(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
There's no wrong time to talk about an influential Hollywood classic, so that's why we are talking about "Die Hard."
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
We will never get tired of Hans Gruber versus John McClane, the real clash of the Titans. So that's why we're bringing you this encore episode. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. We are talking about "Die Hard" on this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
HOLMES: Welcome back. You just met NPR Music's Stephen Thompson. Also with us is Glen Weldon of the NPR Arts Desk. Hi, Glen.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Linda.
HOLMES: And maybe the least surprising fourth chair announcement in our little show's history, in our fourth chair this week, who else but our friend, our ambassador of punching and a "Die Hard" afficionado...
WELDON: A "Die Hard" die-hard.
HOLMES: A "Die Hard" die-hard, Chris Klimek. Hi, Chris.
CHRIS KLIMEK: Hi, Linda. Fists with your toes. Fists with your toes.
HOLMES: Fists with your toes.
KLIMEK: The secret to surviving podcasting.
HOLMES: It's true. It's absolutely true. And we should say Chris does have, and we're going to try to get him not to recite the entire thing, a long, dare I say manifesto on the topic of "Die Hard" and its many sequels that is available on npr.org.
KLIMEK: Oh, yes.
HOLMES: And you - Chris (laughter). Oh, you mean the one that I just recite to my...
KLIMEK: Just hailed as punishingly long.
HOLMES: Hailed as punishingly long.
KLIMEK: But it's there for you.
HOLMES: It absolutely is, and we will throw out a link to that.
WELDON: Is it up to date? Does it have all of them?
KLIMEK: I wrote it before "A Good Day To Die Hard" had come out. So it is 80% up to date. And I still have not seen "A Good Day To Die Hard" 'cause my heart just couldn't take it.
HOLMES: Yeah. So it's up to date...
THOMPSON: Up to the date of 2007.
HOLMES: I'm going to start with not our "Die Hard" die-hard, but with my buddy Stephen Thompson. Stephen, have you refreshed your memory about "Die Hard" recently?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I watched it last night. I didn't want to go into this podcast only having seen it 35 times.
HOLMES: Yeah, sure.
THOMPSON: So I went through the punishing homework of sitting through it yet again. I love this movie. I think when you ask the question of why "Die Hard," why does "Die Hard" endure for 30 years...
HOLMES: And which some people may be asking right now, why "Die Hard"?
KLIMEK: Yeah. I want to say I thought I was being punk'd when you guys...
KLIMEK: ...Invited me here for this. I was like, this is...
HOLMES: (Laughter) You thought it was a prank.
KLIMEK: Yeah, a surprise party or, you know...
THOMPSON: You thought we were...
KLIMEK: ...Organs are being harvested.
THOMPSON: Yeah. You thought we were luring here...
THOMPSON: ...You here to take your money or something.
But what makes "Die Hard" endure in ways that other action movies of the '80s haven't? I think part of it is the sense of containment, the fact that this movie is almost entirely situated within one building, and that building represents a puzzle. How does one shoeless man, minimally armed, take down a very heavily financed network of apparent terrorists who are trying to rob the Nakatomi Plaza? But everything is contained to that building.
And John McClane, as played by Bruce Willis, he's not Superman. He does not have powers. He does not have a massive arsenal. He does not have an army. He is one guy. And if you're watching this movie, you can almost imagine yourself being put in a position where, you know, where you could be heroic the way he is - not me personally...
THOMPSON: ...But a strong person.
WELDON: You could pull the fire alarm. You could handle that.
HOLMES: I would surrender (laughter).
THOMPSON: I can handle the fire alarm. And I think that that sense of relatability is so key to this film. There are stunts in this movie. There are holy-bleep moments. There are things that are very unlikely. But...
HOLMES: A little, yeah.
THOMPSON: But at the same time, it manages to maintain this weird sense of plausibility because it's so contained in ways that I think its sequels aren't and in ways that I think so many of the action movies that surrounded it in the '80s were not.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I have to say, you know, you mentioned John McClane as an ordinary dude. It's important, I think, to realize that at the time that this movie came out, what he was mostly famous for was "Moonlighting."
