Action films are always difficult for me to critique. Save a few exceptions, namely action films that fall a bit closer to the heist, crime or revenge genre labels, such as Oldboy, Kill Bill or Bonnie & Clyde, I really don't care too much for the genre. At all. They are almost always lacking in artistry and social commentary. I understand that fans of these movies find the gunfights and explosions "awesome" and "epic." I just find them boring.
Die Hard is a film that has an occasional, and I stress that word, hint of intelligent, artistic film making in it. For example, on two specifically memorable occasions, John McClane and Hans compare John to the action hero screen legends of the past, e.g. John Wayne, Roy Rogers (the codename John uses when talking to Sergeant Al), which leads to the larger comment on the "all Americans are cowboys" stereotype. This is interesting, but it's only sparingly mentioned, and mentioned in such an goofy and cheesy way that I didn't feel that any true, significant statement was being made about the stereotype.
One aspect I did like is that the film began with exposition. Most action films will begin with a scene of action to establish the excited mood and feeling that accompanies an action film, then slow down later to get to the characterization. This film opens with the characterization, allowing the audience a chance to get to know and sympathize with John even before stuff starts going down, which I thought was a nice and appropriate change of pace from what I expected. John is such an "every man" that the film needs to open with getting to know him and establishing him as such, rather that an over-the-top action scene to establish that you're watching an action film; the rest of the movie makes that crystal clear.
I also liked the pacing and editing of the first thirty to forty minutes or so of the film. I liked the transition between the slow, tender moments with John and Holly, to the quick, chaotic moments with Hans and his team. I like how this shows, especially after the terrorists make their presence known, that John shows his duality between being the every man dealing with the stresses of family life, and the badass cop "playing by his own rules," as the cliche goes.
But, sadly, these are really the only few moments in the film I enjoyed. Once the action begins, it does not let up. In fact it becomes so overbearing that no artistry whatsoever can peek its head into the production. All the bits of story, plot and character development, and suspense are so obvious and cliche that they were of no interest to me. John McClane's bravado and cocksureness, with his clever one-liners and imperviousness in gunfights, make it impossible for the viewer to doubt that he will triumph before credits roll.
For a film like this to work, I would say there are two options. One option is to make your lead character more vulnerable. Inception, for one, does a marvelous job of this. Cobb is such a vulnerable, conflicted character that the audience genuinely doubts whether he will succeed in his mission; even after the film ends, and the totem continues to spin, that doubt still lingers. The other route is to break the fourth wall, or even break what I call the "third-and-a-half" wall. Kill Bill does very well in doing the latter. Watching the film (I consider both volumes as one film), I get the sense that Tarantino knows his film is predictable, but by referencing past films, some of which had also been predictable, and by making the experience remarkably beautifully photographed and set-up, not to mention much better performances from Uma Thurman and David Carradine that Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman manage to bring to the table, Kill Bill is also able to succeed where Die Hard failed.
If your thing is action films with little artistry and social importance, a fun exciting ride without a real raison d'etre, then Die Hard will most definitely be found in your section of the video store. And God bless you for that. However, you probably won't find me in that section. You can probably find me in the foreign, classics, or horror sections instead.