Die Hard is more than just a blood-and-guts action vehicle for Bruce Willis to show off his winning ways with weapons. Rhymer Rigby points out its lasting lessons in crisis management.
Die Hard was a landmark film. Rising above the trashy action flick, it was a well-considered, genuinely suspenseful thriller, which spawned a rash of imitators and showed us what it really takes to handle a crisis.
The film begins with hard-bitten New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) flying to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged family. He meets his wife Holly, a pushy career woman, at her swanky office party.
Soon after, the shindig is gate-crashed by a group of heavily armed euro-terrorists intent on plundering the company safe. Led by Hans (a Teutonic Alan Rickman), the terrorists take the corporate revellers hostage but Bruce escapes and, naturally, thwarts their evil plans.
What the film offers the managerial movie-goer is a straightforward power struggle, enhanced by its corporate setting. Fans of the corporate late '80s can take a terrific nostalgia trip. Everyone works for Japanese companies, women sport big hair, coked-up execs abound and they all make desperately unfunny jokes to camera. The Thatcher/ Reagan years have never looked better.
DRUG AND ALCOHOL POLICIES
Ellis, a colleague of Holly, is clearly no stranger to recreational drug use and, during the office party, is seen hoovering up cocaine like a Bolivian vacuum cleaner. What Ellis has failed to consider is how his little powder habit may affect his judgment in a negotiation situation.
After the terrorists storm the building, Ellis misguidedly tries to negotiate with Hans, compromising Bruce's position. Perhaps fortunately, he winds up shot dead. If the company had issued clear guidelines on drug and alcohol abuse, and even offered the option of counselling, potential disaster and Ellis' death could have been averted and the company would not now be faced with the cost and inconvenience of recruiting and training his successor.
Like management guru John Adair, Hans believes that a leader is evident through his actions. Thus, when the Japanese chief executive fails to disclose the safe codes after requests and threats, Hans has little choice but to plug his forehead with a .38 slug. By killing the man so publicly and brutally, Hans reinforces his standing in the eyes of his employees, the competition and the general public, marking himself out as a leader who is not to be crossed and who gets things done. At the duo's terminal exchange, the bank chief screams, 'I don't know', to which Hans casually replies: 'OK, I'll just have to kill you.' Hans demonstrates a gift for rhetorical levity rare among chief executives and men who kill for kicks.
TAILORING YOUR MESSAGE
Having broken the neck of the man sent to kill him and taken his AK-47, Bruce displays a remarkable ability to tailor his message to his audience and unsettle his 'competitors'. As he is talking to terrorists who communicate with assault rifles and high-yield explosives, an internal memo or a quiet word over lunch will hardly suffice. Instead, he sends the corpse down in the lift to its colleagues with 'now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho' written across its chest in blood. Not only does Bruce show that the balance of power is shifting and he means business, but his light-hearted reference to Father Christmas proves that even hard-nosed businessmen can make a little time for seasonal cheer.
POKE-YOKA: ELIMINATING RISK OF ERRORS
Bruce discovers that he is out of bullets just as he tries to shoot the brother of the man he has killed. Using great initiative and flexibility in a crisis, he resorts to stunning the terrorist by throwing him into oil drums and strangling him with a handy chain rig. But, in the heat of the moment, he fails to follow the Japanese managerial doctrine of poke-yoka, which recommends that processes are designed to eliminate any risk of error. Sadly, Bruce's eastern wisdom fails him. Instead of following through by cutting the terrorist down and bashing in his skull with a nearby blunt instrument, he leaves his opponent for dead, only to discover later - to his cost - that an unconscious terrorist looks much the same as a dead one.
Even the highest-quality products can fail dismally if their launches are ill planned and the competition unknown. This becomes abundantly clear to the FBI and the LA Police Department when they launch two 'super-premium products' - a helicopter and an armoured troop carrier - against the terrorists without realising exactly what they are up against. Though powerful and impressive, helicopter gun-ships and heavily armoured cars are not a great deal of use against anti-tank weapons and Semtex-mined roofs, both of which are sported by the terrorists. The distress of the law-enforcement chiefs as they watch their minions die in a hail of flames and shattered metal is quite understandable; their surprise, however, is not.