Exploring the infectious charm of action’s most relatable antihero
What can be written about Die Hard that hasn’t been written already? Not much, but I’ll be damned if anyone can stop me. Not only is Die Hard one of the finest action movies of the 80s, it’s a contender for the greatest ever committed to celluloid, and certainly one of the most influential. 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’s because of his omission that the movie holds such a special place in the hearts of so many. Don’t get me wrong, Schwarzenegger is a one of a kind personality, his intangible onscreen charisma making him arguably 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. Interactions with co-passengers about making fists with your toes, imaginary conversations in claustrophobic ventilation shafts, police captains getting butt-fucked on national television — this was a hero who understood the pains and ironies of the working man, who could shrug off the sucker punches and smile through gritted teeth with an aura of humanity that was hugely infectious.
The casting of a relatively unknown Willis came as something of a surprise considering McTiernan’s newfound status as one of the genre’s biggest names, though his reputation as one of action cinema’s newest innovators may go someway to explaining his decision. Arnie may be the last person you’d imagine playing the role of McClane in hindsight, but the bigger is better 80s had thrived on larger-than-life characters, and McTiernan 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. The likes of Eddie Murphy and Mel Gibson had already proven that muscles weren’t everything, but both were already blossoming stars by the time they tackled the action genre. The announcement that Willis would indeed adorn the marquee was a curious head-turner.
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. Thanks to the likes of Die Hard and Richard Donner’s equally influential buddy cop thriller Lethal Weapon, the action movie would evolve in a way that put personality above muscle during the latter part of the 1980s. The genre had long-since thrived on over the top violence and cute one-liners, but now the action was high-tech, the characters well-rounded and emotionally endearing. Cinema’s purest outlet for thrills and spills had suddenly come of age.
John McClane: Come out to the coast. We’ll get together. Have a few laughs.
No movie captures that era quite like Die Hard. Protagonist McClane is a no-nonsense New York cop completely unprepared for life in California after jetting in for his estranged wife’s Christmas party, but even more so for what lies ahead. In Los Angeles, he is a fish out of water, a man bewildered by flash cocktail parties and kissy male greetings having left behind a six month backlog of New York scumbags in search of some festive reconciliation. On the surface, he’s 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 about to leap off, he is totally unprepared for where his actions might lead him, almost talking himself out of the deed and 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. In fact, Alyssa Milan’s Jenny seems positively thrilled at seeing her captor brutally slayed (let’s just hope she has a good psychiatrist). 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’s because of these imperfections that we root for him like no other action hero. McClane embodies many of the flaws that we do. He is a hero sometimes, a villain the rest of the time.
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 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 their word to go off? You’d like to think so, particularly in the spirit of seasonal good faith.
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 corrupt FBI agents, a dismissive police chief and a sleazy corporate shill (Hart Bochner in scintillating form) whose idea of snow-driven happiness is showy designer gifts and an endless supply of cocaine, something our ever-humble lawman is willing to overlook. Even William Atherton’s sleazy, self-serving reporter, Richard Thornburg, a character who McClane barely has any interaction with, plays a role in endearing us to our antihero’s selfless heroism, though writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza refuse to let their protagonist stoop to such levels, leaving it to Holly to dish out some well-deserved retribution with a right hook for the ages. That’s what you get for messing with McClane’s kids!
But every memorable hero requires a dastardly foil, and they don’t come much more despicable than slick, international terrorist Hans Gruber. Above all else, it is the late Alan Rickman’s sneering creation who puts McClane so firmly in our corner. Gruber is a savvy sophisticate with a penchant for the finer things. He is also a well adapted chameleon, his snivelling turn as the anonymous Bill Clay after running into his building-bound nemesis one of the movie’s most intriguing plot developments. Here, McClane is toying with Gruber’s sense of arrogance, rubbing his immaculately plucked nose in his dirtied vest and revelling in the character’s naïve sense of superiority. For Hans, it is the equivalent of taking to a podium to give a rousing political speech, only to realise he is wearing nothing but McClane branded underpants.
This is the first of two meetings between characters who may as well derive from two completely different species. The movie’s antagonist is everything we despise. He is cruel and calculated, cowardly and heartless, and his superior air has us pushing him towards his inevitable downfall. For a while, Gruber deigns to appear civilised with the confidence that everything will run without a hitch, but when he blows out Nakatomi president Mr Takagi’s brains with an insouciance that startles even the battle-hardened McClane, we quickly understand the kind of cold-hearted miscreant we’re dealing with.
