Nakatomi Plaza: The Real Victim
We never thought we'd feel sorry for a building, but boy do our hearts go out to poor Nakatomi Plaza. Over the course of the movie, the building gets blown up—twice. It's not having a good night.
Still, the building serves an incredibly important role in Die Hard. Almost all of the movie's events—except the first scene at the airport—take place in and around the building. It's a limited location that lends the movie a taut sense of purpose and vision. In fact, this choice to set a blockbuster in one single space spawned a whole slew of action movies in the late eighties and nineties that drew on this technique for inspiration:
By setting the movie in a single, contained location, Die Hard breaks away from the sweeping action movies of the late seventies and early eighties—films like Mad Max, Terminator, Rambo: First Blood, Commando—whose settings were much bigger in scope.
Still, despite ushering in a new era in action movie style and technique, Die Hard does pay homage to its predecessors in its setting. Roderick Thorp, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, found inspiration for its plot after watching The Towering Inferno, a 1974 disaster flick about an uncontrollable fire in a swanky skyscraper.
And the building itself—its interior structure and the way John McClane moves through it—takes its cues from guerrilla warfare flicks like Rambo and Red Dawn. According to Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie, by Eric Lichtenfeld, production designer Jackson DeGovia says it best:
When I first read the script, I saw a jungle maze. It reminded me of the book High Rise by J.G. Ballard, in which a modern building becomes a tribal battleground. I wanted to make a building where that kind of action could take place.
And, in a later interview:
When the building is a jungle, people revert to utter realism, which is savagery… There are entire sequences where McClane moves through the building not touching the floor, like a predator in a jungle.
McClane totally does move that way, doesn't he? He crawls through air ducts, swings from fire hoses, scrambles up staircases and crawls underneath tables. And he uses the setting to his benefit, taking advantage of the building's features to both escape the baddies (as when he climbs down the elevator shaft and into an air duct) and to take them out (as when he uses an industrial chain as an improvised noose on Karl).
He's a lot like Rambo, only his Vietnam is Nakatomi Plaza. Just think of that scene when he swings off the rooftop and back onto the building's 30th floor: he moves through waterfalls and plant life and dives underwater when there's a nearby explosion. Maybe there is something to Agent Johnson's earlier comment: "Just like f***ing Saigon, eh, Slick?"
Nakatomi Plaza is played by the brand-spanking-new (in 1988, at least) Fox Plaza—a Fox-owned office building in Century City. When Die Hard was filming, it was still under construction, and the filmmakers were able to use that to great effect. Everything in the building is sleek and new, which underscores the corporate success of Takagi and his employees, while simultaneously befuddling John McClane. He progressively makes the building his own, though, destroying some of its sleekness with the rough-and-tumble methods of a New York cop.
The building's slick and swanky features point to Die Hard's interesting relationship with wealth. As viewers, we're allied with the working-class cops—McClane and Powell—and are disdainful of, even disgusted by, greedy characters like Harry Ellis and Hans Gruber. But perhaps the wealthiest of them all—Takagi—is seen as a noble figure, someone to admire and respect (as Holly clearly does). Die Hard questions greed—whether corporate or criminal—and celebrates the everyman. But it doesn't go too far. These were the 80s, after all.
While the movie may be set almost entirely at Nakatomi Plaza, the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles plays a key role, too, mainly in Die Hard's early scenes.
When John McClane arrives in Los Angeles, he seems pretty skeptical of the whole shebang. He sees a hot blonde in a skintight outfit fling herself on a man and just says, "California" (with an implied "sheesh!"). Then, when the limo arrives to pick him up, he sits in the front. It's a priceless sight gag, reminding us that when it comes to L.A., McClane is a fish out of water.
That is, until the sequel.