One of the biggest debates over the last 30 years is whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. It wasn’t released during the Christmas holiday season but the summer months. It’s set on Christmas Eve in the Los Angeles area as a NYPD officer is visiting his estranged wife and family for the holidays.
Is it a Christmas movie? It’s about forgiveness and redemption. That’s two foundations that the tenements of Christianity are built on.
Bruce Willis, back when he was actually an actor of promise, plays John McClaine, a New York Police detective who arrives in Los Angeles to visit an old colleague and more or less to try to patch things up with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Earlier that year, Holly began a job at the Nakatomi Corporation in Century City and she moved there with the kids. John stayed back in New York arguing that he was still working on cases so he couldn’t move. Yet while getting a ride to the Naktaomi building, a limo driver, Argyle (De’Voreaux White), theorizes John felt that the job wouldn’t work out and/or Holly and the kids would miss him and come back.
Realizing that Holly is using her maiden name Gennaro as she is an up and coming executive at the company, John is quick to restart some of the arguments that led to Holly leaving. When asked to speak some words of encouragement to her fellow workers, Holly leaves John alone as he kicks himself wondering why he couldn’t talk about it later and more calmer.
At the same time, a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in his breakout role), have arrived and started taking seize of the building. Hans’ right-hand man, Karl (Alexander Gudonov) has killed the security guards down in the lobby and henchman Eddie (Huey Lewis doppelganger Dennis Hayden) takes over. IT whiz Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) goes to work on hacking the security system and Karl’s brother, Tony (Andreas Wisniewski) knocks out the phone lines so the other henchmen can take all the workers hostage on the floor where a Christmas party is behind held.
Having taken his shoes off to do a relaxation method a person on the flight suggested, John hears the gunshots but realizes that even with his Beretta 9mm handgun, he is outnumbered and takes off up the nearby staircase to try to find a way to get the police to come since the phone lines are no good. After trying to set off a fire alarm, he inadvertently alerts Hans to his presence and Tony is sent to kill him, thinking he was a security guard or co-worker that was able to escape.
After John and Tony fight some, they fall down a staircase where John’s headlock on Tony breaks his neck killing him. With Tony’s MP5 submachine gun and a radio, John sends Tony’s body in the elevator to the party and makes for the roof to notify authorities. Now, enraged by the death of Tony, Karl vows vengeance and him and others go up to the roof to kill John.
While on the radio, the dispatcher hears gunfire and notifies a patrol officer who may be nearby. Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is on his way home when he gets the call to check it out. Initially Al is skeptical and after being led in by Eddie, he looks around and decides that it’s probably another system error like before with the fire alarm and goes to leave.
When John, now on a conference room floor, tries to break a window to notify Al before he walks in, alerting more henchmen to engage in a gunfight with. He is able to shoot both of them and as he sees Al leaving, throws one of the bodies out, as it lands on Al’s patrol car. And the terrorist quickly fire on the patrol car trying to kill Al as he puts the car in reverse and speeds back notifying dispatch.
With the authorities (and media) full alerted to the terrorist activity, they assume outside as Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) takes over as Al has established communication with John over the CB radio who initially uses an alias to protect Holly. Earlier, John witnessed Hans kill Holly’s boss and Nakatomi president Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta) when he wouldn’t tell him the security codes to open the company’s vault. Hans and the rest of the terrorists are actually there to steal millions in bearer bonds.
As John must remain hiding from the terrorists while trying to assist the police, he has to deal with Robinson who seriously doubts Al’s instinct that John is cop. Robinson orchestrates an unsuccessful raid by SWAT that results in officers being shot by Eddie and Uli (Al Leong). When they send an armored car to ram the door down, the terrorists use artillery to subdue it. This leads to John using some C4 plastic explosives and detonators in a makeshift bomb to kill the terrorists and level a whole floor.
While he saved the officers and killed two more terrorists, the action angers Robinson as he argues with John over the radio. Robinson becomes more angry Holly’s co-worker Ellis (Hart Bochner) tries to lie and pressure John into surrendering after telling Hans he’ll put his life on the line. Unfortunately, Ellis doesn’t realize Hans is serious about killing him. With his identity exposes for the terrorists, media and LAPD, John tries to talk some sense into Ellis but Hans kills him anyway.
Ellis was bearing false witness and that’s why he died. More important, John refused the temptation even though he knew it would’ve led to both of them dying. However, Robinson and the FBI Agents Johnson and Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush) who arrive later treat John as an inferior. They’re no different than the High Priests of Judea who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. You could also view Ellis as the Judas who identifies John even though it could put Holly at risk.