Hans Gruber: That’s a very nice suit, Mr. Takagi. It would be a shame to ruin it…
Rickman was another inspired casting choice. A respected thespian renown for his theatre work, Die Hard was 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 star, but Rickman brings a prestige to the part of Hans rarely glimpsed in the action genre, the kind that would often be imitated but never bettered. Not only is it the actor’s most memorable role, it’s arguably the greatest portrayal of an action villain Hollywood has ever seen, providing the template for many more to come. It’s ironic that two of the most memorable action characters were played by relative unknowns. In a reboot-happy industry that relies so heavily on past glories, there is a lesson to be learnt here.
McClane is the complete antithesis of his well-groomed foe. It’s no coincidence that he allows himself the playful moniker Roy Rogers, his favourite fictional cowboy, for the movie’s delineations are just as obvious, but in an era when dysfunctional cartoon family The Simpsons were about to redefine the meaning of traditional moral values, the comparisons to Roy Rogers are not without their sense of irony. Despite Die Hard‘s mature approach to the genre, this is classic good vs evil, simply delineated 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 Takagi with his knowledge of designer suits, McClane shoots down similarly snaky attempts at charming information out of him, quoting mainstream American quiz show Jeopardy as he embarrasses his adversary in the most unaffected manner. By contrast, Gruber is a man of culture who conducts his troop of thieves the way Beethoven does their suitably Bavarian theme. The look on his face as McClane imitates Alex Trebek in a passive-aggressive act of tomfoolery is nothing short of priceless. “Bzzzt. Sorry Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change?”.
It’s this cat-and-mouse simplicity that makes Die Hard so effective — not only in regards to Gruber, but to his equally memorable right-hand man, Karl, a granite European whose vengeful path allows their claustrophobic battle of wits another dimension. Karl is the very definition of less is more. The late Alexander Godunov gives a performance of the strictly physical variety, an approach that makes for the very best henchmen. Karl is the brawn to Gruber’s brains, a no-nonsense tough guy who has a chance of defeating our protagonist head-on. Gruber may be the truly indomitable force, but in some ways Karl is just as memorable. The fact that it is he, not Gruber, who leaps back into the frame for one last scare is a monument to the character’s legacy.
It all becomes rather personal when McClane knocks off Karl’s brother and sets him on a path of blind vengeance that threatens to jeopardise the whole operation. Before the incident, 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. Isolation is such a valuable tool in cinema, and the tensions in Die Hard are so much richer for it. The feelings of hopelessness inspired by the confines of the Nakatomi, each punctuated by moments of false hope as our protagonist scrambles to alert the cops to Gruber’s well-insulated plot, further endear us to a character whose shoulders the entire ordeal rests upon.
What makes McClane’s struggle even more relatable is Die Hard‘s reputation as one of the most unconventional Christmas movies ever embraced by a mainstream audience. Gremlins had broken ground in the same manner a few years prior, Joe Dante’s deliciously wicked, Spielberg-backed foray contributing to the PG-13 rating, and Christmas movies were veering further away from squeaky-clean traditions, but in Die Hard, much like in Lethal Weapon before it, Christmas is used as more of a backdrop without the traditional embellishments of yore. If 70s film had come of age, fully loaded with Vietnam sentiments, Watergate paranoia and horror characters who were much closer to home, then the 80s had well and truly accepted that reality. What was once shocking was now very much accepted.
The festive season has always been a convenient marketing tool for movies. As a setting, it adds 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 film with an added sense of irony in a genre that had become steeped in it. Never is our hero’s cynical wit more prevalent than when he sends Karl’s dead sibling down an 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’s a strip of festive tape that gets him and his wife out of their life-threatening pickle, and 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. People may question Die Hard‘s Christmas movie status, including Willis himself, but it’s certainly on my Christmas movies list. It is, and will always continue to be, a festive staple as essential as any other.
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 feels as fresh today as it was more than thirty years ago. CGI may have taken the explosive possibilities to another technological stratosphere, but does any other action flick feel quite as blockbuster as Die Hard? From the moment a dubious McClane arrives to an almost empty Nakatomi, we smell something in the festive air, and the screenplay utilises the building in ways never before imagined, taking a confined setting and transforming it into an endless labyrinth of breakneck action. McClane’s death-defying leap off the roof of the exploding Nakatomi, his bone-crunching battle with Karl, his and Holly’s final showdown with Gruber, it’s all so timelessly cinematic. When our hero arrives on the scene, broken and bruised and dragging behind a trail of blood, we’re limping along with him. This is a distinctly mortal hero at the end of his physical and emotional tether, and we’ve suffered every blow, cushioned every fall and pulled every last shard of glass out of our collective spirit.
Die Hard features an ageless 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 the film — it’s genre perfection. How many times have I seen this movie in my lifetime? I really couldn’t 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.