HOLMES: So what he was mostly doing was a kind of a wisecracking, suit-wearing...
HOLMES: ...Detective guy. And the idea of casting him in this...
KLIMEK: And still shooting "Moonlighting" during the day...
KLIMEK: ...And he was shooting "Die Hard" at night.
KLIMEK: So part of why McClane looks so tired in this movie might be because Bruce Willis was shooting, like, 20 hours a day.
THOMPSON: Well, he was also busy as an enormously successful rock star.
KLIMEK: Yeah. The return of - I don't remember Bruno's initial arrival. I only remember...
WELDON: No, no.
THOMPSON: (Unintelligible) Bruce Willis.
HOLMES: Yeah. All right. So, Glen, when we were talking about covering this, you told us that you had seen "Die Hard" once.
WELDON: Yeah. Well, technically, it's hard to calculate because I was a movie usher at the Southampton 4 cinema on Hill Street in Southampton, N.Y., when this film came out. And when you're an usher, when you ush (ph) with the skill that I did, you see a lot of movies in bits and pieces. You learn to know when the good bits are, and you go in and see those, and then you go to some other theater.
I can tell you that I went into this film, for example, at minute 25 and left at minute 32. I went back in again at minute 40 and left at 46 because those, and many others, are the Hans Gruber parts, the Alan Rickman parts. And when I would go into the theater at any other time, I'd see a bunch of guys running around shooting each other with machine guns and think, eh, it's not for me.
WELDON: And that persisted until, you know, a couple years ago when I watched it for the first time all the way through and last night, when I did it again to refresh my memory. And my theory - and again, I like this film. I don't love it. I love it in chunks.
HOLMES: Yeah, sure.
WELDON: I love the Hans Gruber chunks. My theory is that this posited a kind of action hero masculinity that we hadn't seen before. So you have Bruce Willis, right? He is, when we meet him, a smirking jerk, condescends to everybody, but he's afraid of flying. He is - as you mentioned, Stephen, he's got a machine gun, but he's barefoot. And he makes those fists out of his toes, let's remember - I just realized this last night - in a carpeted bathroom, which is a public health nightmare.
WELDON: I mean, that is the grossest thing. What were we thinking? So think about the musculature that he had back then, which was very impressive for the time but would not hold a candle to what we think of as action stars today.
HOLMES: No, for sure, no.
WELDON: And, you know, his body gets a lot better in the long shots...
WELDON: ...When we're seeing him from behind (laughter). But he's still - he's got an impressive-for-the-time musculature that now we would consider kind of a dad bod.
HOLMES: Definitely not as jacked as Chidi in "The Good Place."
WELDON: Absolutely, absolutely.
WELDON: That's the thing. Less jacked than a philosopher.
WELDON: I think when - we were in the era of "Rambo," who gets name-checked in the film, and yet, he is this more vulnerable guy, who will act like a jerk to his wife but then castigate himself for it in the next scene.
WELDON: This is all very important and I think at the time was kind of revolutionary.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I always say that one of the reasons why I like it so much - and it's interesting that fists with your toes has come up a few times. What I like about it so much is how tightly built it is. And if you listen to this show, you may have heard me say this before, but everything that happens in "Die Hard" is either setup or payoff. Everything is in there for a reason. So, for example, when you see the little thing where the guy on the airplane says, bare feet and make fists with your toes...
THOMPSON: The real villain of this movie.
HOLMES: (Laughter) Yeah, but there's a reason why that conversation about fists with your toes is in there, and it's to get him barefoot because it creates this vulnerability which is then exploited when they eventually shoot out the glass and he winds up having to kind of run through the glass. And when Bruce Willis kills the first guy that he kills, they realize that your mind would think, why wouldn't he just take that guy's shoes? So they throw in a little line where he says, got to kill one with feet smaller than my sister, so that he can remain barefoot without you thinking he would just take the guy's shoes.
THOMPSON: There's also - in that airplane scene, you are immediately establishing, this is a tough guy who is afraid of flying...
HOLMES: Of course.
THOMPSON: ...Who has a general sense of unease about Los Angeles.
HOLMES: Of course.
