I’ve made some mentions of the Die Hard clone in recent months in reviews of Sudden Death, Olympus Has Fallen, and more. Now, just because you’re the first do something, or the one who sets the trend doesn’t always mean you did it best. However, in the case of John McTiernan’s blockbuster action film Die Hard, there is simply no equal. While I don’t list it as my number one favorite of all time, I cannot deny that this is likely the best action movie ever made, and there are a lot of qualities that go into making it that exceptionally awesome.
NYPD Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has come to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at her company’s holiday party. However, as he waits for the festivities to end, the entire building is taken over by a heavily armed team perceived as terrorists, but their sinister leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), reveals that his interest is purely in greed. As the hostages are rounded up, McClane slips away with only his service revolver and his cunning wits at his disposal. What begins as a perfectly planned crime quickly ignites into McClane waging a one man war to save everyone before they are all blown sky high.
There are many things that set Die Hard apart from everything else, but I think the biggest key of it are the characters. Beyond just the performances, this film takes its time to introduce them to you, and allow for their dynamics and personalities to play out before any of the action begins. This is mainly the development between John and Holly McClane. Their turbulent marriage is fleshed out in smart, subtle beats that never feel like exposition, just natural conversation. These are real, relatable people in a grounded reality with normal problems that are soon thrust into an extraordinary situation, and because we get to know these characters through levity and emotional conflict, we care greatly about them once peril befalls them. Even the villains are given their due time to feel fleshed out and dimensional such as how Hans Gruber discusses men’s suits, art, and culture with Takagi before threatening him with a gun for the password to his vault. These moments make Gruber an interesting and engaging villain who has a fairly equal amount of depth to John McClane. This way, it is also a battle of wits and personalities as much as it is a pure action conflict. This is so much due to the time director John McTiernan and his screenwriters took to slip those important character building moments into the film, and that makes it a greatly more substantive action film that you would regularly get in any decade.
Now, the 1980’s were filled with the larger than life, nigh indestructible action hero. Then, comes along John McClane. This guy who is as vulnerable as the rest of us that gets beaten up, his feet sliced up by glass, bleeds everywhere, feels fear, and gets progressively worse for wear as the film goes on. All the while, under the intense stress of a violent life or death scenario, he’s cracking wise with everyone left and right just doing what he can to cope and survive. Where a Rambo or John Matrix type would just burst in blazing a full arsenal to wipe out everyone, McClane has to be clever and cautious every step of the way against these extremely well-armed killers. All he has is his wits, and Bruce Willis’ well established comedic talents blended perfectly into the quick witted quips of McClane. I’m sure there was speculation abound leading up to this film’s release as to Willis’ ability to be an action hero because of doing so many comedies, but he was able to bring a completely unique identity to this role that is hard to match. While it is the wisecracks that we remember so much, the purely human moments of drama really sell this character as one that stands apart from so many others. Bruce Willis really shows that he could do the full spectrum of acting here as he leads this film with charisma, heart, and physical intensity. He brings a fresh dimension and grounded realism to McClane that makes him the beloved, very human, bad ass icon that we so love.
Just how McClane is a distinct departure from the action heroes of the day, Hans Gruber distinguishes himself from many of the over the top, cheesy villains of the 80’s. Alan Rickman is brilliant as Hans Gruber. What truly makes this so is that he’s not obvious at all. Gruber is a guy who is smart, charming, smooth, educated, and charismatic. Yet, he’s a calculated, clever, ruthless villain. You can see that Gruber had every single detail of this plan plotted out perfectly, and is able to outsmart and keep ahead of everyone except for the one wild card in his brilliant crime in John McClane. As much of an sociopathic, murderous villain as Gruber is, you can be thoroughly entertained by the charisma and intelligence Alan Rickman injects into him, but you still rejoice when McClane finally does him in.
A little unexpected humor arises from the less than sharp minded LAPD and FBI. Paul Gleason’s Chief Robinson is clearly in over his head exercising clear incompetence while thinking he’s got everything under control. Then, FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson, a joke in and of itself, are too full of themselves with their gung ho testosterone to be perceptive enough to know when they’re being played. Add in more competent, yet still funny characters like Argyle the limo driver and Theo, Hans’ charismatic safe cracker, you’ve got laughs for miles without damaging the serious integrity of the action and drama of the movie. This is seriously one of the most quotable action movies ever.
Yet, amidst all the explosive thrills and well-timed humor, we get the tether of humanity with Sergeant Al Powell. Reginald VelJohnson connects perfectly in this role bringing the tired, wounded, and alone McClane into contact with someone on the outside who can be a moral and emotional support. An action film is great when the thrills are exciting and bombastic, but you get something exceptional when this thread of humanity is so strongly in place. VelJohnson gives us the full spectrum from lovable and funny to heartfelt and compassionate to stern conviction. Powell is ultimately given some depth and substance showing that this film wasn’t going to take a shortcut anywhere at all. The very human moments between Powell and McClane are a special strength.
