Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie. Mostly because it is set on Christmas but it is not about Christmas. If I’m being honest, Christmas isn’t a favorite holiday of mine. I don’t care for most Christmas movies including supposed classics such as A Christmas Story and the loathsome, grotesque, and lowbrow National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Die Hard is a Christmas movie for people like me, those who don’t enjoy Christmas movies.
On Christmas Day, John McClain has arrived in Los Angeles in hopes of reuniting with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Things get off to a bad start when John arrives at Holly’s office and finds that now living in Los Angeles, she’s dropped the last name McClane, in favor of her maiden name Gennero. The two begin to argue but they never finish the argument, first after her boss calls and then when terrorists arrive and begin taking over the building, known as Nakatomi Plaza.
John is changing clothes when he hears gunshots. He quickly intuits the situation using his instincts, he’s a New York Police Detective whose job has been a significant strain on his personal life. John quickly assesses the situation and after escaping to an upper, unfinished floor of the building, he attempts to contact the police. Unfortunately the cops don’t believe him when he calls and only dispatch one cop to the scene.
Sgt Al Powell (Reginald Vel Johnson) was thinking it would be a quiet night of enjoying twinkies in his cruiser but when he arrive at Nakatomi Plaza the shooting starts and his quiet night turns into a major hostage situation and the only things keeping a bloodbath at bay are Al and his new friend who won’t give his name. The two veteran cops bond quickly and even more when other less capable cops arrive on the scene and begin to screw things up.
The terrorists are headed up by the nefariously ingenious Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Making it appear as if they have taken hostages, Hans has the cops running around in circles while his real plan unfolds. Only John McClane stands between Hans and his ultimate goal, a whole boatload of money. Hans’ ruse is brilliant and Rickman’s supremely intelligent and superior performance gives the whole film gravity.
In many ways, Willis and RIckman were perfectly matched as hero and villain. Where John is instinctive and primal, Hans is calculating and manipulative. Hans is a buttoned up, professional criminal, used to telling others to do the dirty work, McClane is a blue collar cop who acts on hunches and well worn experience. John’s unpredictable nature isn’t merely a character trait, it becomes a strategy and Willis is remarkable in deploying it.
Willis brings an authenticity to John McClane that matches his star power and charisma and makes John McClane an indelible hero. The film has an old school western feel in terms of the battle of good and evil. John may not be the picture of white hat virtue, but rather, he’s a more down to Earth and believable kind of good. Hans meanwhile, has an alluring evil, though you’re never on his side, you wouldn’t feel too bad if he fooled you.
Rickman’s arrogant superiority is his most nefarious quality. Even more than his murderous plot, his stuffy, accented, suited persona is a relatable sort of evil. He’s not the picture of either a terrorist or a killer, yet he feels more real than many actual, real world villains because Rickman is so incredible at playing him. His arrogance and his suit are reminiscent of the kind of Wall Street villains that Oliver Stone had recently introduced us to. He’s just more honest than them because he robs and murders people in front of you and not from behind a desk.
The blue collar qualities of Al and John make them our automatic allies. More of us relate to John and Al than any of the stuffy, suited types in Nakatomi Plaza. It’s part of their charm and a big part of the performances of Willis and VelJohnson. John and Al seem like people we know, people we could have a beer with. The divide between them and the suit wearing villains are signifiers that director John McTiernan clever uses to create a subliminal divide underneath the the obvious criminal and not a criminal divide.
The action in Die Hard is top notch. Director McTiernan stacks the odds against John McClane brilliantly. The stakes rise in each passing scene with John and Holly’s identity as husband and wife acting in many ways like a bomb about to explode the story at any moment. The name game with Holly is also a terrific piece of screenwriting as the argument over the name tells us everything we need to know about the strain between John and Holly.
Many screenwriters need a page and a half of dialogue to tell us what the names Gennaro and McClane and the hurt in John’s voice and manner do in a single scene. Die Hard is rarely thought of as being a great screenplay but Jeb Stuart and co-writer Steven E de Souza deserve nearly as much credit as director John McTiernan. The economy of character building in John, Holly, Hans and Al is really remarkable. We learn more about them from their actions than we would from endless pages of expository dialogue.
Die Hard is Christmas for me because I watch it every Christmas. It’s the kind of smart, well-worn action movie that is perfect holiday comfort food. The familiarity, the easy good versus evil story, the action that even after 30 years feels refreshingly new and ever exciting. Die Hard is the gift that keeps on giving. 30 years of thrills, 30 years of pithy hero banter, and 30 years of watching Hans Gruber falling to his death. Merry Christmas indeed.