I have something to confess - until I sat down to watch it before writing this review... I had never seen ‘Die Hard’.
I know. How on earth did someone born in the mid-80s never get around to seeing the most quintessential action film of that decade? I’m not entirely sure how, but even with endless repeats on TV and a whole bevy of sequels, I’d just never gotten around to it. I knew it by reputation, obviously (mostly around Christmas when people smugly point out for the hundredth time that it is their Christmas movie just because it’s set at Christmas, as if they hadn’t said it the year before or that they’re not one of thousands of people who also say the same thing. Every year.) However, when the newly released 4K UHD turned up in my letterbox, I couldn’t avoid it any longer. So, rugged up with a cup of tea and the cat, I settled down to fill this apparently sacrilegious gap in my filmography.
And you know what? It’s a pretty great!
So New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is in LA trying to patch things up with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) who works at the Nakatomi Plaza, but a bunch of German "terrorists", led by the deliciously camp Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) turn up to cause all kinds of chaos. They have some sort of well thought-out heist going on, but what they don’t bank on is John hiding in the bathroom, who throws himself into causing Gruber and his gang as much chaos as he can.
Watching ‘Die Hard’ for the first time on its 30th anniversary is like deciphering the Rosetta Stone of late 80s/90s action films. It’s like a mix between Shane Black wit, Roland Emmerich spectacle and Michael Bay bombast, except a hell of a lot slicker than any of them often are. Even at a little over two hours, the film crackles with electricity, balancing between moments of humour, action and drama (sometimes well, sometimes less so). Perhaps the greatest surprise coming to it unknowingly is how much the film is invested in character. Every character - even minor ones - seem to have their moments, and as they all converge on the plaza, there’s a sense of enormous backstory to them, that they both serve a narrative function and have some substance to them. Most action films either seperate action and character development in the narrative or forgo character development whatsoever, but ‘Die Hard’ finds a way (an almost magical way) to allow character to emerge through the action, so that even though there are heaps of spectacular set pieces in the film, they never feel like spectacle for the sake of it.
It helps that the film is snappy as hell, from the cracking screenplay to the energetic editing to John McTiernan’s surprisingly elegant direction. There’s an operatic quality to ‘Die Hard’, especially thanks to the often gorgeous action cinematography from Jan de Bont, and the operatic ridiculousness of the film is balanced so beautifully by its ability to poke fun at itself when necessary. I mean, you have an action hero that spends most of the film not wearing any shoes and is practically naked by the end. And John is the epitome of an action hero, especially thanks to the glorious turn by Willis. It’s easy now to wonder why he was ever considered a star, but watching him in ‘Die Hard’ is watching a star performance in every way. He’s funny, committed, charismatic, dynamic, intensely likeable and damn sexy, and he completely nails John’s befuddlement at having to be the action hero. He’s kinda like Indiana Jones in a singlet and no shoes and with a machine gun. And of course, he’s matched by the delicious Alan Rickman, who devours the scenery with relish and melodramatic flair. Someone told me this was one of his best performances, and I’ll be damned if they weren’t right.
Being introduced to films from the 80s for the first time now is always dangerous - most have inevitably aged badly or propped up by nostalgia (I mean, I still don’t know why you all go on about ‘Ghostbusters’, it’s basically a drawn-out skit). ‘Die Hard’ though is the real deal - a dead-set classic action film that’s still so much more engaging, entertaining and fulfilling than what the genre churns out now. In fact, I got to the end and thought, "They really don’t make them like that any more." Now I see why you all go on about it every damn Christmas. This action romp is about as evergreen as they come.
Watching ‘Die Hard’ for the first time on its 30th anniversary is like deciphering the Rosetta Stone of late 80’s/90’s action films.
PICTURE & SOUND
But how does this 30 year old film look on 4K UHD? Well, it certainly shows its age, but still sparkles in the format. The 35mm negative was scanned in native 4K and given a bit of a clean up, but the 2160p 2.36:1 transfer still has a healthy grain structure and doesn’t attempt to hide the age of the film. Clarity fluctuates between a little messy to crystal clear, but this probably has more to do with the source material itself, and the HDR gives a subtle boost to the colours, especially skin tones and the blacks in the shadows. This isn’t the kind of image you use to show off your home entertainment system, and with no Blu-ray included I’m not able to compare it to the 1080p image, but I can’t imagine the film looking much better without a really extensive restoration.
Sound-wise, we’re given a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track (which is apparently identical to the one on the original Blu-ray release) and a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. The audio is pretty good, though I found the balance between the bass-heavy action moments and the dialogue a bit off. Sampling both tracks, I found that while the 5.1 track has a lot more body to it, I preferred the 2.0 simply because of the balance. Perhaps a new Atmos mix might have offered improvement, but otherwise the disc offers a perfectly acceptable audio experience.
Unfortunately, this release loses points when it comes to the handling of extra material. The 4K disc only carries over two audio commentaries (one featuring McTiernan and production designer Jackson De Govia, the other visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund) and subtitle commentary with comments from the cast and crew. However, while the U.S. release includes the original Blu-ray release and all its special features, the Australian release only includes the 4K UHD disc. The U.S. release loses points to begin with for not including the special features from the 2-disc DVD that weren’t on the original Blu-ray release and making this 30th anniversary 4K edition properly definitive, but not including the Blu-ray on the Australian release is an unfortunate move. Hopefully Fox don’t make this standard practice here with many classic films in their catalogue expected on the format in the near future.