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Welcome to The Exploder! My name is Andy Wales, and I love action movies. What? So do you? That’s great! You came to the right place.
The Exploder blog will review action movies. I will split action movies into their constituent parts and score each accordingly. Imagine scoring chili on its use of beans, tomatoes, spices, liquidity, and more. In today’s world of mashups, Youtube, cable, Redbox, Netflix, Crackle, and more, we don’t have to watch movies any more. We can watch our favorite parts.
Have you turned on the TV before, stumbled upon Terminator 2, and waited until Arnold shoots up the police helicopter with his minigun before you change the channel? We have parts we love and parts we like, and I’ll break down action movies just like that. To help explain this method, I’ve enlisted the help of a certain Bruce Willis vehicle from the late 1980s.
Die Hard is the best action movie of all time. There, I said it. You need evidence? We don’t need no stinking evidence around here! Fine, I’ll give you some.
First, what makes for a good action movie? You need the standard story elements, of course: plot, protagonist, antagonist, raising of stakes (sometimes this literally happens), but action films are more interested in the destruction of things, actual things. Die Hard created a new standard for action movies, and all other movies before and since were and will be judged by it. Let’s assess these elements.
Every story has a hero. We know this from Joseph Campbell’s landmark work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Said hero embarks on a journey and returns home changed in some way. Without this, we have no story and are uninterested.
In action films, we need a Hero, someone who will behave in a way that the average viewer cannot conceive also behaving. In Casablanca, we can imagine behaving as Rick does. He owns a bar, doesn’t like Germans, and ends up being sad about his one love leaving him. This probably happens to millions of people all the time.
In Die Hard, John McClane walks barefoot across a room of broken glass. We might do this ourselves if our lives depended on it, but the entire situation is unbelievable as happening to us. This is what sets apart the Action Hero from the hero.
John McClane is an excellent Action Hero. He begins the movie as a regular New York City cop, so you know he’s tough. Thing is, he hates flying, and that’s when we are introduced to him–as he sits in an airplane seat sweating nervously. Some suit (and weren’t they all suits in the ‘80s?) leans toward him and suggests he make fists with his toes on the thin carpet to ease his tension. Whaddya know? It works!
McClane is instantly endeared with the viewers because he’s a cop, but not a Supercop lacking emotion and fear. Hey, he’s just like us! We love him even more when he arrives at baggage claim and picks up an enormous stuffed bear and carries it, and only it, through the terminal, while taking the time to check out the great pair of boobs seemingly endemic to southern California. John McClane=sweet-hearted, red-blooded Everyman.
Heroes need something to overcome. The three classic conflicts are: person vs. person, person vs. nature, and person vs. self. Action movies are rarely the third one. Remember: stuff gets destroyed. Sometimes it’s nature doing the destroying (monsters, natural disasters, aliens), but mostly it’s other humans (or entities on the same level as the Hero).
Boy, does Die Hard’s villain shine. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is the best action movie villain ever.
As John McClane makes his wayward journey in a limousine from LAX to a Christmas party high inside the Nakatomi tower, German master criminal Hans Gruber deploys his team of thieves to the same building. They are efficiently securing the unfinished tower on Christmas Eve, when few people will be inside. Already we know that this is a good plan, and no one has even told us as much.
Whatever Gruber and Co. are doing there, they have as low a chance at detection as at any other moment of the year. Also consider that the villains are mostly German. Germans will always and forever make great villains. Their language sounds harsh, their features appear Teutonic, and let us remember that whole Second World War thing. Them and the Japanese, and I think there’s a Japanese baddy with them.
As I’ve said, in action movies, things break. The more the merrier (we are while watching). Battles; explosions; group fights; any Images, Computer Generated; raids; invasions; car chases; shootouts; and many more types of scenes fall into this category. Sound effects are underrated but important aspects of these moments.
