“You want money? What kind of terrorists are you?”
“Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Eurotrash!”
”A hundred million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.”
“Ooooh, I'm very sorry Hans. I didn't get that message. Maybe you should've put it on the bulletin board. I figured since I've waxed Tony and Marco and his friend here, I figured you and Karl and Franco might be a little lonely, so I decided to give you a call.”
Takagi! Thornberg! Ellis! Gennero! The two Johnsons! Sgt. Al! Hans Gruber! John McClane! If there’s anything Herc loves more than “Die Hard,” it’s former Cameron Diaz stunt double Alex DuPont’s regular Sunday night DVD appraisals.
Thanks as always to The DVD Journal for the regular loan of the lovely, lovely Alex’s reviews.
Review by Alexandra DuPont
"It's Die Hard in a [vehicular transport or large structure]."
— Typical Hollywood concept pitch during the 1990s"... Think of movies like Fatal Attraction and Unlawful Entry and Die Hard I-III and Copycat, etc., where we're so relentlessly set up to enjoy the villain's bloody punishment in the climax that we might as well be wearing togas. (The formulaic inexorability of these villains' defeat does give the climaxes an oddly soothing, ritualistic quality, and it makes the villains martyrs in a way, sacrifices to our desire for black-and-white morality and comfortable judgment...I think it was during the original Die Hard that I first rooted consciously for the villain.)"
— David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing
I'll Never Do Again
I. THE SUBJECT OF THIS FAQ
The Die Hard two-disc "Five Star Collection" DVD, which streets this Tuesday, July 10. (Skip ahead to section VII. if you're only interested in the extras.)
II. BRIEFLY: WHY IS THIS MOVIE IMPORTANT?
Well — aside from the fact that 1988's Die Hard is terrifically entertaining action/suspense filmmaking — I'd argue that this flick (along with maybe Blade Runner) had more influence on '90s Hollywood filmmaking than any other '80s film.
People forget how silly Die Hard looked on paper in 1988. It starred an unproven comic actor from a faddish TV show; it was helmed by a junior director (John McTiernan had Nomads and Predator under his belt); and it had that stupid car-battery pun of a title. But Die Hard has strength of story on its side, not to mention a certain genius of fusion — it took the 1970s disaster film, pureed it with '80s action-movie tropes (typified up to that point by Lethal Weapon) and single-handedly resurrected the "siege film," a genre last visited around, say, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
III. WHAT'S THE STORY?
I can't sum it up any leaner than DVDJ's own Greg Dorr, who reviewed the original, non-anamorphic single-disc release back in 1999: "New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) flies into L.A. on Christmas Eve expecting a tense reunion with his estranged wife, who moved west with their children when her career took off. Their reunion is more than tense: her corporate headquarters is besieged by ruthless international terrorists, and McClane must save the hostages, single-handedly and without shoes."
It's been argued that the above plot frame is nothing more than a patriarchal blue-collar fantasy — a less-educated white guy saves corporate doofuses and his overly assertive wife by conquering effeminate, high-class thugs in a phallus-shaped exploding tower. But while the class conflict is certainly there (and, let's face it, a big part of the movie's appeal), the story's too nuanced to serve as mere antifeminist propaganda. For one thing, over the course of the movie McClane loses his absolutist stance on his marriage — specifically, he gets it beaten out of him. For another, McClane's wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is the only corporate executive to successfully tangle with terrorist leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, in the icy, witty role that made him a bankable baddie).
IV. TYPICAL ELEMENTS OF THE SIEGE FILM, LARGELY CREDITED TO DIE HARD
- Multiple characters, broadly and quickly sketched
- A particular mix of bloody mayhem and wisecrack humor
- A well-spoken, colorful, and/or Eurotrash villain, preferably played by a critically acclaimed actor
- A blue-collar, vulnerable protagonist who gets the absolute hell beat out of him
- A tightly controlled locale
- Policemen and other officials cast as bumbling bureaucrats/hapless objects of ridicule
V. A PARTIAL LIST OF DIE HARD'S DIRECT (AND INDIRECT) SIEGE-GENRE DESCENDANTS, IN INCREASING ORDER OF IDIOCY
Speed, Under Siege, The Negotiator, The Rock, Executive Decision, Jet Li's High Risk (released in America as Meltdown), Air Force One, Con Air, Die Hard 2, Passenger 57, Die Hard with a Vengance, Under Siege 2, Sudden Death, Speed 2.
