Study Guide

Die Hard

Die Hard Introduction


Release Year: 1988

Genre: Action, Thriller

Director: John McTiernan

Writers: Jeb Stuart, Roderick Thorp (novel)

Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia


Try to imagine the perfect action movie.

What are you picturing?

  • Fights, right?
  • And amazing stunts, of course.
  • Maybe an average Joe capable of superhero-like feats?
  • There's gotta be a damsel in distress, too.
  • And an eerie villain who sets it all into motion.

You need all those things, plus an X-factor. A certain something that propels the movie from straight-to-video status to the realm of legend.

Die Hard had it. 

Arriving on the scene without much fanfare in the summer of 1988, it quickly became a box office hit, earning around $140 million worldwide (which was a lot in 1988). That's all thanks to the movie's X-factor: a winning combo of witty one-liners, a barefooted hero, and, as it turns out, Christmas in July.

Die Hard was released on July 15, 1988. But here's the thing. Whereas today, most summer blockbusters are preceded by weeks—nay, months—of advertising, followed by a blitz-style release, Die Hard was practically buried. After a teeny-tiny ad campaign, it had a limited release to just 21 theaters in 20 cities. But it was met with such enthusiasm that by week two, it was in 1,200 theaters across the country.

Part of the reason for this tiptoeing release was that at the time, the muckety-mucks were a bit worried about Bruce Willis's box office clout. He was earning five million big ones for the role, which was a shocking sum for the time, and the higher-ups at its production company, 20th Century Fox, were worried that his big payday—along with his less-than-stellar reputation in the press, and a resume that included virtually no action work—might alienate viewers.

They were wrong. So very wrong.

As it turns out, America was all kinds of ready for a movie about a no-nonsense New York cop named John McClane who travels to unfamiliar and glitzy Los Angeles to reunite with his estranged wife at Christmas and winds up being the only one who can take down the terrorists who hold said wife—and all her coworkers—hostage in the Nakatomi Plaza high rise.

Once the Die Hard buzz caught on, the movie took off, outperforming just about every other action movie that year (except, weirdly, Crocodile Dundee II). Critics dug it. Fans quickly fell in love. And the crowd pleaser was even nominated for four Academy Awards.

The legacy of Die Hard continues well beyond 1988. In the thirty-ish years since its release, Die Hard has become something of a cultural touchstone. Its one-liners are quoted on everything from T-shirts to bumper stickers, and John McClane has become synonymous with "everyday American hero." The movie ushered in a new era of action movies that took the genre out of the realm of epic war zones (Rambo, we're looking at you) and into the realm of taut, single-setting catastrophes into which an American everyman gets thrown. Instead of saving the entire human race from a potential nuclear holocaust (Terminator, we're looking at you), Die Hard and its successors focused on saving one thing—a building, a bus, a plane—with the kind of ramped-up tension that only a single location and a small cast can bring. Die Hard ushered in a whole era of these movies, often referred to as Die Hard on a [Insert Location Here], and in so doing, helped change the landscape of action movies forever.

What is Die Hard About and Why Should I Care?

It's 1988. The Cold War is winding down. The Reagan era is at its peak, as George H.W. Bush is elected on his predecessor's coattails. The specter of communism seems all but done in, and America shifts its focus from geopolitical threats to the awesomeness that is domestic prosperity.

What did we have to be afraid of?

Die Hard has an answer: money-grubbing dandies with a taste for expensive suits and no regard for good old-fashioned American values.

As Soviet threats faded into the background, and America cemented its superpower status, the 1980s ushered in a time of relative domestic tranquility (relative being the operative word). No longer needing to peer through the Iron Curtain for mustache-twirling villains, action movies looked elsewhere to find antagonists whose antics matched the nation's more upbeat outlook.

Look no further than Hans Gruber.

He's the perfect late-'80s villain. He's without king or country, driven not by a righteous cause, but by the almighty dollar and his own massive ego. He's set up as the exact opposite of our everyman hero John McClane. John is unkempt; Hans is well groomed. John is uncultured; Hans is urbane. John is barefoot and clad in the world's dirtiest tank top; Hans wears a designer suit. While John fumbles his way through the building, frantic and frenetic, Hans executes his plan, cool as a cucumber, from the corner office. He's the slick, European dandy to John McClane's rough-and-tumble modern cowboy.