Die Hard falls squarely in the “stuff blowing up” range. McClane ties plastic explosives to a chair that detonate on the ground floor, possibly jeopardizing the building’s integrity. A lot of people get covered in glass. Later, more C4 explodes the top of the building, downing a helicopter in its wake. The smallest but most emotionally powerful explosion occurs when Gruber unveils his enormous weapons cache to destroy the LAPD’s armored personnel carrier.
This triumvirate of explosions leaves the viewer breathless, but not desensitized. The filmmakers understood that less can be more. (Another example: the explosion-lite The Dark Knight, its most impactful effect occurring when the Joker’s 18-wheeler shot into the air and crashed on itself.)
Die Hard also gives viewers gun fights, fist fights, and word fights. Gruber and McClane spar across the radio as well as Ali and Frazier traded punches. Gruber kills innocents (Ellis), McClane will not give in (the detonators) and let him kill more.
Gruber and his crew are heavily armed, and most of their guns are used. Even a bolted-to-the-ground rocket launcher gets a turn. And, remember, “Shoot the glass.” Read further for a fistfight explanation.
Campbell calls these characters Allies, but action movies use them as sidekicks. Robin, Honey Ryder, Samwise Gamgee: these are the truest form of sidekicks. They want what the hero wants, but are not as powerful and (probably) could not reach the goal alone. (Neither could the Hero, the existence of sidekicks implies, but Heroes are more likely to achieve that goal.)
John McClane has one chief sidekick: Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), whose wife is pregnant, and knows more about the ingredients of Twinkies than being in the line of fire. Powell actually does nothing to physically assist McClane (until the film’s final minute), but he provides much-needed moral support. He literally tells him to hang in there. Powell is the cop on the scene with the least pull and the most idea of what’s going on inside Nakatomi Plaza.
In Campbell terms, Holly Gennero (Bonnie Bedelia) qualifies as an Ally, but she is mostly inactive. She is a hostage, and we twice see what active hostages do in Gruber’s hands: they die. Gennero uses her wits to stay alive. She also tries to reason with Gruber, and his acquiescence to her about the couch for the pregnant woman serves to humanize Gruber and make Gennero a hero in her own right.
Like sidekicks, henchmen serve as the cherries on top, the diamonds on the band, the green onions on your baked potato. These characters cannot make a movie nor break it (unless they are egregious), but put the taste of the movie onto a new level.
Die Hard doesn’t use its henchmen often, but minute-for minute they excel. Theo (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.) is Gruber’s Number Two. He is a big LA Lakers fan, and his commentary of the heist involves a recitation of most of the 1988 Lakers’ starting lineup. That team was the defending NBA champion, not a bunch of slouches.
Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), the sweatpants-wearing German that McClane kills early on, dies quickly but leaves a mark. He is Karl’s (Alexander Godunov) brother, and sends the surviving member of the Brothers Teutons into a rage.
Tony, this is worth mentioning again, wears sweatpants to a high-stakes, hostage-taking robbery. If that doesn’t spell confidence, I lost the bee. I think Tony outshines Karl, even though the latter gets more screen time and the final fight with McClane.
Action movies are inherently silly. They are meant to be unbelievable circumstances (we hope). That’s why we can watch them and enjoy them, beyond saying that the movie was “good.”
Witness Schindler’s List. Everyone who watched said it was “good” or “great,” but how many said they “enjoyed” watching it? That movie was based on a true, depressing story. Action movies are not true stories (usually; war movies are excepted here). Thus they lend themselves to comedy.
Die Hard works hard for the funniest action movie title. (This is an important distinction. Hot Fuzz is a great example of action-comedy, where the ha-has and the ka-booms are equally important.)
McClane oozes great lines. “Come out to the coast; we’ll get together, have a few laughs,” “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” and “No shit lady, you think I’m ordering a fucking pizza?!” are terrific lines.
Ellis (Hart Bochner) and his cocky, eighties-level cocaine habit are 100% funny. Police incompetence offers good humor, as much, at least, as the German language usage. Yet the filmmakers balance this humor with gravity. Many people die in Die Hard, but never as a joke. Contrast this to Commando; many people die, and it’s hilarious, at least in the number and manners of their deaths.