VI. WHAT MADE DIE HARD WORK, WHILE SO MANY OF THOSE MOVIES FAIL LIKE THALIDOMIDE?
Well, I think Hollywood took the flashiest, easiest lessons from Die Hard — co-opting its comedy, squibs, and large-scale blowings-up, often to boffo box office. But Die Hard endures because it also paid attention to the fundamentals. The movie juggles a large cast of quickly sketched characters with the skill of a 1940s comedy, for one thing. For another, the plotting is incredibly tight: Every bloody confrontation adds a new wrinkle to the plot — MacGuffins are seized, enemies learn something new about each other, stakes are raised. In other words, unlike so much of today's ADD-addled action cinema (hell, unlike its own sequels), the film actually earns its suspense.
Finally — and this is crucial — we get to know everyone before we blow them up. A full 18 minutes elapse before the movie's first gunshot; 23 minutes elapse before the terrorists meet their hostages and send McClane flying up the stairs barefoot. During that period, McTiernan and co-scenarists Jeb Stuart and Steven E. deSouza establish a firm sense of time and place; show us that the McClane marriage is on the rocks; credibly strip McClane of his shoes and socks and shirt, making him vulnerable; demonstrate that the terrorists are well-organized; introduce a devil-may-care chauffeur (De'voreaux White) trapped in the parking garage; and pack Holly McClane's corporation with disaster-movie archetypes (most notably Hart Bochner's coke-snorting corporate weasel) just begging to be knocked off.
Again quoting Dorr: "Die Hard took the evolving formula of the late-century action film and perfected it. From concept to execution, the plotting, location, visuals, music, editing, and characters work beautifully together in the service of an explosive, thrilling — and even moving — action machine.... Willis' McClane is a guy we can relate to, or at least feel for.... [and] Die Hard's concentration of locale is a master stroke."
* * *
VII. ENOUGH OF THAT. SO HOW ABOUT THOSE DVD EXTRAS?
They're among the most dense and plentiful I've ever encountered on DVD — as abundant as what you'd find on any Criterion edition, though organized in a vastly more gee-whiz (and occasionally annoying) fashion. Still, these platters boast more than enough swank goodies to merit the coveted five-star rating.
VIII. BUT FIRST, A TWO-POINT MEMO TO FOX HOME VIDEO
If any Fox DVD production staff happen to be reading this writeup:
- We're already watching a DVD — why for the love of St. Crispian do you feel the need to "sell us on the medium" with that tiresome teaser that informs us about Fox DVD's "awesome interactive menus" and all that claptrap — while using clips from the same movies teased on the X-Men platter, for pity's sake? Do you think we collectively ride the special bus? Are we so base and thankless?
- Also, and this is important: A gliding, beautiful, stately animation that flies us over and around a skyscraper is fine for an introduction to the main menu. A gliding, beautiful, stately animation that flies us over and around a skyscraper when we're trying to get from the main menu to one containing the film's advertising supplements gets old after three navigations. Seriously.
IX. AHEM. THAT SAID: DISC ONE'S EXTRAS
On top of a glorious anamorphic widescreen presentation of the feature (with your choice of thundering DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 audio), there are no fewer than three commentary tracks — one with director John McTiernan and production designer Jackson DeGovia; another (scene-specific) track with special-effects whiz Richard Edlund; and a third, subtitle-only commentary track featuring, among others, co-screenwriter Steven E. deSouza, composer Michael Kamen, McTiernan, Alan Rickman, effects and stunt personnel, editor John F. Link, and an omniscient narrator who points out various compositional niceties and camera moves as if Die Hard had the mise en scÃ©ne of a French art film.