Later when John meets Hans for the first time, he presumes Hans was just another businessmen. And the great deceiver like Lucifer, Hans pretends to work for Nakatomi with a fake American accent. After John learns of Hans’ true identity and a firefight ensues as Karl and another henchmen are alerted, John begins to realize that he might die after escaping. Knowing that the last time he had spoke to Holly, they had an argument, he tells Al to pass along a message of forgiveness to her if he dies.
Al, himself, is struggling with his own past sins. He’s a desk sergeant. When he worked patrol, Al tells John that he accidentally shot a kid because he thought the kid’s raygun was real. This is actually inspired by a true incident that happened in the 1980s where a bunch of kids were playing Lazer Tag and one was shot by a police officer who confused the toy gun for a real one.
Jeb Stuart, who co-wrote the screenplay with Steven E. de Souza, said the feeling that John has he might die without apologizing to Holly, was based on a true incident he had. Stuart got into an argument with his wife and left the house to take a drive to clear his head. But he almost got involved in a car accident when an empty refrigerator box fell off a truck in front of him. Looking back, Stuart realized he could’ve died with his wife angry at him and revised the script.
This is what makes John McClane such a great character. He’s vulnerable. Willis was only known at this time for his role on the TV show Moonlighting as well as the Blake Edwards comedy Blind Date. He wasn’t known for more serious roles or even as an action star in 1988, which is good, because an action hero star doesn’t need to play John McClane. He’s an unwilling action hero. At one point, John is standing on the edge of the roof of the Nakatomi building with a fire hose wrapped around his waist and you can tell he’s terrified. He’s got two options. Either he can stay on the roof and be shot at by the FBI who’ve mistaken him for a terrorist and be killed in the explosion or he can tried jump off with a makeshift harness and break a window pane to get back into the one of the lower levels.
When the movie trailers appeared for Die Hard, people reportedly laughed in movie theaters seeing Willis. But he was able to prove them wrong. John might be a little cocky and arrogant in this movie but he’s still likeable. Unfortunately, Willis would go on to turn John McClane into a sulking gruff parody in later movies most notably Live Free or Die Hard and whatever the hell A Good Day to Die Hard was supposed to be.
John is like Job in this movie or any other Biblical characters being subjected to obstacles he must overcome. Anyone notice that the Nakatomi building has 40 stories? Jesus stayed in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights fighting temptations. John is put through hell until at one moment he takes shelter in a office fountain from the fire as Hans has set off the rest of the explosive causing the higher floors to explode and thus destroying the helicopter.
He comes out of the water and out of the fire on his journey to save Holly and stop Hans. Without only two bullets on his Beretta, he is able to surprise a henchman by knocking him out with an MP5 and shoot Eddie and Hans. But Hans does die and falls through a window pulling Holly with him. The only way Holly and John are able to loosen his grip is by breaking off the Rolex watch Holly was given by Ellis. Not only does the watch signify that John and Holly will get back together but Holly is casting off her riches. This causes Hans to fall to his death, like Lucifer falling from Heaven or figuratively from his position as God’s right-hand angel.
Now, of course, I can’t end this without talking about how well Rickman handles the role of Hans, leading to multiple imitators. A good hero is only as good as the villain is evil. And Hans might be one of the most evil villains portrayed. Even faced with his own imminent death at the end, he prepares to draw his weapon on Holly and John. Also, the way he nonchalantly kills Takagi and Ellis shows that he is a person without morals. But at the same time he is a man who can’t take criticism. When Holly berates him calling him “just a common thief,” he gets angry at her.
This was Rickman’s first role in a movie and it led to more roles. Would we even still watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves if Rickman didn’t play the Sheriff of Nottingham so well? And even though it’s not one of my favorite Christmas movies, but watching his character in Love Actually buying his wife a cheap CD while spending more money on jewelry for a younger woman he just wanted to have an office affair with is really low and despicable.
That’s not saying he just played bad guys. I don’t think Galaxy Quest would’ve been half as good if he wasn’t in it and he proved that he was just as good at comedy as he was at drama along with his role as a real seraphim angel Metatron in the Biblical satire Dogma. Of course, he also appeared in the Harry Potter movies. This makes his death nearly six years ago still so hard for many fans to get over. He was only 42 when Die Hard was released, an inspiration that you don’t have to achieve everything so early in your life. And his versatility over the next decades made him a favorite of all film lovers.
There’s no question that Die Hard is a Christmas movie just like Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life. Just like a Christmas present, it comes in all shapes and sizes.
What do you think? Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Please comment.