|Synopsis||An NYPD officer tries to save his wife and several others taken hostage by German terrorists during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles. (IMDB)|
|Length||2 hours, 12 minutes|
|Release Date||July 12, 1988|
|Distribution||Twentieth Century Fox (theatrical), HBO Max (VOD)|
|Writing||Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza. Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp|
|Starring||Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Alan Rickman|
I remember when I first watched Die Hard. I had just learnt to drive and was able to go to Blockbuster by myself. Being a woman, seemingly everyone my age at the time was into period piece romances, where a Jane Austen film adaptation or two would feature at every girls only night. Movies starring the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis would face the jeers of my friends; they were “big dumb action movies” and we mustn’t like them by virtue of our sex! Somehow I knew I was missing out on something wonderful. Deprived of the classic 80s action films that fascinated my brothers growing up though I was never allowed to watch, my first order of business at Blockbuster was to rent some of those standard franchises. First up was a film with a title that practically screamed “I’m a big, dumb action movie”… Die Hard.
It was a solid movie. Entertaining. Brilliant, even. One of the best…
In the years that followed, whenever someone asked what my favorite Christmas movie was, I was quick to respond, “Die Hard,” with smirk across my face. The Christmas genre had a tendency to feature films dripping with saccharine and romanticized ideals, and maybe a part of my response was a way to chip away at the stereotype that surrounded “big dumb action films”. It started as a joke, but soon the remark became popular, bordering on common. It’s now at the point where people are genuinely wondering if Die Hard actually is the greatest Christmas movie of them all?
I’d like to argue that such a playing field is too small to truly encompass the greatness of this film’s cultural contribution to cinema.
Violence/Scary Images: The central plot of the film revolves around a group of criminals that operate like a terrorist organization. They execute a number of hostages – they’re shot in the head, and although the movie is not exploitative with its level of gore, a realistic amount of blood splatter is seen. There are frequent gun and fist fights resulting in death. One character is strangled. One character bleeds heavily from glass injuries. Law enforcement are either shot or blown up inside their vehicles. There are many large explosions. There are a number of scenes that involve risky movements performed at a lethal height – one character falls to their death. A helicopter crashes.
Language/Crude Humor: Frequent coarse language – over fifty droppings of the f-bomb, over thirty s-words, multiple variations of a**, a sprinkling of more minor cusses, whilst God and Jesus’ names are used in vain a handful of times.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character briefly snorts cocaine – it’s mostly off screen though it’s implied through dialogue that’s he’s high. Some characters appear drunk. Cigarettes are frequently smoked throughout the film’s runtime.
Sexual Content: Brief nudity featuring a topless woman – it is implied that two workmates were hooking up when they were interrupted. There is a poster featuring a topless woman; it is seen twice in the film. A man kisses another man while wishing him a Merry Christmas; the other man is taken aback by the bold gesture.
Spiritual Content: There is one brief sentence about “the man upstairs”.
Other Negative Content: The film’s central characters are going through a divorce. The villains are thieves that have no issue in terrorizing and executing innocent people in order to achieve their nefarious goals.
Positive Content: Despite his personal misgivings with certain people, the protagonist values the lives of the innocent, with the film portraying a classic good vs. evil situation. While the world might seem against him, the hero tries everything in his power to stop crimes from being committed and unnecessary loss of life. The movie centralizes on the reconciliation of a marriage after a falling out, signifying there are ways to make amends.
“Genre” is a weird little concept. Society tried to find a method of grouping together or otherwise classifying similar films—using the formula of the plot, setting, characters, style and structure, and iconography—linking like-minded traits that naturally arose. But then studios started reversing the process and created movies to fit into particular categories, like a chicken or the egg scenario; does film define genre, or does the genre define the film? Now some think films must follow set rules as dictated by the genre’s conventions, when really it all begun merely as a way to pitch or market certain plots: “If you liked this movie, then logic states that you’d like this similar styled/themed film as well!” Some films, like Halloween, are raised up as the epitome of a genre, whilst others, like Parasite, spin the heads of critics.
