Every film is both a product of its environment, and a rebellion against it. Artists (and audiences) search for something new and fresh, but cannot escape the world as it exists around them. Die Hard is no exception. While Die Hard is often marked as a turning point in American action cinema, we must first look at the state of action cinema as it existed before 1988. What does a “typical” 80s action movie look like? What artistic and societal pressures shaped that mold? And in what ways does Die Hard break it?

As we kick off this limited series, let us know what you think! Drop us a line at diehardwithapodcast@gmail.com, or visit our site at www.diehardwithapodcast.com


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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to the podcast, pal.

My name is Simone Chavoor, and thank you for joining me for Die Hard With a Podcast! The show that examines the best American action movie of all time: Die Hard.

Thank you to everyone who listened to the first episode of the show! It’s been so fun to get this podcast off the ground. Everyone’s been really awesome and supportive, from the listeners to the experts I’ve been talking to for the show. Starting in this episode, we’ll hear from filmmakers, film critics, and pop culture writers to get their perspectives on Die Hard and what it means as a part of film history. I’m excited to introduce them to you later in the show.

If you want to share your thoughts on Die Hard and the things brought up on the podcast, reach out!

I’ve been trying to post lots of additional photos and facts to the social media accounts in particular. My favorite so far was a Dungeons and Dragons character alignment chart I made for Die Hard. McClane is Chaotic Good, Al Powell is Lawful Good… You’ll have to visit the pages to see the rest of who’s who on the chart.

And if you like this show, kick me a buck or two on Patreon. Patreon helps to offset the cost of doing this show, not just in pure dollars and cents, but for the sheer amount of time this podcast takes to put together. This is my first solo project, and although I have the wonderful, amazing support of my guests and fans, it still takes a lot of time researching, writing, recording, and editing.

There are some cool bonuses you can get, everything from shout outs on the show, to stickers, ornaments, and the bonus episode – which is TBD, because you get to vote on! So check that out, and pitch in if you can.

Shout out to our contributors… Rob T, Jason H, and Saint Even! I hope I’m saying that right. Anyone who’s listened to my other podcast knows that I can’t pronounce half the names I come across. It’s amazing how good you think you are at pronouncing things until you get in front of a mic… Thank you so much!

You can also support Die Hard With a Podcast by leaving a review on iTunes. With more starred ratings and written reviews, the show becomes more visible to other potential listeners, so please share the love and let me know what you think!

All right. On to our main topic.

Every film is both a product of its environment, and a rebellion against it. Artists (and audiences) search for something new and fresh, but cannot escape the world as it exists around them. Die Hard is no exception. While Die Hard is often marked as a turning point in American action cinema, we must first look at the state of action cinema as it existed before 1988. What does a “typical” 80s action movie look like? What artistic and societal pressures shaped that mold? And in what ways does Die Hard break it?

But before we talk about 80s films, let’s talk about… 70s films.

70s cinema was a time when shit started to get real. After years of glossy studio pictures, filmmakers wanted to show things as they really were. And with Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, rising crime in cities, and so much more, things were… fucked up. And the movies made then reflected that. They were dark, pessimistic, gritty, bleak. No happy endings to be found here. Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver are two of the most 70s-ish depressing-ass movies that I like to point out as an example of this.


With that mood in mind, let’s drill down into some specifics.


I’m Ed Grabianowski, and I am a longtime writer; I’ve written for sites like io9 and How Stuff Works and a whole bunch of others, and I also write horror and fantasy fiction.

If you go back to the 70s, there weren’t really movies in the 70s that were just like action movies, like that you would just define as action movies, to the extent there were later. You instead got sort of different sub-genres; you had sort of like cops and robbers movies with gunfights and car chases, and then you had like martial arts movies with lots of fist fights and sword fights.

Within this general movement, a few particular genres stand out. There was a lot going on in 70s film as the studios’ creative control was usurped by a new wave of auteur filmmakers. Now of course, there were lots of popular genres in this moment, all important in their own ways, like science fiction, horror, spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation films, kung-fu movies. You can see some through lines from then, to the 80s, and into Die Hard in particular.

But for our discussion today, we’re going to focus on three: disaster movies, paranoid political thrillers, and rogue cops and vigilantes.

Let’s start with disaster movies.


And then you had the disaster movie subgenre, which was a huge trend for a while, and that was more based on spectacle and the visuals of a disaster happening. And also interestingly tended to be more ensemble casts.

