*****NAKATOMI PLAZA-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
Without going into a lengthy plot synopsis/breakdown of the 1988 action movie “Die Hard,” or its sequels, I’d like to add my voice to the ongoing online debate over whether or not the movie is truly a “Christmas film.” Short answer; yes, it is. Absolutely.
Having watched it again this past weekend, I can vouch that “Die Hard” is as Christmas as “Home Alone” (1990), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966) or even “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). I’ll get into the reasons why shortly, but first, the question must be asked; what exactly constitutes a Christmas movie? Is it snowfall? Is it religious overtones? Is it lots of tinsel, ornaments and strings of lights, or is it all about family, home and hearth?
A lot of current Christmastime staples could just as easily take place out of the Christmas season. We each have that certain movie that puts us in the mood for the holidays, so why should the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis) taking out a gang of terrorist-thieves on Christmas Eve in L.A. be any different? In most so-called Christmas movies I’ve seen the stories are largely universal (falling in love, rekindling lost love, family reconciliation, protecting loved ones from harm or hardship, etc); Christmas is merely the given backdrop in which to set the story.
Hallmark Christmas movies (the absolute nadir of holiday offerings) are usually just variations on these old tropes (man/woman fall in love or rekindle a past love, just in time for the holidays…); the same tired story retold, ad infinitum, with merely a different cast of actors each time. One or both of the lead characters is usually a once-popular 1990s TV star as well (Tori Spelling, Dean Cain, etc).
Despite its action trappings (which made the film a prototype for a new wave of claustrophobic, single-location action movies) “Die Hard” is essentially a story about a cop trying to reconnect with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) on Christmas Eve, under absurdly trying circumstances. As crazy as it sounds, not only is “Die Hard” a holiday flick, it’s also a love story. It’s a Hallmark Christmas movie with machine guns, terrorists and attack choppers.
Note: “Die Hard” was based loosely on the 1979 novel, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” by Roderick Thorpe, as a sequel to the 1968’s “The Detective,” which featured Frank Sinatra as detective Joe Leland. The novel sees Leland visiting his successful oil company executive daughter, when he becomes involved in a takeover of her office building by German terrorists. Fox reworked the story as a possible Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle before settling on then-popular “Moonlighting” TV star Bruce Willis. The movie shot Willis to superstardom. The movie’s screenplay was written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (“48 HRS,” “Predator”, “Commando”), and was directed by John McTiernan (“Predator,” “The Hunt For Red October”).
Home Alone = Die Hard Clone.
1990’s “Home Alone” is essentially a parody of “Die Hard,” with a young boy (Macaulay Culkin) defending his family’s home from a pair of bumbling would-be thieves. So why would “Home Alone” be revered as a Christmas movie, but “Die Hard” remain controversial? Both feature excessive violence (though one features more cartoonish violence) and both feature lone heroes, Kevin McCallister/John McClane (Irish-American names), defending themselves and valuable property (the McCallister home/the Nakatomi vault) from thieves/terrorists.
Both movies have strong pro-capitalist/status-quo perspectives (that property and material goods are worth dying and killing over), and neither movie champions examples of typically Christ-like qualities, such as mercy, charity, or forgiveness. Each movie dishes out unusually strong punishment for all sorts of transgressions (the cokehead yuppie Ellis in “Die Hard” is killed mainly for being an insufferable prick). McClane and McCallister spend much of their movies’ running time thinking of cleverly improvised ways of maiming or killing their opponents. Both McClane and McCallister go that extra creative mile to show off their morbid wit. Kevin rigs elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style booby traps which could just as easily have killed members of his family (had they came home early), or even himself. McClane dresses up a terrorist’s corpse with a Santa’s cap, and even writes a cheery holiday message in the corpse’s blood on its sweatshirt (“Now I have a machine gun– Ho, Ho, Ho,” as Alan Rickman so beautifully deadpans later on). Admittedly, both heroes are in the struggle for their lives, but each shows a disturbing flair for grisly sadism. Not terribly Christian of them, to say the least…
We also see lots of Christmas ‘dressing’ in both movies; Christmas decorations (in building lobbies & homes), Christmas music (“Die Hard’s soundtrack features multiple renditions of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony’s “Ode to Joy” as well as “Let it Snow”), and the holiday itself is the catalyst that puts both movies in motion. In “Home Alone”, young Kevin is left behind when his ridiculously large (and criminally negligent) family takes a holiday trip to France and leaves him behind; in “Die Hard,” a separated John McClane flies to the west coast to join his estranged wife and family (“fly out to the coast, we’ll have a few laughs”). In fact, I’d say the greatest holiday-theme common denominator of each film is of separated family reconciling. Familial reconciliation is hardly a story unique to Christmas… that same subplot could apply to just about any family drama ever made, in fact. So are Christmas movies merely stories that happen to be set at Christmastime, or are there other commonalities?
