Tom Jolliffe on why Die Hard is still essential Christmas viewing (and why it IS a Christmas film)…
It’s Christmas time. It’s been Christmas since the last piece of candy was collected on the most lacklustre Halloween in forever. In fact I recall last Christmas, adverts on TV already pitching this Christmas. The season is big, the build up getting ever more ridiculously long. Forget Santa though, and forget elves, reindeer, baubles, and even It’s a Wonderful Life (okay, don’t, make time for that). Christmas does not begin until Hans Gruber swan dives from the Nakatomi Plaza. This should be lore now, a new found tradition.
There are a number of reasons why Die Hard is a Christmas film. For one it’s basically a pimped up version of many a Christmas song. Think of all those tunes, like Driving Home For Christmas, where our lyrical protagonist makes a journey home to be with family. That’s the set up for Die Hard right there. A hard working cop travels across country to reconnect with his estranged wife and kids. From then on the film (set on Christmas Eve) is absolutely littered with Christmas references. “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” and perpetual repetition of Merry Christmas. Bruce Willis stands on a lonely side of the fence for people who think Die Hard isn’t a Crimbo film. Okay… he’s John MF McClane, but I’m afraid he’s wrong on this. As we know from Star Wars too, it matters not if you created the film, wrote it, starred in it, directed it, it’s the fans who have final say on the true meaning of the films. If Luke Skywalker drinking some kind of Alien Yak milk ‘isn’t Star Wars‘ in the fans eyes, then they must be right…right?
It’s also representative of a battle between commercialism and family values. McClane represents the true spirit of Christmas. It’s a time for being with your family and shouldn’t be about the things like expensive gifts. Gruber is the obscenity of commercialism, obsessed with money and possessions. McClane wins out in the end and is reunited with his family. The good guys who value family and friendship win the film, the empathy drained assholes end up on the losing side, whether it’s Gruber, or Ellis or Dick Thornburg. So there. We’ve established that Die Hard is a Christmas film. It’s beyond that reason why it’s essential viewing during the festive season.
Die Hard is essential viewing 24/7, 52 weeks, 365 days a year. There’s no day you shouldn’t consider watching it. So as Christmas is basically a collection of days in the year (November 1st, until sometime mid March when you finally take the decorations down), Die Hard’s essentialness spreads across that time too. It’s is probably the best action film of all time. It’s a perfect cocktail of great writing, direction, performances and action. The beauty of the film is in its consistent ability to lay the foundations of constant small pay offs. Fists with your toes, the watch, the evolution of Gruber’s plan. Little foundations are laid, and there’s a punch line for each. It’s what leads us to a set piece where McClane is caught barefoot in a shootout in an office suite that is littered with glass partitions.
Die Hard is a perfect action formula. An everyman hero takes on a well organised group of international thieves (not terrorists) who have accounted for everything but the unexpected monkey in the wrench. Willis was fantastic as McClane. One element that doesn’t get enough credit perhaps, are those breaks in action where we feel the vulnerability of the leading character. His interactions with Al Powell, the beat cop who ends up trying to assist from the outside, are great and McClane facing his mortality, opens up to the partner he’s never met in person. There’s heart to Die Hard, which is what sells the insurmountable fight all the more. If the hero is great, they need a villain who is imperious and in Gruber we get that, played superbly by Rickman. He never overplays. He’s not enraged, he’s not a physical monster. He’s a guy in a suit with a fierce brain and ruthless resolve. It’s. in part. his self assured arrogance that is his undoing.
The influence of Die Hard is no less evident than in the fact an entire sub-genre was born and popularised from the success of John McTiernan’s film. The ‘Die Hard in a…’ film has seen countless imitators born. Some decent (not least the first two sequels and excellent riffs on the formula like Under Siege) and many pale imitators (Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper). John McTiernan delivered impeccable and jaw dropping set pieces, with a relatable and vulnerable hero way over his head. McClane, like Rocky, had the underdog heart that saw him conquer a seemingly greater enemy. For many now, the film is annual viewing around this period. The first one still holds up so well because it’s a timeless masterpiece. Very few action films have so perfectly balanced action, drama and laughs as this either. So roast some chestnuts, hang your stockings, stuff your Turkey and get Die Hard on.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/