After all, As we discussed in our first episode, Die Hard was directly inspired by one of the best-known disaster movies of the 70s: 1974’s The Towering Inferno. These movies featured people going about their business – attending a party, trying to catch a flight, taking a nice little cruise. Then BAM! A fire starts, a bomb goes off, a tsunami hits. These disasters, some natural, some natural-with-the-help-of-man’s-hubris, and some entirely man-made strike large groups of people, who we quickly learn are totally expendable. We follow these thinly written characters in multiple plot lines as they try to escape, survive, or stop whatever calamity is going on. In the process, the audience gets to experience their peril… which usually includes a bunch of explosions.

The Towering Inferno boasts an all-star cast that includes Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and Fred Astaire. Our main characters are at a dedication ceremony for the new Glass Tower, the now-tallest building in the world. (As an aside, I work quite close to Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, which is currently the tallest building in San Francisco and the second-tallest west of the Mississippi. The fictional Glass Tower in the movie is taller than both of those by 500 feet. And every time I look at it I think about either The Towering Inferno or Nakatomi Tower, and neither of those are things you want to think about on your lunch break.)

While at the ceremony, a fire breaks out on the 81st floor, trapping the people above. A group makes it to the roof for an attempted helicopter rescue, but the copter crashes and sets the roof on fire. After many thwarted attempts to escape, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman use plastic explosives to blow up the water tanks on the top of the building, flooding the floors below and putting out the fire.


It’s easy to see how novelist Roderick Thorp could see that movie, dream about it, throw in some terrorists, and come up with the seed of Die Hard.

As the Watergate scandal unfolded, the paranoid political thriller came to the fore. We’re talking Three Days of the Condor, Parallax View, and obviously All the President’s Men. These are films mostly centered on an individual uncovering a government conspiracy, and trying to either expose it or just escape with their life. But, fitting with the general mood of American cinema at the time, things usually don’t work out too well for the protagonists. Spoiler alert – in these films, usually the big bad government conspiracy gets away with it, leaving the heroes either dead or defeated. The individual, no matter what knowledge they’re armed with, is helpless against the faceless cabal that keeps the populace in line. To put it bluntly, the government is all-powerful and all-knowing, and you, the lone citizen, are fucked if you go against them.


The final 70s genre we’re looking at as a direct influence to Die Hard is the “rogue cop” or “vigilante” movie. The protagonists in these films are also lone individuals, but of a different stripe than what we’ll see later: they’re the anti-heroes. They’re deeply messed up in some way. They’re the cop who doesn’t play by the rules, or the everyman who gets pushed too far by society and turns to violence. Death Wish, Dirty Harry, The French Connection. These movies manifest the existential dread of audiences who feared social upheaval, economic instability, and rising crime in cities. And then they offer the wish fulfillment of being able to buck the rules and do things your way – no matter what the police chief says.


As Ed pointed out earlier, the 70s didn’t have what we consider a blanket “action movie” – as you can see, the genres we just talked about had action in them, but it wasn’t the defining characteristic of the movie. If the word “action” was used to describe a movie in generic terms at all, it was usually paired with the word “adventure” to convey something more fantastic and epic. But moreover, the action in these films was, well… kind of a bummer. Violence and destruction were used to emphasize the more troubling aspects of our society. Even if these scenes were exciting, they were heavy. They were serious.

So what tipped these old genres over into a new kind of film at the start of the decade?


It just sort of happened. There’s – yes, people – there’s this sort of gestalt like, let’s take elements of all these things and make something that just embodies all of that. And that became the action movie.

Audiences were transforming from Steven and Elyse Keatons into Alex P. Keatons. But in addition to a transition from Carter and the recession to Reagan and a “greed is good” economy, the film industry in particular had new pressures and opportunities that ushered in a new era of filmmaking. David Bordwell, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, sums it up: “With the new attractiveness of the global market, the demands of home video, and increasingly sophisticated special effects, the 1980s brought the really violent action movie into its own.”

Bordwell amusingly closes his exploration of 80s action movies with one, lone sentence: “I save for last the obligatory mention of Die Hard, the Jaws of the 1980s: a perfectly engineered entertainment.” Guess that statement stands on its own…

The writer of Die Hard and Commando, Steven De Souza, expands on Bordwell’s point about the global market. He says, “I would argue that the genre of an ‘action movie’ is a completely false creature. There is no such thing as an action movie. All movies have action. ‘Action movie’ is a term that was invented in the ‘80s. I think Commando may have been the first one in 1985. They noticed for the first time that a handful of American movies were making more money overseas than in America. This had never happened before. Commando made 60% of its money overseas and 40% in the US. Action speaks louder than words. You don’t need to read the subtitles to know it was a bad idea to kidnap Arnold Schwarzenegger’s little girl. I disagree with the idea that there is such thing as an action movie, but we are stuck with that term now.”

