I love action movies. They are my favorite way to escape when I’m looking to be entertained. Seemingly, there’s a million of them, which potentially makes any debate over which one is the greatest a complicated discussion. However, for me, there is only one choice—Die Hard. A completely thorough explanation would require a small book and in-depth analysis examining the ridiculously improbable plot (a must for any good action movie), use of real stunts as opposed to a CGI generated cartoon, and the sheer likability of the supporting “good guy/woman” characters (in Die Hard these include Holly Gennaro McClane, Sergeant Al Powell, and the unforgettable Argyle.) In the interest of time and space, I will limit my observations on the genius that is Die Hard.
The Unrelenting Hero: John McClane is ticked off and will stop at nothing to succeed. He rejects authority, executes his own plan, and makes smoking look desirable. In Die Hard, McClane basically spends the entire movie killing bad guys, destroying property, and telling anyone who gets in his way to take a hike (his language is much stronger, but this is a family column) in order to save his wife, Holly. In addition, and this is important, as soon as Holly is in danger, the switch flips. I contrast this to Chuck Norris’ Lone Wolf McQuade, in which, if I remember correctly, Norris’ character endures the near murder and hospitalization of his daughter, the killing of his partner, and the kidnapping of his girlfriend. While he reacts to what’s happened and is, shall we say, not pleased, he doesn’t go full rogue until the evil drug guys kill his dog. To me, that’s too late in the game.
A Deliciously Bad Villain: Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is smart, evil, and unconditionally ruthless. He kills without remorse and is governed by only one thing—successfully stealing hundreds of millions from the Nakatomi Corporation. He’s not distracted by changes in plan or the lust for vengeance that consumes his second-in-command. These are essential qualities for any good action movie antagonist and there are plenty of great examples in other productions. Lethal Weapon, Con Air, and Speed come to mind. Rickman, however, maintains a masterful balance between in-charge leader and madman, making you almost like the guy. He reminds me of an uncompromising and demanding boss who, in the end, has a heart. For the cherry on top of the sundae, Gruber utters one of my favorite lines ever. When John McClane’s wife, Holly, finds out that Hans and his crew are not terrorists but, instead, are looking to steal money, she calls him a common thief. Gruber grabs her and says, “I am an exceptional thief…” He does it with an effortless combination of malevolence and self-righteousness.
Incompetent Help: In every action movie, there are plenty of good guys who try to resolve the situation but just can’t get the job done, enabling the maverick hero to save the day. Usually, the well-intentioned cops, soldiers, and/or security guards just aren’t up to the task. A good example of this is the seemingly hundreds of guys who fight valiantly against the invading force in Olympus Has Fallen. Die Hard, however, goes way beyond the good guys being overmatched; they are comically inept. A great example is Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson. He consistently misinterprets McClane’s actions and orders a disastrous frontal attack that Gruber’s men cut to shreds. As an aside, I’ve always wondered where the actual police chief was that night. I mean, I know it’s Christmas Eve and all, but you’d think that terrorists taking over a building was an event you wouldn’t want to delegate. In addition to the Deputy Chief, there’s the police dispatcher who, when McClane contacts her to report the occupation of Nakatomi Plaza, shrugs off the call with a dismissive “send a car around,” rather than react strongly to the machine gun fire invading her headset. The FBI agents, Johnson & Johnson, somehow accept that it’s okay to lose approximately twenty-five percent of the hostages. For the record, I don’t think that any real-life law enforcement officers, on either the local or federal level, would be this horrible at their jobs. But it makes the movie that much more fun to watch.
The Bad Guys Can’t Shoot: In all these movies, the hero can outrun a line of machine gun fire or jump away from explosions over and over for however long it takes to prevail. The good guy, on the other hand, usually can shoot while moving, over the shoulder, into a haze of smoke, and somehow pick off his target. Without being too heavy on the Gerard Butler movies (see the Olympus Has Fallen reference above), I think an excellent example of this is London Has Fallen. In Die Hard, there’s the added dynamic that John McClane does all this while sprinting over broken glass or having the gun taped to his back before ripping it free to shoot.
The Big Fight: In every action movie, there’s a climatic showdown between the hero and the meanest villain. It’s usually very entertaining and about as realistic as the old Road Runner cartoons. With that said, Die Hard has the best one I’ve ever seen. I say this because, in Die Hard, the fight actually develops naturally from the events of the movie. McClane and Karl, played by Alexander Gudonuv, run into each other, there’s a tussle, and the brawl starts. Contrast this to Lethal Weapon, where the movie’s conflict is fundamentally resolved and then the characters played by Mel Gibson and Gary Busey decide to fight it out on a front lawn. While they battle, about fifty cops watch and the police helicopter hovers overhead to illuminate the scene. I mean, even for an action movie, this goes beyond belief.
No Consequences: One of the most important components of this type of movie is that, at the end, the hero just goes home as if nothing happened. In Die Hard, John McClane and Holly climb into the back of a limo and are driven away. There is no debrief to review what happened inside the Nakatomi Plaza or to discuss the fact that McClane effectively destroyed an entire city block. Being a former finance guy, I’m pretty sure his actions pushed a major corporation towards bankruptcy. To me, that deserves at least a high-level conversation. Also, McClane doesn’t need any medical treatment despite the fact that the soles of his feet are shredded, he was kicked in head, by my count, six times, and he took enough direct punches to tenderize a horse saddle. There’s not even a thought that his wife could use some post-trauma psychiatric assistance. They just head out to, presumably, celebrate Christmas. That’s good cinema.
Now, I went through all that so I could address the cultural dilemma around Die Hard. This is, of course, the debate about whether or not it is a Christmas movie. There are the obvious facts to consider: the story takes place on Christmas Eve, the terrorists interrupt a Christmas party, there’s Christmas decorations all over the place, and Christmas music is prevalent. However, there are also some counter arguments. First off, the movie was released in July of 1988. Christmas movies aren’t released in July. Secondly, a Christmas movie always has some warmhearted theme that demonstrates the goodness of mankind. Your average Hallmark movie sends that message when the hard driving career woman leaves her six-figure job in the city to run her father’s ornament company, medical practice, or failing small town newspaper and then marry her former high-school boyfriend who never left home and runs a soup kitchen or is a music teacher. As far as I can tell, the message in Die Hard is if you threaten my wife/family I will kill all of you and I am not afraid to destroy the entire city in the process. Now, as an old-fashioned guy, I applaud the sentiment but, in all fairness, can’t say that it illustrates the concept of “Peace on Earth/Goodwill Towards Men (Women).” For the third counterargument, I’ll paraphrase the great Mike Golic, former ESPN morning host. In debating this topic, he made a simple point: If you’re watching Elf in August and your wife walks in, her question is “Why the heck are you watching Elf, at this time of year?” Would the same thing happen if you were watching Die Hard in August? The answer is a resounding no. The verdict—Die Hard is not a Christmas movie but, rather, a movie that takes place during Christmastime.
Let the debate begin