So the question as to whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie can be argued from either direction. Since genre classification itself can be rather arbitrary (as in its simplest form it’s a method of organization), then audiences can tighten or loosen their definition of what classifies a production as a Christmas movie as they see fit, just like how some will broaden the western genre to include Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Yet things fall apart when it’s practically applied: Elf, The Muppet Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Polar Express, Miracle on 34th Street, Klaus, and Die Hard are all said to be Christmas films, though it’s clear that one is not like the others. Likewise, Die Hard seems to be a poor recommendation if someone claimed they enjoyed one of those listed and wished to view another movie in a similar vein. Even in the “anti-Christmas” subgenre, where the typical tropes are subverted, Gremlins, Krampus, Black Christmas, and The Nightmare Before Christmas all seem to have more in common with each other than Die Hard. The closest we get is Home Alone, where it feels like the childish cousin to its more adult fare.
But maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe people claim that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie because it’s simply an awesome film that’s worth watching in the first place. Yet staking a foothold in the Christmas genre feels like making Die Hard the big fish of a small pond, when really it’s a film that has the capacity to be seen as the king of an ocean. The argument undermines the movie’s true testament; who cares about the Christmas genre when we’re talking about the best action film in Western cinema? Only Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Matrix have the strength to challenge its crown, but even they slip and slide into sci-fi territory, leaving Die Hard to gain the admiration of genre purists.
After all, Die Hard revolutionized the action genre. They’re not as old as one might think—action films started popping up around the 70s. Its granddaddy was the western, and while its Eastern cinematic brother developed kung-fu, the West branched off and founded the action. Films in this genre still retained the western’s tendency for suspense-filled, quick editing techniques and the use of slow motion, and blended it with the ‘spectacle’ of early blockbusters, specializing in narratives driven by the threat of an external force which the protagonist tries to stop through physical means.
In many ways, Die Hard still pays homage to its western roots. Hero John McClane is referred to as a “cowboy” a number of times. It’s a classic good vs. evil storyline. Bad guys wear black and the good guy wears white (at least in the beginning). Since McClane is a police officer, he could be likened to a sheriff of a township that’s overrun with bandits. Meanwhile the film’s vehicles can also be oddly equated with trusty steeds. Then there’s the cinematography, where many people don’t believe a Christmas is complete until they see Hans Gruber’s legendary slow motion descent, which takes place straight after an alternative version of a quick draw gunfight.
There’s another way to analyze genre, which can be helpful to understand how Die Hard adapted, mastered, then revolutionized the filmic elements of the past. Northrop Frye developed a method of categorization that was through classifying the main character. In his system there’s the Epic/Mythic (“where the protagonist is superior to others and the environment”), Romance/Romantic (“superior in degree to others and the environment”), High Mimetic (“superior in degree to others, but not the environment”), Low Mimetic (“superior to neither others or the environment”) and Ironic (“inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves”). Using Frye’s method, Die Hard is classified as Low Mimetic, where the hero is “one of us.” It may not sound anything special now, but back in the day action films were usually Romantic in their classification (using heroes that were far above average in skill, not to be confused with the romance genre), where Die Hard was the first to challenge the norm.
In the decade before Die Hard, actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the popular action leads of the day. Die Hard certainly didn’t invent the “one man army” trope; Stallone and Schwarzenegger were constantly playing roles that featured these unusually talented men that represented the top-tier of humanity in terms of their physical prowess, who were more than capable of mowing down faceless enemies. Action hero protagonists were frequently skilled mercenaries, hardened by years of dedicated training, and while the likes of John Rambo were flawed by their PTSD, they were still a far cry from your average American.
Enter Bruce Willis. At the time he was a relatively no-name actor, though he was on track to quickly becoming Hollywood’s newest heartthrob thanks to his role on the TV show, Moonlighting. His casting in Die Hard was unconventional and perceived as against his type. He was a fit guy, but he had nothing on the physical bulk typically seen in action roles filled by the likes of Stallone or Schwarzenegger. It would be the equivalent of casting Hugh Grant in a big-budget action extravaganza right at the height of his characteristic “fop” years, or similar to what’s happened with Robert Patterson, where he’s been controversially cast as the new Batman even though the general public only know him from the romance-driven Twilight franchise. There was a point when Bruce Willis didn’t even feature on the film’s poster, where the marketing team decided to focus on the skyscraper instead, as though to leech off The Towering Inferno’s popularity. In this way, Bruce Willis and his character, John McClane, have a lot in common. They are underestimated. The underdog. They’re pushed to the side.
