I am a child of the 80's so I got to grow up in arguably the best decade for action movies. The 80's produced some of the best action movies of all time and created stars out of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Among all of these muscle bound actors was an unlikely candidate for action star of the decade: Bruce Willis. Willis came from a tv sitcom background when the first Die Hard was released and it seemed unlikely that he would be able to carry a big Hollywood action movie.
Willis surprised everyone with his portrayal of John McClane, a New York detective who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. McClane is a normal cop who has to do some extraordinary things to save a group of hostages, including his wife, from one of the best villains of all time, Hans Gruber. Willis takes McClane and turns him into a badass. Smoking, cursing, and being a wiseass are what McClane is all about and Willis makes the most out of the character. There is a lot of stuff that happens to McClane and it is believable because Willis is believable. McClane comes across as your average cop and if the filmmakers had cast a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone then the believability would have gone out the window.
You see, Die Hard is a pretty realistic movie. The terrorists enter the Nokatomi building in a very real and believable way. Hans Gruber isn't a mad man but a man who is in total control until McClane messes that up for him. McClane has to deal with the fact that he has to act as a one man army in order to rescue the hostages. He has no help at first and has to devise various plans in order to get the things that he needs. When McClane gets the chance to alert the L.A.P.D., he does so at first with a professional courtesy. But when no one will listens to them he decides to drop one of the terrorists that he has killed onto a police car below.
This action has well as other actions that McClane comes up with seem natural. Watching the movie one could say to themselves "I might do that." This makes McClane believable as a human being. There is the famous scene where McClane is trapped by Gruber and one of his henchmen and they break all the glass around McClane by shooting it. In any other action movie the star would run across the glass but not be all that hurt by it. And because he wouldn't be hurt by it, the movie would forget about it and move on. Here McClane is hurt and there is a whole scene where is taking the glass out of his feet while he talks to another cop via walkie talkie.
The movie doesn't make light of the bad guys either. Hans Gruber is a man on a mission and he will do anything in order to accomplish that mission. Gruber doesn't lose his cool when McClane starts fucking up his plan. He just rolls with the punches. It isn't until the end when Gruber starts to show strain and we all know what happens after that. Alan Rickman brings a cool and calm to Gruber. Rickman could have very easily made Gruber a raving psycho, but by playing him as a confident bad guy he elevates Gruber to icon status.
The movie is superbly directed by John McTiernan. You have to remember that this movie came out in the 80's when it was fashionable to have a classy, well-made action movie. None of this hyperkinetic editing, with shots lasting for mere seconds before it cuts to the next shot. McTiernan makes every scene seem like it should follow the previous scene and applies a steady hand when it comes to the pacing. This movie is very well paced with plenty of down time between the action scenes. This down time serves as a break from the action as well as time to get to know the characters.
McTiernan had just come off of another classic action movie, Predator, and here he shows that he can bring a sense of class to an action movie that may not have been brought by another director. He doesn't over edit the movie and you can tell what is going on. Instead of using a handheld camera, like so many directors nowadays seem obsessed with, McTiernan long takes, beautifully composed shots, and dolly shots that follow the actors, not just the action.
Most directors today believe that audiences are stupid and have short attention spans. So instead of bringing the audience along for the ride or emersing them in the movie, directors assault the audience with a borage of images that leave the audience asking "what is going on?" rather than getting involved with the movie. A director like Michael Bay will spend hours upon hours setting up and shooting a shot that will end up lasting half a second on screen. If you blink you might miss the shot.
Back in the 80's there was almost none of this. Sure there was "quick editing", but that would be reserved for a handful of shots. Most of the "style" came from what was in front of the camera, not from behind it. The shots did not call attention to themselves unless that was the director's intent. Nowadays audiences find movie that like Die Hard or Predator boring because they are not edited by a man who very well be a crackhead.
Needless to say, Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever made. It would lead the way for other action movies, not only in those movie's desires to copy the forumla, (in the late 80's and early 90's many action movies were referred to as "Die Hard on a ______". The blank was filled in with a place like a boat or a train. There was even a movie called Executive Decision that was called "Die Hard on a plane"), but also in terms of characters. There were more badass one man army-type movies being made. Some of these movies were good. Some of them were not. We have Die Hard to thank and to blame for all of them.