How Die Hard Changed the Action Game

Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

“If Willis Gets $5 Million, How Much for Redford?” demanded a headline in the New York Times on February 16, 1988, sounding a note of confusion and panic that greeted news of Bruce Willis’s big payday for Die Hard, a new action picture from 20th Century Fox. “I’m not saying that my clients are entitled to 150 percent of what is being paid to Bruce Willis,” says legendary entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, “but if one hears that some other actor is getting a million dollars more than he was before, it’s only fair to try to get more from the studio for my clients.”

High-paycheck panic pieces are a reliable chestnut in entertainment journalism; studio execs and agents had voiced these concerns about matching the rising costs of talent after Marlon Brando made his Superman deal ($4 million) and Dustin Hoffman made his for Tootsie ($5.5 million), as they would when Jim Carrey got $20 million for The Cable Guy in 1996, or when Keanu Reeves was paid $30 million for the two Matrix sequels. But Willis’s deal wasn’t even the biggest of the summer of 1988 — as the same Times article noted, Sylvester Stallone was making somewhere north of $12 million for Rambo III.

What made the Die Hard deal newsworthy was that it was a $5 million payday for a TV actor, in a not-that-long-ago era when there was a world of difference between a TV actor and a movie star. Hollywood had recently watched Shelley Long, Don Johnson, and Bill Cosby try and fail to make the transition. Why would Bruce Willis, known primarily for his work on ABC’s Moonlighting, who had already starred in two film flops (1987’s Blind Date and 1988’s Sunset), be any different? What’s more, he was a television comedy actor. What was he doing running around in an undershirt with a machine gun like Stallone?

But he had a strategy. “If an actor can star in an action film and be convincing to an audience,” he explained in a Video Review interview, “then he can do other types of films and then return to an action picture because the public has accepted him as a hero in the genre.” And Willis was in a power position for this particular action film; though 20th Century Fox president Leonard Goldberg told the Times, “We reached out for Bruce Willis because we thought we had the potential of a major film which is a star vehicle,” the paper also reported that the studio “desperately needed a star for Die Hard … the script had been turned down by any number of actors, including Richard Gere and Clint Eastwood.” In the years since, the rumor mill has also had Burt Reynolds, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone passing on the script.

Oh, and Frank Sinatra. Die Hard was based on a 1979 novel by Roderick Thorp entitled Nothing Lasts Forever — a sequel to his 1966 book The Detective, which had been adapted into a feature film starring Sinatra as New York cop turned P.I. Joe Leland. Sinatra’s original contract obligated the studio to offer him the role first, but he refused it (presumably to the relief of the filmmakers, as the Chairman of the Board was in his early 70s by then). Screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza rewrote the role into John McClane, a younger, active NYPD detective, in California to see his estranged wife at her office Christmas party (he’s visiting his daughter in the book) when the high-rise is taken over by terrorists. Producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver hired John McTiernan, who’d helmed their action smash Predator the previous year, to direct.

McTiernan told Variety he pushed to “lighten it up,” transforming the sincere political concerns of the book’s Gruber into a cover for a heist: “I liked the idea of imagining what would happen when one of those Baader-Meinhof types got tired of fighting his and others’ political battles and decided to show them what a criminal is.” Principal photography commenced on November 2, 1987 — with the studio’s own Fox Plaza doubling for the film’s Nakatomi Plaza, supplemented by shoots on Stage 15 of their Century City lot — and wrapped the following March, a scant four months before the scheduled summer release.

As that date neared, Fox began to sweat its $5 million investment. The New York Times summer preview predicted Die Hard’s trio of action competitors (Stallone’s Rambo III, Schwarzenegger’s Red Heat, and Eastwood’s The Dead Pool) were “likely to succeed,” while asking if Willis was “enough of a movie star to carry the film.” Later that summer, the paper reported that anticipation on the movie was soft, and surveyed moviegoers “had no interest in seeing him dart around a skyscraper shooting terrorists.” (Newsweek’s David Ansen was more direct, calling Willis “the most unpopular actor ever to get $5 million for making a movie.”) Hedging their considerable bet a bit, Fox’s marketing department placed the exploding building front and center in the original ads and poster, and downplayed their star in the final prerelease trailer.

