Today I watched John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988)
There is a very outspoken group of people who claim that Die Hard is the finest of all Christmas movies, and why not? It is the story of John McClain, a New York beat cop on his way to visit his estranged family on Christmas. They are separated because his wife had a very good career opportunity in Los Angeles, so she took the kids out there. Unfortunately Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber has made hostages of everyone at the Nakatomi plaza Christmas party hostage and this includes John’s wife. These guys are no amateurs and their slick plan nullifies all attempts by the local law enforcement to bring order, so it is up to John to save the hostages, kill the bad guys, repair his damaged marriage, and learn the meaning of Christmas.
To answer whether or not this is a Christmas movie, one needs to define the genre. Certainly the season has to play into the story in some way and it does here in Die Hard, there is the Christmas party that frames the action and there are constant references to the holidays. Then of course there are the classic themes of Christmas, giving, community, and happiness, are those here? Yes indeed they are, John learns to be supportive of his wife’s far more successful career, and his entire motivation is to unite his family for the holidays in happiness. How about some Christmas music? Those classic holiday tunes are all over this film, often in some creatively ironic joke but also played straight in a number of places. So yeah, this is totally a Christmas movie if you want it to be, it doesn’t require any real stretch of logic or over analysis to see the signs.
But this is also a classic of American action, one that revolutionized the genre. The 80’s were the time of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse ‘The Body’ Venture, and other examples of idealized masculine invincibility as the hard man films of the 70’s became films of the super-man. In the modern scene it is hard to imagine, but Bruce Willis was not considered an action guy and this perception is part of Die Hard’s original genius. In the time of the super-men, John McClane reminded audiences of the power every-man, an understandably flawed and vulnerable protagonist thrown into the absurd plot of an action flick. Want to see how powerful this detail was? Look at the heroes of the 90’s, smaller guys, often damaged in emotional ways, all quite a bit more vulnerable than the twenty four inch python packing ubermesch.
Die Hard’s legacy can often be forgotten, but then the history of action cinema rarely gets the attention it deserves. On top of that, Bruce Willis’s badass persona was so successful that we have almost all forgotten his earlier career entirely, which means the impact of his every-man character is slightly diminished. John McClane was intended to be an action hero we could all see ourselves in the shoes of, well actually he has no shoes, that’s part of his vulnerability, but now he is the new ideal. Time may not have been kind to this technique, so thankfully the film doubled down and has another trick to make you care about McClane, it beats him up savagely. The damage he sustains, especially to his feet, is often cringe inducing and if your cringing, you are identifying with his pain and the film has succeeded.
Whether or not you care for the Christmas interpretation of this film or one that reads more into the plot’s use of terrorism, there is no denying that this is a very fine action film. It is a well deserving classic that is first and foremost a solid piece of crowd pleasing entertainment. It is a tightly paced thriller with some creative action set pieces and plenty of funny quips. The cast are all on point and the two central performances, Rickman’s and Willis’, have become legendary. If you take even a passing enjoyment from the genre of action, this classic deserves your attention. 5/5