John McClane was the first everyman action hero who shared the struggles familiar to the male majority. He wasn’t a superhuman battling to save the world, rather he was just trying to get by, feeling the pressure and confines of society’s expectations. Try as he might, he feels outdone in every way—career, finances, relationship status—where they are all smaller battles in a war against the system. Not only does the action of the film take place in the Nakatomi skyscraper—a building that represents the impeding influence of foreign business—but John McClane is there in the first place due to his wife’s decision to take a job with the Nakatomi Corporation in LA in order to further her career, instead of staying in New York where he works as a policeman. On top of this, we find out that his wife, Holly, has also decided to take up her maiden name. Not only is it rare to see the action hero in a relationship, but it is also a dysfunctional one, causing the audience to sympathize with John McClane compared to other, more stoic action heroes such as Rambo or the mercenaries in Predator (1987). As the story progresses, McClane finds himself stuck between two groups of people—the ungrateful hostages and the incompetent law enforcement, molding McClane’s character into a lone ranger.
Unlike previous action films, Die Hard was the first to have the entirety of the action played out in a confined environment, an aspect that contributed greatly to the film’s suspense and raising of stakes. Exotic jungles seen in First Blood (1985) and Predator (1987) have instead been replaced by an office building, with support beams and table legs serving the same role as tree trunks, and the office water feature becoming reminiscent of a waterfall. Like in previous films, in order for the protagonist to overcome the external force (a villain in this case), he must first master his environment.
For a large portion of the film, McTiernan works with wide shots, placing John McClane off to the far side. Not only does this establish his status as not owning the space, but also it creates heightened suspense, as the audience waits for something to fill the void. In effect, the building seems to develop a character of its own (established with its own foreboding distant and upward-angled shots, along with several characters seen admiring it), similar to the jungles in other films, where the camera almost seems to be the one leading McClane’s movements, not the other way around.
Of course, no analysis of Die Hard is complete without a discussion of the film’s central antagonist, Hans Gruber. Like Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman was also a relatively no-name actor at the time, where this movie became his break out role. And like John McClane, Hans Gruber also broke the mold of what was previously expected from action movie villains. Die Hard could’ve easily resorted to using bland, faceless terrorists (and government agents) to tell its story symbolizing the everyman’s struggle against “the man”. Instead it fabulously upends the trope and provides cinema with one of its most memorable and iconic movie villains of all time. Hans Gruber isn’t a buffoon that’s easily dispatched. He’s also not an empty threat, demonstrated by an unforgiving execution of a hostage early on in the movie’s runtime. He thankfully ushered in a trend of competent antagonists with well-rounded character development topped with a distinct personality.
Both cunning and able to adapt to new situations easily, Hans Gruber and John McClane are equally matched, though the odds quickly tip in Gruber’s favor when his henchmen are factored in. There is an interesting dichotomy seen between McClane and the villains. The terrorists are well-financed, articulate, composed, and wear suits or other brand name items that denote an air of sophistication. Meanwhile, McClane’s stuck in a state of undress for almost the entirety of the film. He’s not prepared like the villains. He’s just some schmuck caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s almost as if the book’s author made him a police officer partly out of sympathy, to give McClane some fighting chance so he’s at least not a total newb at handling a firearm.
The narrative partly takes on a booksmarts vs. streetwise vibe. The villains have studied the Nakatomi Plaza’s schematics and “know” the building from an educated perspective. McClane knows practically nothing and faces a steep learning curve from the beginning, but in the end he “knows” the building in another way. He’s slid through its ducts, crept up its walls, bled on its floors, and manipulated the environment as he saw fit. McClane ends up being the master of his domain, though it was through instinctual means.