In other words, at the heart of Die Hard are the sprouting seeds of the Great American Culture Wars. With no Big Bad to fight beyond borders as the Cold War drew to a close, Americans looked inward to find new enemies, and fought bitterly (wielding rhetoric, not weapons) about what it means to be an American, divided on issues like abortion, gun rights, drug use, religion, and, of course, money.

While none of those are at issue here, Die Hard does take a stand on the larger issue. In this movie, being an American (more specifically, NYPD) means you fight for good old-fashioned American values (like loving your wife and Twinkies), even when you're outnumbered and out-ammoed by a team led by an intellectual effete whose defining traits are his lack of a cause and elite sense of self. Gruber's out for money. McClane, for all his swearing and cowboying, is, as strange as it sounds, the family-values alternative.

Trivia

You'd think that, at the age of 42, Alan Rickman would have been around the Hollywood block by Die Hard's 1988 debut. But this was actually his first movie role. And what a role it is, right? (Source)

Remember that scene where McClane shoots Marco from underneath the table? Apparently, Bruce Willis suffered permanent hearing damage from firing off blanks in such close quarters. (Source)

Our favorite foreign translation of Die Hard's title? That would be Hungary's Give Your Life Expensive. (Source)

Die Hard contains two nods to the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright: (1) The Nakatomi offices are designed to look like Wright's Falling Water, and (2) the scale model of a bridge that Hans admires in front of Takagi is a scale model of a design for a bridge over the San Francisco Bay. (Source)

Pacific Courier, the name on the truck in which Hans and his henchmen arrive at Nakatomi Plaza translates to "Bringer of Peace." Yeah, not so much. (Source)

Die Hard Resources

Websites

Back to the Basics of Die Hard
When you're interested in a flick, always start with IMDb.

Guns and Ammo
If you're a weapon aficionado, you might dig this rundown of the firepower seen in Die Hard.

Wiki-ki-yay, Shmoopers
This Die Hard wiki is surprisingly accurate and very thorough.

Trope It Up
If you're dying to scratch that pop culture itch, check out this list of common tropes seen in Die Hard.

All About the Benjamins
See how Die Hard stacks up against its box office competition, courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

Book or TV Adaptations

Nothing Lasts Forever
Beware, the novel that inspired Die Hard is a lot darker than its movie version.

Articles and Interviews

One-Liner to Rule them All
Slate analyzes the enduring power of McClane's catchphrase.

Die Hard Does Not Die Hard
At least, not according to this article in The New York Times.

An Instant Legacy
The Guardian traces the just-won't-quit influence of Die Hard on the action genre.

Bruce Tells All
Well, he tells some, anyway, in this revealing 2007 interview with Entertainment Weekly.

Alan Has No Regrets
Did you know that Alan Rickman was hesitant to take on the Hans Gruber role? This article did.

Video

Bearded Bruce
Willis tells all in this 1988 interview, featuring facial hair.

Alan Speaks Up
This interview is worth it, if only for his hairdo.

Bonnie Shines Bright
Same interviewer, different interviewee.

Original Die Hard Trailer
Imagine seeing this in the theater. We die.

Nopers.
Here's everything that's wrong, inaccurate, or nonsensical about Die Hard—at least, according to one YouTuber.

B-Roll
If you're interested in being a fly on the wall behind the scenes of Die Hard, now's your chance.

It's a Parody Party
This site gives a rundown—videos included—of the 10 best Die Hard parodies on the Interwebs.

Take Your Favorite Movie to Work Day
In this scene from The Office, Die Hard gets its moment to shine.

Do Not Attempt This At Home
NBC's Chuck parodies Die Hard for the geeky set.

Bruce? Is That You?
When Bruce Willis makes a surprise guest appearance on Mad About You, typical McClanean hijinks ensue.

Audio

X-mas or Not?
New Hampshire public radio debates the timeless question: is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not?

Feeling Festive?
Then listen to the version of "Let it Snow" used in Die Hard's final scene.

"Christmas in Hollis"
Featuring "a ill reindeer." Oh, how we love Run-D.M.C.

Images

The Ultimate Souvenir
Come on, you know you want to buy an original Die Hard poster for your room.

The Real Nakatomi
Here's a classy pic of Fox Plaza, noticeably un-blown up.

Family Portrait
Ain't this nice? Hans and his henchman all together for once.

Talk About Your Name in Lights
This is the biggest Bruce Willis's head has ever been—and that's saying something. (Just kidding, Bruce.)

Director, Cinematographer, Actor
In this behind-the-scenes shot, you can see director John McTiernan, cinematographer Jan de Bont, and star Bruce Willis all hard at work as they plan a scene.