Exploring the infectious charm of action’s most relatable antihero.
What more can be said about this movie which hasn’t been said already? Not much, but I’ll say it anyway.
Not only is Die Hard the greatest action movie of the 80s, it is perhaps the greatest ever put to celluloid. Before John McClane, action stars were larger-than-life superheroes whose hypermasculity flexed in the face of cartoon tyranny. A year earlier, director John McTiernan had cast musclebound archetype and global superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role of Predator, yet another Hollywood blockbuster with biceps to burn.
Arnie would almost land the lead role here too, and it is perhaps because of his omission that the movie holds such a special place in the hearts of millions. Don’t get me wrong, Schwarzenegger is one of a kind, his intangible onscreen charisma making him the most iconic of all action stars, but Bruce Willis turned a corner with his performance as John McClane, adding a relatable depth to the genre with his prodigious blend of wry, proletarian sarcasm and human vulnerability.
In Los Angeles, McClane is a fish out of water, a man bewildered by cocktail parties and kissy male greetings as he leaves behind a six-month backlog of New York scumbags in search of some festive reconciliation. On the surface he is a happy-go-lucky hero with an impervious sense of humour, but as the young limo driver who is sent to give him the royal treatment quickly learns, there is a humility to him that cannot be suppressed.
Even our protagonist’s spectacular heroism carries with it shades of the markedly mortal. When McClane comes under fire at the top of the forty storey Nakatomi Plaza and is preparing to leap off, he is totally unprepared for where his actions might lead him, trying to talk himself out of the deed and even offering promises to God in exchange for making it out alive. As he crawls through elevator shafts and swings through plate glass windows he is doing so not as an unflinching hardman, but as a desperate fellow trying to do the right thing in the only way he knows how.
All of this makes McClane a hero, but at what cost? When Commando‘s John Matrix brutally impales his nemesis in front of his daughter’s very eyes, there are no emotional repercussions for Schwarzenegger’s character. McClane, on the other hand, is someone who is mired in consequence, a conflicted character who can’t do right for doing wrong. He may be a great cop, but he is also a lousy husband, a man with the capacity to go toe-to-toe with a gang of highly-trained international terrorists, but one who is unable to relate to his wife or do right by his kids. It is because of these imperfections that we root for him like no other action hero. McClane embodies many of the flaws we do. He is a hero sometimes, a villain the rest of the time.
Come out to the coast. We’ll get together. Have a few laughs. – John McClane
Key to the McClane Character’s development is surrogate partner Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), a fellow cop with his own demons to exercise. While the rest of the world lay their judgements thick and fast, Powell is able to relate to the self-proclaimed cowboy, and he participates in the same way the audience does, as an armchair advocate who is willing to see what nobody else will. It is through Al that the desperate and emotionally stunted McClane is able to finally open up and reveal his true feelings towards his estranged family, and when the two strangers finally meet, an unspoken bond has developed thanks to a life-changing event which has enabled them both to grow as people.
There are other great performances that make McClane the seminal antihero: his wife Holly, played with steely tenderness by the wonderful Bonnie Bedelia, and to a lesser degree Argyle, a snoopy slacker who immediately wins the affections of our everyman despite the cultural differences. There are also corrupt FBI agents, a petty, dismissive police chief and a sleazy corporate shill whose drug addiction our lawman is willing to overlook in light of the festive season. But the greatest action movies need more than a few stereotypes to bounce off. Every memorable hero requires a dastardly foil, and they don’t come much more despicable than slick international terrorist Hans Gruber.
Gruber is a savvy sophisticate with a penchant for the finer things in life, and his snivelling turn as the anonymous Bill Clay after running into his building-bound nemesis is one of the movie’s most intriguing plot developments. Above all else, it is the late Alan Rickman’s sneering creation who puts McClane so firmly in our corner. The movie’s antagonist is everything we despise. He is cruel and calculated, cowardly and heartless, and his constant belittlement of the common man has us pushing him towards his inevitable downfall.
It is no coincidence that McClane allows himself the playful moniker of Roy Rogers, his favourite TV cowboy, for the movie’s delineations are just as obvious. McClane is as American as apple pie, the kind of television-warped couch potato Gruber wouldn’t wipe off his designer heel. And then there is Gruber himself: an educated man of culture who conducts his troop of thieves the way Beethoven does their suitably Bavarian theme.
Eeeh! Sorry, Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?’-John McClane
Another reason Die Hard proves so effective is its cat-and-mouse simplicity, not only in regards to Gruber, but to his equally memorable Henchman, Karl, a granite European whose vengeful path allows their claustrophobic battle of wits another dimension. Hans is seemingly unshakeable, an egotist who refuses to regard McClane as anything more than another fly in the ointment, but Karl threatens to play into the hands of the maverick cop with the smart mouth, a sub-plot which promises to divide and conquer.
If all of that wasn’t enough to tie us to our salt of the Earth ass kicker, Die Hard is a Christmas movie—perhaps the most unconventional Christmas movie there ever was, but a Christmas movie nonetheless. Never is our hero’s cynical wit more prevalent than when he sends Karl’s dead sibling down in the elevator, his white corpse punctuated by a Santa hat and the appropriately heartless message ‘Now I have a Machine Gun. Ho-ho-ho!’ When McClane’s back is truly against the wall, it is a strip of festive tape that gets him and his wife out of their life-threatening pickle, while the two ride away not into the sunset, but under the blizzard of snowy debris plummeting from the dilapidated skyscraper left burning in their wake.
This time John Wayne Doesn’t walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly – Hans Gruber
That’s Gary Cooper, asshole! – John McClane
How many times have I seen this movie in my lifetime? I really could not estimate with any degree of accuracy. All I know is, that time of year is once again approaching, and the opening notes of Vaughn Monroe’s 1946 rendition of Let it Snow are beginning to chime in my head.
When I was a younger man, I watched Die Hard so many times I had to restrain myself for fear of spoiling the whole experience, for no matter how much you might adore a particular movie, there is always a risk of overexposure, of transforming a joyous masterpiece into an overbearing recital. And so one year I made a promise to myself: I would only watch the action genre’s indisputable high- point once a year, and only during the festive season that it has come to symbolise so wonderfully.
Some years I even manage to stick to that promise.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut