For a film that is often cited as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, it is a little surprising that Die Hard actually came out in mid-July in the US (although it was released in early February here in the UK). I was mildly surprised to learn this given that I regularly watch it around the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays. The idea of watching it in the summer strikes me as a little off. When it comes to Die Hard, however, it doesn’t actually matter when it was released, or when you go and watch it, because it doesn’t rely on the setting of a Christmas party to make it one of the greatest action films ever made.
The story begins as a very personal tale of New York City cop Jon McClane (Bruce Willis) as he travels across America to be with his estranged family at Christmas. Separated from his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) who moved to Los Angeles in order to chase a successful career, McClane wants desperately to have his family back and still loves his wife dearly. The personal drama stems from their inability to make their marriage work with their careers, even though an easy fix would be for John to move to LA to become a cop there.
Unfortunately their marriage woes are interrupted by one of the best movie villains of all time, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and his group of German terrorists as they take control of the building in order to seal the $640million in the vault.
Die Hard was the feature film debut for Rickman – and the first action movie role for Willis – and would go on to make both of its lead actors into household names. While you can argue that each actor received accolades for this movie based solely on their own merits, I can’t help but feel that the way they are designed against each other plays a big factor to their success. Willis is the streetwise hero, wearing a vest and covered in dirt and grime, whereas Rickman is his opposite; he’s cultured, wears an expensive suit and likes to maintain his composure. They are a Yin and Yang pair who complement each other wonderfully, which is a big reason for their success.
Previously in action films, villains were portrayed as madmen or thugs, but Rickman brings so much more to the role and flips the expected characteristics of the hero and villain.
What makes Die Hard truly entertaining is Willis as the battered and near broken hero. Stripped down to only a pistol (and no shoes) he has to take on over a dozen bad guys armed with machine guns and explosives in a location that he’s unfamiliar with, in a city that isn’t even his own. He’s a fish out of water, doing whatever he can not only to survive, but to stop the bad guys.
Compared to later films in the series, especially the fourth and fifth films, this is McClane at his most human and vulnerable. He isn’t performing over the top feats like driving a car into a helicopter, he’s not even able to find a pair of shoes to steal. He gets beat up, his feet get sliced, and by the end he’s stumbling around because he can barely walk. It is this humanity, this frailty, that makes John McClane so popular and relatable.
It is strange to think that at the time it was made, Die Hard was a gamble for the studio, but with a script that was changing even during production, an actor who had never acted on film in the villain role, and a hero whose film career had stalled, it was a huge risk for them. Thankfully, they took that risk. Without Die Hard we would have lost out on one of the greatest action films (and Christmas movies) ever, and would probably not have had the careers of both Bruce Willis or Alan Rickman. Die Hard is more than just a simple action movie, and with this being the 30th anniversary of its release that should be celebrated.