But indeed, the action is ultimately the driving force of this movie, and once that spark of excitement is lit, it runs on pure adrenalin with riveting intensity and masterful execution. This is big action with a real sense of gravity and peril. The scale makes it amazingly fun and exciting while the weight of the drama makes it suspenseful and electrifying. I love the subplot with Karl’s vendetta against McClane for the murder of his brother, and when the two finally clash, it’s awesome. After all of the heavy gunfire and explosions, the few minutes of visceral raw physicality are a breath of fresh air before the scale of the action escalates further with the roof exploding signaling the third act rocketing forward. Die Hard does nothing but amaze you at every turn. Every step of the way, we care about these characters in the thick of danger, and we gradually see it escalate as Gruber’s plan unfolds. It’s also great seeing McClane figure things out a little at a time, such as wondering why Hans was on the roof, and then, realizing he plans to blow it sky high with all the hostages on it.
I tend to write these reviews while watching the movie so to pick up on all the nuances, but Die Hard is so consistently engaging, thrilling, and entertaining that I could hardly tear my attention away to type anything up. Whether it is the absolutely wickedly awesome action, the touching character building moments, or the great laughs it elicits from an audience, Die Hard is the perfect example of executing an action film correctly. There’s not a moment wasted, and the editing is dead-on sharp and perfect in its pacing and timing. Moments are so excellently punctuated with the right cut, and even more so with Michael Kamen’s remarkably intense and spectacular score. His is a masterwork of brilliant, sophisticated action film compositions. Not to mention, this is an expertly shot movie using those beautiful anamorphic lenses and that cinemascope widescreen canvas to accentuate the scale of the action. And where many action films today can barely keep the camera steady long enough to understand the geography of a single scene, McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont do so many subtle things to layout the geography of this entire building. Early on, they walk you through the entire central area of the Nokatomi Tower over the opening credits so you understand where the hallways, elevator, offices, and stairway are so we can navigate it as competently as the characters. As the film goes on, we revisit the conference room, the elevator shafts, and the roof to maintain a familiar environment for the action. As a film lover and a filmmaker myself, this movie just makes me gush from a technical standpoint as it is so perfectly executed in every moment. This film is exquisitely made from a massively talented team of filmmakers, sonic geniuses, and brilliant visual artists.
This film was adapted from the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, and many of the mind blowing and clever moments in the film are taken directly from the novel. McClane’s jump from the exploding roof with the fire hose wrapped around him, the C-4 bomb thrown down the elevator shaft, and more exist in Thorp’s novel. Apparently, it was a novel written as a sequel to The Detective, starring Frank Sinatra, but he declined the role. Years later, it was supposedly intended as a sequel to Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being re-fashioned into the action classic that we now know and love. Indeed, everything has its right time to come to fruition, and Die Hard happened in the right way at the right time with the right talent.
Between this and Predator, John McTiernan established himself as one of the premiere action movie directors of the time, and of course, this launched Bruce Willis into blockbuster super stardom. Despite how Willis now feels about doing action movies, saying he’s bored with them at this point, we will always have these pinnacles of the genre when Willis was in his prime and eager to do his absolute best. Die Hard is probably the most perfect action movie I have ever seen as it hits all of the beats of excitement and character just right with a spot-on mix of drama and humor to make it an undeniably memorable experience. For anyone who has only ever seen either the fourth or fifth film in this franchise, you are doing a horrible disservice to yourself in basing the quality of Die Hard on those films. As I said from the start, there is simply no equal.
On a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film. While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind. While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love. I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into. Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.
Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years. The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer. When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight. Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall. Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination. And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.
I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night. While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right. We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent. At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in. Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape. There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere. There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them. Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments. The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.
In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together. It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses. This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then. Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before. In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them. We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming. Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.
Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here. He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care. Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real. Max is an entirely unlikely hero. He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work. He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level. Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him. However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing. It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence. Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage. Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.
Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent. It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges. That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head. He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move. This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story. Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay. He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max. Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity. Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices. Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law. McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught. However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell. Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling. There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him. If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film. It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here. In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him. He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.
The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase. The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested. If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it. As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor. He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level. These skills are not learned easily or quickly. Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication. And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence. He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.
Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning. His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned. He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive. Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively. Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind. He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.
Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa. However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem. Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene. The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life. Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body. It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent. This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.
Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix. He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion. You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure. Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended. It’s stellar work by him all around.
I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters. While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level. It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards. These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls. Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.
One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline. All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters. Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it. There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment. All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion. Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now. The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline. The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here. It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters. The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on. There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times. It’s an amazingly well edited movie.
Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists. The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film. It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality. Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax. Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments. The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie. It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence. Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least. It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me. I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.
The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly. Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film. So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral. What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot. I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did. It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some. I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end. It still does. Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout. It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones. It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before. It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene. It never gets repetitive or dull. These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value. There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well. Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch. The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before. And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired. I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.
We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome. The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire. It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.” Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos. Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act. As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension. This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used. On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing. The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama. I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation. This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection. The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film. It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.
This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller. Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats. It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance. Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals. I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done. I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart. Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year. Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much. However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.