Before 1988, Bruce Willis was only known for the comedy TV series Moonlighting. Then Die Hard came out and be became one of the biggest action stars in the world. Everybody remembers his character, John McClane, as he battles terrorists with only his wits as a police officer. Apart from comedic roles from time to time, Willis hasn't looked back since, and really, why does he need to? He's the main reason the movie works at all since the rest of it falls apart and feels just as generic as every other 80's macho action film.
The film opens on Christmas Day as New York police officer John McClane has just flown into Los Angeles to meet his wife and kids for the holidays. He's been separated from them since his wife took a high-end job at Nakatomi Corporation. John meets her at the office Christmas party, which takes place on a very high floor. Once he arrives, German terrorists crash the party in order to steal millions in negotiable bonds held by the president of Nakatomi. With the building shut down by the terrorists and the employees being held as hostages, John must now use his police skills by himself in order to save the day.
Just like most 80's action movies, the plot is very straightforward and unfolds almost like a game of cat and mouse between John and his pursuers. This allows for multiple firefights and stunts to go down which results in a high body count and property damage. The film is great when the action is going on, but during slower times is when things start to deteriorate quickly. Apart from Willis and Alan Rickman, every character is pretty useless and doesn't have any valuable features. The film is also bogged down by its excessive 132-minute runtime that could have easily been shaven down considerably. There are side plots involving a news reporter, a hip limousine driver, and two take-no-prisoners FBI agents that seem to go on forever and end absolutely nowhere.
Die Hard excels in the technical categories such as gun fighting, explosions, and stunts. There's plenty of blood and bullets sprayed around the office as each floor acts as a mini guerilla war zone. The explosions are authentically done (they were done for real) and are impressive to watch thirty years later. The stunt involving McClane with a fire hose jumping off of the building is a great action cinematic moment that, like the explosions, still holds up years later.
Willis delivers perfectly as the lowly police officer that is out of his league. He gives great one-liners and plays himself as a modern cowboy that shoots first and asks later. Alan Rickman is surprisingly great in his first ever screen role. His character, Hans Gruber, could easily have been over the top and silly, but Rickman's balanced performance makes his character feel realistically calculated and cinematically evil. He's practically the perfect villain for an 80's action film.
The acting and characters get really bad once you move past the two leads. Some characters are just not interesting enough, such as John's wife. Some eat up too much screen time for what little they bring, such as the lone police officer who talks to John and the limousine driver. And then are some characters that are totally useless and idiotic beyond belief, such as the deputy chief, FBI agents, and news reporter. These latter characters really bring the film down and made me shake my head every time I saw or heard them on screen.
Even though it is overlong and has several pointless characters, Die Hard has two essential things going for it: Bruce Willis and explosions. Just as a pure film, Die Hard is passable, but as an over the top action film, it excels.