Movies

Yippie-ki-yay! At 25, 'Die Hard' remains the best modern action film

July 22, 2013 at 7:33 AM ET

It’s easy to dismiss “Die Hard.” As a franchise, it's spent the last 25 years sending its hero John McClane into increasingly unbelievable situations — but in the process it's become a brand nearly as unstoppable as Bruce Willis’ receding hairline.

Back in 1988, when the original classic film was released, Willis was still appearing on "Moonlighting," his co-star Alan Rickman (who more people now identify as "Harry Potter's" Snape) was a little-known British actor, and director John McTiernan was still a free man (he's currently serving a 12-month prison sentence for white-collar crimes).

In the end, "Die Hard" helped change the formula for blockbuster Hollywood pictures forever.

The timeless quality of the film is born out of the fact that the film has its roots in two classic American genres, says Harvey O'Brien, author of "Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back."

“’Die Hard’ brought back a couple of things people hadn’t seen in a while – the disaster movie and the western cowboy hero,” O’Brien told NBCNews.com. “It was in many ways the ‘Shane’ of action movies … definitely a kind of super-inflated version of the kinds of action films that had been doing well all through the early 1980s.”

When “Die Hard” exploded in theaters in 1988, it gave viewers a combination of the familiar and the fresh. Audiences were used to the lone hero from films like “Rambo” and “Death Wish." And films like “The Terminator” and “Alien” series were giving us female as well as male heroes who grimly blasted through villains to emerge victorious on the other side.

But then came John McClane: A regular guy, not overly macho or muscled, going a little thin on top, a New York cop out of his element in Los Angeles. He was a blue collar guy with an old-fashioned sense of self-determination who also could make a joke. He was the audience, and the audience ate it up.

“He’s the rugged heart of a ground-level America that continues to resist forces that seem entirely beyond its control,” said O’Brien. “He’s always butting in where he doesn’t belong, only to prove that if he wasn’t there, things would be a lot worse.”

Remember: McClane had to arm himself, and spent most of the picture in cut-up bare feet. His resourcefulness and ability to Rube Goldberg his way out of most situations — taping a gun to his back, bungeeing off of the rooftop with a firehose tied around his waist, shimmying through the ventilation ducts — have a bit of the James Bond feel to them, if Bond had no Q and had to rely solely on his wits and the material at hand.

The film has dozens of other merits, including Rickman’s oily Hans Gruber, Holly McClane's revenge on a TV news reporter, the use of Frank Sinatra singing “Let It Snow” as the credits run, the co-worker who tries to unsuccessfully bargain his way out of being held hostage. It has so much going for it that its more dated content aspects often go overlooked: McClane’s family is portrayed as having been broken up by a “career woman” (his wife) and there's a bit of late-'80s Asian xenophobia going on in making the company whose employees are taken hostage Japanese (yes, there was a period in recent history where Americans worried about being taken over by a country other than China).

The rest of the film makes up for those problems, says O'Brien. “It’s really important that a small but significant element of the self-deprecating, wise-cracking Bruce Willis of 1980s television is run through this character, because otherwise all of this hardcore neo-conservatism would either get on our nerves or date the film horribly.”

Instead, there’s so much going on, and the film as a whole is so well compiled by director McTiernan that audiences can still enjoy it today, whether for the first or the four hundredth time. “The brilliance of the film is in its balance,” he said. “And I think that holds up even now.”

What do you think? Does “Die Hard” still hold up for you? Let us know in the comments section.

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