Well, if we’re stuck with that term, let’s go with it. So: what makes an action movie?

In the 80s, “physical action and violence [became] the organizing principle, from the plot, to the dialogue, to the casting.” That’s according to academic reference site Oxford Bibliographies.

Picture your typical action movie poster. There’s probably some kind of aircraft or ship or ground vehicle, maybe a hot lady kinda small and in the corner there… there’s definitely a bunch of fire… And standing tall in the middle, our hero. And he’s probably holding a gun.

The lone hero is one of the defining characteristics of what we think of the stereotypical action movie. But he – and it’s almost always a “he” – is different than our “rogue cop” of the 1970s. The 80s action star was a one-man army, alone more powerful than the hordes of henchman thrown up against him. Our hero might have a sidekick or lead a small team, but in the end they’re either ineffectual and/or expendable – by the end of the film, it’s our protagonist who takes down the bad guy by himself.

The action hero inhabits his body, not his mind. His powers come from physical strength (and firepower) instead of cleverness. I mean, when we meet Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, we see multiple shots of his biceps before we even see his face. As IndieWire put it, the heroes are “obscenely pumped-up one-man fighting machine[s]… outrageously entertaining comic-book depictions of outsized masculinity.”


My name is Adam Sternbergh. I’m a novelist and a contributing editor to New York Magazine and a pop culture journalist.

80s action films, as we think of them now, they’re very excessive, they’re all about a sort of oversized machismo and enormous guns and enormous muscles and enormous explosions. Which was very exhilarating, but I think even by the time Die Hard came out, was starting to feel a little bit tired, and there was a hunger for action film fans – certainly myself, I would have been about seventeen or eighteen, for something a little bit different.


My name is Scott Wampler, I’m the news editor at Birth. Movies. Death. I’m also the host of the Trying Times podcast.

The first word that’s coming to mind is “sweaty.” When I think of action movies in the 80s I think of, you know, dudes that are super cut up, they look like condoms filled with walnuts, and they’re always glistening with sweat. And usually there’s a dirty tank top involved, or maybe some camo pants.


My name is Shannon Hubbell, I’m editor-in-chief of LewtonBus.net.

I’d say action films of the 80s – I mean, it’s obviously dominated by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and so a lot of the larger action films are centered around big, burly, unstoppable killing machines. Just barely human. Other than Terminator, that kinda thing doesn’t yank my chain. But also, you have things like, say, Escape from New York – smaller fare, different types of heroes, anti-heroes, instead of just hulking, machine-gun-spraying douchebags.

Matrix and Dutch, Rambo and Cobra – these guys were far from helpless. Once pulled into a conflict by circumstance, our hero is unstoppable. It’s a reclaiming of agency that had been taken away by faceless forces in the 70s.

Our heroes’ incredible power is just that: incredible. I know this might be shocking news to you, but a lot of these 80s action movies are… unrealistic. After all, in Predator, Arnold escapes a thermo-nuclear explosion by just… running away. These guys are superheroes pretending to be regular dudes. Comic book movies weren’t so much a thing yet, although we did have that platonic ideal of a superhero – Superman – appear onscreen in ‘78, ‘81, ‘83, and ‘87.

But invulnerability is okay. That’s part of the appeal. We want the heroes that fight for truth, justice, and the American way to be assured of victory. This leads into another characteristic of 80s action: patriotism.

Now, of course, not all of our protagonists are American. Arnold definitely does not – er… can not – try to pass for an American, and neither can Jean Claude Van Damme. But most of our protagonists are not only American, but working-class, everymen Americans who are just trying to get by with an honest day’s work. Sometimes that honest day’s work involves special forces missions, but you know what I mean.

Adam Sternbergh explains.


There was a sort of parallel ascent of the John Rambo paradigm, and Ronald Reagan. And Reagan was quite open about making references to Rambo, and I think Reagan at one point quoted the Dirty Harry line, “Make my day.” And there was a real sense in American culture that post the 1970s, post Jimmy Carter, post this national ennui or whatever people decided had overtaken the country, that America was being proud of being America again, and part of that was watching movies in which American POWs blow entire countries. And in fact the third Rambo movie is just sort of a ridiculous patriotism porn where he goes to Afghanistan and essentially single-handedly defeats the Russian Army in Afghanistan. That kind of action movie, I think if you look at it in a historical, sociological context, it made perfect sense for the national mood.


In other words, if America was in fact a shining city on a hill, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Carl Weathers were there to guard its walls.

