Estranged from his career-driven wife Holly, streetwise New York City detective John McClane arrives in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve in the hope of rekindling their fading romance. While attending an office party on the thirtieth floor of the Nakatomi Plaza skyscraper hosted by her employer, the festivities are cut short when a group of heavily-armed European terrorists, led by the highly intelligent and ruthless Hans Gruber, infiltrate the building and take hostages. After witnessing the execution of the company’s president, McClane successfully evades capture and, having killed one of the henchmen in self-defence, wages a one-man war against the invading force while remaining in radio contact with a police sergeant on the street below. Yet even as the high-rise is surrounded by both the LAPD and FBI, Gruber has already masterminded the perfect getaway.
But the one factor he had not anticipated was John McClane.
By the late 1980s the action film had become a dominant force at the American box office and in a decade of excess perhaps it would be inevitable that the heroes of this masculine genre would be muscle-bound and almost god-like in their quest for violent retribution against the hordes of criminals, terrorists and corrupt officials that have wronged them. Whereas the physical attributes of 1970s stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were closer to that of their target audience, the macho protagonists of the Reagan-era blockbusters had more in common with the likes of Hercules than Dirty Harry. ‘The well-displayed muscles of such heroic icons as Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme have worked within a narrative space that presents masculinity as an excessive, almost hysterical, performance,’ claimed author Jeffrey A. Brown in his examination Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism and Popular Culture. ‘With their obvious emphasis on masculine ideals, action films in the 1980s seem to deny blurring any gender boundaries: men are active, while women are present only to be rescued or to confirm the heterosexuality of the hero.’
While the focus of the genre in recent years had been on the likes of bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose breakthrough performance in the sword-and-sorcery adventure Conan the Barbarian had introduced the larger-than-life performer to the world, action cinema had begun to celebrate the strength of their female counterparts with Alien’s Ellen Ripley and Marion Ravenwood, the fearless and determined companion to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But if the hero of an action film was to be male then they were expected to be a superhero, with muscles that would dominate the poster and strength that other men would envy and women would desire. Yet John McClane, the hero of 1988’s Die Hard, would subvert this genre trope; while he was clearly in good physical shape, his receding hairline and everyman appearance would offer audiences something different to the action flicks of Stallone or Schwarzenegger…a relatable hero.
McClane was a flawed human being. Having lived with Holly in New York, where he had climbed through the ranks of the NYPD to the position of detective, he had failed to support his wife as the demands of her own career had forced her to relocate to California. This divide in personal goals had caused the two to separate and even after reuniting with Holly at the Christmas party, both had failed to discuss their situation in a mature and open-minded manner, resulting in yet another argument that had left their predicament once again unresolved. These real world issues, which many cinemagoers would no doubt have experienced in their own lives, would help to make McClane more relatable than Commando’s John Matrix or Bloodsport‘s Frank Dux. ‘He’s simply an ordinary guy who is thrown into extraordinary circumstances,’ explained Bruce Willis, the actor who would come to portray the hero in all five instalments of the Die Hard series. ‘He’s not some super-cop, some indestructible, unfeeling, unemotional guy; he’s a guy who cares for his wife, he cares about his own life, he cares about staying alive.’
Perhaps it was inevitable that John McClane would not become just another hulking action hero, considering the source material. It had almost been a decade since the publication of Nothing Lasts Forever, author Roderick Thorp’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed novel The Detective. Within two years of hitting the shelves The Detective had made its way to the big screen, with music legend Frank Sinatra in the lead role of jaded cop Joe Leland investigating a series of homophobic-related murders. ‘Sinatra is always an interesting actor and in Tony Rome and The Detective he has mellowed into a genuinely convincing cop,’ declared noted critic Roger Ebert in his contemporary review of the picture. ‘He is weary and wise and tough and cynical in the way Bogart used to be and indeed he is probably better at these hard-boiled roles than anyone since Bogart died.’ Ebert would not be alone in his positive views of the film and despite its controversial themes The Detective would become an unexpected success at the box office when it was released in the spring of 1968, just six months before the demise of the strict Hays Code, thus ushering in a new era of violent and sexually explicit cinema.
