I think I can remember the exact moment I fell in love with movies.
Summer 1988. “Die Hard” was playing in 70mm at a theater in San Jose, Calif., and Agents Johnson and Johnson (“no relation”) were aboard the gunship racing toward Nakatomi Plaza and the movie’s climatic showdown.
To my wide 13-year-old eyes, the scene was larger than life. The sound was huge. The film was huge. My adrenaline was pumping as the magic of cinema transported me aboard that helicopter to witness the fate of a bloodied yet unbowed John McClane.
Twenty-five years and many repeat viewings later, that feeling of exhilaration is still there. If anything, I’ve developed a fuller appreciation of “Die Hard” as a cinematic achievement through adult eyes.
I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog, and McClane (Bruce Willis) faced the longest of long odds. One fallible man trying to save his wife against 13 armed villains (including a ballet dancer, what?), and he doesn’t even have a pair of shoes on. McClane was the flawed accidental hero whether he was tossing a C4-laden computer chair down an elevator shaft to incinerate some baddies or jumping off a 40-story building with a fire hose tied around his waist to get away from goodies acting like baddies.
“Terrorist” leader Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) was McClane’s perfect foil, the prissy eurotrash ultimately undone by McClane’s scrappy “fly in the ointment” attitude and “High Noon” ethics.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not mistaking “Die Hard” for “Citizen Kane.” And it will never escape the ’80s. The dialogue is sophomoric throughout and some special-effects shots were wanting 20 years ago.
But those are quibbles, as I’d argue “Die Hard” is an action movie that approaches art.
The art is visible throughout the film: the Japanese-influenced furnishings, the European designer suits, the model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s unbuilt “butterfly bridge” and the German dialogue (without subtitles).
Architecture and geometry also are prominent. Examples include the distinctively shaped Nakatomi logo that is featured when McClane first enters the building as is the shape and depth of the elevator shaft when he nearly falls to his death.
“Die Hard” centers on confinement, and the filmmakers both highlight and maximize the limited space in many scenes to full effect. How can moviegoers forget McClane complaining about knowing “what a TV dinner feels like” as he squirms through a ventilation shaft?
And how can anyone argue against the artistic skills it must take to produce a dark-horse summer blockbuster that two decades later is celebrated as a Christmas movie?
Nevermind that its one-liners remain as recognizable today as they did when Def Leppard topped the charts. “Welcome to the party, pal.” “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs ...” McClane’s iconic and unprintable tell-off to Gruber.
None of the sequels matched the claustrophobia or genius of the original (the bloodier and oddly named “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” came closest, in my opinion). I fear the fifth movie in the series, “A Good Day to Die Hard,” now in theaters, is “Die Hard” in name only.
Fortunately, I can revisit the thrilling first film periodically at home.
And as the gunships race above the streets of Los Angeles and the “other” Agent Johnson lets out his primal roar, I recall my reaction seeing the movie for the first time as a teenager.
This is awesome.