DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on the Enduring Legacy of “Die Hard”

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On July 15, 1988, the weekend’s big action-thriller was a film featuring one of Hollywood’s most beloved characters played by one of its biggest stars. I’m speaking, of course, of “The Dead Pool,” the last of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” movies. But that weekend also included another release, although it was only on 21 screens. Starred some TV actor. Had a kinda ridiculous premise. It was “Die Hard.”

It’s been 25 years, and a lot of the movies from that summer have been forgotten: “Cocktail,” “Young Guns,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.” But “Die Hard” has endured. This Friday sees the release of the franchise’s latest sequel, “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Over time, the series has gotten increasingly more ludicrous and cheerfully over-the-top. But at its core, the scrappy, underdog spirit of that original “Die Hard” remains. Which is another way of saying, thank god for Bruce Willis.

When the original “Die Hard” opened, Willis had enjoyed a little success in films thanks to the comedy “Blind Date,” which had come out the year before. (He followed it up with “Sunset,” a bomb.) Still, Willis was primarily known for his Emmy-winning role as David Addison on the comedy-drama series “Moonlighting.” He wasn’t the most obvious choice to play John McClane, a NYPD officer who has to take out a bunch of terrorists holding a gaggle of hostages (including his estranged wife) in a Los Angeles skyscraper right before Christmas. This was the 1980s, when action heroes were played by Schwarzenegger or Stallone.

But the secret to the film’s success — the whole franchise’s, really — was that Willis didn’t try to be one of those action heroes. Instead, he seemed to take a page from Harrison Ford, whose “Star Wars” fame had only grown due to the Indiana Jones films. As Indy, Ford never wowed us with his hulking frame; it was his sarcastic, black-and-blue ordinariness that made the character so appealing. He was a hero not because it was easy but, rather, because it was really hard. Willis took wisecracking David and turned him into a reluctant gun-toting, explosion-evading grumpy smartass who wanted to defeat the bad guys mostly because they were annoying the hell out of him. Eddie Murphy had proved the viability of the high-octane action-comedy with the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, but in “Die Hard” Willis leaned more toward the action than the comedy. In ’88, people probably didn’t go to “Die Hard” because it was funny. That was just a lucky side benefit.

It also didn’t hurt that he was paired with a truly fun nemesis. As Hans Gruber, Rickman did a variation on every super-snide James Bond villain that came before, except he was actually smart and not campy. It’s almost as if Rickman wasn’t aware that ’80s bad guys were supposed to be really cheesy. Best know for his work on the stage and on television in England, Rickman wasn’t well-known by film audiences. For all we knew, maybe he was a criminal mastermind. (And for all the fine performances he’s given since, his cool, slightly haughty demeanor has been their constant through-line, connecting him back to Hans forever.)

Another reason the film has held up is because it’s simply ingenious. Based on the 1979 book “Nothing Lasts Forever,” “Die Hard” basically invented a whole new genre of action movie: one in which a regular guy is trapped in a location with a bunch of heavily-armed baddies. (As luck would have it, though, these “regular guys” often just happened to be buff dudes like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.) This was a major change from most action movies, which drew their excitement from elaborate chase sequences or scenes in which the hero has to infiltrate the villain’s stronghold. With “Die Hard,” McClane was constantly hiding in the Nakatomi Plaza trying to evade capture while communicating via walkie-talkie to a local cop (Reginald VelJohnson) outside the building. The film was more of a cat-and-mouse thriller than a conventional shoot-‘em-up. (Although, granted, there is still a lot of shooting ’em up.) Maybe that’s why none of the sequels was ever quite as good: They all had Willis, but they opened up his world to make them more like other people’s action movies.

This isn’t to say that “Die Hard” is perfect. As groundbreaking as the film is, it features one of the stupidest side characters in all of action movies. That, of course, would be Dwayne T. Robinson, the LAPD chief played by Paul Gleason who’s almost maniacal in his distrust of McClane. As Roger Ebert said perfectly in his review at the time, “As nearly as I can tell, the deputy chief is in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress. The character is so willfully useless, so dumb … that all by himself he successfully undermines the last half of the movie.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Robinson does deliver the film’s unforgivably dumbest line: After a FBI helicopter is destroyed, killing everyone inside, he matter-of-factly comments, “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.” It’s entirely possible Gleason is playing the same numbskull from “The Breakfast Club.”

But when you go back and watch “Die Hard” now, fondness will probably help you forgive those types of problems. Above all, what’s great is that the movie doesn’t realize it’s going to give birth to a genre or a franchise. It’s just this plucky little movie about a dude in an undershirt winning back his wife by saving her and her coworkers. The movie is simply a great idea executed extremely well.

