‘Die Hard’ (1988) Review

‘Die Hard’ (1988) Review

Many of the holiday movies we consider classics or cult favorites today did not seem destined for such glory when we first reviewed them. Some we panned. Others were flops. Others just weren’t particularly holiday-focused.

We dug up 10 of those reviews from our archives, which we’ve rounded up here, along with info on where to stream them. Below is how the critic Caryn James reviewed “Die Hard” for The New York Times on July 15, 1988:

“Die Hard,” the movie that gambles a $5 million salary on Bruce Willis, has to be the most excessive film around. It piles every known element of the action genre onto the flimsy story of a New York cop who rescues hostages from a Los Angeles office tower on Christmas Eve. Partly an interracial buddy movie, partly the sentimental tale of a ruptured marriage, the film is largely a special-effects carnival full of machine-gun fire, roaring helicopters and an exploding tank. It also has a villain fresh from the Royal Shakespeare Company, a thug from the Bolshoi Ballet and a hero who carries with him the smirks and wisecracks that helped make “Moonlighting” a television hit. The strange thing is, it works: “Die Hard” is exceedingly stupid, but escapist fun.

[Read about 9 more classic and cult Christmas movies as The Times first reviewed them.]

The film’s producers and director were also responsible for the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit “Predator.” Here they graft the Schwarzenegger-style comic hero onto Mr. Willis’s boyish, mischievous “Moonlighting” persona, and send this new creature sauntering into “The Towering Inferno.”

There is a slow half-hour at the start, when John McClane (Mr. Willis) lands in Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and goes to her office Christmas party. Minutes later, a group of terrorists shows up, planning to steal $6 million in bonds. The terrorists have to crack a difficult computer code before getting into the vault, so there is plenty of time for McClane to play hero.

Mr. Willis’s true expertise is in banter, so the director, John McTiernan, shrewdly blends bursts of action with comic dialogue. McClane races up and down elevator shafts. He kills one terrorist, taking his machine gun and citizens’ band radio. Now he can have a running conversation with Al, the sympathetic black cop who arrives first at the scene. Al (played by Reginald Veljohnson) becomes part of the only buddy film where the friends don’t meet until the story is over.

Meanwhile, back in the executive suite, there is Hans, the ruthless terrorist leader in a very well-tailored suit. He is the film’s best surprise, played by Alan Rickman, who was recently the seductive, manipulative Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Here, he makes Hans a perfect snake. “Who are you?” he superciliously asks McClane via radio. “Are you just another American who saw too many movies as a child?”

Well, yes, he did. McClane is a movie maverick, who asks to be called Roy, because he always liked Roy Rogers’s fancy shirts. Here, he walks around in a sleeveless undershirt, a tattoo on his left bicep, getting sweatier and dirtier and bloodier by the minute. A great part of the film’s appeal is in watching the down-and-dirty cop match wits with the aloof master criminal. The film makers even have the wit to play the “Ode to Joy” when Hans finally walks into the opened vault.

“Die Hard,” which opens today at the Baronet and Criterion Center, has more than its share of bloody moments and blasted bodies, and it has some abysmal scenes as well. The former ballet star Alexander Godunov is a conspicuous terrorist, jumping around the set in a basic black costume and flowing blond hair. As the brother of McClane’s first victim, he gets to say things like “I want blood!” And when McClane realizes he has been too hard on his wife, he radios an unintentionally funny message to Al: “Tell her that she is the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me.”

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“Die Hard” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Running time: 127 minutes.

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