KLIMEK: In the second shot of the movie, which is a close-up of his fist with a death grip on the armrest...
KLIMEK: ...There's also character work being done in that scene.
HOLMES: Yes. And I think that's what makes it efficient is that a lot of the time, a thing that is a character beat is also setting up a specific thing that's going to happen later.
You could say exactly the same thing about him getting to Nakatomi Plaza, talking to his wife and learning that, A, she's going by her maiden name, which is Gennero, rather than her married name. That is a character conversation between the two of them, as is the moment when she gets frustrated and puts the family picture down...
HOLMES: ...On its face in the office. Both of those things are critical for this story to unfold as it does because otherwise, Hans Gruber would immediately know that - once he finds out who John McClane is, would immediately know that she was John McClane's wife or might know that she was. So the fact that she's going by Gennero on the one hand gives them something to be fighting about but also is critical to the plot going forward as it does. And she also has to put that family picture down because - you know, and it sets up that reveal of the family picture.
HOLMES: You are sitting on your hands.
KLIMEK: I - yes.
THOMPSON: We're just filibustering to keep Chris from...
HOLMES: You've been so good. We're getting the easy stuff out of the way.
HOLMES: But you, as a boom, boom, boom punching expert, what do you think it is about "Die Hard"?
KLIMEK: Well, so - OK, so I think this is the reason why I am so nitpicky, borderline intolerant about some of the sillier action films that I've discussed on this show, like "Skyscraper" - right? - because "Die Hard" is probably the movie I've seen the greatest number of times. And because it has this...
KLIMEK: ...Swiss watch precision to it, that's where my expectations are set. Now, the thing is that seeming precision is the result of so many happy accidents or, if I'm going to say it in Alan Rickman speak, there was a serendipity that invaded this film - you know, stuff like McClane encountering Hans and him faking an American accent so that you get - like, that wasn't in the script originally. They found out, you know, Rickman had the accent.
WELDON: My favorite scene. By far my favorite scene.
HOLMES: That is such a smart scene because you think that McClane has the drop on him.
HOLMES: You really think, oh, this movie's going to end right in the middle...
HOLMES: ...'Cause he's got the drop on him.
KLIMEK: And the stuff about, like, escaping in the ambulance at the end - again, like, these were things they were figuring out on the fly. And usually that is described as a recipe for disaster, right? If we haven't figured out the ending, we haven't - but they were kind of making this stuff up as they went. Steven de Souza, who was, you know, one of several writers on this, but he was the one who was on the set making these fixes, has been very, very candid about this.
And this starts with the casting, right? This is, like, the best casting story that I know of where Bruce Willis is only there because all of these more predictable '80s stars, including Burt Reynolds and Richard Gere, had passed on this role. My favorite bit of minutiae is they were contractually required to offer it to Frank Sinatra, who was like...
KLIMEK: It's true, because he had played the character who became John McClane...
HOLMES: Oh, right.
KLIMEK: ...Joe Leland in "The Detective," which is a novel that Roderick Thorp had written, "Nothing Lasts Forever."
HOLMES: So where does your research - if people are curious about this, where did your research on "Die Hard" come from? Is it just many years of various?
KLIMEK: Yeah, it's many years of various. But, I mean, John McTiernan - director John McTiernan's commentary track is - you know, it is a film school for your ears. It is like a Soderbergh-level...
HOLMES: It's fantastic.
KLIMEK: Yeah, where he's incredibly candid about very specific, minute choices, you know, and things that you might only notice on your 34th viewing of this movie.
HOLMES: He talks a lot about setting up shots and triangles and all this really cool stuff.
KLIMEK: Right. And, I mean, I think to answer your broader question about why this movie has endured and is so fondly remembered is I think it is the perfect collision of the '80s. You know, Joel Silver, who had worked on "Commando" and "Lethal Weapon" and these kinds of bang, bang, bang movies, with a more European aesthetic, where McTiernan is all over the place, talking about how he hired Jan de Bont, who had just started - you know, goes on to become a director...