Tom Cruise made a career doing his own stunts. He’s probably the highest-paid actor to do so. Cruise’s commitment to stunt work has likely kept afloat the Mission: Impossible series and kept out of work some stunt men. Pity the stunt man who’s a dead ringer for Cruise. I bet that guy saw Cocktail and thought “Jackpot!” He’s still awaiting a phone call for work.
Consider Cruise hanging off the side of the world’s tallest building and from the door of a cargo plane. Cruise might be famous, but stunt work makes kung fu the fantastic genre it is. Hollywood’s best stunt-actors are the Chan’s, Lee’s, and Li’s of the world. Great stunts can make a good movie great.
Die Hard is light on the stunt work. The most spectacular stunt in the movie is arguable. McClane leaping from the roof with a fire hose wrapped around him qualifies as the best. Or maybe you prefer when he shoots the window and kicks through it. Or perhaps you like best the movie’s most outlandish moment, when McClane careens through the elevator shaft to catch hold of a vent with his fingers. These are all fine moves, but they are far behind everything Chan and Lee ever did.
The McClane/Karl fight, however, ranks as a classic. The two men trade devastating punches that should knock out a normal person with one blow. Heads are smashed into metal poles. The sound effects here work overtime. Blood doesn’t spew so much as it cakes, on faces and shirts and hair.
Action movies generally shy away from commentary. The audience wants escapist thrills, dammit! Even when our heroes were facing the dreaded Soviet Union, actual commentary was more accidental than purposeful. Take The Hunt for Red October. The ship’s captain wants to defect to America the Beautiful. Why? Cuz ‘Merica’s better, duh! Captain Ramius’s XO “Would like to see Montana.” Action movies just accepted that America was better. No comment on our society was given nor necessary. In Rocky IV the Russian fans cheer FOR Rocky and AGAINST their fellow countryman Ivan Drago.
John McTiernan, Die Hard‘s director, gets in some commentary, none better than FBI agents Johnson and Johnson. They are so darn cool about things when they arrive. Yet, they are so textbook, boring, and predictable, that they are the instruments by which Gruber finally succeeds in opening the vault containing the bearer bonds. “You asked for a miracle,” Gruber says. “I give you the F, B, I.”
J’s & J’s effect on the story becomes funnier when you consider that Gruber had no way to get inside the vault without them. When Gruber kills Takagi (James Shigeta) for not giving him the vault codes, he says, “Fine, we’ll do it the hard way.” When his hacker can’t get through the seventh seal, Gruber just tells him to be patient. “It’s Christmas, Theo, it’s the time of miracles.”
Al Powell is a fattening beat cop who’s memorized the ingredients to Twinkies. The asshole reporter, Richard Thornburg (William Atherton), threatens to call the INS on Holly Gennero’s maid. Obesity and immigration are issues in America still, thirty years later, and McTiernan managed to squeeze a little something about it into his shoot-em-up.
Law enforcement behaves in a manner so by-the-book predictable, egregious, and inadequate that viewers find themselves rooting a little bit for the quick-thinking, calm, and charming Gruber. The FBI featured heavily in Gruber’s plan, undermining the moments when they are trying to get the job done by threatening a utility employee’s job.
Powell’s superior, Deputy Chief Robinson, clearly doesn’t know how to react to the situation (“We got a lot of people down here covered in glass.” “You just destroyed a building!”), and the SWAT leader sends in his guys despite warnings not to. That this same LAPD would, in four years, nearly beat to death Rodney King, I don’t believe is a coincidence. These police know best, and if you aren’t one of theirs, get out of the way.
Hollywood is notorious as a boys club, and no genre attracts actual boys to the theaters like action films. Women traditionally are window dressing, quest objects, hindrances, or not involved at all. Consider Predator, in which the only woman on screen is described by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as “baggage.” This doesn’t mean that women=bad and men=good in action movies.
