Viewing 'Die Hard' from 30 years on, it's hard to separate Bruce Willis' subsequent career from it and how it's been changed by it.
In 1988, Willis was known primarily as a TV actor and the comedic foil to Cybil Shepherd in 'Moonlighting'. Willis was eager to break into movies and 'Die Hard' was the ticket for him. He'd play a straightforward New York cop, in town in Los Angeles to try and patch up his marriage, and finds himself in the middle of a terrorist plot to take over a high-rise office block populated by Reaganite yuppies. The genus of 'Die Hard', of course, was completely different. Complex contractual negotiations for the source novel, 'Nothing Lasts Forever', meant that Frank Sinatra had to be offered the lead role first. He was 73 at the time.
Alan Rickman, meanwhile, was an unknown entity. His career, up until 'Die Hard, was relatively confined to roles in BBC dramas such as 'The Barchester Chronicles' and extensive stage work, claiming a Tony Award nomination for his performance in 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' where he played Vicomte de Valmont, an oily French aristocrat whose debonaire and wit charmed audiences with ease. By all accounts, Rickman was not the likely choice to play a European terrorist and he felt much the same as anyone else. Indeed, Rickman stated in a press interview for 'Die Hard' that his acting colleagues had to convince him to take the role - as it was so rare for an actor to be offered a Hollywood production so early in their career.
Bonnie Bedelia, who played McClane's estranged wife, was a seasoned actor by the time 'Die Hard' came along and was known for playing tough, resourceful women. 'Heart Like A Wheel', where she played the first female drag-racing champion Shirley Muldowney, won her a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts. Reginald Veljohnson and Paul Gleason, who played Officer Al Powell and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, were both jobbing television actors - Gleason, in particular, had starred in everything from 'Miami Vice' to 'Magnum PI' and 'All My Children' and 'Hill Street Blues'. Alexander Godunov, however, who played Karl was a recently-defected ballet dancer from the Soviet Union - and was spotted by director John McTiernan for his grace and efficiency in movement.
Although it was positioned in the summer months, 'Die Hard' has since become synonymous with Christmas and the balmy Californian weather played beautifully with the cinematography and McClane's own reluctance to be there. The fact that he keeps repeating "...f*ckin' California..." in the opening credits tells you all you need to know about him - not only is he a fish-out-of-water, but he's utterly unimpressed by Los Angeles and what it has to offer. The mere fact that he's riding up front with Argyle the limousine driver tells us that he's a blue-collar New Yorker who's painfully out of step with the pushy, yuppie-friendly surroundings. He doesn't even want to stay with his wife, instead preferring to stay with a fellow New Yorker out in Pomona.
All this is layering the fact that 'Die Hard' instinctively puts audience expectations on the back foot. McClane doesn't know where he's going in the airport, he's awkwardly shuffling around the Christmas party, and when the terrorists turn up, he's caught without shoes and runs to try and find help rather than dive in with guns blazing like audiences expected from action heroes back then. He's got one handgun, no shoes and he doesn't even have a shirt. When he finally catches a terrorist off-guard, he has to fight dirty and use sneaky tactics in order to win. In fact, he only kills Tony by accident when he falls down the flight of stairs and breaks his neck by accident - a fact he later uses to taunt his brother, Karl, with when they fight later on.
Again, you have to see it context - in the '80s, action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone were muscle-bound killing machines who blew through non-descript enemies with relative ease. Here, you had a wickedly smart, expensively dressed group of Europeans led by a fiendishly charming suit who quotes Plutarch and reads Forbes - fighting a chain-smoking cop who's caught off-guard in a state of undress and isn't afraid to break any and every rule in order to survive. The odds are so clearly stacked against his survival that - back then, of course - there was every reason to suspect that he'd die before the end of the film. Even the title was suggestive of his fate.
In a lot of ways, what's made 'Die Hard' stand the test of time is the depleting returns of the sequel. With 'Die Hard 2' and 'Die Hard With A Vengenace', it stretched the premise further and further until it snapped. '...With A Vengeance', with returning director John McTiernan, played out the same beats as 'Die Hard' but on a much larger scale. It still holds up and one could argue it was the better sequel than 'Die Hard 2', but the fact that these two are lesser than 'Die Hard' has kept its legacy intact. McClane's quips were never sharper, the action was never more tightly wound, and the humour was never more black than it was here.
30 years on, 'Die Hard' still holds up as a masterclass in efficient storytelling with a compelling pace and tone. It's fun, but not comical. It's action, but it's not ridiculous. It's everything that the latter sequels aren't, and it's become the byword for for high-rise action.