Commentary-track junkies will get a dizzying fix if they watch the film with both the McTiernan/DeGovia and subtitle commentaries turned on:
- McTiernan reveals the surprising level of improvisation during the production — including a script that was apparently tweaked endlessly on-set;
- On the text track, deSouza recalls reading a textbook thesis that laid bare the "antifeminist agenda" behind Die Hard — an anecdote directly juxtaposed with Rickman praising the strength of Bonnie Bedelia's character;
- McTiernan complains about Rickman's not-quite-convincing faux-American accent in his "Bill Clay" disguise, even as the director discourses on subjects ranging from Shakespearean clowns (as they relate to the police outside the skyscraper) and the design of Takagi's office being a direct rip-off of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater;
- We discover that currently embattled Hollywood Reporter columnist George Christy (currently being investigated for possible SAG improprieties) plays the TV "guest expert" blathering on about the "Helsinki Syndrome";
- On the text track, deSouza discusses how the siege genre sparked by Die Hard reached its nadir with the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Sudden Death (in which terrorists took an entire hockey game hostage);
- And Jackson DeGovia is just endlessly and articulately self-congratulatory on behalf of the production (which would probably be more annoying if he weren't on the mark with many of his praises).
And so on. It's terrific stuff. BTW, Disc One also allows you to view the feature with the dread "extended branching" turned on, awkwardly re-inserting an extended power-shutdown scene (in which terrorist geek Theo [Clarence Gilyard Jr.] briefly turns the building's power back on to "annoy" the FBI into shutting down several city blocks — thus allowing a vault to be opened). This extended scene is also viewable separately on Disc Two (and as I've said before w/r/t "extended branching," it's probably best enjoyed separately.)
X. OKAY. WHAT ABOUT DISC TWO?
It's an extras motherlode, broken into five main sections (plus a "DVD-ROM Features" section I'll barely get into later).
Under the "From the Vault" menu, we find three subsections:
- "Outtakes" features the aforementioned "Turning off the Power" scene — plus a nifty, 6:11 collection of outtakes and bloopers called "The Vault," which is viewable with or without music. "The Vault" includes an extended airport sequence; multiple takes of that Huey Lewis-looking terrorist getting shot in the head; a deleted joke from the McClane/"Bill Clay" meeting; more footage of FBI arrogance and SWAT ineptitude and general Hans Gruber nastiness; assorted Bruce Willis wisecracks and ad-libs, which frequently end with Bruno bursting into song; Theo's complete wisecrack to Hans ("You didn't bring me along for my charming personality ... though you could have"); and much more.
- "The Newscasts" is, as you'd imagine, 7:57 worth of raw video (including bloopers and some occasionally horrendous audio) of the various TV-news reports that help drive the narrative. High- (or low-) lights include Mr. Christy screwing up and apologizing repeatedly as he flubs his lines, plus the child actress playing little Lucy McClane trying very, very hard not to smile broadly as she frets about her parents;
- And, rounding out the section, we find two informative "Magazine Articles" — from American Cinematographer and Cinefex — laid out in the same hard-to-read font and with the same sort of interactive animated photos found on the Big Trouble in Little China DVD.
Moving along, we find what is perhaps Disc Two's most maddening menu — "The Cutting Room," which features several remedial workshops and featurettes:
- A "Scene-Editing Workshop" allows you to string together alternate takes for three sequences — two of Hans and Takagi (James Shigeta) in the board room (one eight shots long, one 10), plus one three-shot sequence of Willis in an air shaft. This is pretty moronic, laborious stuff — you don't control shot length, only takes used — but it does allow you to view a host of alternate takes, including multiple camera angles of Takagi getting his head blown off.
- Marginally more interesting is a "Multi-Camera Shooting" feature, which allows you to use your Angle button to view alternate camera setups for three scenes: chauffeur Argyle in the back of the limo as Powell's bullet-riddled police car drives by, plus two sequences of police cars arriving on the scene. (The coolest, geekiest bit about this feature is that you're told what sort of lens is used for each shot.)
