor’s screen debut, is still far and away my personal favorite.
The best action films are the ones that still evoke the same reaction from the viewer every time they see it. Die Hard is one of those films. It still makes me laugh, cringe at the violence and cheer on the hero in all the right places. Bruce Willis has proven to be quite a good actor in the years since this movie’s release, but no matter how many different roles he takes on, he will always be to me that wise-ass New York City Irish flatfoot who manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The picture transfer on the new Blu-ray Disc edition of Die Hard is yet another example of not shooting the messenger (20th Century Fox Home Video) in regards to how the movie looks on the next-generation format. The movie has always had a picture that was, by and large, on the soft and somewhat flat side. Part of that blame goes to Jan DeBont’s cinematography style, and the rest no doubt lands on the film stock used to shoot the movie.
For their part, Fox has done a pretty decent job with the 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4 encode. The picture has a film-like quality to it, and boasts a solid color palette, decent flesh tones, acceptable black and fair contrast levels as well as some very nice instances of detail. A prime example: Ellis’s suit coat. I always through it was black. It’s actually plaid! While the picture may not jump out at you the way the third or fourth Die Hard films do on Blu-ray, this transfer still looks pretty damn nice.
The DTS HD-MA track, which is mixed down to a 1.5mbps core DTS track on my equipment, shows its age more than the picture does. Being it is a big-budget action film, there is plenty of activity from all of the audio channels, but the DTS track doesn’t have quite the punch you would have expected from a Die Hard movie. This is most notable in the LFE channel, which is sadly the weakest part of the track for me. The scene where McClane takes out a floor of baddies by dropping some C4 down the elevator shaft was one I was expecting to rock the house. Not so much. While I have my doubts that a restoration would have helped matters visually, I do believe a remix on the audio would definitely have been of benefit (look how it helped the Blu-ray of Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Considering how popular Die Hard was back in the summer of 1988 and given its enduring legacy in the action genre over the past 19 years, you would figure that the film would be prime for a lot of new supplemental material: retrospective docs, deleted scenes or perhaps even a commentary track with Willis would all have been choice items for a kick-ass special edition. Instead, we get the extras that are ports from the 2001 two-disc special edition, which were pretty weak then and remain so six years on.
The main extras are a trio of Commentary Tracks, two audio and one text. The first of two audio tracks features director McTiernan and production designer Jackson DeGovia. Recorded separately, McTiernan and DeGovia talk about the usual behind-the-scenes topics: the origins and difficulties of the production, the cast and so on. Informative to be sure, but not quite as good as the second commentary track by visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund. Edlund’s commentary is not feature-length but scene-specific (scenes which can be accessed directly via chapter listings found in the “special features” menu) where he discusses the film’s visual effects with a little more life than McTiernan and DeGovia do. The commentary tracks continue to get better with the third and most informative track, a subtitle track, filled with trivia bits and comments from various cast and crew members.
Things tend to go downhill from here. The News Casts” is an eight-minute collection of the news reports that pop up throughout the film. Shot on videotape and in pretty bad condition, why this is an actual extra and not an Easter egg hidden somewhere on the disc is beyond me. An Interactive Still Gallery is a nine-minute feature that offers behind-the-scene and publicity photos, set to the film’s soundtrack, from the film as well as a closer look at design blueprints for the sets. This feature also includes a few dailies and behind-the-scene videos, making this section worth going through at least once.
Rounding out the extra bits are a collection of Theatrical Trailers and Television Spots for the film in fairly decent condition, as well as Additional Trailers for the other three Die Hard films and, for some odd reason, the abysmal Alien vs. Predator. Don’t remember John McClane taking on either an Alien or a Predator in any of the films. Perhaps that will be the setup for the fifth Die Hard film, for which I have a great title for: Die Hard and the Horse You Rode In On (hey, it beats Live Free or Die Hard).
There are three features that were listed on the back cover of the Blu-ray that I haven’t been able to find: the Interactive Articles from Cinefax and American Cinematographer magazines, and the film’s Screenplay. If anyone knows where I may find these features on the disc, please let us know.
The granddaddy of the modern-day action film, Die Hard remains as exciting and enjoyable today as it did the first time I saw it in 70mm back in the summer of 1988. Given that the film’s 20th Anniversary is a few short months away, I really wish that Fox had put better effort into giving fans a special edition worthy of the film itself. As it stands, the Blu-ray release has an improved picture transfer, a decent but unspectacular DTS audio track and extras that range from okay to pretty awful. Normally, with those factors against a disc, I would say skip it. But since it’s the original Die Hard we’re talking about, all I can say is Yippee Kai Yay”you know the rest.
– Shawn Fitzgerald