Die Hard is not only the best tangential Christmas film out there, it is a perfect action film. From top to bottom, the confluence of thrilling set pieces, raw performances from fresh faces like Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, and a perfectly taut screenplay, Die Hard will forever be the litmus test for any other action spectacles of its ilk. But plenty of action films have these things, self-contained kinetics with great performances. Speed, First Blood, and yes Lethal Weapon, are a few other tightly-wound thrillers, but none are as perfect as the debut of John McClane.
What sets Die Hard apart, head and shoulders over the explosive mass of action films (and those endless ripoffs in its wake), is its nuance. More than anything the film is rich in texture, full of consequence and motivation for the wall-to-wall action. It’s these small details which work to build up to a whole, complete picture.
Think about the setup. John McClane, a dogged New York cop, is visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles for Christmas. To see the kids, no doubt, and to hopefully mend fences and find common ground, though his ego and old-world chauvinism won’t allow such compromise. John and Holly (Bonnie Bedilia, aces) have issues which run deeper than any Christmas visit will repair. One of the central issues in their relationship is Holly’s strong modern woman, a threat to McClane’s old school machismo. Her progressive character is a wonderful departure from the damsel in distress, and in a sense it emasculates John. It weakens his character significantly in the early moments, when his irritation at the use of her maiden name in her new corporate job ruins any homecoming. It sets up conflict beyond simple action tropes, it weakens John, and it allows him to somehow grow through the film. He not only wants to rescue his wife, he wants to make amends, and in the moments of despair that consume John throughout the film, he carries on with this deep-seated desire to get one last chance to tell Holly he’s sorry and that he loves her.
The scene in the bathroom when John is talking to Al Powell on the walkie-talkie, telling him what to tell Holly because he may not make it out of this, is especially poignant and a more emotional moment than any film of this type promises from the outset. John is broken, bloodied, his feet shredded from the shattered glass; he is once again stripped of any indestructible heroism. This is where the sequels (except for maybe the third film, another John McTiernan entry) get John McClane wrong. Here, he is no superman, he is just a detective from New York in over his head. And in this bathroom, pulling shards of glass out of his feet, John McClane has doubt. It’s what made this character so indelible, and what has sadly been left out of the subsequent films.
And how about those bare feet? A throwaway line from the first scene in the film, when another passenger tells him “make fists with your toes” to relieve stress, carries significant weight. It’s what gets John out of his shoes and socks, and leaves him even more vulnerable. The fact John can eventually overcome so many obstacles, both personally and physically, are deft touches in the screenplay from Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (working from the Roderick Thorp novel), adding layers to our hero. The character construction of John McClane was a watershed moment for action pictures, which were coming out of the Reagan-era indestructible action hero and would therein transition into a more stripped down, humanistic protagonist. For the most part, anyway.
Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is a revelation, emphasizing the old Hitchcock line that a film is only as strong as its villain. Rickman, a classically-trained actor at the time, oozes slick confidence early in the film. But as McClane systematically begins mucking up the works, his mask of coolness begins to slip. By the end, Gruber is manic, almost unhinged and desperate. And his team of terrorists have their own moments. A rather memorable scene, highlighting some of the subtlety in the film, is when Gruber is grilling Takagi for the codes to his vault. While Gruber sits, pointing his gun at Takagi, Karl and Theo (Alexander Godunov and Clarence Gilyard Jr.) are watching a bet they’ve made play out in front of them. Karl has bet Theo Takagi will give up the codes, and when he doesn’t and is murdered, Karl slaps some cash in Theo’s hand. It’s a moment easy to miss behind the foreground tension, but a brilliant sociopathic touch to two of Gruber’s most memorable cronies.
But of course, Die Hard is an action film first and foremost. The set pieces are incredible, and the leap from the exploding rooftop is undoubtedly one of the more iconic moments in action cinema. The action also builds a template for imitators – and imitators came in droves after Die Hard. John is weak and vulnerable, he kills a terrorist, gains weaponry and confidence, and the story builds from there. Amidst everything, the film riffs on the buddy cop formula that was still fresh in the 80s. His relationship with Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) rings true, though for the majority of the picture the two men never meet face to face. It sets up an emotional introduction at the end of the film, where these two police officers, who know so very much about each other, finally get to embrace.
One of the most important aspects of the film is the way the action, however spectacular, is grounded. Thanks to an as yet unsullied performance from Willis. No matter how extravagant the set pieces may be, there is a true sense of physics at play. The self-contained setting, a single building, also enhances this realism. When McClane leaps from the rooftop, a firehose tied around his waist the only thing keeping him from certain death, it is not only thrilling, but desperate. It feels like it could really happen, that it’s the last resort of a man just trying to survive. The entire film, for that matter, is a survival test just as much as it’s McClane trying to stop the bad guys. He is outmanned and outgunned, but his confrontations with the terrorists never involves three guys standing around him waiting to throw punches one at a time. He never takes on more than one or two at a time because of the brilliant cat-and-mouse structure of the screenplay. This is spectacular action told from a dedication to truth.
Setting the events of Die Hard during Christmas is one layer, but aside from a few jingle bells on the soundtrack and a decoration here and there, it does enhance the emotion of the film. Christmas is a time for family, reconciliation, happiness. It’sall John wanted, but it isn’t what he would get this day. And it’s simply another bit of texture added to the film to make it feel like a complete, essential, perfect action thriller.