[SPOILER ALERT IN CASE YOU'RE THE ONE PERSON OUT THERE WHO HASN'T SEEN THIS MOVIE]
It's the 1980s. The era of the blockbusters. Big budget fantasies and adventures like the Star Wars, Superman, and Terminator series either began or continued in that decade and they dominated the box office. The heroes of these films were larger than life, sometimes invincible, and often from another planet or time. Then along comes John McClane, a tough-talking New York cop who isn't looking to save the world or defeat an evil empire. All the guy wants to do is patch things up with his estranged wife. When the bad guys show up, does he go charging heroically in with no regard for his own safety? Hardly. The whole film all the guy is really looking to do is get the hell out of the building and call the police. Sure he pulls off a few death-defying stunts, gets out of impossible situations with preposterous luck, and endures disabling injuries to emerge victorious; at least the man gets injured. The bullets don't bounce off of him, nor do the bullet holes heal themselves. John McClane bleeds. A lot. In short, "Die Hard" must have been a welcome change of pace, a bit subversive even, considering the action/adventure company it kept in that decade.
Without any super powers, space ships, or futuristic weaponry, the movie still manages to prove itself enjoyable from the first frame to the last. The action is both brutal and suspenseful, the macho dialogue fun, and the characters every bit as likable or hateable as the filmmakers intended them to be.
Additionally, with its witty banter, blood-soaked violence, and everyman hero, "Die Hard" seems to even predict the bloodier, grittier, lower-budget trends that directors like Quentin Tarrantino and Robert Rodriguez would exemplify in the next decade.
As fresh as the movie might have seemed in 1988, that doesn't mean that it still doesn't rely on some boring conventions. This is most noticeable in the characters not named John McClane. Most of the cold but calculating villains have German accents, surprise surprise; the police and feds are clueless buffoons too focused on bureaucracy and protocol to do anything but cause more problems; and the TV reporter is a soulless weasel. Not exactly creative stuff there, but the screenwriters weren't going for "Citizen Kane." They were writing an escapist popcorn flick complete with time-tested, stock characters.
While the multiple scenes featuring walkie talkie communicated dialogue between McClane and arch-villain Hans Gruber are the most enjoyable moments of the film overall, if one scene has to be picked for memorability it has to be Gruber's plummet down Nakatomi tower. Shot from the point of view of McClane, the camera capture Gruber's descent from the top floor to the ground and it looks frighteningly real. So real that one might even feel a little sympathy the murderous and duplicitous Gruber. In the era of blue screens and CGI the modern moviegoer is desensitized to most visual effects but this scene, now more than 20 years old, remains stunning.