The sequels realized that they never could recapture the once-in-a-lifetime ingenuity of the “Die Hard” plot, so they had to keep expanding the concept and adding new quirks, all the while joking about the fact that, yes, it is completely preposterous that the same shit keeps happening to the same guy over and over. In “A Good Day to Die Hard,” which I haven’t seen yet, he’s fighting alongside his son — a plot point that I’m sure Fox is hoping will extend the brand after Willis really is too old to be doing these movies. But it’s funny how the franchise has come full circle. “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the book that inspired the original movie, was written by Roderick Thorp and was itself a sequel to his book “The Detective,” which became a movie starring Frank Sinatra in 1968. In “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the hero (Joe Leland) is an older guy trying to save his daughter and grandchildren from terrorists. No doubt Fox decided to make McClane younger for “Die Hard” so that it seemed more realistic. Nowadays, McClane’s old enough that such a storyline doesn’t seem nearly so farfetched anymore.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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The Nutty Professor Eddie Murphy 1996

Weird Science

10 Weird Movie Substances That Had Hilarious Consequences

Catch The Nutty Professor this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

If you’ve ever opened your refrigerator to find some seriously gnarly days-old potato salad, then you know that sometimes the most harmless-seeming things can turn freaky. Movies have conjured up some truly bizarre stuff, often the work of crazed scientists. Before you catch The Nutty Professor on IFC, check out some of the icky-est, gooey-ist and just plain weird substances on the big screen.

10. Flubber

Flubber
Walt Disney Studios

Professor Brainard’s “flying rubber” increases its speed every time it bounces, and increases the chaos, destruction and unlikely basketball-dunkage of anyone who uses it. Thankfully the movie ends before its thermodynamic impossibility cause the incineration of the entire universe.


9. Quantonium, Monsters Vs. Aliens

Monsters Vs Aliens
DreamWorks

In Monsters vs. Aliens, both action-packed parties are battling over Quantonium, an exotic material which massively empowers anyone who holds it. Literally in the case of Susan Murphy, whose exposure turns her into Ginormica and enables her to fight against Gallaxhar’s invasion force.


8. Sustengo, Little Fockers

Sustengo
Universal Pictures

After finally finding favor with his hard-bitten father-in-law, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) finds himself strapped for cash and starts promoting Sustengo, an erectile dysfunction drug. Which means leaving boxes of ED drugs lying around a family who can’t even use a toilet without triggering a series of hilarious misunderstandings.


7. Iocane, Princess Bride

Iocane
20th Century Fox

Iocane is a deadly poison with no odor or taste that dissolves instantly in any liquid. The perfect tool for murder isn’t usually hilarious, but The Princess Bride makes everything funny. Hero Westley (Cary Elwes) tricks cunning Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) into drinking the poison in a game of wits. Vizzini lost, not knowing that the answer is “Don’t drink anything offered by someone who just talked about how awesome their poison is.”


6. PX-41, Despicable Me 2

PX41
Universal Pictures

The mutation compound engineered by PX-Labs turns anything into a purple, fluffy, indestructible killing machine. And when Despicable Me‘s famous Minions are dosed with it, look out. Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) crafts an antidote, PX-41 Antidote, proving he’s much better with chemicals than he is with names.


5. Mood Slime, Ghostbusters II

Mood Slime
Columbia Pictures

When the Ghostbusters came back for their 1989 sequel, the slime they encountered was sillier and scarier. The “Mood Slime” was a special form of ectoplasm utterly saturated in the emotions of everyone and everything around it. And while our heroes energize some positive vibes with Aretha Franklin tunes, the entire city of New York’s psychic outpourings are filling the sewers with something distinctly less positive.


4. The Stuff

The Stuff
New World Pictures

A science fiction soft-serve satire, The Stuff is about an oddly organic treat which is utterly delicious and zero calories. In fact it’s negative calories, because if you eat enough it’ll take over your brain and hollow you out from the inside.


3. Miracle Weight Loss Serum, The Nutty Professor

Buddy Love
Universal Pictures

The core component of The Nutty Professor‘s plot is a miraculous weight loss serum, a simple fluid which re-engineers human DNA all by itself. This allows sweet but sizable Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) to transform into the tight, toned and turbocharged Buddy Love (Murphy again). The serum is revealed to be fatally dangerous, but anything which allows Eddie Murphy to play himself cranked up to the max is pure comedy gold.


2. Cobalt Thorium G, Dr. Strangelove

Dr Strangelove
Columbia Pictures

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb is about a bomb built with Cobalt Thorium G. It’s a doomsday device designed to annihilate all human civilization and is, slightly worryingly, based on the least fictional materials on this list. Cobalt and thorium both have applications in nuclear weapon design. Luckily we haven’t got them up to G yet.


1. Ectoplasm, Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters
Columbia Pictures

The Ghostbusters live in a world where ghosts are real but physics is still in charge. So while the ghouls are flung around with proton packs, they get the boys in grey back with their appalling ectoplasm, or slime, trail. As Venkman says, getting covered in the stuff will make you feel all funky.