McClane takes on an almost animalistic quality. Flawed with a fear of flying, McClane removes his shoes as a way to feel more “grounded”. Instantly he’s forced to have a more tactile relationship with his environment, and when Gruber wises up and starts to play that to his advantage, McClane adapts again, practically flying in the final act as he climbs up walls, swings from chains, and jumps off rooftops.
As Gruber tries to retain his cool, McClane instead becomes more primitive, as reflected in his costume. His singlet starts off clean and fresh, white in color, though it becomes bloodied and brown with each subsequent battle before he loses his top completely. Like some misunderstood beast, nearly everyone in the film works against him: the villains (of course), the hostages, the authorities, the government agencies, the media, and he’s even cut off from his transportation. His only ally is his fellow man, Sgt. Al Powell, who has also had his fare share of disappointments in life, and ironically he also has Holly’s support, despite their tumultuous relationship. When Holly is finally reunited with her ex-husband, she gasps in shock at the wounded animal that now stands in his place; his appearance bears the weight of his struggles against society, with only his sense of humor, moralistic drive and a glimmer for a chance at happiness remaining intact.
Part of the reason why Die Hard became a blockbuster was because it combined both the action and comedy genres. Unlike previous action films, McClane accepts his given circumstances and recognizes the unbelievable situation that he’s in, rather than remaining unflustered. This results in some very quick one-liners, usually derogatory remarks towards the law enforcement and the terrorists, which the audience relates to due to McClane’s representation as the everyman. There is also the fact the main plot is a caper; in the DVD commentary, director McTiernan notes that he on purposely didn’t want the presence of a straight terrorist plot as it would give the movie a dark overtone filled with political agendas. Having it as a burglary lightens the mood of the entire piece.
The film also tries its best to not be one dimensional with the plot’s events—there are many side-stories involving the other parts of society and McTiernan comically displays their parasitic attempts to exploit the hostage situation (e.g. the media). What Die Hard does magnificently over others in the genre is that it humanizes all of its characters. Even the film’s most one-dimensional character, the continually snarling criminal Karl, is given a unique motivation even though he comes across as a European bad-guy stereotype.
It’s the little things that truly flesh out the film; the SWAT member that pricks himself on a plant, the terrorist that tries to grab a chocolate bar during a tense moment, and cocaine-snorting Ellis being served a glass of Coke as though to wink to the audience just how much his bad decisions have led to that moment. All these things add to the everyman vibe as every character has their own little world of problems to face. Marvel has adopted the same tactic as a way to humanize their superpowered action protagonists to much success, though audiences will always struggle more to comprehend the weight of saving the universe compared with an average man that just wants to survive the night with his marriage intact. McClane lives on in people’s memories as one of the most relatable heroes of the genre with Hans Gruber as his equally well-developed villainous match.
There are also elements of miss-matched, multi-racial pairings between McClane and Powell, a quality that was introduced in recent comedic films at the time of Die Hard’s theatrical release. It is this combination of action and comedy which gave Die Hard its box office numbers, as it appealed to a female audience, going against the trend of simply attracting male moviegoers.
Due to Die Hard’s success, it spawned an action sub-genre of its own, where the main conflict and action of a film will occur in an enclosed space. Critics call these films “Die Hard on a…”. For instance, Under Siege (1992) was “Die Hard on a ship”. In some ways, Die Hard itself has defined a genre, making similar films easily marketable due to Die Hard’s successful action formula. This isn’t just any “big dumb action film;” it’s the progenitor, the original, the cleverest of them all while the rest feebly try to copy its revolutionary cinematic ideas. If you’re ever going to watch any of them, watch this one. The king of the ocean that will forever be a big fish in any pond.
+ Revolutionary with its character development
+ The first of its kind
+ Suspenseful action sequences
+ Features a comedic blend that appeals to a wider demographic
+ Timeless appeal
+ Massive contribution to cinema
+ There’s a lot more to analyze here than your typical “big dumb action movie”
- What? You expecting me to say something bad? This is Die Hard we’re talking about here!
The Bottom Line
The debate surrounding Die Hard’s superiority as a Christmas movie feels inconsequential when it can easily vie for the title of the best action film of all time. Especially when this is a rare film that is its very own subgenre in itself.