While the debate over whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie rages on year after year (it absolutely is as far as I’m concerned) it is surprising to learn that it was released in July 1988 in the States – and February over here in the UK. Neither of which generally has a Christmas tree in sight.
What absolutely requires no debate is whether or not Die Hard is one of the greatest action movies of all time. Thirty years after its UK release, this is still regarded as one of Bruce Willis’ best movies, with plenty of great twists, explosive action, fun character moments and one of the greatest movie villains of all time in the late, great Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. Did you know it was partially based on a book, Roderick Thorp’s 1979 crime novel Nothing Lasts Forever? Although it is also clearly inspired by the 1974 disaster movie The Towering Inferno.
The performances are what really sell the story. Willis is fun, wise-cracking and loveable. There’s no grit or angst to John McClane; he just wants to save his wife and get home to his kids for Christmas but those darn terrorists got on his way. Bonnie Bedelia is equally as engaging as estranged wife Holly; she’s tough without being bitchy and has common sense, something lacking is so many action movie hostages.
It helps that Willis and Bedelia have great chemistry. Their kiss at the movie’s end as they reunite feels earned and the audience are eager for them to get back together. Sure, it didn’t work out in the end, but their relationship over this film and the first sequel is one of the biggest emotional hooks amid all the explosions and impossible perilous situations, giving John something to fight for beyond the old ‘stop the bad guys’ trope.
John’s relationship with Holly isn’t the only hook of the movie. The camaraderie with Reginals Vel Jihnsin’s police sergeant Al Powell is lovely to watch. It begins as a somewhat antagonist relationship before Al realises the shit he is walking into and becomes a real buddy-cop moment as he wills McLane on to survive.
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There are not one, but two great antagonists for John to face off against – not forgetting of course the vast array of Eastern European henchman he has to fight off during the course of the movie. William Atherton’s FBI agent Richard Thornberg is the perfect foil; a man that refuses to believe John is better than him and tries to solve the terrorist kidnapping at Nakatomi Plaza his way, resulting in the horrific destruction when the FBI helicopter is caught in the explosion at the top of the building.
Alan Rickman is at his finest, chewing scenery with his Eastern European accent without ever becoming hammy. He is an utterly fun and absorbing character even when he’s executing hostages and outwitting John; his switch in persona as he plays a hostage to gain John’s trust is a superb moment. His death, falling slow-mo off the roof of the building into the fire below is one of most dramatic villain deaths of all time, so often copied but rarely bettered. It’s made even better by the fact that Alan Rickman’s reaction is real – he was dropped 25 feet onto the airbag below on the count of one, not three, as expected.
For all the over the too drama of Die Hard, it is executed with simple flair by director John McTiernan. It’s not some over-the-top scheme to topple governments, or stop a city-wide catastrophe from happening. It’s a bank heist disguised as a terrorist attack and it’s one New York cop with a gun out to stop them. The action is fast, brutal but never excessive, building to that thrilling sequence as Hans lures the hostages and the FBI to the rooftop rigged with explosives.
That scene works because everything up until then has been small in scale, allowing for the frantic rescuing of the hostages, the obliteration of the FBI helicopter and for John to leap off the side of the Plaza to be the grand spectacle it is. Other action movies – many of the Die Hard sequels among them – may have had bigger action sequences, but few are delivered as masterfully as that scene.
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Nakatomi Plaza is a great set piece; the iconic building was actually Fox Plaza, the corporate headquarters of 20th Century Fox, which was under construction during filming. Fox even charged themselves the location rental fee to use the unfinished Fox Plaza during production. People were actually working on the building construction at the time of filming, though fortunately for them McTieran didn’t actually blow the roof off the Plaza.
Die Hard might be a Christmas movie, but it is definitely one of the best action movies of all time. It’s been copied many times over and honoured in countless films and TV shows, such as Jake Peralta in copy-comedy Brooklyn Nine Nine who lives for the day he can become John McClane. It’s funny, charming, exciting and has great characters to root for. And Alan Rickman really is the best. Has there ever been a movie villain more nefarious and charming as Hans Gruber?