Guardian Angels or Spirits.
Some Christmas stories also feature a supernatural character, who acts as either a moral guide or (literal) guardian angel for the character, such as the various spirits who haunt Scrooge for his own reclamation in “A Christmas Carol,” or bumbling angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who shows a despondent George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) what life would be like without him, in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
While not exactly a supernatural guide, “Die Hard” has such a flawed messenger as well, in the form of Reginald VelJohnson’s “Sgt. Al Powell”, who for most of his role in the film, only communicates with the hero via a surprisingly sturdy walkie-talkie (in my experience, the charge for those devices would never last an entire night, especially a late ’80s model). Powell sympathizes with McClane as a fellow cop, and lifts his spirits when he’s at his lowest. In a scene where a nearly defeated McClane tells Powell to relay an apologetic message to his wife, Powell refuses— telling McClane he’s going to survive and give his apology to her in person. As the terrorists, LAPD and FBI all seemingly conspire to make McClane’s night much worse, there’s always Al Powell in McClane’s corner–cheering him on, and offering words of encouragement when all seems lost.
Powell, just like the equally fallible ‘angel’ Clarence, also has a past he’s not proud of. Clarence has failed to get his wings in 200 years; Al accidentally shot a kid with a toy ray gun, which saw him subsequently demoted to desk duty and driving a patrol car (badly, at that). Al, just like Clarence, gives much needed moral support when McClane needs it most–even earning the ire of his boss, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson (“Breakfast Club” costar Paul Gleason)–in order to deliver that support. Al’s slightly rotund appearance also makes him a subliminal Santa Claus-like figure as well, complete with Santa’s sweet tooth (Santa loves cookies, Al loves his Twinkies).
Just as Clarence needed to earn his wings by helping George Bailey, a quick-thinking Powell ends up shooting a surviving terrorist (the late Alexander Gudonov) in order to save John and Holly’s lives in the film’s final moments, redeeming his earlier failure when he accidentally shot the ray gun-wielding kid. Both ‘flawed angels’ amend their pasts with their actions in the present. For me, Al Powell is the one character who truly embodies the Christmas spirit of the film… if you can overlook that whole accidentally shooting a kid-thing.
Hans Gruber as The Grinch…?
One of my favorite Christmas stories as a kid was the 1966 cartoon “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which was based on the story by Dr. Seuss, and narrated/acted by the legendary horror veteran Boris Karloff (with memorable songs performed by Thurl Ravenscroft). The cartoon was broadcast every year during the holiday season. Yes, there’ve been a few remakes, but I’ve not seen them, and they’re not necessary for me to make my point; in both “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Die Hard,” you have a wily villain who is determined to ‘steal’ Christmas from someone–either the innocent Whos of Whoville, or the coked-out, big-haired yuppie executives of the Nakatomi Corporation.
In both stories, the villain is also far more interesting than the good guys. The biggest difference between Gruber (played by the late great Alan Rickman) and the Grinch was that the Grinch was redeemed at the story’s end; when the Whos carried on with Christmas despite his theft and sabotage. Gruber just dies–falling to his death after being shot, and losing his tenacious grip on the Rolex watch of Holly Gennero (nee: McClane). But no matter how they diverged, both characters had one aim–Christmas Eve theft. The much-touted ‘season of generosity’ is also the season where greed usually makes its end run as well (ever notice how many more telephone scammers call around the Christmas season…?).
