‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except… the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation…”
Directed by: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson
In a Nutshell:
Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies of all time and over recent years it has also developed a reputation as a cult Christmas viewing choice. Nowadays, discussing its merits as a festive favourite has become as much a part of the holiday tradition as arguing with racist relatives or pretending to like eggnog. Otherwise, John McTiernan’s rip-roaring classic needs little in the way of introduction and makes great viewing any time of year, whether you think it is a Christmas movie or not…
NYPD detective John McClane (Willis) arrives in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to try making amends with his estranged wife Holly (Bedelia), who moved from coast to coast with their kids to take a sweet promotion within the Nakatomi Corporation. Bonnie’s employer is throwing a Christmas party at the plush Nakatomi Plaza, and a limo driver, Argyle (De’voreaux White) is sent to pick up McClane from the airport and take him to the celebration.
Soon after he arrives, the building is taken over by a gang of heavily armed robbers posing as terrorists, led by the suave Hans Gruber (Rickman). They take everyone hostage apart from McClane, who manages to escape into the unfinished upper floors of the tower. The gang has designs on the $640 million in bearer bonds locked in the building’s vault, and Gruber’s masterplan relies on a crucial intervention by the FBI as the hostage situation develops.
Meanwhile, the barefooted and heavily outgunned McClane must rely on his street smarts to save his wife and the other hostages before Gruber’s scheme comes to deadly fruition…
Originally intended as a sequel to The Detective, a 1968 crime movie starring Frank Sinatra, Ol’ Blue Eyes was given the first refusal on the part of John McClane. Thankfully he turned it down as he was 70 years old. The role was then offered to everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Don Johnson before it landed with Bruce Willis, known mostly for light comedy at the time. It turned out to be inspired casting as Willis made the jump to action superstar in one death-defying leap from an exploding skyscraper.
Subsequent inferior sequels have amped up McClane’s wisecracks and diminished his charm, so it is always a nice surprise to be reminded how much subtlety Willis brings to the part, summed up by his delivery of the oft-quoted “Yippee-Ki-Yay, Motherfucker“. It isn’t just tossed out there as a one-liner for profanity’s sake, but rather as a well-deserved kiss-off during McClane and Gruber’s game of cat-and-mouse over the radio. It is also worth noting that it isn’t yelled aggressively or triumphantly like many people often misquote it in CAPITALS – Willis almost whispers the line before slipping out of a doorway to extend the chase. As for his other wisecracks, they are often delivered for his own benefit, almost as a source of comfort as he is increasingly bloodied, beaten and exhausted by his one-man stand against the odds. These believable everyman moments made McClane a hero everyone could relate to.
The role of Hans Gruber was a film debut for Tony-award winning thespian Alan Rickman, who was already in his forties by the time he took the part. It was once again inspired casting – Rickman’s portrayal of the ruthless criminal mastermind whose feathers are ruffled by the resourceful cop screwing up his plans set the template of Hollywood movie villains for the next few decades.
Aside from the two stars, the smaller roles are full of canny, well-rounded performances. Bonnie Bedelia shows resolve and vulnerability as Holly, who finds herself as the de-facto spokesperson for the hostages after her boss is executed by Gruber; Reginald VelJohnson is terrific as deskbound LAPD sergeant Powell who develops a rapport with McClane over the radio; Hart Brochner as Ellis, the hilariously sleazy Nakatomi exec who thinks he can cut a deal with the terrorists (“Sprechen sie talk?”); William Atherton as the loathsome TV reporter Richard Thornburg, who I like to imagine as the cousin of loathsome city official Walter Peck in Ghostbusters.
Michael Kamen’s fantastic sleigh-bell laden score is a huge part of the film. It also works in motifs from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, used to its greatest effect in one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the film – how well it involves us in the gang’s masterplan. When that vault finally swings open and the “Ode to Joy” fully kicks in, it is hard not to feel their sense of elation and excitement. On top of the terrific score, there are also some well-chosen Christmas tunes from “Winter Wonderland” to “Christmas in Hollis” to set the seasonal mood. Speaking of which…
So is it a Christmas Movie or Not?
Well, the film is set on Christmas Eve at a Christmas Party and there is a lot of Christmassy music on the soundtrack. The hero’s wife is even called Holly. However, setting a movie at Christmas does not make it a Christmas movie – I don’t see so many people arguing the case for Lethal Weapon despite it also being set during the festive period.
The thing that seals the deal with Die Hard is that McClane goes on a very similar journey to George Bailey in that nailed-on Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The circumstances are different and we don’t get so much of McClane’s back story, but like Bailey, he must survive a deadly situation, learn to appreciate what he really has, and find a way back to his family. Powell even serves as a benign Clarence-like character, helping McClane come to terms with his past troubles with his wife and realise how much he really loves her. It is a redemptive arc emphasising the value of family and friends, and one that is befitting a true Christmas classic – even with more guns, explosions and swears than the usual fare.
There is only one bum note in the whole movie, and that is the conclusion of Powell’s redemptive arc. As we find out, he is a desk sergeant because in the past he accidentally shot a kid and couldn’t bring himself to draw his weapon on another human being again. However, right at the very end Karl, one of the terrorists, bursts out of the building and tries to shoot McClane – but thankfully Powell overcomes his hangup and takes down the villain instead. Yay! The cuddly cop can blow away bad guys again!
It’s a bit of an iffy moment that could have been resolved in a better way. What if McClane’s kids had come to greet their daddy and Karl had grabbed one of them instead? Imagine it – bloodied and grisly Karl snarling and pushing a gun to the kid’s head, getting ready to pull the trigger, THEN Powell intervenes. His hands are trembling – it has to be a good shot otherwise he’s gonna rack up another accidental kiddy kill…
Die Hard is an awesome movie that withstands repeat viewings. It is still exciting even on the 18th viewing thanks to the masterful way McTiernan steadily escalates the situation towards an explosive conclusion and a smart, funny screenplay that really makes us care about the characters. As for whether it’s a Christmas movie – I’ve stated my case but I’m not going to say if anyone else is right or wrong on this matter. I guess it very much depends on your values and what you expect from a seasonal offering. Let’s just say that if you don’t think Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, go ahead and enjoy Christmas with the Kranks, or whatever else it is you like to watch this time of year…
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