- "Audio Mixing" is another workshop for juveniles, allowing you to (barely) control separate sound levels for dialogue, music and effects for Die Hard's "shoot the glass" firefight. (If you turn down all three levels and hit playback, BTW, it just sounds like you've got the volume turned down.)
- For morons, there's also a remedial section called "Why Letterbox?" in which experts David Prior and Larry Yore show us a raw sequence in letterbox, center-scan, and finally pan-and-scan to explain once and for all why (as they put it) anything but letterbox on standard TVs "ruins the director's and cinematographer's storytelling" if a movie was originally shot widescreen. It's the perfect educational film for that relative who still, somehow, thinks letterboxing masks the top and bottom of an otherwise-complete film frame. (And yes, I'm aware that Kubrick's beloved "open-matte full frame" is a different discussion entirely.)
- And finally, the "Cutting Room" section ends with a "Glossary" of technical/film-editing terms — covering everything from the "180-degree rule" to "work print." (BTW, if I may quote from this feature's definition for the 180-degree rule: "...[The film] must be shot within an arc of 180 degrees or the audience becomes disoriented, and sometimes violent." At last: something that finally explains all that rioting during Ozu retrospectives.)
Next up, we find a 9:25 "Slide Show" (with music) of production stills and behind-the-scenes shots from the film (and far too many photos of producer Joel Silver prowling the set). Watch for the Nakatomi logo that periodically appears on the lower-right-hand corner of the screen during the show: When your see it, press the Select button to watch what the DVD menu describes as "a short presentation which elaborates on the slide."
Anyway. Many of these "sort presentation" digressions are fabulous: You'll find set blueprints; raw-footage dailies; extensive home-video footage of Edlund's team flying a remote-control helicopter and scrapping/crashing/blowing up their miniatures; raw stunt footage; an extended cut of Reginald VelJohnson's introductory scene; and more.
Rounding out Disc Two is "The Script" — which features quite a bit of alternate dialogue (if you're willing to scroll through roughly 340 pages of text to find it) — plus an "Ad Campaign" section featuring three trailers, seven TV spots and a 7:20 "Video Press Pak" featurette from 1988 that includes the only Bruce Willis interview in this edition, plus sound bites from John McTiernan, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Reginald VelJohnson, and pyro-effects whiz Al DiSarro.
XI. ANY DVD-ROM FEATURES?
Yes: Disc One features a script-to-screen comparison; Disc Two features links and game demos. Both are, alas, only accessible via Windows machines.
XII. WHAT ABOUT EASTER EGGS?
I found two, and they're sort of weak:
- In Disc One's "Languages" menu, click on the Bruce Willis mug in the lower right-hand corner to read the DVD production credits;
- And in the main menu for Disc Two, click on the errant landing light at the top of the screen and the screen explodes — only to be replaced by the idiotic message "There goes Fox Home Entertainment!" The Criterion Collection this ain't.
— Alexandra DuPont
- Two-disc set
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- DTS 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (French)
- English and Spanish subtitles
- Feature-length commentary with director John McTiernan and production designer Jackson DeGovia
- Scene-specific commentary with special-effects supervisor Richard Edlund
- Subtitle commentary with various cast and crew
- "Extended branching" featuring expanded power-shutdown scene
- Deleted scenes and outtakes
- Raw newscast footage
- Magazine-article reprints from American Cinematographer and Cinefex
- Scene-editing workshop
- "Multi-Camera Shooting" angle-button feature
- Audio-mixing workshop
- "Why Letterbox?" featurette
- Glossary of technical/film-editing terms
- "Slide Show" with digressive presentations of outtakes, blueprints, and behind-the-scenes footage
- Complete screenplay
- Three theatrical trailers
- Seven TV spots
- 1988 "Video Press Pak" featurette
- DVD-ROM features: script-to-screen comparison, links and game demos
- Dual-DVD keep-case