Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Fox VHS
The favorite Christmas films of the popular majority, I have no doubt, involve the likes of an angel named Clarence, a prepubescent prankster outsmarting dimwitted crooks, and for some John McClane running barefoot through a shower of broken glass.
Despite its obvious subscription to the Action genre Die Hard is at heart a Christmas movie. Cleverly obscured behind a mask of choreographed action and explosions is the same theme that binds such classics as The Grinch, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and even Home Alone. Granted, it is somewhat of a long reach to compare these films, and, yes, it would be curious to find them beside each other at a video store. Die Hard is obviously a summer film, and the prospect of watching it alongside a fire, amidst family members with freshly knit sweaters seems alien. What thematically congregates these films is the progression of events that leads to the same anecdotal closing. It goes like this: at first, the main character is cold and selfish. He endures trifling means and is forced to question his true character, in turn realizing the true spirit of Christmas. The Grinch gives the Whos their presents, Clarence gets his wings, Scrooge buys a turkey for the Cratchit family, whatever; Die Hard employs the same withered and welcome mechanism. John McClane, like both the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge, undergoes the same festive metamorphosis.
Bruce Willis is McClane, a New York street cop of eleven years. He and his wife, Holly, are separated. He flies to LA to attend a Christmas party hosted by her company. At the beginning of the film, the two meet with awkward stares, engaging in a game of marital politics. Their argument heats up, Holly steams off, and McClane is left reeling in the bathroom. Before he can get his socks on the tower is infiltrated by a nasty group of German terrorists who make their presence known, like all terrorists, by haphazardly firing machine guns at the ceiling.
These terrorists bear the same nihilistic approach to achieving their ends as every other group of terrorists in any movie you’ve ever seen, and satisfy a parched need to blow something up before they begin to negotiate. The group is bound by the menacing presence of Hans Gruber. Alan Rickman sears into the role, noticeably carrying each line of speech with a boldly confident German accent.
Hans’ scheme falters when McClane shields their every offensive move. He kills the Germans as easily a plucking petals off a dead flower, steals their plastic explosives, and tosses them down an empty elevator shaft as eagerly as Kevin McAllister drops paint cans on two lumbering thieves.
Action is the most commonly misunderstood movie genre. What critics stubbornly ignore and audiences unknowingly embrace is that the action movie functions according to a set of rules completely different from that of any other film. The conception of an action movie begins with a series of unrelated stunts. The plot is secondary, and serves only to link the action scenes together. How else, then, could Neo go from dodging bullets to yanking Trinity out of a helicopter within a mere ten minutes?
In Die Hard the plot is unexpectedly more substantive than the typical action film, providing reason for McClane to argue the importance of a secure marriage with his wife. More importantly, the movie’s setting, on Christmas Eve, provides a perfectly subtle merry undertone present in the entire film. Hans humms Christmas carols in between creepy monologues, and McClane announces his presence in the tower with morbid hilarity by scribing “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho” on the chest of a German causality.
One of the most important aspects of the film, and what ultimately separates it from legions of other action movies, is how well the tower serves to isolate the characters. McClane is trapped in air vents and unlit offices, and directly facing the Bad Guys all at once would abort any chance of the good to endear. He must play a careful game of cat-and-mouse; there is no plan B. Likewise, the tower separates the hostages from the police, who huddle at the bottom of the tower like ants to a large piece of cheese.
McClane faces a formidable obstacle not only in saving the hostage victims but in saving his own life. What makes his mission increasingly difficult is his cursed ability to be penetrated by bullets. Other action stars carry the esteemed ability to mysteriously dodge scores of them. To top it all off, McLane is shoeless. His being barefoot through the entirety of the film is a perfect metaphor used to illustrate his endurance.
Another cliché mechanism of the action movie is the abundant use of slow motion. In Die Hard it occurs once, punctuating the film the one of the best death scenes I have seen. After a climactic battle, Hans is left clinging to the edge of a window. As life slowly drains from his limbs, he loses his grasp, and the composition is focused on his threatening countenance. He raises his gun, stares at McClane with piercing determination, and loses aim as he falls to his death.
In closing his transformative circle McClane patches things up with his wife. The reluctant hero may be interpreted to have inherited a greater appreciation for his life and loved ones, which is arguably the offshoot function of the Christmas holiday. Therein lies the relation between German terrorists and claymated reindeers.
Die Hard is collectively realized as the standard action film. It may seem, in measure, that watching it in lieu of Frosty or Rudolph violates a practice during a holiday known and based on custom. However true, there is heart in Die Hard, one that may be discerned at the base of a film that is superficially about defeating evil. This theme may too extreme for the holiday, but it is apparent nonetheless.