It's Christmas Eve and New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is flying into Los Angeles. He's a nervous flyer, and as the plane lands the passenger sitting next to him suggests a tip: after the flight, he should take off his shoes and socks and make fists with his toes on the rug. A limousine has been sent to take John from the airport to the high rise offices of his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who he is separated from. The chauffeur, Argyle (De'voreaux White), offers to wait in the building's car park while John decides whether he will be spending Christmas with his family or not, but as John gets ready to join the office party, there's a disturbance outside... some uninvited guests with guns...
It's safe to say that Die Hard was a crucial development in the action movie genre. Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza from Roderick Thorp's novel, it led to many lesser imitators (including its own sequels), which would be Die Hard on a ship, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard in a stadium, Die Hard on a train, and so on. Despite looking well-worn now in terms of its plot, the original still stands up as reliable entertainment through its set pieces and excellent characters, ideal for watching again and again. It also turned Bruce Willis from a television star into a movie star, so how you feel about that depends on how you feel about Bruce Willis.
But even if you don't like Bruce, it would be hard to admit that he isn't perfect in his role. McClane is brought into a cat and mouse game with the gatecrashers, a bunch of German terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who have decided to turn their talents to robbery on a grand scale. Around McClane is this feeling of a working class American absently maligned by a new society of slick big business that takes him for granted. Holly's bosses are Japanese, and the thieves are German who act like high flying executives making a lethal takeover bid, and the poor old Americans are caught in their way. McClane never asks outright, "Who won the Second World War, anyway?", but that's the attitude the film subtly projects.
American businesswomen are like Holly, now independent and dismissive of their men, and the American businessmen are represented by Ellis (Hart Bochner), an obsequious, coke-snorting asshole who tries to cut a deal with the baddies. So, it's up to the blue collar, dependable types like McClane and the patrolman who helps him (Reginald VelJohnson) to deliver America from evil. It's a conservative outlook, and for the film it works like a dream: McClane is underestimated by everybody, even us (see the scene where he finally meets Gruber), but he is more than capable of single-handedly conducting his own campaign against the odds, making him a classic hero.
It wouldn't be an action movie without action, and there's plenty on offer here. Of course the baddies are despatched one by one by McClane, but not without painful cost to himself, as he almost masochistically suffers injury to foil the villains, being beaten up, having his bare feet cut by glass and being shot (the obligatory bullet in the shoulder in the last act). As the authorities display hard-headed ignorance or, in the case of the FBI, callousness, and the media endanger lives, it's left to McClane to work out Gruber's plan, set off explosives, and save the hostages. Add a strong line in humour, quotable dialogue ("No fucking shit, lady, do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?!"), a hissable adversary (great work by Rickman) and intelligent plotting and the result is deserved, enduring success. Music by Michael Kamen.
American producer and director with a flair for action blockbusters. After self-written horror Nomads, he hit the big time with three successes: Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, but after two flops, Medicine Man and Last Action Hero, he returned to familiar territory in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Subsequent films include the troubled The 13th Warrior and two remakes, a fair attempt at The Thomas Crown Affair, and a disastrous one at Rollerball.