You already know there are a lot of bad guys to kill. But action films are often made for men (or boys), by men, and featuring men. This is not inherently bad, but it can lead to easy chances to stoop to cheap offensiveness. I aim to shed light on these moments.
Die Hard is a movie with only one significant female character, Holly Gennero, who is a hostage in need of saving. She is treated fairly. She’s the toughest and wisest of the hostages, and the only one of them to achieve any positive result. The two male hostages who interact with Gruber (Ellis and Takagi) die for their hubris and subterfuge, and possibly because they were on cocaine.
The company being robbed is Japanese, and the CEO is Japanese. Gruber, nor any of his men, ever stoop to name calling. Takagi is treated as well as the other hostages. That is, until he’s murdered.
Gruber, as leader, is the most important member of the robbery team. Number two? Theo, an African American, who is the hacker. Die Hard is about as white-washed as most other Hollywood products, but the diversity on screen was ahead of its time.
Every action movie must climax with a great scene or scenes. This is a must. If your movie fails to deliver a good finish, your movie has failed. It certainly will be the most memorable part. Commando is chock full of great lines, but who can forget John Matrix’s decimation of an entire barracks? All that mattered to him then was Jenny.
John McClane and Karl deliver an absolutely brutal fistfight that ranks as an all-timer. They utilize nearly every piece of construction equipment available to them, and their fists, and often. The fight ends with Karl choking from a chain wrapped around his neck. His body is visible to the dozens of hostages fleeing from the roof just before Gruber blows it up in the best explosion of the movie.
Gruber is foiled in the end, and the look he gives as he’s falling from the tower is unforgettable. The limo driver, Argyle, and Sgt. Powell each get chances to save the day, giving the film unifying closure. And finally, because this is a Christmas movie, we are treated to snow, of sorts, with $640 million in bearer bonds in place of snow.
A film’s location can vary wildly, and often adds to the suspense. Consider every movie ever set on an airplane. Characters on planes are claustrophobic. There’s nowhere to run or hide; the enemy is always less than 100 yards away. And planes can crash at any moment. They are highly sophisticated machines that must be cared for constantly. So many things can go awry, and any of those things could easily end your life. Some settings offer claustrophobia (Daylight) and some the life-sustaining technology at risk of malfunctioning (the Orca in Jaws), but few offer both.
Die Hard, of course, is not set on a plane, but during the course of events the elevator shafts and the entire lower level are destroyed, effectively trapping the people inside. This is not a perfectly terrifying scenario, but the setting excels in other ways.
Nakatomi is in Los Angeles, and watching snooty, coke-fueled Angelinos get gunned down can be a gratifying experience. The building is unfinished, offering literally tons of materials for mayhem: poles, boards, glass panes, saws, etc., many of which are used in creative ways.
Part of what makes a setting important is how one answers this question: Could Die Hard have taken place elsewhere? Gruber needed a helicopter pad and basement and hostages in high places to enact his plan. He needed a tower. I guess we could have seen the movie set in Chicago, or Houston, or Miami, but the shots of Nakatomi standing as the ONLY tower around made the scenes more dramatic. The fictional Nakatomi Plaza was THE best place to stage this movie.
I have set out to prove that Die Hard is the best action movie ever made. When I say this, I am using the narrowest definition of the genre. Also, and this is very important, Die Hard lacks the gravity of true stories. Is Die Hard better than Saving Private Ryan or Glory? Perhaps not, but only because Die Hard lacks the emotional weight of depicting actual events with real figures.
I AM saying than in terms of plot, character, dialogue, setting, editing, effects, and more, as they relate to destroying things, Die Hard IS as good as Best Picture winners (and based-on-true stories) such as the mid-1990s duo of Braveheart and Titanic.
- I will score Die Hard in each of its categories. A “10” means among the very best in that category. A “0” did the worst. A “5” did an average job. On scale of zero to four, the average movie receives a two. All scores are “Grubers.”