The Grinch wanted to steal Christmas so that the Whos would just shut up and leave him in his peaceful misery. Gruber wanted to raid the vault of the Nakatomi building in L.A. because he and his ‘associates’ were (like so many in the ’80s) caught up in the excessive, take-no-prisoners materialism of that glitzy, extravagant decade. The 1980s are often remembered as the ‘greed is good’ decade (coined with deliberate irony from the 1987 movie, “Wall Street”). Many popular American TV shows and movies flaunted characters and affluent families who were awash in material wealth (“Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Knot’s Landing,” “The Cosby Show,” etc); it was part of a greater strategy to show how “winning” American culture could be. By no accident, this cultivated image was heavily marketed overseas.
The Grinch’s greed is fueled by his own self-misery and desire to make everyone else as miserable as himself. Gruber’s greed is fueled by….well, greed. Simpler motivation, yes, but the incredibly talented (and missed) Alan Rickman blows every other character off of the screen whenever he’s on camera. Rickman’s Hans Gruber exudes charm, wit, magnetism, taste and sophistication (Hans takes a moment to admire Takagi’s John Phillips of London suit–he has two himself). Much like Belloq to Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” , Hans Gruber is the champagne-sipping villain to the beer-guzzling hero.
I must say that the late Alan Rickman is my single favorite element of the film. This was the role that propelled the former stage actor into stardom, and it’s easy to see why–he owns the movie. Gruber’s death at the end is arguably the reason why none of the subsequent movies were ever quite as good as the 1988 original. That, and the fact that over the course of the sequels Bruce Willis’ John McClane changed from a vulnerable, bleeding, flawed, regretful, human being into a human Transformer–I lost all interest when McClane became an invincible superhero who could challenge a military jet fighter plane with a truck.
Note: The “Die Hard” sequels, like the JAWS series, are near-textbook examples of diminishing returns, with increasingly implausible and downright silly stories as well as a now-superhuman John McClane, who became a hairless, humorless human missile. “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” (1990) is the last one with the strongest connectivity to the original, but it lacks the charming villainy of Alan Rickman, replacing him with a gaggle of uptight right-wingers trying to spring a South American General Noriega-type. 1995’s “Die Hard With A Vengeance” brought in Samuel L. Jackson (re-teaming him with his “Pulp Fiction” costar Willis) for some much needed energy; it almost worked, too, but the film’s sprawling story and lack of focus worked against it. Jeremy Irons was cast as Gruber’s brother Simon, but it was too little, too late. The subsequent sequels aren’t worth mentioning, let alone watching.
“It’s Christmas, Theo…”
Christmas movies are usually about family, loved ones and the value of human connections. “Die Hard,” despite its high body count, is, at its core, a story of a man reconciling with his wife and family. It is full of Christmas flourishes (trees, decorations, gift-wrapping, office parties), it has a Christmas-heavy soundtrack (repeated usage of “Ode to Joy” and “Let It Snow”), and it takes place on Christmas Eve. We also see several characters who can be seen as avatars for other Christmas story icons (Gruber as Grinch, Powell as Clarence/guardian spirit).
While it’s true that there’s no no flying reindeer, jolly guys in bright red suits, or even snow (“California…” as McClane quips), there are other Christmas stories which lack these tropes and are still considered seasonally iconic (Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a Yuletide ghost story—which similarly broke new ground back in 1843). We each get into the holiday spirit in different ways, just as “Die Hard” limo driver Argyle (a scene-stealing De’voreaux White) plays RUN DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” on the car’s tape deck (“this is Christmas music”) as his personal holiday jam. While superficially unconventional, “Die Hard” is a holiday movie for many, and no amount of Christmas-flick gatekeeping can dictate otherwise.
To my readers, I wish you a very happy holiday season–I hope you’re able to enjoy whichever movies or TV shows help get you in your own holiday groove during this exceptionally difficult and trying year.
“Die Hard” is available for viewing and streaming this month on HBO and HBOMax. It is also available to purchase on Blu Ray and DVD via contact-free shipping from Amazon.com (as are its sequels). It is also available to rent/purchase via streaming downloads from YouTube or Amazon Prime video ($3.99-$7.99). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are surpassing 300,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, the newly developed vaccines are just now being distributed, with widespread mass immunization still a few months away. Even if inoculated, masks are still advisable, since the exact length of immunization offered by the vaccine isn’t fully understood. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!