Die Hard: The R-Rated Action Film That Became an Unlikely Holiday Classic

Ho-Ho-Ho-Now I have a machine gun.

Friday, December 22nd is the date scheduled for one of my family’s most beloved Christmas tradition – a big screen viewing of Die Hard. It doesn’t matter how many times we watch it. Like It’s a Wonderful Life and Muppet Christmas Carol, it’s joy is in its familiarity. The heartwarming tale of how New York City street cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis), has to fight off 12 European terrorists led by criminal mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in a Los Angles skyscraper and reunite with his estranged wife Molly (Bonnie Bedelia) is a perennial favorite. It has become a cultural touchstone to the point, where movie pitches regularly describe their films in relation to this film: ‘Die Hard set on a bus. Die Hard set on the presidential plane.  Die Hard with zombies.’ 

Directed by John McTiernan (The Hunt for Red October, Predator) the movie’s action bona fides are quite simply impeccable. You want loud explosions? We’ll deliver one that sends glass all over a city block! You want fight scenes? Sit back and enjoy carnage candy! But I’d argue the movie continues to hold up so well over the years, even against films with bigger and badder special effects budgets, because it’s just a testament to good old-fashioned craftsmanship.  McTiernan wisely put in all sorts of small touches –  seeing SWAT team members struggling in rose bushes to watching a gunman preparing for siege grab a candy bar from the stand – that had the effect of adding a dose of realism to the incredible events depicted.  

Indeed, in a genre that too often substitutes blows and bangs for storytelling and character development, Die Hard is strikingly humane in the sense we’re meant to focus on the people at the heart of it. There is the perfect archetype of the easy-to-root-for underdog in John McClane, and the epitome of Eurotrash villains in Hans, the screen debut that made Rickman an international sensation. Indeed, the latter is arguably more important than the former. Hollywood has spent 30 years trying to create imitation villains with the Hans Gruber magic (including all the Die Hard sequels), but has never really succeeded. The only time you get villains of comparable charisma are well…when they were also played by the late, lamented Rickman. No one else captured the art of sneering quite like him.

 Besides the main characters there’s a veritable feast of delicious supporting roles from sociopathic hacker Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr. in an early example of an African American criminal who wasn’t a stereotype), Teutonic strongman Karl (the late Alexander Godunov), bumbling deputy police chief Dwayne Robinson (Paul Gleason), sleazy TV reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton, who was also the annyoing environment cop in Ghostbusters), and finally Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) as the helpful voice in McClane’s ear who has his own character arc as well. The separate dramas happening outside Nakatomi plaza prove as central to the plot and as entertaining as what happens inside. Even stranded limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White), who may seem a throwaway comic relief character, gets his time to shine. I love them all and return to them every year.  Merry Christmas and yippie-ki-yay-motherf—-!

Top photo: Bigstock

About Winnefred Ann Frolik (155 Articles)
Winnefred Ann Frolik (Winnie for short) was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She completed the International Baccleareate program at Schenley High School and then attended the University of Pittsburgh where she completed a double major in English Literature and Creative Writing. After graduation she spent a number of years working in the non-profit sector and it was during that phase in her life she moved to D.C.  Winnie co-wrote a book on women in the U.S. Senate with Billy Herzig.  She enrolled in a baking program in culinary school and worked in food services for a while. She currently works in personal services while writing for Woman Around Town and doing other freelance writing projects including feeble personal attempts at fiction. Her brother is a reporter in Dayton, Ohio so clearly there are strong writing genes in the family.  She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with two demanding cats.