Action films rarely age like fine wine. Most are so rooted in the time period they were released, it’s hard to look past the menagerie of dated cinematic conventions and appreciate them for the fun fluff that they are designed to be. Personally, it’s hard to separate Dirty Harry’s vigilante ambitions from all the sideburns, deliberate camera zooms and funky background music that so characterized ’70s action flicks. Despite their greater leap toward modernization, ’80s films don’t fare much better in the rear-view. The desperate, tortured hero of the ’70s action film was replaced by larger-than-life supermen capable of escaping any trap they were up against. Explosions were bigger, special effects were grander, and if your first name was Arnold, Sylvester, or Harrison you were guaranteed a very secure future in Hollywood. It was a refreshing change from the dreary nihilism that characterized the ’70s, but by the end of the ’80s, the new action formula was itself beginning to grow tired and predictable and not even Steven Spielberg could enliven a genre of action films that he himself helped to inaugurate with Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Then came a little movie called Die Hard in 1988.
Okay, it wasn’t exactly a little movie. Bruce Willis was already an established star and the movie had some of the best production minds in Hollywood working on it. But nothing about the movie conformed to the established ’80s action-movie style. Deliberately stylized with a wry, tongue-in-check tone, Die Hard banished the superman lead in favor of an anti-hero – an everyday guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances who prevails against the villains – in this case, a group of German “terrorists”. It’s worth buying a special edition DVD just for director John McTiernan’s commentary, who talks at length about the initial resistance he faced for his unconventional, European style of directing and editing. Die Hard ultimately won over just about everyone, becoming a monstrous success and spinning off a new genre of action movies. It also further catapulted McTiernan and cinematographer Jan De Bont into stardom (De Bont would turn in equally impressive DP work on The Hunt For Red October and Basic Instinct before getting his first crack at directing with Speed in 1994).
Critical to Die Hard‘s success was its score by Michael Kamen. Embracing the movie’s dark sense of humor, Kamen loaded the score with sleigh bells and melodic nods to famous classical musical compositions and holiday tunes to give his driving, rhythmic assault a subversive sense of whimsy. As good as the score sounds when viewing the movie, it is even more astonishing in its intricacy and creativity when listening to it by itself. La-La Land’s newly remastered, two-CD set of the Die Hard score spoils you with nearly every note Kamen threw at this movie, and then some. With over 107 minutes of total music included, it’s easy to see just how musically dense Die Hard was. Today, Kamen’s Die Hard score remains a celebrated achievement in action movie scoring.
It would be easy to say the best tracks in the set are the ones where Kamen truly cuts loose, and “Assault on the Tower” is unquestionably his most thrilling composition. The music is both playful and relentless as it unscores the SWAT team’s ill-fated attack on the terrorists in the Nakatomi building. But Kamen’s real genius is how he perverts the innocent spirit of songs such as “Ode To Joy” by Beethoven and “Winter Wonderland” and “Singing In The Rain” by using them as motifs for the German terrorists (Listen: “Terrorist Entrance”). Elsewhere, there’s certainly enough pounding hyperbole to justify the more bombastic action sequences in the movie, but its Kamen’s subtlety and ability to validate some deliberately cartoonish arrangements that make the score so shockingly good. One of McClane’s early motifs is a corny steel guitar arrangement that is nonetheless highly effective in identifying him as the “cowboy” Hans sees him as (“John’s Escape/You Want Money”). Later, Kamen crafts a more fatalistic four-note motif that grounds the character more and suggests his survival is much more tenuous then we at first believed (“And If He Alters It”). In the overall, however, Kamen stays loyal to the movie’s playful spirit, using tip-toeing pizzicato and other strange electronic effects to highlight the fun cat-and-mouse movie moments.
Film score critic Jeff Bond provides an exhaustive, yet illuminating, track-by-track analysis of the score in the CD set’s liner notes. The set naturally includes tracks that weren’t included in the movie or were heavily piped down in the final mix. An example of an omission that actually benefitted the movie was an arrangement Kamen crafted for the exploding office chair McClane’s throws down the elevator shaft to thwart the terrorists. Stopping the music just as the chair begins its descent, as it does in the movie, heightens the feeling of anticipation; this effect would have been lost had the producers decided to score this section (“Assault On The Tower”).
As a longtime fan of the movie, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Die Hard. Eric Lichenfeld, in his liner notes, proved me wrong. For example, I did know Alan Rickman was attached to a quick-release harness and released to capture his shocked expression when he plummets from the tower at movie’s end, but I didn’t know the producers tricked Rickman as to when he’d fall in the 3-2-1 countdown (he was dropped on 1, rather than the expected zero!). La-La Land Records sold out their entire supply of the CD set within 72 hours of release – no doubt a testament to the enduring popularity of this groundbreaking score.
- Main Title (0:38)
- Terrorist Entrance (4:05)
- The Phone Goes Dead / Party Crashers (1:51)
- John’s Escape / You Want Money? (6:00)
- Wiring the Roof (1:51)
- Fire Alarm (2:04)
- Tony Approaches (1:41)
- Tony and John Fight (1:11)
- Santa (0:56)
- He Won’t Be Joining Us (3:01)
- And If He Alters It (2:39)
- Going After John (4:29)
- Have a Few Laughs / Al Powell Approaches (3:31)
- Under the Table (1:55)
- Welcome to the Party (1:09)
- TV Station (2:47)
- Holly Meets Hans (1:19)
- Assault on the Tower (8:35)
- John is Found Out (5:03)
- Attention Police (3:54)
- Bill Clay (4:09)
- Shooting the Glass (1:07)
- I Had an Accident (2:37)
- The Vault (3:07)
- Message for Holly (1:07)
- The Battle / Freeing the Hostages (6:53)
- Helicopter Explosion and Showdown (4:00)
- Happy Trails (1:12)
- We’ve Got Each Other (1:57)
- Let it Snow (1:43)
- Beethoven’s 9th (End Credits Excerpt) (4:00)
- The Nakatomi Plaza (1:47)
- Message for Holly (Film Version) (2:46)
- Gun in Cheek (1:03)
- Fire Hose (1:00)
- Ode to Joy (Alternate) (2:11)
- Let it Snow (Source) (1:58)
- Winter Wonderland (Source) (1:26)
- Christmas in Hollis performed by Run-DMC (3:00)
- Roy Rogers Meets Beethoven’s 9th (Muzak) (1:36)
Released by: La-La Land Records
Release date: 2011
Disc one total running time: 49:42
Disc two total running time: 57:36