- Of course, some aspects mean more than others. They are scaled appropriately. All scales begin at zero because I want the average score to be a whole number.
- “Stunts” are considered a subset of “action.” Only humans can do stunts. For example: Bruce Banner and Tony Stark punching each other constitutes a stunt, Hulk fighting Ironman constitutes a special effect. The former can be classed in the “stunts” AND/OR “action/effects” scores, but the latter can only fall under “action/effects.”
- “Offensiveness” subtracts points, thus the scale is 0=mostly unoffensive, -1=somewhat offensive, and -2=noticeably offensive.
- “Others” offers movies a chance to boost/reduce their scores based on things not covered here.
Die Hard (1988): John McTiernan
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A New York City cop travels to a Christmas party in Los Angeles, foils a robbery, has a few laughs.
Hero: (10/10): John McClane is the Everyman Hero that every man presumably wants to be. McClane vaulted Bruce Willis into the triumvirate of classic action stars.
Villain: (10/10): Hans Gruber steals the movie. Alan Rickman plays him equal parts charming, dangerous, funny, and scary. You never know if his next move will be to crack a joke, show mercy, or murder. Gruber enchants as well as he terrifies. THE BEST. These points are “Grubers” for a reason.
Action/Effects: (7/10): Die Hard is less about destroying things than the interplay of its characters, whose agendas conflict in interesting ways. Potential screen time for fights gives way to comedy, and the movie is better for it. The few fireballs in the film are effectively used. All four of Die Hard‘s Oscar nominations (it’s true!) fell in the effects and editing categories.
Sidekicks: (4/8): Reginald VelJohnson plays Al Powell memorably. No small feat, since Powell talks to McClane on the radio for most of the movie. He is the man who kills Karl in the end, post-climax, but his lack of action (thank you LAPD) hurts his case. Holly Gennero and Argyle have their moments, but they are not involved enough.
Henchmen: (7/8): The henchmen don’t get much screen time, but they still pack a wallop. Theo, Karl, and Tony offer the best henchmen bits in comedy, fighting, and fashion, respectively.
Stunts: (4/6): Die Hard has no car chases or battle scenes. It has few fistfights, although the one between Karl and John sets a high bar.
Climax: (6/6): The John-Karl fight, exploding rooftops, afraid-to-fly McClane leaping from said rooftop, guns taped to backs, and the unforgettable slow-motion descent of Hans Gruber make the climax of Die Hard an all-time great one.
Jokes: (4/4): Die Hard is not an action-comedy. It gets some room to work with. It is not meant to be funny first, but make no mistake, it is very funny. Much funnier than anything action titan Sylvester Stallone ever put to celluloid. Much more intentionally funny, that is.
Setting: (4/4): The Nakatomi Plaza offers many interesting ways to hinder the movements of Hero, Villain, and stooge police. The hostages are trapped, as Gruber has control of the elevators and stairwells, and has rigged the rooftop to blow. People could, and do, fall off at any time.
Commentary: (2/2): The constant bumbling by the municipal and federal police force provides more than humor. Viewers get the message: beat cops are the best cops. Let the guys on the ground do their jobs. Once you get too smart, things start to go wrong.
Offensiveness: (0/-2): I’ve made the case already that Die Hard excels in treating its nonwhite, non-male cast evenhandedly. Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No. But for a blow-em-up, it does a fair job.
- (1) Harry Ellis, superstar employee of Nakatomi Corporation, is played so smarmily by Hart Bochner that he deserves a point. He has one scene, and nearly steals the movie with it, saying as much about 1980s American business culture as Wall Street did in two-plus hours.
- (2) Alan Rickman is so good as Hans Gruber that he gets another two points.
- (1) And though comedy is not an essential element to action movies, this one is so funny that it deserves another point.
- (1) Another point for the white-to-brown metamorphosis of McClane’s tank top.
Summary: (63/68) 93%:
Die Hard earns 93% of possible Grubers, scoring the highest marks in four of ten categories and above perfect in another two. The crown has been set, let all comers try to seize it!