Could ‘Die Hard’ Get Made Today?
Could It Get Made Today? is an occasional column where we look at a classic film and consider how changes in technology and tastes would impact it if it was shot in 2020. Today’s subject: The 1988 “Die Hard in a skyscraper” action thriller, Die Hard.
Movie: Die Hard
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
Release Date: July 15, 1988
Synopsis: New York City cop John McClane (Willis) arrives in Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bedelia) and their two children. He arrives at her office’s holiday party right as it’s invaded by a group of European terrorists, led by the cunning Hans Gruber (Rickman). Trapped inside the building with the terrorists, McClane must rescue Holly, find some way to get word to the police, and ultimately defeat the bad guys.
Could It Get Made Today?
Not without a lot of rewriting. I don’t think of Die Hard as an “old movie,” but it’s carefully constructed plot (which was loosely based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever) hinges on a communication blackout inside Nakatomi Plaza that would be all but impossible with 2020 technology. In the film, Hans and his goons storm the Nakatomi building and round up all the attendees of the office Christmas party. (The rest of the building is empty, we’re told, because all the other tenants have gone home early for the holiday.) Hans’ plan hinges on no one noticing what’s happened while he breaks into the Nakatomi vault and steals hundreds of millions of dollars in bearer bonds.
John McClane manages to sneak away from the terrorists, and he roams the nearby floors looking for some way to contact the police — but Hans’ men have cut the building’s phone lines. In 2020, McClane would obviously just use a cell phone. (Although later movies depicted McClane as a technophobe, there’s no chance in 2020 he wouldn’t have some kind of mobile device.) Later, McClane gets his hands on one of the terrorists’ radios, and then there’s a lot of plotting about using them to call 911, to talk to Hans, for Hans to talk to McClane, and so on.
Similarly, all those Nakatomi hostages would have phones as well, and they’d be tweeting and Instagramming up a storm while all this was happening. A 2020 Die Hard would have to invent some explanation to get rid of all those devices. Maybe the terrorists collect them all, or maybe they have some kind of fancy gadget that blocks wifi and cell phone signals. (Even as I write these things I’m rolling my eyes, which is a pretty good indication of how tough it would be to make this premise work today.)
One of Die Hard’s most suspenseful subplots involves Holly’s relationship to John. As McClane begins to disrupt Hans’ plans, he keeps his identity a secret; even after Hans learns that his adversary is named John McClane, he doesn’t realize that McClane’s wife is one of the hostages because Holly uses her maiden name at work. Hans only figures the whole puzzle out after a sleazy reporter (William Atherton) interviews John and Holly’s young children on live TV. John’s identity and connection to Holly is a great slow burn in 1988, but it’s hard to imagine that information would remain hidden for long in a world with the internet. Hans or his tech guru could probably figure this all out in a matter of seconds with a little Googling.
Another element of Die Hard that would absolutely not make the transition to a modern version is the tragic backstory given to Sgt. Al Powell, the police officer who investigates reports of problems at Nakatomi Plaza and winds up becoming the LAPD’s conduit to McClane. During one of their long conversations over CB radio, Powell reveals he works a desk job because years earlier he’d accidentally shot a child after mistaking their toy gun for the real thing. Ever since then, Powell’s been unable to use his service revolver — at least until Die Hard’s final scene, where Powell rises to the occasion and kills the final surviving member of Hans’ gang in order to protect John and Holly.
It’s a plausible and compelling detail for a police officer character, and it gives a satisfying emotional arc to one of the film’s supporting characters. But given all the attention on police misconduct in the last year, it seems flat-out impossible that any modern movie would treat an officer shooting an innocent kid as a character flaw that he needs to “overcome” in order to become a hero.
(Speaking of guns, John McClane also brings his service weapon on his flight to Los Angeles. His neighbor on the plane spots it poking out from underneath his jacket and freaks out, until McClane reassures him that he’s a police officer. It’s a minor detail, but it serves as a reminder of how much airport security has changed in the last 30 years. In modern Die Hard, McClane would have to check that gun.)
McClane’s arrival in Los Angeles is treated like the ’80s equivalent of a lawman arriving in a new frontier town in a old Western, and Die Hard is littered throughout with references to Western movies and heroes; Hans compares McClane to John Wayne, who responds that he was “always partial to Roy Rodgers.” After that, Al starts calling McClane “Roy” during their radio conversations.
When Die Hard was made in 1988, Rogers was only about 30 years removed from his box-office heyday. Odds are a lot of younger audiences in 2020 have never even heard of Roy Rogers. (Even the Roy Rogers fast-food restaurants are almost entirely extinct at this point.) If you made Die Hard today, and Hans had a version of his line about how Americans are “orphans of a bankrupt culture” who “saw too many movies as a child,” the movies he’d be talking about wouldn’t be Westerns. They’d be Die Hard and all its knockoffs.
Gallery — Little Details You Never Noticed in Die Hard With a Vengeance: