DIE HARD: 4K Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1988) Fox Home Video
Can it really be 30 years since a belligerent John McClane (Bruce Willis) took out a small army of mercenaries in John McTiernan’s high octane actioner, Die Hard (1988)? Alas, yes, as time does not stand still, much as we might sometimes prefer it. Yet, in the interim, Die Hard has only ripened with age, grown more adventurous and fun-loving in all its ‘yippee-ki-yay, mother f#@ker’ tongue-in-cheek American yahoo spirit. Even more impressive, given the generally short artistic expiration of movies made in the 1980’s, Die Hard has not really dated in any tangible way since; thematically, still relevant (perhaps, even more so since 9-11), its campy elements tempered by Willis’ superb smugness and obstinate joy at beating these would-be terrorists at their own game. Die Hard is an actioner like no other before or since its time. Fox’s decision to turn it into a franchise, with mixed reviews and varying quality, does not diminish the fact McTiernan had tapped into a whole new sub-genre. In hindsight, Willis’ ex-cop/man of conviction is something of a roadshow knock-off of Roger Moore’s James Bond, made grittier (he plays virtually the entire movie in a ripped, and increasingly blood-stained wife-beater) and discharged of the niceties, though as much the bon vivant of the beer and pretzels sect, and sincerely, just as charming.
We give it to Bruce Willis, overcoming a teenage stutter and the blindsided opinion of casting directors who repeatedly thought him ‘unsuitable’ to play leading men. He came to prominence first, as the self-effacing, arrogant and womanizing David Addison opposite Cybil Sheppard’s glacial and uppity ex-super model in TV’s award-winning comedy/caper series, Moonlighting (1985-88); in hindsight, the perfect ‘proving ground’ for his formidable comic range. After a pair of tepid movies (his debut in Blake Edward’s turgid Blind Date, 1987 could hardly be counted upon as a successful launch, nor 1988’s Sunset, where he had a modest supporting role). Willis then came to McTiernan’s attention and Die Hard became a reality. Willis actually performed all of his own stunt work in the picture, an ambitious slate that would have made even a seasoned stuntman think twice. His professionalism and willingness to do whatever was asked of him ingratiated Willis to McTiernan and the two got on famously throughout the shoot.
McTiernan was far less popular with the executive brain trust over at 2oth Century-Fox, particularly after staging a fairly impressive display of pyrotechnics that blew out the ground floor windows in their newly constructed headquarters at Century City (the high-rise substituting for the fictional Nakitomi Plaza). Based on Roderick Thorp’s novel ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, Die Hard effectively ushered in the gut-wrenching/heart-pounding roller coaster ride that audiences have since come to expect as a main staple in their popcorn-munching summer film fare. What McTiernan did was to take the nail-biting thrills of a Bond flick and illustrate that the rules of engagement could equally apply to an every man pushed to the brink of revenge. John McClane is not the suave lady’s man in a tux, but a sullen and estranged husband and father, a cop stripped of his initiative, though hardly his impetus to take on the bad guys, playing out his scenes in an undershirt and barefoot no less. With the vigor of a Teddy Roosevelt, our John may speak softly, but he carries with him an awfully big stick (or, proverbial ‘boulder-sized’ chip on his shoulder, as the case may be).
And, if we are to believe his wife, currently marketing her executive potential under her maiden name, Holly Genero (Bonnie Bedelia), then McClane’s glib, street-savvy, uber-smug morality has been very hard to live with; the circumstances of their split exacerbated when John arrives in Los Angeles for the Christmas holidays, only to discover his wife, her boss and the rest of their party taken hostage by a motley crew of above average thieves masquerading as terrorists. This renegade force is front-lined by narcissistic, Hans Gruber (the late, Alan Rickman). This was Rickman’s introduction to ‘the movies’ and he conquered the medium with impeccable menace, affecting an absolutely convincing ‘American’ accent for a pivotal sequence in which he momentarily tricks McClane into believing he is just another hostage in need of his protection. Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay keeps the action taut and the thrills coming in cleverly parceled off waves of high stakes suspense, gingerly interrupted by the bro-mantic chemistry McClane shares with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson). Like himself, Powell is just a cop on the beat and the only man to take McClane’s initial claim of international terrorism seriously. For comic relief, we also get Paul Gleason’s caustic and clumsy Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and, William Atherton’s overzealous and arrogant news reporter, Richard Thornburg; the pair, constantly threatening, mostly through gross negligence, to wreck McClane’s well-laid plans to intercept and diffuse the situation.
Die Hard was, is, and has remained a grandly amusing thrill ride all these years; high octane in its impressively full-scale sequences, but with oodles of charm and Bruce Willis’ inimitably devilish and gutsy chutzpah to boot. Too many action heroes of late – and many of yore – have taken themselves far too seriously. Willis never does. Indeed, his John McClane is a breath of very ‘fresh’ air, challenging Gruber’s smug superiority at every turn and really putting a crimp in his otherwise foolproof plan to make off with some valuable bearer bonds. Die Hard would have faded into obscurity long ago if not for the caustic chemistry and rancid antagonism constantly roiling between Willis’ telescopically focused wrecking ball and Rickman’s latent wicked thief in the night. One would be nothing without the other. Together, they deliver a very satisfying knockout punch, their sparing, more verbal than physical as Gruber leaves almost all of the heavy lifting to his hot-headed cohorts; Karl (Alexander Godunov), Franco (Bruno Doyon), Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), Uli (Al Leong), and, Eddie (Dennis Hayden).
