On Christmas Eve, New York cop John McClane flies to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife and kids. He arrives at the holiday party in the high-rise office building where she works just before twelve heavily-armed terrorists seize the skyscraper and take everyone inside hostage. Escaping into the upper floors, which are still under construction, McClane must find a way to save the hostages and thwart the kidnappers´ elaborate plan to steal over $600 million in bonds from the building´s high-security vault.
Based on a novel by Roderick Thorp, DIE HARD is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a film that turns the 80s action genre on its ear by thrusting an average, working class guy into the role of reluctant hero and pitting him against villains that would be right at home in the fantastic world of James Bond. In the decade of RAMBO, COMMANDO, and BATMAN, Bruce Willis´ rough-around-the-edges beat cop is a refreshing throwback to heroes like Sam Spade and Popeye Doyle, a blue collar shlub who can´t even keep his own marriage together, much less single-handedly defeat an army of gun-toting madmen 40 stories off the ground. He´s street smart and quick with a quip, but there´s nothing superhuman about him at all. Willis plays this "wrong place at the right time" protagonist with just the right combination of breathless fear and Big Apple sarcasm, allowing viewers to identify so closely with him that they feel like they´re right there beside him the whole way, fighting for their own lives. When McClane hurts (as in the uncomfortable scene in which our hero must pick bloody shards of glass out of his bare feet after a firefight), we hurt. When he wins a confrontation (as in the sequence where a gunman on top of a table tells him that he should never waste time talking when he wants to shoot someone, prompting our hero to riddle the thug with bullets and thank him "for the advice"), we win. John McClane is a bit tougher and a bit savvier than your average Joe, but he´s still just one of us.
Equally good is Alan Rickman as lead terrorist Hans Gruber. Rickman clearly has a ball playing the suave, charming would-be master thief, engaging in some one-on-one verbal jousts with our hero that comprise some of the most memorable action movie dialogue of all time, and creating the template for genre villains for the next two decades. Gruber is so cunning and slick that one is almost tempted to root for him, making those moments in which he shoots a hostage or orders his soldiers to mercilessly hit a damaged police armored car with a second rocket that much more shocking and brutal. The obvious contrast between the everyman hero and the international supervillain is essential to the appeal of DIE HARD, and Rickman deserves as much credit as Willis for making it work so well.
The rest of the cast is quite good, most essaying what amount to well-written versions of standard action movie cliches. The wiseacre computer expert, the "loose cannon" terrorist, the opportunistic reporter, the incompetent police chief, the idiotic FBI agents, the sensible uniformed cop with a troubled past - they´re all here, but are all thankfully imbued with considerable personality by the likable actors and given plenty of sharp dialogue by screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza. Most importantly, director John McTiernan uses these supporting players to skillfully break or ramp up the tension as needed, and to keep the plot moving along at a suitably breakneck pace. Like the film itself, the cast of characters is big and broad, but never quite crosses that fine line between over-the-top and completely cartoonish.
There are minor flaws in DIE HARD. When McClane inquires about his wife at the front desk, a security guard tells him to check the computerized personnel list, only to inform him once her name has come up on the screen that she and the rest of her partying co-workers are the only ones left in the building. If the guard knew the only people on the premises were on the 30th floor, why did he make McClane use the locator - other than to awkwardly lay out a plot point about the wife switching back to her maiden name? During a great face-to-face encounter between McClane and Gruber, the cop has the upper hand on his adversary but is interrupted by a pair of terrorists. As he is fleeing, McClane could easily shoot Gruber and presumably shut down the entire operation for good, but he instead turns his fire on the oncoming henchmen. In the final moments, a terrorist who appeared quite dead the last time we saw him suddenly stands up and makes one last play for our hero, just so the filmmakers can resolve the superfluous character arc of a supporting player.
These are miniscule complaints, however, in light of the film´s enduring ability to draw the viewers into its spectacular action and never let them pause to take a breath. Nearly twenty years after its release and despite being imitated countless times, DIE HARD remains a pulse-pounding, thrill-a-minute adrenaline rush nearly unmatched in cinematic history. As tough as THE DIRTY DOZEN, as exciting as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, as cool as GOLDFINGER, and as slick as LETHAL WEAPON, the first and best adventure of everyday superman John McClane deserves its place among the finest thrillers ever to grace the silver screen.