Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Everyone has their own holiday film touchstones. For this writer, they have always been a bit more on the unusual side; while It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is great, and A Christmas Story (1983) is the worst, for example, they all pale in comparison to the greatest action film of all time; a masterpiece which just happens to take place during everyone’s favorite holiday.
Loosely adapted from the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard (1988) follows John McClane (Bruce Willis) an off-duty NYPD officer flying out to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. The trip is a Hail Mary attempt by McClane to patch things up with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Holly is attending an annual office Christmas party held by her employer, the Nakatomi Corporation. After things get off to a rocky start between the alienated lovers, McClane is left to his own devices in a private room, while Holly returns to the party.
Soon after, a group of baddies led by the enigmatic Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) arrive and stage a complete takeover of the skyscraper, taking the occupants of the party hostage, save for McClane, who manages to slip away, albeit barefoot and barely dressed. Once everyone is subdued, Hans picks executive Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta) out of the group in an effort to get the codes to the building’s vaults. While Hans and crew masquerade as terrorists, Hans soon reveals their true goal is stealing $640 million in company bearer bonds.
While everyone and their mother has seemingly aped the film’s structure,* few have done so with the same verve and style. As far as plotting goes, it is a simple, incredibly elastic premise, but what makes the film an all-time all timer is a perfect execution in every phase of production.
The script, penned by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza is air-tight, moving from one adrenaline soaked scene to the next with the precision of a Swiss watch. Stuart and de Souza wisely dispense with the exposition early on, primarily through the use of naturalistic dialogue. By the time Hans and his crew roll up, we have a sense of what is at stake for McClane, as well as Holly and the rest of the hostages. What is really brilliant, however, is the way each set piece is built around a series of goals; McClane attempting to radio the police for backup, Hans sending his henchman to retrieve the missing detonators, the failed FBI attempt to gain access into the building. Too often, action films rely on the notion that audiences want to see things explode or see cool gunfights without giving enough thought to setting them up in a meaningful way. Not so here, as the action is dictated by story circumstance, not by its potential aesthetic value. Once things get rolling, there is an undeniable energy to things, and like any great thrill ride, the film seems to know just when to ratchet things up or slow down enough to add the kind of depth lesser action flicks skip right over. Credit where it is due, a crackerjack script would not mean much without a team behind the lens capable of making it all work. Fresh off another defining action picture (Predator ) director John McTiernan teamed up with DP Jan de Bont to create a new action aesthetic; experimenting with lighting and frenetic shots to bring the thrills to life.
The economy of the action is not the only thing the script nails, as even the minor characters who are given screen-time service the story. The best of these, like Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), McClane’s LAPD man on the ground or Ellis (Hart Bochner), Holly’s blowhard co-worker, and especially Argyle (De’voreaux White), McClane’s limo driver-cum confidante are given enough shading to feel like real people, and it makes all the difference. Through a series of well-placed moments, the film effectively lays out its character beats in a way that amplifies the action by ensuring the audience never loses sight of the stakes.
The role of John McClane was offered to (and turned down by) a who’s who of action stars before going to Bruce Willis, then known primarily for a comedic role on TV series, Moonlighting (1985-1989). In hindsight, it seems laughable, but in an era dominated by larger than life figures like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Willis’ casting (and his enormous $5 million pay-day) was a borderline subversive move. Once the film was released, it transformed Willis into a bonafide action star (ironically, a persona he has had difficulty shaking in the years since) and changed the face of action forever. It is no surprise, however, as even all these years later, it remains one of his most effortlessly effective roles. As the beleaguered every man, McClane is an inspired reinvention of 80s masculinity. While then-modern counterparts were humorless save for groan-inducing one-liners, McClane is genuinely funny; similarly, unlike the invincible heroes before him, McClane spends the entirety of the film getting his ass kicked, though it is never at the expense of his wits or capability. There is no better showcase for this new breed of hero than a gunfight in which Hans directs his men to shoot out all of the glass on the floor, forcing McClane to run barefoot through the shards to escape. After he escapes, picking glass out of his feet, he confides in Sgt. Powell via radio about a message to give to his wife in case he does not make it. It is a deeply humanizing scene, and it lands like gangbusters.
Of course, no great hero is worthy of legend without a proper foil. For this writer’s money, Hans Gruber is pretty close to a lock for the best onscreen villain of all time. Alan Rickman is pretty much perfect in every note, playing an impressive range from calculated menace to sophisticated smarm. Whereas McClane is mostly reacting, every move more improvisational than the last, Hans is a man who has planned each move carefully, anticipating any obstacles save for McClane, “the fly in the ointment.” Even before the two men come face to face for the first time (in one of the film’s best scenes) the chemistry between hero and villain is crackling with energy; arguably the greatest example being the radio exchange which leads to the now infamous “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” Over the course of his long career, Rickman was regularly this good in all types of films, but what makes this performance all the more remarkable is that it was his very first onscreen role.
While it has become something of a joke for folks (guilty!) to claim Die Hard as a favorite Christmas film **, the reality is the debate surrounding it ultimately misses the point. It is a Christmas movie in the sense that it takes place during the eponymous time, and it is not because machine guns and bank robbers do not have much to do with the spirit of the holiday. Ultimately, though, this writer would argue that the debate misses the point of why folks lay claim to it. Christmas (like most holidays) is all about traditions, and for some of us, that means it is not really the holiday season until Hans Gruber falls from the top of Nakatomi Plaza. Yipee-ki-yay, and Merry Christmas!
* For years after, action movies were pitched as Die Hard on a _____. Examples include Under Siege (1992) [Die Hard on a boat], Speed (1994) [Die Hard on a bus], Air Force One (1997) [Die Hard on a plane], and so on.
** Actual favorite non-controversial Christmas film: Scrooged (1986).
(Header Image courtesy of Entertainment Weekly)