#29 Die Hard, John McTiernan, 1988
Cast: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman.
It’s the Christmas season, so of course it’s basically mandatory to watch Die Hard. Obviously many of London’s independent cinemas agree on this point, because there were plenty of screenings for me to choose from this year.
I watched it in the Roxy Bar and Screen in Borough, which is sort of a hybrid bar and cinema. My SO is a member there so it was free and we were able to book the best seat in the house, a double-seater sofa right in the center of the front row. There were no free Twinkies like we got at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton at Christmas 20101, but there was beer and bar food and a smattering of singing along with the Christmas tunes.
Some people like to argue about what the greatest Christmas film ever is. I don’t think that’s a useful debate to have — I think the best Christmas movie is the one you like best — but I will note that Die Hard ranks at number 29 on the Empire list while the next highest seasonal film is It’s a Wonderful Life at 195.
That it is a Christmas movie is less open to debate, despite what some may argue. This Comics Alliance piece makes that case.
You’ve got John McClane, a tough New York Cop who’s come to California to have a few laughs be reunited with his wife and kids, who moved out so that she could pursue her lucrative career in… whatever it is that the Nakatomi Corporation actually does (finance? Let’s go with finance). Their relationship is under considerable strain and John’s certainly uncomfortable out in Los Angeles — in the words of Joey Ramone, it just ain’t Christmas if there ain’t no snow — but gosh darn it, he’s going to make it work and be together with his family on Christmas, and he’s going to do it with this gigantic teddy bear!
That same piece argues for RoboCop as an Easter movie, but I’m sure I’ll get to that in a later post2.
Die Hard‘s greatest strength is its hero’s weakness. Pre-1988 action heros were your Schwarzeneggers and Stallones: large, muscle-bound super-men, usually with extraordinary abilities and training who do hero work for a living (think of Rambo and Commando‘s John Matrix).
In contrast John McClane is reluctant, uncertain, lonely and scared. He second guesses himself, and he curses his failures. We see him acknowledging the possibility that he won’t make it out of the building alive when he gives Al a message to pass on to Holly. And though Al’s response is superficially upbeat (“Yeah, I got it, John. But you can tell her that yourself. You just watch your ass and you’ll make it out.”), it’s clear from his demeanour that he’s not so sure either. That McClane continues to fight on despite all of that, and despite becoming increasingly beaten-up and bloodied, only makes him more heroic.
As well as characters that are more nuanced than those of the other action films of its day, Die Hard also has a far cleverer plot than you would expect. In fact it has a plot far cleverer than even many people who have seen the film will remember. Look at a random TV guide synopsis, or ask a non fan what the film is about, and no doubt you’ll be told it’s about a man stuck in a building fighting a group of terrorists. Wrong.
To point out that Hans Gruber and his crew are not terrorists but thieves may seem pedantic, but it’s actually crucial to the plot. Convincing law enforcement that they are terrorists is a necessary part of their plan, so it’s ironic that the less attentive members of the audience are also fooled. Had the film come out 15 years later it could be read as a reaction to the terrorist hysteria that has gripped the world since 9/11. A law enforcement establishment that’s over-eager to label anyone who commits a crime a terrorist ends up playing right into the hands of the bad guys.
Die Hard has so far spawned one legitimate sequel, the brilliantly named Die Harder, and two others that started life as unrelated films but got John McClane written in later so the more marketable brand could be used. I actually think the third film, Die Hard with a Vengeance, is pretty good, though not very Die Hard-y (for one thing, it’s not Christmas). I also have a personal fondness for the fourth, even while acknowledging that it’s a bad film, because it was the first film I saw at the cinema after getting laser eye surgery so I was able to watch it without glasses. A fifth film is due to be released next year.
I’ll leave you with this classic song celebrating the series: