Review: Die Hard (1988)

Composer: Michael Kamen

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: VCL 0202 1004

John McTiernan's action movie Die Hard (1988) is one of the few examples for ill-fated productions that turned out to be successful classics in the end. The studio had little confidence in the project due to poor previews and even removed any reference to Bruce Willis in the marketing campaign to 'save' the film. Their fears turned out to be unnecessary because Die Hard not only became a hit but an action-classic and represents the climax of 80's action movies. The plot of the movie is explained in two sentences: New York cop John McClane has to fight terrorists who took hostages inside a skyscraper. His wife is one of the hostages which makes it 'personal' to him. The rest does not need any explanation because it is action movie history which naturally resulted in two surprisingly enjoyable sequels.

The score:

When the time came for Michael Kamen to score Die Hard, he had already become a successful and respected composer who tackled several genres such as adventure with Highlander (1986), the unusually grotesque Brazil (1985) and even an action movie with Lethal Weapon (1987). So Kamen was already a well-experienced composer at that time with a truly unique musical voice but the extreme circumstances that surrounded the post-production of Die Hard and the lack of confidence from paranoid studio executives lead to a butchering of his score. Several cues have been looped, tracked-in, replaced by temp-track cues, mixed at low volume or thrown out entirely. But despite these obvious problems, Michael Kamen still managed to produce a serviceable score for the film that shines with various hints to classic Christmas songs (mainly "Winter Wonderland") and a clever use of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as a theme for chef-terrorist Hans Gruber (aka Jack Gruber for all Germans). The score also features a lot of guitar performances to reflect on McClane's love for western-icon Roy Rogers.

The guitar stuff can already be heard in the first track called "Nakatomi Plaza" which is one of the rejected pieces. The sound of this is reminiscent of Kamen's work for Lethal Weapon (1987) while the cue is introducing a melancholic and slightly tragic theme. "Gruber's Arrival" is one of the more prominently used pieces of original score in the film and is basically an adaptation of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" interrupted by some uncommonly playful suspense music. The track as presented on this CD is incomplete because the cue only runs 3:40 minutes with a noticeable cut at 2:02 while the original cue runs 4:14 minutes. Several cues on the Varese CD are slightly shortened.

The guitar returns at the beginning of "John's Escape/You Want Money?" to accompany a motif for pizzicato strings to accompany McClane's sneaking while the second half of the cue accompanies the execution of Takagi with some hints of "Ode To Joy" for dark strings which sound slightly electronic at times. "The Tower" is some kind of sneaky-waltz and also dominated by pizzicato strings. In the partly rejected cue "The Roof", Michael Kamen gives the "Ode To Joy" a dark dracula-feeling with organ and low, somewhat electronic strings before the sneaky pizzicato string suspense returns at the end of the cue. The first strike of action music finally appears in "The Fight" which consists of a rambling piano and pizzicato string figure and a slightly muted fanfare.

"He Won't Be Joining Us" is another suspense cue in which Kamen makes gentle use of strange percussive effects, piano, weird string figures and some more guitar stuff at the end. "And If He Alters It?" is the introduction of a sneaky suspense piece which the composer used in the sequels as well. It accompanies the roof scene when McClane is making is 'illegal' emergency call. A guitar riff from "Nakatomi Plaza" starts "Going After John" before a tense string performance perfectly builds up to a fanfare followed by more dramatic suspense music as McClane is escaping some angry terrorists. One of my personal favourite cues of the sneaky music is "Have A Few Laughs" which accompanies the airshaft scene. It has a funny Christmas tone to it due to some gentle percussion effects, playful woodwinds and pizzicato strings without loosing the tension.

"Welcome to the Party" is a slightly shortened cue but the most important part, an outburst of brass and nervous horns, is still there and extremely powerful. "TV Station/His Bag Is Missing" contains by far the worst score piece of the album because of some really weird hypnotic string effects and synthetic sounds during the first half of the track. "Assault on the Tower" is another Highlight of the CD in which Kamen was able to unleash the full power of the orchestra with heavy-pounding percussion that just rock and I have to admit that I love these parts of the score in particular. However, the cue is sadly not complete because the original cue runs 9:02 minutes instead of only 8:17 minutes.

The melancholic guitar motif from "Nakatomi Plaza" returns in "John is Found Out" followed by low key suspense music which does not go anywhere here. "Attention Police" contains Kamen's rejected take of the 'Resolution' which was replaced by an unused cue from James Horner's score for Aliens (1986). "Bill Clay" brings back the hypnotic synth-noise from "TV Station/His Bag is Missing" and is really a cue to skip because the sound design in that cue is barely listenable. Even more melancholic guitar music can be heard in "I Had An Accident" which sounds like a cross between Kamen's score for Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Dead Zone (1983). Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" gets a full performance with organ, brass and choir as the terrorists open the safe. Action music returns in "The Battle" with some excellent horn fanfares and heavy militaristic percussion. The climax of the cue with its catchy rhythm and whirling woodwinds is totally amazing and a real standout piece on this CD. "Gruber's Departure" ends the score with a one-note fanfare as Gruber is falling from the tower in slow motion. We better don't go into detail about the useless instrumental version of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!".

Review by Andreas Creutzburg



Score as heard in the film: 60%

Score as heard on CD: 73%

TOTAL: 67%


The presentation:

The good thing is that Varese Sarabande released Kamen's score for Die Hard. Well, that sums up the good news actually. Now here comes the rusty side of the coin: they released it as a limited edition of 3000 copies which are all sold out. But that's not the worst: The release is actually just a re-issue of the expanded bootleg. Several edits and cuts were made in some tracks ("Gruber's Arrival", "Assault On The Tower" and "Ode To Joy" to name a few) and thus the score as presented on this release is neither complete nor does it have a noticeably better sound quality. I mean, if the folks at Varese have access to the original tapes and are only doing a limited edition of the score anyways, then they could have at least make it a 2-CD edition with the complete score instead of a blatant re-issue of some poor-sounding expanded bootleg. I can only hope that other labels like Intrada or Prometheus will bring out a real complete score in the future... for all Die Hard score fans (pun intended).

Presentation by the Label: 30%



Kamen's score for Die Hard is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it contains some nice standout-cues like "The Battle" but on the other hand, there is some really crappy stuff as well like "Bill Clay" while the majority of the score consists of sneaky suspense music for the cat-and-mouse game that dominates the film. This score really is a guilty pleasure for me, especially on Christmas because it is actually a quite creative and unusual musical approach to an action film with a rather playful and dark sound at times. The butchering of the score in the film sucked (to put it mildly), so the CD is actually the better way to enjoy it even though this Varese release also suffers from some unnecessary edits and an unpleasing weak sound quality.



01.  The Nakatomi Plaza (01:50)
02.  Gruber's Arrival (03:40)
03.  John's Escape / You Want Money? (05:52)
04.  The Tower (01:49)
05.  The Roof (03:57)
06.  The Fight (01:07)
07.  He Won't Be Joining Us (03:53)
08.  And If He Alters It? (02:39)
09.  Going After John Again (04:33)
10.  Have A Few Laughs (03:29)
11.  Welcome To The Party (01:00)
12.  TV Station / His Bag Is Missing (03:52)
13.  Assault On The Tower (08:16)
14.  John Is Found Out (05:03)
15.  Attention Police (03:38)
16.  Bill Clay (02:02)
17.  I Had An Accident (02:37)
18.  Ode To Joy (03:36)
19.  The Battle (10:15)
20.  Gruber's Departure (01:56)
21.  Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (02:00)