Thirteen years after the publication of The Detective, Thorp had finally delivered a sequel with Nothing Lasts Forever, which saw Leland travelling from New York to Los Angeles to visit his daughter Stephanie. Much like with Die Hard, Leland attends a Christmas party in an office skyscraper but the drinking and dancing is soon interrupted when a group of German terrorists seize control of the building. Having remained undetected during the invasion, Leland is forced into hiding but realising that the fate of over seventy hostages rests in his hands he hunts down the perpetrators one-by-one while struggling with the moral ambiguity behind the motives for their actions. While the basic premise for the novel would later be echoed in the screenplay for Die Hard, the tone of both stories would be significantly different, although as with Leland, the character of John McClane would be less like the action heroes of the 1980s and more like a husband, a father or a detective more used to dealing with petty criminals than international terrorists.
‘He started with an idea and then he would outline it on index cards and lay it out and flesh out the story,’ Thorp’s son Roddy would reveal on the author’s writing method following his death in 1999. ‘He wrote longhand up until about ten years ago. Loose-leaf paper and no. 2 pencil.’ The book had not even been completed when, in 1978, his agent passed over a copy of the manuscript to Twentieth Century Fox, the studio who had recently enjoyed the greatest success of their forty-three year history with the fantasy blockbuster Star Wars. As legend would have it, the inspiration for the novel would come from a dream that Thorp had experienced following a viewing of the disaster epic The Towering Inferno, his dream being that of a man chased through a skyscraper while attempting to outrun machine gun fire. Eventually he would decide to incorporate this idea into a follow-up for his most popular character, in the hope that Sinatra would return to the role he had portrayed a decade earlier.
Despite some interest in the concept, executives at Fox were reluctant to purchase the story due to both its dark tone and, more specifically, the bleak ending. While the accidental death of Stephanie would remain in the final draft, in Thorp’s original version of the novel Leland would also perish, thus making the property redundant if the studio had any hope of launching a franchise. Perhaps more importantly, the protagonist of Nothing Lasts Forever was now in his sixties and with the focus of Hollywood marketing being on youth and sex appeal, a hero dangerously close to retirement age was almost guaranteed to cause the movie to suffer at the box office. Thus, negotiations between Twentieth Century Fox and Thorp’s agents at Raines & Raines would ultimately fail and by the time the novel would attract the attention of executives once again, it was 1983 and Sinatra was now sixty-seven, having all but retired from acting.
It wouldn’t be until early 1987 that the wheels would begin turning on Nothing Lasts Forever. Since his emergence a little over a decade earlier, Lawrence Gordon had soon become one of the most successful and respected producers working in Hollywood, having spearheaded such cult pictures as The Warriors, Xanadu and, most recently, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. One project that had been languishing in development hell that Gordon’s office were eager to develop was Thorp’s manuscript, which the producer felt had all the key elements for a commercially-viable action film. Gordon’s latest production had been the science fiction horror Predator, in which Schwarzenegger and a cast of muscular heroes had been exterminated one-by-one by an extra-terrestrial big game hunter, but with Nothing Lasts Forever the focus would move away from the overly masculine qualities of Predator and back to the tone that director Gordon Douglas had conveyed with The Detective. In an effort to finally bring the story to the screen Lawrence Gordon would turn to a young struggling screenwriter called Jeb Stuart.
It’s about a thirty-year-old who should have said he’s sorry to his wife
Although he had already attracted the attention of both Disney and Columbia Pictures, Stuart had yet to see one of his scripts come to fruition and so when Gordon’s associate Lloyd Levin approached him about adapting Nothing Lasts Forever he wasted no time in getting to work. Yet the process would prove more difficult than he had anticipated and soon the stress of adapting a novel that he had considered un-filmable would take its toll on his marriage. Following a particularly harrowing argument with his wife, Stuart had an epiphany on what the core theme of the movie should be. ‘I pulled over to the side of the freeway and my heart was pounding,’ recalled the writer, ‘And I thought, ‘I know what Nothing Lasts Forever is. It’s not about a sixty-year-old who drops his daughter off a building, it’s about a thirty-year-old who should have said he’s sorry to his wife and something really bad happens…But to have a guy who is stubborn enough that he would come all the way out to L.A. to apologise and then not do it when he had that wonderful opportunity, that was sort of where I was at that particular moment.’
