During the ’80s golden era of American action movies, there was a certain way these movies looked: burnished steel, gleaming sweat, bulging muscles that couldn’t possibly exist without chemical enhancement. The movies that people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were making looked nothing like real life. They looked like a bodybuilder’s fever dream, the sort of thing he might imagine after doing a mountain of blow and watching nothing but early MTV for 48 hours. One fascinating thing about 1988’s Die Hard, quite possibly the best action movie ever made, is that it didn’t look anything like that.
Schwarzenegger and Stallone, among many others, actually both turned down Die Hard, and it would’ve been a vastly different movie if either of them had played John McClane. (Perhaps as payback, the script found room to needle both of them.) Instead, as played by Bruce Willis, McClane was something other than a steroidal superman. He was an ordinary human being, and kind of an asshole. As the movie opens, we see McClane grumpily huffing at his airplane seatmate, his affable cartoon-character limo driver Argyle, and finally at his estranged wife. He’s a New York cop who wants to remain a New York cop, and he can’t accept that his wife’s business career has taken off in Los Angeles or that she’s using her maiden name. Seeing her for the first time in months, he freaks out at her and then immediately realizes that he’s being an asshole when it’s too late to do anything about it. But fortunately for McClane, before he has a chance to make more of an ass out of himself, some terrorists show up. And all of a sudden, he’s his best self.
By most human standards, the 1988 version of Bruce Willis was a well-put-together human being. But by ’80s action-hero standards, he was a scrawny motormouth. He made the same sorts of one-liners that every other action hero did, but from him, they were more of a constant stream—a nervous tic coming from someone who immediately knew that he was in way, way over his head. He annoyed everyone—the villains, sure, but also his wife, who knew he was alive because “Only John can drive somebody that crazy.” Taking out the gang of hijackers, and surviving to the end of the movie, took mental strength and inventiveness and quick thinking and luck and self-destructive berserker courage. McClane had to be willing to launch himself off the side of a building with a firehose wrapped around his waist, to drop a brick of C4 down an elevator shaft, and to hurl a dead body from a window onto the hood of an oblivious cop car. None of it looked easy. All of it took commitment.
Die Hard director John McTiernan knew the way ’80s action movies were supposed to look. The year before making Die Hard, he’d directed Schwarzenegger in Predator, a movie that might represent the peak of the man’s movie-hero inhumanity. Predator ends with Schwarzenegger’s character surviving a thermonuclear blast—a feat he accomplishes by running away and then jumping. If a towering dreadlocked alien had blown up a WMD right next to John McClane, John McClane would be dead. But given the slightest bit of daylight, he would find a way to wriggle through. (Oddly enough, both Schwarzenegger and McClane crawl through waterfalls in their movies. But Schwarzenegger is deep in the jungle, while McClane is 30 stories above Los Angeles, in a fancy office where someone has exactingly recreated Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. What a fucking run McTiernan was on for a little while there.)
The everyman appeal of Willis is key to the success of Die Hard. Before taking the role of McClane, Willis had mostly been known as a wisecracking TV detective, one who sometimes sang oldies, on Moonlighting. In the movie, he kept that natural asshole charm fully intact, and he also transformed himself into a credible badass by throwing himself physically into the role, doing some of his own stunts and always convincingly coming across as someone who knew he could die at any moment. By the end of the movie, Willis looks like shit. He’s been shot, strangled, battered, scraped, and, in the movie’s most wince-worthy moment, made to pull shards of broken glass out of the soles of his bare feet. But he’s still able to think quickly enough to tape a gun to his back and use his last two bullets to shoot the last two bad guys.
The last of those bad guys, of course, is Hans Gruber, perhaps the single most iconic villain in the history of the genre. Incredibly, Alan Rickman had never been in a movie before playing Gruber; McTiernan and producer Joel Silver cast him after seeing him in a stage production of Dangerous Liaisons. As Gruber, Rickman has a blast, and he does so in ways that make it look like Gruber himself is having a blast, too. Gruber does all sorts of dastardly things in Die Hard, but it’s still possible to watch the movie and root for him. From a certain perspective, the movie is Ocean’s Eleven with a meddling cop who comes along and fucks everything up. It’s fun to watch people who are good at what they do, and Gruber and his team go about their hijacking with a crisp, brutal efficiency that’s not without its charm.
Of course, most of those hijackers are stock characters; lead henchman Karl, with his towering physique and flaxen hair, looks more like an ’80s action-movie character than anyone else in the movie. But Gruber, like McClane, seems like he could be a real human being. In his overly well-trimmed beard and his expensively tailored suit, he looks almost fussy. He preens and snarls and whispers threats with real delight, like he can’t believe he’s getting away with his intricately planned caper. Admiring a model in a Nakatomi Plaza office, Gruber says, “The exactness, the attention to every conceivable detail, it’s beautiful.” You can tell that he feels the same way about his own scheme.
The movie also has a great array of minor characters, all of whom get their own satisfying little story arcs. There’s De’voreaux White as Argyle, the aforementioned limo driver who cheers McClane on, unseen, from the parking garage and gets his own moment of heroism at the end. There’s Reginald VelJohnson, before he had too many Urkels on his team, as McClane’s friend on the ground who has to find it within himself to pull a gun one more time. (Somehow, the most dated aspect of the movie is Al Powell’s remorse at having shot a kid with a toy raygun.) There’s Hart Bochner as Ellis, the grinning, deluded cokehead who negotiates million-dollar deals over breakfast and talks himself into an early grave. And there are two hall-of-fame ’80s-movie assholes, William Atherton (Walter Peck from Ghostbusters) and Paul Gleeson (Assistant Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club), both sneering from the sidelines and making things harder for McClane.