Finally, the hallmark of an action movie is all the… [CLIP: GUNSHOTS, EXPLOSIONS]

If you’re having a celebration of American masculinity and strength, what else are you gonna do but blow shit up? There was certainly a fetishization of weapons in the preceding decade. Robert Blake’s character Beretta shared his name with that of a gun manufacturer, and Dirty Harry gives a whole soliloquy about his .45 Magnum. But the films that followed had to be bigger. Louder. If the 70s were the decade of the handgun, the 80s were the decade of the automatic weapon.


General explosions were also bigger and better, due to improved special effects technologies. The disaster movie of course had terrific destruction, but the buildings getting blown up were more obviously flimsy sets, if not just miniatures.

And to me, the differentiating factor that separates 70s action from 80s action, was that 80s violence and destruction was… celebratory. It was fun. It was generally free of consequence. Our hero can’t die, remember? And the bad guys he’s blowing away are largely faceless cartoon characters, a dime a dozen. It was perfectly okay to sit in a theater and shove popcorn in your mouth while large-scale mayhem unfolded before your eyes.

With these definitions in place, let’s go back and tick off the action movie characteristics that Die Hard shares.

Lone hero? Check. John McClane is almost totally alone, with only a walkie-talkie as a tether to the outside world. The LAPD and FBI are ostensibly on his side, but they’re certainly not working with him. John must face a whole gang of terrorists by himself to rescue his wife. We’re confident that he’ll achieve his goal, even if things look dicey sometimes.


I mean, Die Hard was similar in the sense that it featured a sort of lone, male protagonist who’s battling against the odds, and if faced with a sort of intractable situation where he’s trying to fight his way out using his brains and brawn. An interesting parallel is the movie Commando, which came out just a couple years earlier with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he basically has 24 or 48 hours save his daughter from these evil military types. And he goes about breaking everyone’s neck and shooting a bunch of people and blowing things up, and spoiler: he saves the daughter at the end. And so in that sense, Die Hard was sort of a very familiar setup. It obviously was kind of ingenious setup because it launched its own mini-genre of movies, which was the “Die Hard in a blankity-blank movie.”

Physical prowess? Mmm, not as much. John McClane isn’t in bad shape, not at all. He’s a cop, he can brawl. But he’s not one of those guys with “gleaming sweat [and] bulging muscles that couldn’t possibly exist without chemical enhancement… A bodybuilder’s fever dream, the sort of thing he might imagine after doing a mountain of blow and watching nothing but early MTV for 48 hours,” as the AV Club puts it.


Everything else was moving in that direction, toward more invulnerable, more muscular, more explosive. And then Die Hard came along and said, what if a real, normal guy found himself in this situation? What would he do, and how would he prevail?

Bruce Willis’s embodiment of a wisecracking cop caught in an extraordinary situation was a key factor in John McClane’s believability.


On paper, just like describing Die Hard to someone, you can totally imagine Schwarzenegger playing that role, or Stallone playing that role. It’s the details and execution that makes it different. You have a character who is fallible, and hurtable and emotionally vulnerable, which is not something that comes across in a paragraph synopsis of Die Hard.

John is a pretty regular guy. He gets tired, he gets hurt. In fact, his physical vulnerability in the original Die Hard is famous.



From the very beginning of the movie, when he takes his shoes off at the beginning of the movie, you know, he’s in bare feet, he’s incredibly vulnerable and there’s this real sense that he’s this regular guy, who, there’s no way he’s going to accomplish this. He doesn’t even seem to believe it at the beginning. And it makes it so much more satisfying at the end of the movie when he does; he’s bloodied and he’s broken and his feet are bleeding. And that was just so different from that kind of Rambo, Schwarzenegger paradigm that had been established that had been so successful.

When you watch an action movie, you get the thrill of watching a superman executing a perfect plan. But watching a normal guy making it up as he goes along in Die Hard, you start to wonder – what would I do in this situation?

We’ll get more into McClane’s physical and emotional vulnerability in our next episode.

Patriotism? Die Hard isn’t an explicitly jingoistic film. There aren’t American flags waving as soldiers fight to defend American values. But we do have John, a white, heterosexual, working-class dude as our hero. See, not only is John representative of the American way of life, he also reflects a tension between classes within America, as well as in relationship to other world powers. Our bad guys are an International House of Terrorists, including what Ellis calls…



I think there’s definitely some quintessential American ideas of class in the movie, and it’s not a mistake that the terrorists are not just Europeans but they’re all wearing turtlenecks and sort of beautiful European clothes and then there is a whole conversation in the elevator between Hans and Mr. Takagi about their suits and their respective tailors. And John McClane’s just a guy with a singlet on, running around like Johnny Lunchbucket. And I think at that particular moment in American history, that was a very resonant idea, again because there was this sense of America’s influence in the world being undermined – in particular by Japan, but just in general. American industry and this sort of notion of the blue-collar American economy was faltering in coming out of the 1970s. There was a sense that that was changing. So McClane is interesting, and I wonder if you made Die Hard now, if he would still be a New York cop, or if they would try to make him even more of a kind of heartland hero.