Following the realisation that a marriage in jeopardy would form the centre of his screenplay, Stuart’s first priority was to change the protagonist into one that would appeal to a broader market. Frank Sinatra’s performance as Joe Leland had already felt dated when The Detective was released in the late 1960s and so with twenty years having passed Stuart knew that his story needed a younger hero, one that would provoke sympathy from the audience. And so he began to fashion a thirty-year-old detective with a wife and young daughter, one who had become somewhat jaded by what he had seen in his eleven years on the force. And yet he had not lost touch with his own set of principles and, despite being somewhat stubborn and unwilling to compromise, was a good person and one that viewers would want to succeed. After mulling over various different names, Joe Leland would eventually be rebranded John McClane, his daughter Stephanie would become his wife Holly and his purpose for travelling to Los Angeles was to save their marriage.
Stuart would finally submit his screenplay for Nothing Lasts Forever in June 1987 and within days the studio had given their approval and the project was greenlit. Just a few months earlier Warner Bros. had given the action genre a new lease of life with their own surprise hit Lethal Weapon, a tongue-in-cheek thriller that would help to popularise the buddy-buddy cop formula that would become commonplace over the subsequent decade. With a $28m budget allocated to the project, Gordon would turn to one of his most trusted associates, a young-and-upcoming producer by the name of Joel Silver, whose work on Lethal Weapon would just be one of many action films that he had nurtured during his short career. Having recently worked alongside Gordon on Predator, Silver agreed to read Stuart’s script and while he saw the cinematic potential he felt that more could be done to transform an average film into something special. Silver’s first decision would be to fire Stuart and bring in one of his own writers to deliver a draft that would meet his expectations.
Steven E. de Souza had first worked with Silver on the 1982 action comedy 48 Hrs., a film that had been fashioned as a vehicle for stand-up comedian Eddie Murphy and following its surprise success De Souza would reunite with the producer three years later on Commando. With Nothing Lasts Forever, De Souza was brought on-board not to perform a complete rewrite but to enhance the parts of the script that worked and to improve on its glaring flaws. ‘The kind of psychological cap on the heroics of a sixty-five-year-old man that sort of bled into the first draft of the script worked for us, even when we made him a young man who was visiting his wife, not his daughter,’ noted De Souza on how the spirit of Joe Leland would remain with John McClane. ‘Nobody read the book and said, ‘This guy should be like Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ I think the fact that the book was an artefact of an earlier era worked to our advantage.’
Another important aspect that Silver wanted to change was the title of the script. Lacking the punch of Lethal Weapon or Commando, Silver felt that Nothing Lasts Forever would fail to draw in the right kind of audience and so immediately began searching for a new moniker, eventually settling on one that had been the original working title of another project he had recently purchased. Silver had already formed a strong professional relationship with Shane Black, who had not only conceived Lethal Weapon but had also taken a supporting role in Predator and so when he declared his frustration at not being able to find a title that would immediately appeal to an audience Black agreed for the project to be rebranded Die Hard, the original title for what would eventually become The Last Boy Scout. While De Souza added the final touches to the screenplay, the producers began to draw a shortlist of candidates who would be able to direct such a feature film.
Following the recent critical and commercial success of the science fiction thriller RoboCop, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven would become the ideal filmmaker to capture both the complex action sequences and the story’s emotional core, something he had succeeded so well with on his recent blockbuster. The story of a police office in a corrupt future who is betrayed by his superiors and resurrected as a cyborg, only to struggle with the memories of his past life, the concept for RoboCop would sound like a low budget b-movie but under the direction of Verhoeven, who had spent a decade courting controversy in his native country through a succession of notorious pictures, the film would prove to be an intelligent-yet-brutal depiction of a dystopian society where the police are powerless and the corporation that owns them also fund the criminals they are trying to bring to justice. This multi-layered narrative would appeal to both Gordon and Silver yet Verhoeven would eventually pass and instead turn his attention to a long-awaited adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, released in 1990 as Total Recall.