In confining all the action to a single building, in a single night, Die Hard builds real stakes, using every available quirk of architecture to create more traps for McClane to escape. And even though the movie takes well over two hours to play out, it has a real austere economy to its build. McTiernan understood pacing and geography and logic, and it’s immensely satisfying to watch McClane take out his tormenters one by one. There’s an almost video-game-like purity to the way the story plays out. And unlike so many of the other big ’80s action movies, Die Hard is not about Vietnam, even in an oblique way. It even mocks the idea, as the FBI’s two doomed Agents Johnson approach Nakatomi Plaza in their helicopter. The elder of the two howls with delight: “Just like fucking Saigon, eh, slick?” His younger counterpart just rolls his eyes: “I was in junior high, dickhead.”
That simplified structure would, of course, make Die Hard massively influential. It spawned four sequels and counting, all of which are at least watchable and one of which is a bona fide classic. (That would be 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance, the only sequel that McTiernan directed, which moved the action to McClane’s home turf in New York, and which, incidentally, includes jokes about both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The Clinton joke is about how she’s going to be president.) It would also transform Willis into a bona fide action star on the level of Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
More than that, though, it changed the grammar of action movies. The big, slick, brutal, posthuman ’80s action movies would live on for a few more years, and the style would produce a few more classics. But the genre, going forward, tended to pare things down, focusing on isolated settings, charismatic villains with elaborate plans, and everyman heroes suddenly thrown into extreme circumstances. Die Hard-in-a-whatever movies proliferated, to the point where they eventually took place in ridiculous locales like a Stanley Cup Finals game seven (Sudden Death) or Air Force One (Air Force One). Die Hard, then, has a rich legacy. It’s a near-perfect example of its form, a platonic ideal of the action movie. And it’s also the movie that brought action cinema back down to earth.
Other notable 1988 action movies: In a very busy year, the runner-up spot has to go to Bloodsport, the movie that gave Belgian kickboxer and longtime bit-part player Jean-Claude Van Damme his first and maybe best starring role. Bloodsport is a sports movie and an action movie at the same time, and while there had been movies about underground fighting tournaments before—Enter The Dragon, at least nominally, was that—the Kumite in Bloodsport was the first to take it seriously, to show clashing styles and qualifying rounds. When the UFC came into existence a few years later, it almost seemed like an attempt to make the Kumite real. And that setting makes for a great showcase for Van Damme, a man who looks better throwing spinning jumpkicks than any other movie star in the history of cinema. His wooden, fresh-faced idealism and his willingness to do splits whenever possible made it plainly apparent that we were looking at a star. The following years would bear that out.
Van Damme’s closest peer would also make his debut in 1988. In Above The Law, Steven Seagal attempted to tell his life story, or at least the version that he loves telling whoever will listen: mastering aikido in Japan, doing black ops work for the CIA, returning home to America as an avenger. But the movie version of Seagal’s character didn’t become an enduring B-movie star. Instead, he became a Chicago cop who fights mobsters and fellow Vietnam-vet operatives on behalf of penniless immigrants. Seagal’s screen persona wasn’t quite fully formed in Above The Law; the ponytail, among other things, would come later. But his fighting technique—quick and brutal, heavy on the snapping of opponents’ limbs—felt like something new and exciting.
Elsewhere, the excess of the prime ’80s action movie was alive and healthy. In Action Jackson, the former stuntman Craig Baxley directed Carl Weathers in a beautifully insane over-the-top badass-cop adventure that stopped just short of self-parody. It’s the sort of movie that opens with assassins shooting a guy, setting him on fire, and then sending him plunging through a high-rise window, down through an outdoor patio table where someone is having lunch. It’s awesome. The same year, Clint Eastwood ended his run as Dirty Harry Callahan with The Dead Pool, a beautifully absurd movie where coked-up rock star Jim Carrey lip-syncs “Welcome To The Jungle.” And in Rambo III, Stallone built on the cartoonish absurdity of Rambo: First Blood Part II by raging into Afghanistan to fight Russian forces alongside the heroic freedom fighters who, not long after, would become the Taliban. It’s a weird one to watch today.
Meanwhile, Walter Hill directed Schwarzenegger and (unfortunately) Jim Belushi in Red Heat, a run-of-the-mill buddy-cop comedy that was at least smart enough to explain away Schwarzenegger’s accent by making him Russian. (The year’s best buddy-cop comedy turned out to be Midnight Run, which was way more of a comedy than an action movie.) And in Cop, James Woods gave a uniquely sweaty take on the loose-cannon detective archetype.
As fun as all those movies are, though, the low-budget movies of 1988 are even better. Consider, if you will, They Live, John Carpenter’s paranoid sci-fi masterpiece about the one-percenter space overlords exploiting the labor of everyone else. The movie includes one of the longest and most hilarious brutal fistfights ever put to film, and it briefly made a movie star out of pro-wrestling great Rowdy Roddy Piper, who also got a chance to flex in the same year’s deeply underrated Hell Comes To Frogtown. In that one, he’s the last fertile man left alive in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and he’s out to save a band of women from a society of rubber-masked mutants. (Seriously, see this movie if you haven’t.) Or consider, Maniac Cop, a Z-grade, tongue-halfway-in-cheek action-horror hybrid with some of the most insane stunt sequences that you’ll ever see in an American movie.
Speaking of insane sequences: Jackie Chan continued his incredible run in 1988, with a pair of classics, Police Story 2 and Dragons Forever. He was continuing to hone his style, setting his movies in the present day and finding better ways to integrate his goofy slapstick comedy into his astonishing fight scenes. Soon enough, they’d be one and the same.
Next time: With The Killer, John Woo perfects his dizzily melodramatic bullet-ballet style by pushing it all the way over the top.