MOTW: Why "Die Hard" Still Stands as One of the Best Action Films of the 1980s

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
January 28th, 2013

MRR's Movie of the Week: Why "Die Hard" Still Stands as One of the Best Action Films of the 1980s

When "Die Hard" hit theaters in 1988, nobody could have predicted what a box office and pop culture phenomenon it would become. It is widely considered to be one of the better, if not the absolute best, action films of its time. There are plenty of good reasons for this, not the least of which is that it made Bruce Willis a movie star.

Up until the film's release, Willis had been best known as a television actor, playing opposite Cybill Shepherd in the romantic drama "Moonlighting." As David Addison, he was hardly a swashbuckling action star, because the material largely had him wisecracking and flirting with Shepherd as his love interest. Nobody could have possibly known that below Addison's rumpled suits was the body and soul of a hero. Willis turned in a performance in "Die Hard" that launched his career into the stratosphere, where it has stayed ever since. His take on John McLane, the main character in "Die Hard," was pitch perfect. He became the perfect everyman who dug deep to find the heroics necessary to save his wife and her coworkers. This not only made him a hero in the movie, it made him a hero in the eyes of audience members who could relate to McLane's life and antics.

So many action films of the era had very little female actors in them, focusing instead on the men and mayhem. "Die Hard" likewise doesn't have a ton of female characters, but it has a really great, strong woman in Holly McClane, portrayed by Bonnie Bedelia. At the beginning of the film, her boss tells John that she is tough as nails, and the film doesn't let the audience down in that respect. After the hostage situation escalates, Holly negotiates with the terrorists to help some of her coworkers who need attention. She is obviously scared, like anyone would be, but she puts her fear aside to selflessly help those around her. She has two teenage daughters to go home to, but she still does the right thing, even though it is risky. That doesn't happen very often with female characters in any movie, but especially in an action film.

Very few movies are fortunate enough to generate a catchphrase that audiences latch onto. "Die Hard" manages to create one with McClane's "Yippee ki-yay," followed by a not-so-nice expletive, became an ubiquitous phrase after the film was released. Willis uttered the line several times in the film, and would go on to utter it in the rest of the movies in what would eventually become a highly successful film franchise spanning more than two decades.

Another reason "Die Hard" is so awesome is because it has a villain who is chillingly believable as a bad guy in Gruber. Anytime Alan Rickman is in a movie, he is going to knock the performance out of the ballpark, mostly because he is Alan Rickman. The man just doesn't know how to give a bad performance, even when he doesn't have great material. "Die Hard" gives him excellent material to work with, and he turns it into a multifaceted portrayal of a terrorist with ice in his veins. Many villains in 1980s movies were very one-dimensional and didn't need an ace actor like Rickman to play them, but Gruber is complicated and calculating, meaning a real thespian was needed. In addition, Rickman agreed to fall forty feet onto a airbag so that the director could capture his character falling to his death without a stuntman. This made the scene realistic and memorable, which just adds to the legend of the film, and to the legend of Rickman as well.

The last evidence of the film's dominance as one of the best action flicks of its time is its box office receipts. It was made for around $28 million dollars, which is not that expensive when the explosives, stunt, and action sequences are taken into account. The film was a hit right out of the gate, mostly due to strong word of mouth from moviegoers who had already seen the film. It would go on to gross over $80 million domestically, with an additional $57 million made after it was released overseas. This was back when tickets cost much less than they do now, and films were released on fewer screens than today. Considering how well the most recent films in the franchise like "Live Free and Die Hard" made, it is easy to see that the original "Die Hard" left such a good impression in the minds of viewers, that they are willing to shell out money twenty years later to see McLane again. That alone may be the biggest proof of how great the film is.