Christmas retro movie review: Die Hard

(image via IMP Awards)

Merry Christmas, John McClane!

In the classic late ’80s blockbuster Die Hard, which is indisputably a Christmas movie – exhibit A is “Let it Snow!” sung not simply by Al (Reginald VelJohnson) but beautifully soundtracked at the end of the film as Argyle (De’voreaux White) the limo driver drives everyone away from the burning mess that is Nakitomi Plaza and exhibit B is the fact that it takes place against a Christmas party on Christmas Eve (enough “Christmases for you?) – John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York policeman is in LA to reunite (maybe) with his high-flying corporate wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).

Torn apart by John’s unwillingness, later admitted in one of the heart-to-hearts with Al, the policeman who first comes to the Nakitomi Plaza and becomes John’s advocate and friend in a highly-unorthodox situation, to be more supportive of his wife, they are hoping that Christmas may be the magic moment that gets them back together.

The early signs are hopeful, and then not so hopeful as they argue just before supposed terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), come in, machine guns blasting, kill the ranking manager Mr Takagi (James Shigeta) who “won’t be joining us for the rest of his life” – one of the classic lines that punctuate the film – and then deliver all kinds of lofty demands designed to mask that they’re really just thieves.

Granted, thieves after $640 million in bearer bonds but thieves nonetheless.

Naturally, their intention is to get in, get out, leave some bodies behind – the bomb on the roof would indicate lots of bodies – and live lives of blood-stained rich indulgence, but John, a man so committed to his job he won’t leave New York, is having none of it, glass shards in the feet be damned, and sets about disabling both Hans’ men and his plan with single-minded, but largely jerry-rigged determination.

(image courtesy 20th Century Fox)

What makes John McClane so damn relatable, and by extension, has lent Die Hard such an unexpected air of humanity for an action movie in which there is lots of messy, bloody death and dying, is how very real and fragile he seems.

He is a man thrust into a nightmare situation not of his making, forced to move fast and hard with Gruber’s men hot on his heels (well, until they die anyway), conscious that his wife is still one of the hostages and could be found out at any moment (not so worried about her using her maiden name now are you John?), desperate to stay alive and save his marriage, see his kids and just be a goddamn ordinary human being.

He’s such an authentically decent guy, without any of the obviously righteous bells and whistles so beloved of Hollywood which usually feels the need to almost laughably who is bad and who is good, that he even tries to save cocaine-snorting office sleazebag Ellis (Hart Bochner) who claims to know John in attempt to (a) big note himself and (b) using his “superior” negotiating skills to end the whole sorry saga.

John knows the only outcome is Ellis’s death and his attempts to save Ellis from himself are but one example of the enormous emotional resonance that suffuses the entire film.

Sure, Die Hard is a big, guns a-blazin’ action heist film that is definitely not going to win any awards for restrained use of weaponry but it is also heartfelt and full of all-too-human vulnerabilities that elevate it way beyond your usual blockbuster flick.

Key to this is not just McClane – Willis is impressive throughout, managing to balance gung-ho saviour mode with some stark, self-doubting fragility – but his relationship with Al, a traumatised cop who is still dealing with a shooting incident that left him confined to desk duties.

The Nakitomi situation is his PTSD worst nightmare, and yet he stands stalwartly by John throughout, arguing for his integrity and innate goodness when everyone around him from the idiotic deputy police chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason) through to the bumbling FBI agents are wont to ignore and discredit John at every turn.

Their friendship under literal fire (and bomb explosions and falling bodies and etc etc) is the beating heart of a film which in many ways offers up the usual cardboard cutout characters and violent action tropes but delivers them so well that you happily go along, unquestioningly, for the ride.

(image courtesy 20th Century Fox)

That is why Die Hard, which turned 30 this year, has endured as such a classic.

It gives the audience who wants edge-of your-seat thrills-and-spills, vigilante justice and good vs. evil their holy war of retribution; but it also offers up the kind of raw, touching humanity that many films of a more dramatic persuasion don’t quite manage to deliver.

That it achieves all this in an elegant 2 hours and 12 minutes, with each element balanced just so is a feat of cinematic mastery of which screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza and director John McTiernan should be justifiably proud.

Replete with all kinds of iconic moments such as Tony Vreski (Andreas Wisniewski) in the lift with “Now I have a machine gun ho ho ho” and McClane’s immortal “Yippie-Ki-Yay, Motherfucker!”, a sly sense of wry humour and a willingness to wear its heart on its sleeve as much as having it blasted to ribbons by machine gunfire, Die Hard, based on the book Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, is a quintessential David vs. Goliath deal that works on levels both obvious and intelligently-nuanced, a Christmas film (and yes it is once again) that reminds us that all that bloody, thrilling action only really makes sense when you have a beating heart at its core.

Die Hard has it in spades, which is why, all these Christmases later (have I made my point yet?) it is rightly regarded as a classic of the genre, an energising romp through the best and worst of humanity that hits home in all kinds of seasonally-appropriate ways.

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