With the 25th anniversary of the movie “Die Hard,” the recent release of a new sequel and the release of a new DVD set containing the original and all the previous sequels, a lot of people are writing about the 1988 original and how great it was.
I’ve already seen plenty of write-ups doing a good job in that regard, so I won’t rehash them. I’ll just briefly say that:
1) I think it’s arguably the best action film of all time. Sometimes I consider all action films that came after it to be redundant.
2) As far as I’m concerned, there is no “Die Hard franchise.” There’s the original movie — end of story. I saw the first sequel, “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” wasn’t impressed, and haven’t bothered with any of the others. The WHOLE POINT of the first movie is that John McClane isn’t a super-powered operative who routinely gets in epic adventures, but a regular guy who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I’m writing as if the sequels didn’t happen. Which they shouldn’t have in the first place.
Anyway, it’s easy to think of it as JUST an action movie. It hits all the beats. The explosions. The fist fights. The catchphrases. But I’ve got a couple of other interpretations.
See, I like looking for subtexts in movies. And whether or not the filmmakers actually intended for the movies to have those subtexts is pretty much irrelevant, as I see it.
First of all, filmmakers aren’t always aware of the subtexts themselves. It’s highly doubtful that all the makers of Grade-B science fiction/horror movies in the 1950s were trying to make any overt commentary on Cold War anxiety. Yet it’s clear when you go back and watch some of those movies that the Cold War anxiety permeating American society at the time also found its way into their work.
Second, appreciation of any art or entertainment is inherently subjective. You read a book, watch a movie or listen to a song. It evokes an intellectual and emotional reaction in you. And it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s the reaction the creators intended. They’ve released their art into the world. In a sense, copyright issues aside, it no longer belongs to them. It belongs to the viewers, readers and listeners.
Put another way: Chances are good that the makers of the 1967 movie “You Only Live Twice” didn’t intend for James Bond to symbolize you, Kissy Suzuki to symbolize that coffee shop waitress you’ve been trying to work up the courage to ask out, and Blofeld to symbolize your asshole supervisor at work. But if interpreting the film that way makes you enjoy it more, I say go for it.
So anyway, here are a couple of different ways I’ve interpreted the movie “Die Hard.” Make of them what you will.
A COMMENTARY ON ECONOMIC GLOBALIZATION: It’s 1988. The Cold War is in its final stages and the Soviet Union’s patently eminent downfall is going to happen any day.
But any elation over that fact is undercut with anxiety centering on one question. What now?
Even then, it seemed clear that rather than a chess game between two opposing superpowers, global affairs – and by extension, people’s day-to-day lives – would increasingly be the domain of powerful economic entities duking it out. And blue collar guys like John McClane wouldn’t even be apprised of what’s going on, much less have any control over it.
“Die Hard” reflects that anxiety. It takes place in a Japanese-owned skyscraper that’s under construction, representing this new global economic system still being formed.
Into it walk a gang of thieves – essentially a ruthless multinational economic entity in pursuit of money, and willing to sacrifice human lives to make it happen. And there’s this regular guy stuck in the middle of it. Vulnerable. Alone. Running and crawling around the hidden spaces of a monolithic corporate structure as he fights to survive and protect his family.
A WALTER MITTY FANTASY: Again, I don’t think the film-makers intended this. But it really works on this level. It’s such a thorough and accurate deconstruction of insecure male coping fantasies.
John McClane is separated from his wife, and he heads out to Los Angeles to reconcile with her. He’s hoping she’ll see him and fall into his arms.
Instead, he sees even more clearly that he’s losing her. She’s gone back to using her maiden name. She’s now an upwardly mobile executive in a sophisticated world where he doesn’t fit in, and he has nothing to offer her.
Worse, how can he really blame her? He loves her and wants the best for her. No matter how much he doesn’t want to admit it, he senses she can do better than staying with him.
But being a guy, he lashes out at her. Stung, she leaves him alone in an office to change his clothes. He has to walk back out there and face this party of glittering sophisticates surrounding a wife who no longer needs him – feeling like the king of all sad sack jerks.
Picture this. What if everything that happens next is just an elaborate fantasy that takes place in his mind when he leans back and closes his eyes in that office?
A BUNCH OF TERRORISTS TAKE OVER THE BUILDING AND HE SAVES HER!
The ensuing ordeal is really everything he could possibly wish for at that point. He suffers every imaginable hardship for her. He overcomes enemies for her. He demonstrates his smarts, toughness, resourcefulness, and – most important – his love.
As an added bonus, the douchebag who was hitting on her in an earlier scene gets his head blown off, although John tries to save him.
You could argue that the gender politics are regressive. “See, woman? You can’t go off and have a career on your own because you need to stay with a big, strong man to protect you!”
But I don’t see it that way. Why? Because he’s already lost her. Saving her from a bunch of terrorists isn’t going to change that. If the feeling’s gone, it’s gone. Even if he could guilt her into staying with him and going through the motions, would he really want that?
Nah. Why do guys want to be a hero to women they’re losing? Not necessarily to win her back, so much as to feel they can wish her all the best and then walk away with dignity.
To me, the crucial scene of the movie is when McClane – in the middle of his ordeal – chokes up and says what he wishes he could have said from the very beginning. “My wife heard me say I love you a thousand times, but she never once heard me say sorry.”
See that, ladies? Contrary to popular belief, we men are capable of expressing our feelings. We just have to, y’know, spend some time hitting people and blowing shit up first. That’s gotta be reassuring on SOME level, right?