After a moderate success with his big-screen starring debut, "Blind Date", and a flat-out dismal failure with "Sunset" (both directed by Blake Edwards), Bruce Willis seemed destined to get booted right back to the prime-time TV hell. Luckily, the atypical casting of him here proved to be a stroke of genius -- he's phenomenal as the action hero of this phenomenal action film.Based upon a truly mediocre novel, Die Hard tells the tale of an NYPD officer (played by a plucky Bruce Willis, in a role turned down by Richard Gere) and his attempts to outwit a gang of European terrorists who've seized control of a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve. His estranged wife (the appealing Bonnie Bedilia) is one of the hostages, and the leader of the terrorists (a brilliant Alan Rickman) -- whose dress, demeanor, and intelligence suggest a Wall Street investment banker -- is prone to equal bits of self-admiration and cold-blooded violence. The central gimmick -- McClane running around the building clad only in undershirt and pants (sans socks and shoes) dusting off terrorists singlehandedly -- is palpably absurd, but John McTiernan's muscular direction keeps all of the outlandish story aspects intelligently aligned; we have that rare feeling of knowing we're in the hands of a director who knows exactly what he's doing, so we feel comfortable giving ourselves over to his 'vision' and leaving our common-sense detectors at the concession stand. The action sequences are, quite simply, the best ever filmed, with McTiernan's imaginative staging making the most of the limited set pieces; and when the action transports the audience out of the building and to the goings-on of the LAPD and FBI, the tension (which you could cut barbed wire with) is expertly sustained. But the film's secret weapon is its off-hand humor. Whether it's the nifty set of one-liners the gifted screenwriters have afforded Willis (as they similarly afforded Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.) or a bit of humor that's agreeably understated (like a SWAT officer pricking his finger on a rose bush), it helps sustain a jovially entertaining mood to help offset the sometimes-gory violence. Even a go-for-the-Oscar scene in a bathroom, with Willis tearfully telling a fellow officer on a radio to tell his wife he's sorry, comes off better than it should. I saw Die Hard at a sneak preview without expecting anything great from the director of Predator and the star of tv's Moonlighting. Suffice to say, I (along with practically everyone in the not-quite-packed theatre) were left stunned and filled with unbridled admiration. Sixteen years later, I still am.The first sequel had its moments but was too mechanically executed by Renny Harlin. The one after that, which was helmed by McTiernan, was more spirited and fun, but it still lacked the organic clarity of the brilliant original. Accept no substitutes.