Die Hard opens with John McClane’s arrival in Los Angeles, a world apart from New York’s gritty realism. Some time ago, McClane drew his line in the proverbial sand, refusing to give up his career in law enforcement to relocate to Lalaland in support of his wife’s career. Estranged, though not divorced, Holly has nevertheless been passing herself off as Holly Gennaro. In the spirit of Christmas, Holly’s boss, Nakatomi’s east coast President, Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi (James Shigeta) has decided to surprise her with a reunion, sending a limo to collect John at the airport, driven by the enterprising would-be lady’s man, Argyle (De'voreaux White). Despite the discrepancy in their ages, John and Argyle bond on the car ride to Nakatomi Plaza; Argyle, agreeing to wait for John’s call in the underground parking garage. Neither is prepared for what happens next. High atop this imposing superstructure, the executives of the Nakatomi Corporation are in full swing party mode, quite unaware an insidious group of organized criminals is fast infiltrating the Plaza at ground level, murdering the security guard on duty and effectively sealing off all entrances for any possible escape. Their leader, Hans Gruber is endeavoring to steal the riches stored in Nakatomi’s code-sensitive vaults.
Invading the tower with the element of surprise, Gruber and his men, including computer code cracker, Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), quickly establish their stronghold. Having only just arrived to this party, John manages to slip through Gruber’s dragnet and make his way to another floor still under construction where he attempts to telephone the local authorities. Alas, Gruber has thought of everything, ordering Eddie, now pretending to be the front lobby’s security guard, to diffuse police inquiries and suggest the call was either a crank or a false alarm. The ruse almost works, Sgt. Powell turning away until John tosses one of Gruber’s stooges out the window from high above, the body landing on Powell’s cruiser and causing a brief, but full-scale assault from the rest of Gruber’s men. Meanwhile, Gruber has escorted Takagi to his private suite of offices, demanding he divulge the key codes to the vault. When Takagi refuses, claiming not even he knows all the codes for total access, Gruber unexpectedly murders him in cold blood as John helplessly looks on.
Aware of John’s presence, Gruber sends his goon squad to take care of him, McClane, at first, is regarded as little more than a nuisance. Too bad for Gruber, he has underestimated John’s street-savviness. As the police are now aware something is remiss at Nakatomi Plaza, and soon to alert the FBI, Gruber and his boys are in a race against time to crack the codes and make off with their loot. John endures assault after assault, narrowly escaping from being blown up, repeatedly shot and stabbed in hand-to-hand combat. To divert the FBI’s attentions, Gruber goes through the motions of pretending to be a terrorist, demanding as ransom the liberation of imprisoned compatriots around the globe, even as Theo works feverishly to decrypt the codes and free up the $650,000,000.00 in bearer bonds sealed within Nakatomi’s vault. Gruber, generally steely-eyed and patient, loses his cool as John increasingly proves a one-man arsenal, skillfully picking off his men one at a time. Even as John and Sgt. Powell strike a bond, John inadvertently incurs the wrath of Powell’s superior, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson. For a brief wrinkle, John has the upper hand. Alas, what John does not count on is overzealous reporter, Richard Thornberg’s live report, inadvertently exposing Holly as McClane’s wife – thereby tipping the scales in Gruber’s favor. Now, he decides to hold Holly as the ultimate hostage in his high stakes showdown.
John knocks out the last of Gruber’s men, mistaken for one of them by the FBI’s sniper-firing helicopter circling overhead and narrowly avoiding his own complete annihilation on the rooftops of Nakatomi Plaza. Gruber threatens to shoot Holly. Instead, John fires a concealed weapon, wounding Gruber in the shoulder. As he stumbles back, and through one of the tower’s shattered glass windows, Gruber attempts to take Holly with him. John intercepts and saves his wife; the couple observing as Gruber plummets to his death on the pavement far below. Arriving at ground level, John and Sgt. Powell meet face to face for the first time. The overzealous Richard Thornberg, who has been dogging John’s every move simply for the sake of a good scoop, and, in fact, was instrumental – if inadvertently – in exposing Holly’s marital status to Gruber, now shoves a microphone in the couple’s faces, hoping for an award-winning sound bite. Instead, Holly belts Thornberg in the chops as she and John stagger beyond the deluge, presumably to be reunited as a family once again.