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Fast Times Jennifer Jason Leigh

Retro Grades

The 11 Best Movie Comedies of the ’80s

Catch Fast Times at Ridgemont High during IFC's '80s Weekend.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

The ’80s gave us so many great things (Tab, anyone?), but when it comes to movie comedies, the Reagan years were a golden age of funny. In honor of IFC’s ’80s Weekend, we’ve selected the best big screen comedies from the decade that gave us Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and other comedy greats. And like one of the movies featured below, this list goes to 11.

1. Back to the Future

“A high school slacker goes back in time, takes his mother to a dance, and gets dangerously close to becoming his own father.” The elevator pitch for Back to the Future doesn’t sound so charming, but the 1985 flick starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover is declared by many as being the perfect movie. (Though we can’t officially say if the Eric Stoltz version would’ve been better.)


2. Ghostbusters

The sheer number of childhoods that were professed to be ruined by the recent reboot should tell you how beloved the original film is. A perfect blend of comedy, horror and fantasy, Ghostbusters has an indelible cast at the top of its game and a heap of one-liners worthy of countless casual references. They have the tools, and they have the talent.


3. Airplane!

Speaking of one-liners, it doesn’t get much more quotable than the 1980 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classic Airplane!. Almost a one-to-one parody of the 1957 disaster film Zero Hour!, Airplane! works so well because of how straight faced the zaniness is played — which is something its many imitators fail to notice.


4. This Is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer created the de facto mockumentary film with the hilarious 1984 rock diary This Is Spinal Tap. Heralded as one of the most accurate depictions of backstage life by actual real-life bands, the movie showcases an aging glam metal band struggling for the spotlight while keeping the group intact (especially the spontaneously combustible drummers).


5. National Lampoon’s Vacation

While Caddyshack and Fletch are quintessential Chevy Chase films, nothing beats the bumbling patriarch of the Griswold clan losing his mind en route to Wally World, America’s favorite family fun park. Yes, the sequels saw diminishing returns (aside from Christmas Vacation), but the one that started them all is endlessly watchable. Amen, let’s go!


6. Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe managed to capture exactly what high school life was like in the early-’80s. The awkwardness, the frustrations, the scares, the search for purpose and gratification, Fast Times presents its young characters as fully fleshed-out individuals (even the designated stoner shows nuance) and doesn’t talk down to its audience like many teen movies do. (Click here to see all airings of Fast Times at Ridgemont High on IFC.)


7. Beverly Hills Cop

A reminder of the days when Eddie Murphy was the edgiest comedian in showbiz, the one-two punch of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. set the template for modern action comedies. We wouldn’t have the Rush Hour franchise and every Kevin Hart film without Axel Foley.


8. Trading Places

A treatise on the Nature vs. Nurture argument at the height of Reagan-era excess, Trading Places depicts the lives that are held in the balance when the mega-rich make friendly $1 wagers and just how joyous the retribution can be. Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis are terrific as the leads, the Duke Brothers are delightfully evil, and in all seriousness, that is a nice purse.


9. Better Off Dead

This 1985 Savage Steve Holland movie is teen angst at its most surreal and affably goofy. John Cusack stars as Lane Meyer, a high schooler still reeling from the loss of his girlfriend to a cocky champion skier. (Is there any other kind in an ’80s movie?) With bloodthirsty paperboys, foreign-exchange street races and stop-motion hamburger interludes, Better Off Dead doesn’t let realism get in the way of accurately portraying pure teen heartbreak.


10. Midnight Run

Of all the critically acclaimed pairings that actor Robert De Niro has had through the years, few are as entertaining as his reluctant team-up with a persnickety Charles Grodin in 1988’s Midnight Run. Perfect foils, the bounty hunter and mob accountant race against time, the Feds and mafia hits until mutual Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and the partnership stops becoming merely professional. (The counterfeit bill scene alone is worth the watch.)


11. Heathers

Heathers is the kind of pitch-black comedy that would never get a major release in 2016. Unflinching in its satire of school shootings, teen suicide and the tragedies that come with the need to fit in, the movie remains relevant to the kids currently growing up in a cruel and judgmental world. And the fact that it’s laugh-out-loud funny while also making a sharp point about youth culture is a testament to how great the movie really is.

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Bill Hader in Conan Star Wars Audition Sketch

Acts of Wars

Watch Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and More Audition to Play Young Han Solo

The Documentary Now! star shows off his best Han and Chewie.

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Photo Credit: TBS/YouTube

Thanks in large part to The Force Awakens not sucking, the Star Wars universe is about to get a lot more expansive. Sequels, spin-offs, TV shows, and more are underway — which means a helluva lotta casting calls. Fortunately, Conan O’Brien got his hands on a few audition tapes of celebrities trying out for a role as a young Han Solo.

Check out Documentary Now!’s Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, Portlandia favorite Jeff Goldblum, Todd Margaret star Will Arnett and other funny folks offering their takes on what that younger, brasher space swashbuckler would be like.

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