Christmas movies more or less fall into the same broad patterns, telling the same kinds of stories. It’s not about the presents, it’s about being good to each other. Time at your job isn’t as valuable as time with your family. The best way to understand the meaning of Christmas is to somehow save it…blah, blah, blah. None of these pave the way for especially good storytelling, to be honest. But if you want a truly kickass Christmas story for people who aren’t particularly into Christmas, then stick a lone police officer in a high-rise office building with a band of German terrorists and have them remind each other repeatedly that gunfights are just like Christmas: it is better to give than it is to receive. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Die Hard, the greatest Christmas movie of all time.
NYPD officer John McClane flies to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to see his estranged wife, Holly Genarro-McClane, a successful executive at the Nakatomi Corporation. Holly pursued a great career out west, John wasn’t that supportive and stayed back East, and their marriage has suffered mightily for it. On a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, John meets Holly at her company’s Christmas party. But during the shindig, a team of German terrorists, led by the impeccably dressed and mannered Hans Gruber, take over the building and seal it off. They take the entire party hostage while they they work on cracking the company’s vault, which contains some $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds. Only John avoids the initial dragnet runs around the building by himself, trying to stop the heist. At first, he contacts the police, but the LAPD—and later, the FBI—manage to make every bad decision possible, so assisted only by amiable patrolman Al Powell over the radio, McClane wages a one-man guerilla war upon Hans and his minions, armed mainly with the weapons he’s managed to take off of dead terrorists. As the night goes on, and Hans realizes McClane is a bigger threat than he initially gave him credit for, Holly gets way more involved than is healthy for her, and what has started as a high-stakes robbery has become a full-blown police siege on plastered all over the nightly news. McClane didn’t sign up for any of this. And he’s not superhero. He’s just a guy who wants to get back to his wife for Christmas. If only all of these terrorists and cops would just get out of the way.
If you had jumped into a time machine and went back to 1984—the golden age of guys like Chuck Norris, Slyvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger—and said the next big action hero would be a guy about to star in a prime-time detective dramedy filled with snappy patter, sexual tension and an extremely unreliable production history, you’d be laughed back into spacetime. But you would have been right, though. Die Hard is the movie that made Bruce Willis, in large part because Bruce Willis is the guy who made Die Hard. This is a skillfully done action movie with terrific camera work, tight editing, and a fun plot that doesn’t make you roll your eyes too much. The action sequences are numerous and fun, becoming iconic gems of 80s action cinema, inspiring plenty of imitation in the years to follow.
But the secret ingredient is Willis himself, who is utterly believable as a smartass trained to fight bad guys, sure, but maybe one at a time and with plenty of backup. Throughout the movie, Willis’ McClane manages to survive one encounter with the bad guys after another due as much to luck as to skill, and in the downtime, relentlessly gripes about how tonight wasn’t supposed to be like this, about he can’t find a decent pair of shoes, and how much he can’t stand it out here in California. It’s not often we get an action hero who would rather be doing anything else than saving the day, but McClane is stuck with this, and for every punch he throws and every bullet he fires, we appreciate the poor guy’s frustration. If heroes are ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations, then McClane is the biggest hero ever, and he’d the last guy who’d tell you he deserves the title. He will tell you just how much it sucks to crawl ventilation shafts all night. A lot.
But if McClane is the heroes the 80s really needed, then Hans Gruber was the villain the 80s deserved. Impeccably played by the late, great Alan Rickman, Gruber is a ruthless and cultured villain whose pedigree clearly outshines everybody else in the room. When Gruber shows up, you’re happy just to hear the guy talk, even if it’s to countdown the seconds before he shoots a hostage. Hearing Gruber manage his team, needle McClane over the phone, and stay one step ahead of the cops…it all makes you start rooting for the bad guys. And for a large part of the movie, you kind of do. As the cops and feds make an utter hash of things, you can’t help prefer Gruber’s meticulous planning and restraint versus the macho cowboy antics we know will win out in the end here.
About halfway through, Gruber accidentally bumps into McClane in the depths of the Nakatomi building, and in the moment of truth that follows, we get an excellent mental game where the two try to figure each other out, and then try to not tip their hand that they have succeeded. It’s the kind of scene that puts the best qualities of both characters forward, and provides a chance to make this high-octane spectacle of gunfights, chases and explosions something a bit more personal. Die Hard didn’t have to this, but when it did, it elevated itself above a mere game of cops and robbers. It became about McClane versus Gruber, and no matter which one loses, the audience wins. #YKYMF