With their first choice having declined, the producers would instead turn to a director who had already proven himself with Predator; John McTiernan. Yet despite being excited at the opportunity to work on another major motion picture, the filmmaker was somewhat hesitant about one aspect of the story. ‘I said, ‘The central problem here is that terrorism is not entertaining. There’s no fun in this. No one feels good about it. There’s no way you can convince someone to get a babysitter for the kids, go to this movie and come out saying, ‘Wow, this is a lot of fun. I got to go tell everybody else to come and see this.’ If it’s about terrorism, that’s impossible,” admitted McTiernan. ‘I said, ‘Is there a way we could make this a robbery?’ Everybody likes robbers. They’re good bad guys. They’re fun bad guys. There’s a basic change in the dynamic. Terrorism has always been something that makes us all feel sad.’ This suggestion from their new director would come to shape another major change in the script, with the notion of the villains pretending to be political terrorists intent on forcing the government to release dangerous criminals, only to reveal the real motivation for the attack merely being a convoluted heist.
While the character of John McClane may have gradually evolved through two writers and numerous drafts, by the time it came to casting it was clear that the filmmakers were still not quite sure what kind of man their hero would be. Having approached Richard Gere, Burt Reynolds and James Caan, all of whom had immediately rejected the notion, the producers attempted to persuade both Schwarzenegger and Stallone to take the role. With no major actors willing to accept the part or even read the script they eventually turned their attention to the small screen and with a certain reluctance reached out to a thirty-two-year-old called Bruce Willis. Following minor appearances in Miami Vice and a new incarnation of The Twilight Zone, in which he had worked alongside horror filmmaker Wes Craven, Willis soon achieved the breakthrough he had been desperately craving when he was cast alongside Cybill Shepherd in the hit show Moonlighting. Having achieved success almost overnight he was eager to make the transition to motion pictures and under the guidance of legendary director Blake Edwards made his motion picture debut in the 1987 romantic comedy Blind Date.
I wanted to play a character who was not a superhero
‘There is a quiet dignity in John McClane that I really wanted to play,’ claimed Willis during the promotion of the movie. ‘This character I think is a lot closer to me than anything I’ve done and I wanted to play a character who was not a superhero; who was not invincible, who’s vulnerable…And I think people relate to that. There’s a lot of justice served in this film and there’s a lot of things for the audience to cheer about.’ But when Willis was first announced as the lead in an action movie the reaction from within the industry was one of confusion, with the actor being known more for both light drama and an attempt at a pop career. ‘I’m very proud of my work in this film. This film really represents for me why I wanted to be an actor, why I got involved with all this. It satisfies me on a lot of levels; this film satisfied me on a physical level, it satisfied me on an emotional level and it satisfied that little nine-year-old kid who lives in my heart, to carry guns around and shoot bad guys.’
While the roles of both McClane and his wife are clearly defined in the context of an action movie (the woman is in danger and needs the man to save her), Holly is portrayed not as a weak and feeble damsel-in-distress but as confident and independent, a woman strong enough to make her own life choices and even when coming face-to-face with a dangerous terrorist refuses to show any kind of weakness. Yet there have been some writers who have criticised the notion that McClane would challenge his wife’s career choices in an age when feminism had allowed women to pursue work in almost any professional field. ‘His wife Holly had left New York six months earlier to take up a job in California where, as deputy in a large Japanese corporation, she works, much to McClane’s annoyance, under her maiden name of Gennero,’ stated author Stella Bruzzi in her book Men’s Cinema: Masculinity and Mise-en-Scene in Hollywood. ‘Die Hard centres on McClane saving his wife and most of her Nakatomi Corporation employees from a German terrorist group, headed by Gruber, which has infiltrated and immobilised the building. At the end of Die Hard, McClane is reconciled with Holly who, when asked by a member of the LAPD what her name is, replies, ‘Holly McClane.”
But it could be argued that marriage being the core of Die Hard was more of a reaction to the political landscape of the time, as following the promiscuous free love of the 1960s, the United States under the leadership of Ronald Reagan had attempted to return the country to the family values of the 1950s, in which a man and a woman would marry, have children and grow old together as productive members of society. The revolution of the 1960s had effectively brought an end to the idea that starting a family would be the obvious choice for young adults and so President Reagan had sought to remind the youth of America of the importance of those values. And so McClane’s determination to save his marriage and his frustration at his wife having adopted her maiden name could be seen as a reflection of how the government were attempting to make families a priority again. Yet it could also be argued that McClane’s anger at his wife relocating to pursue her career could represent the patriarch’s attempt to repress women in the workplace, but in truth these were merely plot devices in order to move the story along to the action, in which the viewer is finally introduced to the movie’s charming antagonist.
