It is currently being reported that legendary actor Bruce Willis is retiring from the movie business due to a diagnosis of aphasia, a disorder affecting his cognitive and communicative abilities. This is a tragedy on multiple levels. Bruce Willis is one of the true movie stars of the ages, an actor who could work in every genre imaginable without ever losing the core element that made him, him. It is a tragedy that we will not get to see more films that he could have made as he gracefully grew older, rather than the recent slew of direct-to-DVD movies that seem more understandable when seen through the lens of him picking up quick moneymakers before unfortunate retirement. And more than anything, it is tragic for Willis as a human being to be suffering this way and being unable to continue in the field where he has accomplished so much. But keeping in mind that fantastic body of work, we are going to examine the best Bruce Willis movie: 1988’s Die Hard. It is currently available to stream on HBO Max, which you should be doing, because it is simply one of the best films ever made.
That might be a strong stance to take, but it is not hyperbole. Die Hard is one of the cornerstones of the action genre, and essentially created a subgenre of its own, which can be called “Die Hard in a…” Think about it: Speed? Die Hard on a bus. Under Siege? Die Hard on a boat? Air Force One? Die Hard on a plane, Mr. President. As much as it codified a certain kind of action movie, it also created what we think of as a Bruce Willis movie. Prior to Die Hard, Willis was primarily known as a comedic actor. He had broken through on the ABC private detective series Moonlighting, where his contentious chemistry with co-star Cybill Shepherd had electrified audiences. Quite logically, his first forays into leading man film roles (while still on Moonlighting) were in the same arena. Willis starred in Blind Date and Sunset, both by Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s director Blake Edwards. But it was his role in Die Hard, as NYPD detective/mediocre husband John McClane that instantly made him a star.
Which is especially ironic, considering Die Hard was not supposed to be a Bruce Willis movie. Based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp (itself inspired by the hit film The Towering Inferno), Die Hard was offered to every Hollywood leading man from Sylvester Stallone to Harrison Ford to Clint Eastwood to uh, Richard Dean Anderson. Willis originally turned down the role due to conflicts with Moonlighting, and was able to accept because of a production hiatus due to Cybill Shepherd’s pregnancy. In 1988, the action genre was dominated by the likes of Lethal Weapon, Delta Force, and Rambo. In these movies, the hero is indestructible and troubled, often with a tragic, dramatic backstory. In Die Hard, John McClane is an essentially ordinary man caught up in a situation that he neither seeks out nor involves him. Like Indiana Jones before him, he gets beat and gets tired, but he’s not a brilliant professor and there’s no magic to be found. He’s literally just a guy.
Of course, it is not “just” a Bruce Willis movie. Die Hard was directed by John McTiernan, fresh off the success of the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring Predator. The screenplay was co-written by Jeb Stuart (who would go on to write The Fugitive and the current Netflix mega-hit Vikings: Valhalla) and Steven E. de Souza (who would reunite with Willis for the underrated oddball Hudson Hawk). It featured the screen debut of Alan Rickman, who would instantly create one of the best villains ever in the confident, smoothly malevolent Hans Gruber. It had Reginald VelJohnson, an accomplished theater actor who embodied the harassed, sympathetic working-class cop so well he has played variations on it for decades since.
But ultimately, Die Hard is the Bruce Willis movie. It established him as a star, and brought his unique blend of macho charisma, surprisingly sympathetic pathos, and wry, put-upon humor to the big screen. Willis has gone on to amazingly varied work in science fiction, black comedy, psychological horror, and the very specific genre known as Wes Anderson, but Die Hard will always be the movie that made him into the star he deserved to be. Thanks for it all, Bruce.