The Nakatomi Corporation represents a very real American fear in the 80s that the Japanese wouldn’t so much invade as they would conduct a hostile takeover.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker explains: “There’s another ethnic anxiety that the movie represents—the film is centered on the Nakatomi Corporation, headed by a Japanese-American man named Joseph Takagi, which is an emblem of the then widely stoked fear that Japanese high-tech businesses were threatening to dominate the American economy.”

At the time, the Japanese economy was booming thanks to post-World War II reconstruction and a strong manufacturing industry. Japanese corporations began buying American companies, starting with car factories, steel works, and media companies – industries that are held as quintessentially American.



It also has interesting strains of things that were happening in politics at the time, you know, the whole idea of a Japanese corporation that’s come to America and is a powerful corporation, and then the American inevitably has to save them. There’s a little mini-genre of 80s-era films that were sort of about America’s anxiety about Japan’s rising influence in the world. So I think a little bit of that is in Die Hard. You know, this sort of twist of having the terrorists be political terrorists who just turn out to be greedy robbers, was a little bit of a wink at the notion that all the other movies were about politics.

As Adam points out, American fear of this so-called threat can be seen in more than just Die Hard. 1986’s Gung Ho is specifically about a Japanese company buying Michael Keaton’s character’s auto plant. The Back to the Future series (which kicked off in 1985) also has a few telling moments.



In Die Hard, Nakatomi is positioned as not just another Japanese mega-corporation with more money than they know what to do with, but it’s also the company that is threatening to take Holly away from John.

Okay, onto our last action movie qualifier: [CLIP: GUNSHOTS, EXPLOSIONS]

Welp, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Die Hard has big explosions and over-the-top stunts. Lots of ‘em – and really good ones, too. They’re well choreographed and a pleasure to watch.

Plus, they keep their own sense of fun. Having your hero dispatch a bad guy and follow it with a quippy remark is a classic action movie cliche.


But the difference is that Bruce Willis has the comedy acting chops to actually pull it off. Look, Arnold’s great at a lot of things, but line delivery ain’t one of ‘em.


In the end, Die Hard is very much in the mold of traditional 80s action movies – and where it breaks that mold, is where it improves upon it. Hollywood’s been trying to recapture that magic ever since.


I would say that it probably broke a general mold that had a hold on Hollywood for at least a decade. Outside of the work of say, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, who – you know, Schwarzenegger did a lot of sci-fi stuff, and Stallone – Stallone’s always been pretty ‘oo-rah American.’ But I think Hollywood as a whole, it definitely reformed the template, you know? There were shock waves coming off of Die Hard for at least a decade. You can still feel them.


I remember sitting in the theater and watching the movie and just being completely blown away by how great it was and how fresh it felt. That is really the thing I wonder if people watching it now can appreciate, is just how it felt like this gust of fresh air, given all the films that had come before. And those action films again, they were all tightly packed in in just like six or seven years in the 80s. It was a very sort of young genre itself. But this kinda came in and it was just a complete reinvention of what an action film could be, and John McClane was a completely different kind of hero, and it was so exhilarating.

The elevated craft of Die Hard, from the airtight script to McTiernan’s direction to De Bont’s cinematography, to the performances of Willis and Rickman, took what could have been an unremarkable summer flick and turned it into a classic.


My name’s Katie Walsh. I am a film critic for the Tribune News Service and LA Times.

You know, you see enough bad action movies, and then you watch Die Hard, and you’re like, “This is so impeccably made.” The cinematography is gorgeous, there’s these amazing camera movements, and the lighting and all of the stuff that’s going on is just so perfect. And then you’re like, “Okay, this is a perfect movie.” I think cinephiles now are saying John McTiernan’s an amazing director, Jan De Bont is an amazing cinematographer, the craft that goes into this movie is impeccable, and it’s a very well-made movie; I think people are recognizing that.

In our next episode, we’ll dig in to arguably the most important contributor to Die Hard’s success: the character of John McClane, and Bruce Willis’s portrayal of him. So get ready, take off your shoes, make some fists with your toes, and join us next time.

Thank you to our guests Adam Sternbergh, Scott Wampler, Shannon Hubbell, Ed Grabionowski, and Katie Walsh. Be sure to check the show notes on the website to learn more about them.

Thanks again for joining me, and yippee-kai-yay, motherfuckers!