A movie is only as good as its villain. This is one of the reasons why Star Wars was so effective, yet Batman & Robin was ultimately a disappointment. The producers of Die Hard were aware of this and so when they began the casting process they knew that finding the right actor for the role of Hans Gruber was just as important as who would play John McClane. It had become commonplace in the action movies of the 1980s for the antagonist to be a force of nature, a physically-imposing monster who would prove more than a match for the hero. The Rocky franchise would offer both Ivan Drago and Clubber Lang, Mad Max 2 would introduce audiences to the Humungus and Commando would see Schwarzenegger fight his old friend Bennett to the death. But with the hero of Die Hard having been transformed into an everyman it was important that the villain also be someone that viewers could easily identify with. And with the 1980s being the decade of capitalism and commercialism, evil would be personified with the yuppie-like visage of Hans Gruber.
Alan Rickman was already forty-one when he made his feature debut in Die Hard, having previously carved out a respectable career on the stage both in England and later on Broadway, where he would earn a prestigious Tony Award. He was a thespian and one who took the craft of acting very seriously and so when he succeeded in landing a casting agent and was offered the chance to audition for an action movie called Die Hard he refused. ‘I didn’t know anything about L.A. I didn’t know anything about the film business. I’d never made a film before, but I was extremely cheap,’ he later confessed. ‘I read it and I said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.’ Agents and people said, ‘Alan, you don’t understand, this doesn’t happen. You’ve only been in L.A. two days and you’ve been asked to do this film.” Despite his reluctance, Rickman would fully immerse himself into the character of Hans Gruber, incorporating the right balance between over-the-top schlock and restrained sophistication, ostensibly a cocktail of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko and Manhunter’s Hannibal Lecktor.
The performance of Rickman would become one of the main praises that critics would lavish upon the movie when it was finally released on 15 July 1988, just two days after the latest and final Dirty Harry instalment The Dead Pool. The movie would become one of the biggest events of the summer, offering audiences a never-ending thrill ride through one excessive set-piece after another, incorporating various shootouts, explosions and dangerous stunts into a paper-thin plot in which its hero must stay alive long enough to despatch all of the terrorists, before finally facing off against the man who had held his wife captive. Meanwhile, outside the police and FBI endlessly debate as to how dangerous of a threat the terrorists pose and whether or not McClane, who has remained in contact with a sergeant on the ground, is really the cop he claims to be or just one of the villains attempting to misdirect the authorities.
The main criticism that Die Hard would encounter was some of the poor choices that characters would make, merely to help drive the plot along at the expense of credibility or logic. While the writers attempted to make McClane as grounded as possible and Gruber sophisticated and intelligent, it would be the LAPD and FBI who would underserve the narrative. ‘There was one character in this movie, a deputy chief, whose actions are so stupid and so unmotivated and wrong-headed that finally he just brings the movie to a stop every time he opens his mouth,’ declared Roger Ebert on his long-running review show At the Movies. ‘Bad writing! He always says the wrong thing, he understands nothing and with a movie like this once you start picking out the loopholes – and there are a lot of them – it doesn’t matter how good the stunts or the special effects are, or even how good Bruce Willis is, you can’t stay interested.’
Despite its flaws Die Hard succeeded in bringing a certain level of vulnerability and everyman back to the action hero, after years of bulging biceps and superhero-like strength. At just thirty-two Willis already looked older than his years and with his receding hair and average build he represented much of the audience; normal people with normal bodies. After several years of Schwarzenegger and Stallone displaying muscles that most of their fans would be unable to attain, John McClane was able to defeat the bad guy and save the girl while looking like a middle-aged father. He was the action hero that society needed in the late 1980s; a loving husband with real-life flaws who reluctantly becomes a hero because there is no one else who can fill the role. And while the character of McClane may have gradually transformed into a superhero throughout each subsequent instalment, in Die Hard he is a man trying to reunite with his wife, an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. ‘I think John McClane is the opposite of a superhero,’ insisted Willis on the role that would come to define his career. ‘He’s not invincible, he’s a very vulnerable guy. He’s capable of being afraid and of making mistakes and feeling pain and I think that is part of the reason the audience has responded so well to this film.’