'Die Hard' is the Unconventional Christmas Gift That Keeps on Giving
by Tyler Wantuch
December 24, 2012
Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) has checked his list once, has checked it twice and is now gonna decide who's naughty or nice. Poor Mr. Takagi (James Shigeta) has unfortunately been deemed naughty for not assisting in this holiday heist and has been handled accordingly. Just like Father Christmas, Hans labors relentlessly to prepare for one glorious night in which he can bring an awfully large present to his loyal elves country-less mercenaries. Hans and his cronies all arrive by a train of unmarked vehicles in place of a bell-toting sleigh and come up from the underground parking lot instead of down the chimney. Read on!
Once inside, he creates tiny Christmas miracles: fooling the fire department into turning around and having the FBI cut the power to release the vault's final safeguard. Hans laughs despite his lack of a bowl full of jelly for he knew these "miracles" would happen. And while the soundtrack blasts Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," his cohorts' faces soon brighten like children on Christmas morning as the vault swings slowly open revealing the priceless gifts. Just like Santa Claus, Christmas Eve was Hans' night and nothing could ruin it, except perhaps the Grinch of a New York cop named John McClane (Bruce Willis). Die Hard which will soon be joined by A Good Day to Die Hard in 2013, is one Christmas movie of which I cannot get enough.
Die Hard is one of those films that only seems to come every few years when everything on the screen, to put it bluntly, just worked. Its fluid nature of not adhering to any genre, coupled with Jan De Bont's stellar cinematography takes this action-Christmas-thriller into the "classic" realm. Neither the Christmas nor the action side of the film make a convincing argument for any genre. In fact, both aspects are merely sprinkled, like a freakish California snowfall, throughout the plot. We hear as many songs and mentions of the holidays as we receive action-esque explosions filled with machine gun fire that tears offices to bits. But the moments of Christmas and the moments of action are all in passing, which is a good thing. If the film went full throttle into a predictable action formula or, even worse, somehow tied a Hallmark miracle into the ending, we wouldn't be talking about this film 24 years later. Its chameleon-like style allows the film to stay light on its feet and allow the actors and setting to fill in the blanks needed for its darker tone.
This darker tone comes via the use of thriller techniques. With steamy crevices, darkened hallways and machine gun toting monsters, the meat and potatoes of Die Hard is similar to a horror film. There is something Alien-esque about De Bont's officescape that traps and suffocates John McClane inside the nightmarish high-rise. John stumbles through the screen, cut up from glass and beaten repeatedly by freakishly large Europeans. He acts less like an action star and more as if he were a final girl in a B-movie slasher flick. We see him hiding in silence and climbing through secret catacombs instead of blasting his way through hordes of bad guys, not to mention the inclusion of several horror clichés like the bumbling, unsupportive police and the "sinner"/doomed-to-be-killed character - in this case cocky drug addict, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner). Nor can we ignore the typical and sudden return of Karl (Alexander Godunov), the largest of Hans' elves, who appears from the "dead" only to be shot down by Carl Winslow look-alike Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).
This thriller approach intensifies John's resourcefulness and cunning while limiting the over-the-top shenanigans that are the downfall of most action films. Because we're worried John will be caught in nearly every scene, we're relieved each and every time he escapes by the skin of his teeth. Each act of violence against him becomes a badge of honor, until John McClane becomes a more of a survivor than a hero. How could this hodgepodge of cinema (thriller with hints of action and Christmas) not only survive itself, but also thrive to the point of demanding multiple sequels and earn the ridiculous standard of being one of the best Christmas movies ever made?
Bruce Willis is the short answer. John McClane is an action star unlike the usual Rambos and Kickboxers of the time: he is imperfect. Bruce Willis has made a living off of playing the flawed hero (see Unbreakable, The Fifth Element, RED - or any pretty much any other Bruce Willis film). He can't seem to get away from such roles. In Die Hard, McClane is afraid of flying, he second guesses his own actions and he doesn't know how to say sorry to his wife (to name just a few of his issues). The list of flaws grows larger as the film rolls on, but another, more important list grows as well: his achievements.
With everything that he complains about or is frightened by, McClane still manages to overcome and flourish inside the disastrous situation. His flaws help present him as a realistic hero: one that is scared of jumping off a sky-rise with only a fire hose tied to his waist, but also one who is capable of fantastic action movie feats - such as jumping off a sky-rise with only a fire hose tied to his waist. The Janus effect of being both realistic and fantastic help immerse him deep into our psyche. He is real enough to be believed and fantastic enough to catch our imagination. Being armed with some of the best one-liners doesn't hurt either. He's similar to another franchise that focuses on a flawed hero: Indiana Jones. Instead of hating snakes he hates flying; instead of not wanting to save the whiney blonde, John doesn't want to continue fighting with glass in his feet. Not a bad archetype for a film's protagonist to follow.
John McClane may be the short answer to why Die Hard works, but the long answer is tied deep into his relationship with our Santa-esque villain, Hans Gruber. The film pits our flawed hero against a perfectionist of an opponent. Hans is the type of antagonist you love to hate. A villain who, in his mind, has calculated every minuscule detail; a villain who, because of this planning, is dripping in confidence. Our irritation grows when we discover that even the supposed mistakes end up being part of the plan after all.
Hans is a top of the line production of this type of foe, and it's the "opposites attract" relationship between him and John that keep our eyes glued to the screen. Hans is a well-kempt, patient, intelligent criminal who would much rather plot and plan then ever put up his dukes. John McClane, however, is a hot-headed, blue collared, fisticuffs hero. Their differences are highlighted throughout the film, begging us to compare the two men as they both struggle for control. Hans stubbornly refuses to alter his plan regardless of any mischief John creates, whether he has stolen the detonators, notified the police early or even killed half of his men. From start to nearly finish, his course stays rigid.
Meanwhile, John is constantly adapting his strategy according to the situation. He can never get too comfortable because new surprises lurk around each corridor. In a twist towards the end, the two men switch personalities. Hans becomes erratic due to his rising anger towards McClane which changes his steadfast behavior. He impulsively kidnaps John's wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). When John enters for the final showdown, he, not Gruber, has planned ahead by means of a taped pistol to his neck. In the ensuing moments we realize Gruber is outmatched. John is capable of not only improvisation, but planning as well. Han isn't capable of thinking on his feet, which leads to his undoing.
Die Hard is an anomaly. It's magic caught in a bottle. The cinematography and the actors push this mediocre script to limits that could not have been imagined. I'm reminded of Casablanca, a picture that required several directors and countless rewrites, and somehow, under all of these constraints, came out nearly perfect. Die Hard did not go through such lengths to be made, but when all was said and done in both films, something magical was captured, a sum greater than its parts. We can dissect and argue about what makes Die Hard so special - be it the fluid treatment of genre, the flawed hero, or the wonderful pairing of hero and villain. It's all in vain, though, as we should simply consider Die Hard a Christmas miracle.