Die Hard is in a class apart – although at the time of shooting, it is doubtful anyone, perhaps even McTiernan, knew it. Viewing dailies, Fox execs were none too happy McTiernan and his crew were detonating real explosives inside their, as yet unfinished, office complex (built on the hallowed ground where once all those glorious 2oth Century-Fox back lot facades from the golden era had stood). Although assured the building was structurally sound and undamaged by the staging of these sequences – only sound box office revenue upon the film’s release could convince the executive brain trust the danger had been worth the exercise. What they received for their white-knuckled patience was a summer blockbuster of chart-topping proportions. On a $28 million budget, Die Hard grossed a whopping $140.8 million, one of the studio’s biggest and brightest of the summer season. The picture also crystalized Bruce Willis’ box office potential as a leading man, proving his initial flourish of dynamism and success on Moonlighting was not a fluke and could, in fact, be translated from the small screen to the movies. Likely, this left more established stars like Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, and Don Johnson scratching their noggins as all three had initially turned down the project.
And Willis, having decidedly earned his $5 million payout (unheard of then, for an actor with no real box office cache), was circumspect the fee had been afforded, more out of desperation on the part of Fox President, Leonard Goldberg and the other execs, in need of a star – any star – to partake of the movie nobody wanted to commit. Indeed, Fox had tapped every ‘big’ name working in Hollywood then, including Richard Gere and Clint Eastwood with no takers, despite dangling an attractive fee for their services under their noses. The choice to alter the villains from terrorists to decidedly ‘above average’ (though nevertheless common) thieves, was McTiernan’s, believing political intrigues made for tepid summer box office receipts. But McTiernan had other concerns as well, beginning his shoot without actually agreeing to the ending as written; also, condensing the action into a single night’s bombardment. The Stuart/de Souza screenplay had originally spread the hostage crisis over three consecutive days.
Due to McTiernan’s constant refining of scenes, sets built at a great expense before McTiernan had had the opportunity to block his action were occasionally left unused; the result, some of Jackson De Govia’s lavish production design never making it into the camera lens or only briefly glimpsed as background in a quick pan. Undeniably, De Govia’s piece de resistance was Nakatomi Plaza’s 30th floor atrium-styled office suites, complete with a cavernous common area, architecturally reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic, Fallingwater; its vast array of windows overlooking a night-scape of Los Angeles. This was actually a 380 ft. cyclorama enveloping the sound stage, complete with animated lights to simulate the metropolitan cityscape. Over and over again, McTiernan encountered roadblocks from Fox over his decision to stage his real-life blitzkrieg in and atop their ‘as yet’ unfinished corporate headquarters; the moment where an armored car storms the front steps, flattening a banister, as well as the hellish rooftop explosion, complete with helicopter and Willis dangling from a rigged harness, requiring months of negotiations for only a few extra feet of usable footage. But in the final analysis, everything clicked as it should: McTiernan and Fox breathing a sigh of relief when Die Hard proved an immediate smash hit with the public.
Die Hard on home video has always, and rather inexplicably, looked a bit shabby; in retrospect, because I suspect no previous video format was capable of properly balancing its subtler color palette. Photographed on 35 mm anamorphic Panavision with SFX shots completed in 65 mm, for this newly remastered 4K edition the original negatives have been scanned and graded in HDR10. The results are very impressive to say the least; head and shoulders above what Die Hard has looked like since its theatrical debut. Most improved is the layering of fine detail and the consistency of film grain, at last, appearing indigenous to its source. Colors remain subdued, but shadow delineation is greatly deepened, with exceptional highlights, and, a far more subtly nuanced image on the whole. Do not expect eye-popping brilliance here. Die Hard’s color palette was always stylistically subtler; the image, now, richer for its inherent darkness, acutely brought forth, while keeping other visual elements perfectly in check; definitely a winner. Audio remastering in DTS 5.1 never entirely measures up. Die Hard was originally released theatrically in Dolby Surround, although there are memos in the Fox vault to suggest limited engagements were in 6-track stereo and 70mm in the major cities. Die Hard can never sound like a movie made yesterday, nor would this be the expectation or the barometer by which to grade its audio presentation herein. Comparatively, as a soundtrack from the 1980’s, it sounds just fine, sporting exceptional clarity with atmospheric underscore and SFX all kept in their proper place; dialogue always front and center, surrounds employed for a directionalized aural experience.
The 4K disc includes an audio commentary from McTiernan and De Govia recorded eons ago for the defunct 5 Star DVD release (remember those 2-disc metallic sleeve packages back in the infancy of DVD?). We also get another, showing off the talents of cast and crew. There is also a scene specific commentary from visual effects producer, Richard Edlund. It may be sacrilege, but I found Edlund’s more fascinating than McTiernan’s. Fox has also included the tired old 1080p Blu-ray. *Note: the Blu-ray has not been remastered from the 4K elements! It includes the same audio commentaries, plus bloopers/outtakes, an interactive gallery and trailer gallery. Missing from the 5 Star DVD is all the ‘making of’ goodies that have never resurfaced on home video since. Bottom line: Die Hard is a seminal actioner from the 1980’s. It holds up remarkably well and is deserving of a 4K release. Not exactly the most stunning 4K disc I have reviewed thus far, but solidly mastered nonetheless, and, with marked improvements over previous home video incarnations. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)