KLIMEK: ...Making "Speed" later on - and Frank J. Urioste, like, all these guys who are coming off of "RoboCop," a Paul Verhoeven, you know, Dutch-made American film the year before that. But it's the collision of this sort of European aesthetic with this very American, '80s kind of machismo that it's also undercutting...
KLIMEK: ...In ways that we've talked about already. So I think that that tension is really what - you know, that was the special sauce.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think one of the things that makes it so interesting to me every time I watch it - it might be the movie I've seen the most times, or it's up there.
THOMPSON: It's up there.
HOLMES: It's up there with the ones that I've just watched just a ridiculous number of times. We've talked before. We talked a little bit when Alan Rickman died about the fact that Hans Gruber is such an essential, brilliant villain.
HOLMES: One of the things that makes him brilliant is he's so likable, and he is so right so much of the time, and he is so capable of predicting what the FBI is going to do. And he has set all of this up so that the things that are going to happen, for the most part, he has anticipated, other than John McClane. It is a really good plan.
HOLMES: He had a really good plan that probably would've worked. And so one of the things about his presence is that, just like you're saying, he becomes kind of this, you know, well-dressed European who is making fun of John McClane, and at one point very explicitly for kind of buying into the macho American...
HOLMES: ...You think you're just going to blow in here. I mean, that's what the yippee ki yay, motherforker, thing is in this movie. It is...
KLIMEK: Or in the original Sinatra version, badda, badda bing, baby.
HOLMES: It is - it comes from that debate where he's saying, you know, you saw too many...
KLIMEK: (Imitating Hans Gruber) American movies as a child.
HOLMES: ...American movies, yeah.
KLIMEK: (Imitating Hans Gruber) Just another product of a bankrupt culture.
HOLMES: Yeah, exactly. I think it's my sister whose favorite moment in this is when the police are all, oh, we're going to get them; we've got it all figured out. And then you see the guy who's looking at the monitor saying, oh, they're coming in in standard two-by-two formation. And he's - you know, nothing that they're doing is nearly as hot as they think it is.
KLIMEK: It's nice that Jan de Bont got to come back and sort of rehabilitate the reputation of SWAT teams in "Speed" a little bit...
KLIMEK: ...Because the SWAT team in "Die Hard" is just the worst. They're just so dumb.
HOLMES: They are. They're not good at it.
KLIMEK: And the guy pricks his finger on the rose, which I always love that shot where he says ow, you know, as he's running through the bushes.
WELDON: Would any other '80s action star have that scene where he's literally at the breaking point on the phone with Reginald VelJohnson...
WELDON: ...Where he is...
HOLMES: Who I can't believe we haven't talked about yet.
THOMPSON: I know.
HOLMES: He's also great in this.
WELDON: ...Where he's on the verge of tears? Is that a thing we saw before? Would Schwarzenegger do that?
KLIMEK: Well, I...
WELDON: Would Van Damme?
WELDON: Would Jeff Speakman? Kurt Thomas?
HOLMES: Kurt Thomas (laughter).
KLIMEK: No, I actually do have something to say about this. I think that because the casting of Bruce Willis was such big news at the time and the fact that he got paid, you know, this then-striking sum of $5 million to the "Moonlighting" guy, I think the vulnerability aspect of this, although critical to the movie, has been overstated. I mean, we forget that Stallone cries at the very end of "First Blood" at the beginning of the decade.
THOMPSON: Oh, in "First Blood," there's a lot of...
KLIMEK: The year before this, we're introduced to Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon," weeping over the photograph of his dead wife with his gun in his mouth. You know, I mean, the tears were part of it. I think it's just the inflated Schwarzeneggerian...
KLIMEK: ...Aesthetic becomes so dominant.
HOLMES: But I will say what Glen is bringing up, though, might be, would the crying have been based around, I have been a bad husband...
HOLMES: ...As much as, like, she is dead, she is whatever?
HOLMES: Would it have been around, I have screwed up, and now I will not have a chance to make it right? I think...
KLIMEK: That's important.
HOLMES: I think the history would tell you there's some of that, but I think one of the things that makes the film interesting is that.
