Exploring the infectious charm of action’s most relatable antihero
What more can be said about Die Hard 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 1980s, it is perhaps the greatest ever commited 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 a one of a kind personality, 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.
His casting in the role came as something of a surprise considering McTiernan’s growing reputation as one of the action genre’s newest innovators. Arnie may be the last person you would imagine playing this role in hindsight, and the director could have had his pick of numerous musclebound stars after the Austrian oak turned down the role having been presented with an unfinished script by Predator collaborator Joel Silver. Before his big screen breakthrough, Willis was best known as private dick David Addison in ’80s TV dramedy Moonlighting, delivering a fresh concoction of comedy and drama that proved just the ticket for McTiernan’s reluctant antihero.
McClane is a no-nonsense New York cop completely unprepared for life in California when invited to his wife’s Christmas party, but even more so for what lies in store. In Los Angeles, he 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 with his now relocated family. 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 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.
John McClane: Come out to the coast. We’ll get together. Have a few laughs.
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 on 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. It’s an interesting twist on an already repetitive buddy narrative. Can you really forge a bond with a complete stranger practically overnight with only his word to go off? You’d like to think so, particularly during the festive season.
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 their glaring cultural differences. There are also corrupt FBI agents, a 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, 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 haughty air has us pushing him towards his inevitable downfall.
Rickman was another inspired casting choice. A respected thespian renown for his theatre work, Die Hard would be the late actor’s big Hollywood break, and he attacks the role with a haughty relish that defies his silver screen infancy. It would have been much easier from a promotional standpoint to hire a more familiar face, particularly following the seeming blow of losing out on Hollywood’s most recognisable action hero, but Rickman brings a prestige to the part of Hans rarely seen in the action genre. Not only is it his most memorable role, it is arguably the greatest portrayal of an action villain Hollywood has ever realised, providing a template for many more to come.
McClane is the antithesis of his well-groomed foe, and it is no coincidence that he allows himself the playful moniker of Roy Rogers, his favourite TV cowboy, for the movie’s delineations are just as obvious. This is classic good vs evil, simply outlined and executed to perfection. McClane is as American as apple pie, the kind of television-warped couch potato Gruber wouldn’t wipe off his designer heel. While Hans tries to impress Nakatomi president Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi with his knowledge of designer suits, McClane shoots down similarly snaky attempts at charming some information out of him, using a phrase coined by mainstream quiz show Jeopardy as he looks to embarrass him in the most unaffected manner. Black to his white is Gruber, an educated man of culture who conducts his troop of thieves the way Beethoven does their suitably Bavarian theme.
John McClane: Eeeh! Sorry, Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?
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. It all becomes rather personal between the two when McClane knocks off his brother and sets him on a path of blind vengeance that threatens to jeopardise the whole operation. Before the incident with Karl’s brother, Hans is seemingly unshakeable, an egotist who refuses to regard McClane as anything more than a simple fly in the ointment, but Karl continues to play into the hands of the maverick cop, a sub-plot which promises to divide and conquer.
Above all else, perhaps Die Hard‘s biggest claim to fame is its reputation as one of the most unconventional Christmas movies ever embraced by the mainstream. Gremlins had broken ground in the same manner a few years prior, contributing to the PG-13 rating, and Christmas movies were veering away from the squeaky clean traditions of yore. The festive season had always been a convenient marketing tool for movies. As a setting it would also add emotional weight to material at a time of year when a greater emphasis is given to repentance, forgiveness and community. In the case of Die Hard, it also provides the movie with an added sense of irony, the kind that would revolutionise the action genre during the 1980s. 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.
Hans Gruber: This time John Wayne Doesn’t walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.
John McClane: That’s Gary Cooper, asshole!
Die Hard is as fresh today as it was more than thirty years ago, and for me it is yet to be surpassed as a mainstream action vehicle. Fashion may have changed, CGI may have taken the explosive possibilities to another technological stratosphere, but does any other action flick feel quite as blockbuster as Die Hard? This is a timeless concept with a cast of characters who beg to be revisited, and though cinema has evolved as a whole in the years since the movie‘s release, there isn’t a single thing I would change about this film. It is genre perfection.
How many times have I seen Die Hard 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.