Lucky for Fox, when audiences saw the movie, they liked it. Reactions at previews were off the charts, and word of mouth was so strong that even though it opened wide in a softish third place with $7 million, it stayed in the top five for an astonishing ten weeks, only dropping into sixth place that October. The Times summer box-office wrap-up cited its success as proof “the action film genre is not dead” (while dismissing the underperforming Rambo III as “a major disappointment,” and not mentioning the Schwarzenegger and Eastwood films at all). Die Hard finished its theatrical run with $83 million domestic and another $57 million worldwide — an excellent return on investment for not only Willis’s paycheck but the overall $28 million cost — and continued to over-perform on home video. When its sequel hit theaters two summers later, it out-grossed the original.

So what made it stick? Two weeks into its release, the Times’ Vincent Canby filed a boilerplate dismissal, claiming it was “not a film for children, nor is it a film for adults. Instead it’s a movie for that new, true-blue American of the electronic age, the kidult, who may be 8, 18, 38 or 80.” It’s not that Canby was wrong, necessarily, but that Die Hard wasn’t particularly emblematic of what we now deem a “four-quadrant” release, nor was it any more of a marker in the takeover of the event movie than a Jaws or Star Wars (or any of the lesser action films of the era — I’m looking at you, Top Gun).

To the contrary, it seems abundantly clear that audiences were not solely engaged by the picture’s “mindless thrills.” Sure, it’s a high-body-count shoot-’em-up, packed with effects and action setpieces. But it’s also shrewdly plotted (particularly in matters of assumptions and appearances) and cleverly constructed (the fire-hose building leap is exciting because it’s so intricate), and the audience has a far more human, sympathetic protagonist than in the typical, machine-made ’80s action flick. And that’s where Willis’s value lay. “For the project to work, you have to feel that the character might not make it,” explained producer Larry Gordon, “and Bruce is more Everyman than most of your major stars.”

It wasn’t just his roughneck, regular-guy-from-Jersey persona. Die Hard is rightly situated as a visceral experience because John McClane becomes such a direct surrogate for the audience; it becomes a “what would you do” scenario, and an exercise in improvisation. This was part of the ingenuity of Stuart and de Souza’s screenplay adaptation — in Nothing Lasts Forever, Joe Leland is a contracted security expert with a specialty in international terrorism, so his actions are informed by his knowledge, research, and on-the-ground experience (he even knows Gruber’s background and bio already). John McClane is a street cop, flying through this thing by the seat of his pants, just like we would.

And to that end, Willis conveys a vulnerability that was far from the norm. One of the most painful details in Die Hard is the damage inflicted upon McClane’s bare feet, which become his rather literal Achilles’ heel, particularly after Gruber instructs his minions to “shoot out the glass,” which renders McClane cut and bloodied for the rest of his long night. The simple scene of McClane sitting on the bathroom sink, painfully digging shards of glass out of the soles of his hooves, is played not as the kind of badass self-surgery you’d see in a Rambo movie, but as a moment of wince-inducing pain — yet another sly ploy to up our rooting interest in the protagonist.

Willis knew what he was doing. “We spent a lot of work on making John McClane a vulnerable, ordinary guy,” he told the New York Post’s Frank Lovece in a prerelease interview. “People know someone like him — he’s not some superhero, some Rambo. He’s tired and he feels pain and he’s afraid.” (That’s part of why the later sequels fail so spectacularly: By the time McClane is single-handedly taking down a fucking jet in Live Free or Die Hard, he’s become just another action superhero.)

Die Hard marked the beginning of an era for the action movie — specifically, the era of “Die Hard on a [location or mode of transportation] movie.” There was its own sequel (airport), Speed (bus), Under Siege (battleship), Under Siege 2 (train), Passenger 57 (plane), and this very week, in a bit of inevitable circularity, Skyscraper (back to a building). But the beginning of one era is also the end of another, and Willis’s Rambo name-check was purposeful; with upstart Willis outperforming the new Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies that summer of ’88, it was clear that the days of the action superman were numbered. They were Reagan-era heroes, and Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, once a man of high ideals, now motivated solely by greed, was unquestionably a Reagan-era villain.

“All those heroes who once stood for certainty, fearlessness and unwavering confidence have been swept away, their statues toppled,” wrote Adam Sternbergh in The New York Times Magazine. “And the one still standing is the one who represents fear, anxiety, frustration, uncertainty and, despite it all, irrational hope. This is a jittery world, and increasingly so, and complex beyond understanding, and at times it all seems stitched together by the barest of threads, and this feeling only gets worse as you get older.” The 1980s may have been the last time we, as a country, managed to convince anybody that we were infallible and indestructible. It was bullshit, and most of us knew it. And we’ve spent a lot of time since then digging the shards of glass out of our feet.

How Die Hard Changed the Action Game