I want to call out one thing that I very much admire about this film, which is its relationship with profanity, which we already have mentioned the famous yippee ki yay line, but there are also two other lines that I absolutely love in this movie that are ones that I always pull out when somebody says, you know, profanity is never necessary; it's just lazy. And they are not necessarily the most famous swearing lines in the film.
But when he is on the roof and he is talking to the 911 dispatcher, and she does not understand what's going on and she thinks he's just some dude bothering her because he's talking about people taking over an office building, which is ridiculous, and so she starts to say, sir, this is an emergency line only. And he says - and, again, I will continue to use "The Good Place" substitutes. He says, no forking shirt, lady; do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza? And it is one of my favorite lines of profanity.
THOMPSON: It's also delivered, and you only hear it over the phone. So you see her and just hear his voice.
HOLMES: And the other one is in that same scene when he's talking to her. And she says, sir, you know, I'm going to have to report you to the police. And he says, fine, report me. Come the fork down here and arrest me (laughter). This is a great swearing movie. That would be my argument.
KLIMEK: Right. No, we've talked about how that becomes his war mask - right? - 'cause he's trying to put on this inflated persona that could endure the things that he has to endure.
HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.
WELDON: I think it's fair to say that Bruce Willis' gifts as an actor were not fully developed here. But yet, one of the things I missed seeing it in bits and pieces as an usher is the arc that he goes through. And that is important to the character. It's vital to the movie. And when he goes up and things start happening and he just goes running around going, think, think, think, I'm like, oh, God, we've seen this before. But for him to get to that place...
WELDON: ...On that conversation with Reginald VelJohnson, even though it still seems mannered in a Bruce Willisan (ph) way, kind of still mask for mask's sake...
WELDON: ...He's still going for a place.
HOLMES: Yeah. And it's funny because when you see the end of the film and you see kind of the final encounter between him and Hans Gruber, which is maybe one of the things that I would call unlikely in the extreme, the way that it plays out with Huey Lewis guy and...
WELDON: Yeah, he was...
KLIMEK: Eddie. Yeah, I found out last night that his name is Eddie, by the way.
HOLMES: Yeah, I just think of him as Huey Lewis guy.
HOLMES: When you see that scene play out, when Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia, who we also have not talked about...
WELDON: And her perm.
HOLMES: The great Bonnie Bedelia and her perm, when she sees him and he is so beaten up by this whole thing, you can see that - her shock at just his physical state. And I think by then, you realize, like, oh, yeah, his feet are all tied up in bandages. He's dirty. He's been fighting these dudes in a bunch of fights that, like, to their credit, this movie has a lot of object permanence. Like, fights that happen really seem like they're happening. And when he hangs a guy up by a chain, the guy is still there later.
KLIMEK: Oh, man. The great defectee, ballet dancer Alexander Godunov.
HOLMES: Right, absolutely.
KLIMEK: Can I say before we close...
KLIMEK: Can I say that, you know, we talked about why this movie has endured in the public consciousness. I think it is easy, too, to identify why this is the consensus movie in this genre among POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR people specifically, right? You get 30 seconds into the commentary track for this when McTiernan starts talking about joy. He starts talking about getting the screenplay and saying, well, this is about terrorists. You know, it's very grim. It's very dark. How can I get some joy into it? How can I make it fun? And he's - well, you know, what if they were thieves instead of terrorists, because that's the - really, I mean, all they're trying to do is steal. I mean, yeah, they're going to kill 40 people to steal all this money, but this is more like a caper and less like, you know, some horrible, dire comment on humanity. And why don't...
HOLMES: And they're going to get theirs anyway.
KLIMEK: Yeah. If - we can press it so it only takes place over the course of one night, like "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And then we get the Beethoven in there. And, you know, he keeps looking for ways to inject light and buoyancy into this. So that's why I think you guys like it.
HOLMES: Well, and I will say he injects fun into it not only by making it stupid, which is often how they inject joy into things like "Skyscraper," which I also find joy in...
WELDON: Yes. I know.
HOLMES: ...But only because they're stupid. And I think that this does not inject all of its joy via stupidity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOLMES: We want to know what you think about "Die Hard." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. We will see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about "The Falcon And The Winter Soldier."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.