Die Hard works because it’s only Christmas-adjacent

Die Hard works because it’s only Christmas-adjacent

The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit. This week’s theme: the holidays where you least expect them.

I can always watch Die Hard.

Say it’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving. There are enough leftovers in the fridge to keep me eating turkey until the end of time, and I want something seasonally appropriate but not gratingly festive to watch: Die Hard it is. Or maybe it’s mid-December, the radio is jamming Christmas carols from dawn to dusk, mall Santas are starting to look like sociopaths, and I need something to take the edge off: Bruce Willis is here to help. Or it’s New Year’s Day, and I’m hungover and philosophical, so I turn to Alan Rickman, because the way he says, “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” is never not one of the best things in the world. Hell, say it’s Memorial Day weekend—summer’s looming, lawns are green, and maybe it’s hot enough to go to the beach, but who really wants to go to the beach? Let’s throw a movie on, and why not pick one with a great script, fantastic cast, and that bit with the gun covered in “Season’s Greetings” tape that always kills me. Rain, shine, snow, sleet, birthdays, Halloweens, Tuesdays: Any day is a good day to watch Die Hard. 

That’s a kind of magic, isn’t it? Maybe not obviously heartwarming, maybe no misers learning valuable lessons or orphans learning to walk again because Santa, but it’s something. Holiday entertainment tends to have the single-minded fixation of the truly obsessed, like getting cornered by an old friend who only wants to talk about his kids; there might be other things worth mentioning, but that bastard has an iPhone full of awkward video clips and you’re going to endure them all. It’s even worse with Christmas movies, because so many Christmas movies have a message, and in clumsy hands, that message is repetitive and sour. (Now your friend isn’t just talking about his kids. He wants you to acknowledge their values are superior and, oh hey, why not chip in a few bucks to their college fund?) The message can work, but sometime around December 20, it gets awfully hard to find the diamonds in the sea of sentimental treacle. Even Christmas movies that work to actively subvert goodwill toward men, charity, and capitalism get cloying after a while. It’s just a damn day, after all. Maybe everybody should relax.

Die Hard is a classic for a number of reasons, but one of the smartest and subtlest is the way it turns yuletide trappings into just that: trappings. Strip away those trappings, and the story structure is so simple it’s almost sublime: A group of bad guys, led by Rickman, take a building (and everyone inside) hostage. They have demands and ulterior motives, and the heist is so well planned and professionally executed that it doesn’t look like anyone can stop them. Except there’s a catch: Willis, as a New York City cop visiting L.A. to try and patch things up with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia), is stuck inside the building with the bad guys. And even though he’s just a working Joe in bare feet and a tank top, he’s determined to save his wife and the day.

This is simple enough—lone hero against impossible odds, gunplay and wisecracks and damsels in distress. The genius of director John McTiernan and screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. De Souza (working from the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp) is using that simplicity as a framework for countless idiosyncrasies and diversions. Die Hard is a movie that thrills as much for its texture as for its content, as what could’ve been a stolid, standard action flick transcends its limits to become something more: the ideal standard action flick, the action flick by which all other action flicks are judged. And hell, even the action part isn’t key. You don’t need to love the genre to love Die Hard

Take John McClane, Willis’ sarcastic, soulful hero. While four sequels have weakened the character considerably, as originally envisioned, McClane is an antidote to muscle-bound behemoths and kung fu wizards, a badass who is still vulnerable to gunfire, punches, and, most memorably, broken glass. Where prior action films defined heroism as a stalwart ability to endure massive amounts of damage without notably suffering for it, Die Hard shows McClane as painfully, inescapably human. He accomplishes more than an actual human being could probably survive, but the fact that the movie never tries to hide each fresh hurt makes implausibility a moot point. McClane isn’t a super genius or a mutant; he’s just a good man determined to save his wife and catch (well, kill) some crooks. The distinction may seem like a small one, but the character’s lack of titanium bones or a Schwarzeneggerian physique gives even the film’s most outlandish stunts weight and consequence.

Then there’s Rickman as McClane’s opposite, the devilishly sardonic Hans Gruber. (“Silent Night” was composed by Franz Gruber. That has to be a joke, right?) Even more than McClane, Gruber—and Rickman’s interpretation of the character—elevates Die Hard above its origins. Gruber’s plan, to seize control of the Nakatomi building under the guise of a terrorist action in order to rob the company vaults, immediately establishes the villain as a resourceful, intelligent threat. Typically, even the sharpest mastermind has his plans undone by subpar henchman performance, but Gruber’s men are professional and on task right up to the end. 

And it can’t really be overstated how great Rickman is in his role. At one point, Gruber goes to check on a set of explosives he’s planted, and runs into McClane prowling through the maintenance area, suspicious and well armed. Neither character has seen each other before, so Gruber is able to pass himself off as a beleaguered Nakatomi employee. The ruse lasts just long enough for the two to briefly (and falsely) bond and for Rickman to show off his American accent, but it’s a key moment in the film, because it demonstrates just how perfectly balanced the two characters are. For a minute or two, we see the story through Gruber’s eyes (the scene starts with him alone, and then McClane shows up; our primary concern is whether Gruber will be able to escape, not that McClane will catch him), and it’s immediately clear that if that switch were permanent, nothing would suffer. Die Hard tells the story of a good man saving the day, but if it was the story of a bad man watching his perfect plan slowly collapse in on itself, nothing would be lost. It’s an important distinction that prevents characters from getting locked into types, forced to behave in stupid or contradictory ways simply because that’s what the villain/hero always does.

But what does all of this have to do with Christmas? Not a whole heck of a lot on the surface, which is the beauty of it. You could say the holidays are all about empathy and seeing other points of view, but that would be stretching beyond stretching. Thematically, Die Hard is largely Noel-free. And yet Christmas is still an important part of the movie, in the same way that beat cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is, or Argyle (De’voreaux White) the limo driver, or nosy newsman Richard Thornburg (William Atherton, solidifying his title as the Greatest Fictional Prick of the ’80s); the season and the characters serve various plot functions, but they matter more as crucial bits of texture that give the story life. McClane arrives in town specifically to spend the holiday with his family, and keeps running into signs of the season, from rap carols on the radio to the Nakatomi office party that ensures the building will have a small but important pool of hostages for Gruber to work with. The fact that it’s Christmastime matters (even the beautiful L.A. weather is a subtle nod to just how out of place the East Coast-centric McClane is), but it’s just something to keep in mind. This is a thriller first, and a Christmas movie second, or maybe third or fourth, and in a way, that’s closer to how most of us view the holiday anyway. You can’t ever completely get away from the carols and the ads and the melancholy, but the older you get, the more it’s just something that happens in the background; it informs events, but doesn’t dictate them. 

If you’re looking for entertainment that delves more into the joys of the season, there are plenty of movies, shows, books, CDs, apps, cards, and sweaters to choose from. But if you want something that fills the void without jamming it full of candy canes, Die Hard is a good bet. It’s smart, fun, and always worth watching. And maybe it manages a little moral lesson after all. Christmas is a dangerous, stressful, potentially violent time of year, and if you’re going to make it through alive, the only thing you can count on is your wits, your lung power, and your will to live. Santa can’t save you, because he doesn’t exist. You’re better off with that machine gun.

Tomorrow: Finding the religious meaning of Christmas in a classic comics story arc.

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