Some people call this the best Christmas movie of all time. Some people forget that this is a Christmas movie altogether [which makes sense, since the studio inexplicably released in July of 1988]. But given that the whole thing takes place during a Christmas Eve office party turned pseudo-terrorist attack/vault heist, and given the number of holiday references scattered throughout the film, I couldn’t think of a better way to say Feliz Navidad.

Confession time: I had never seen Die Hard until I watched it for this week’s post. Crazy, right? But here’s the thing. Unless I’ve had a good couple of beers into me, or am in a particularly goofy mood that day, I don’t really enjoy what I think of as the classic late-twentieth century action movie. You know what I mean. One-dimensional, indestructible hero and his magic machine gun [it never runs out of bullets!] mow down a sea of identical, zero-dimensional bad guys in a series of cartoonish set-pieces while unleashing a steady stream of pun-filled one liners, all on sets that look like they were put together by a high school art class. Movies like Predator [“I ain’t got time to bleed”], or the second half of Total Recall [Arnold Schwarzenegger attacking a traitor with an enormous power drill, shouting, “Screw yoooouuuuu!!!!”] are more likely to have me reaching for my smartphone than at rapt attention. These films are beyond cheesy — they’re drowned in a sea of that awful primary-yellow sludge they pour on the nachos at concession stands. One bite, and I’m ready to try to talk the teenager behind the counter into refunding my two bucks.

That being said, I loved Die Hard. This may be the best action movie ever committed to celluloid during the era we’re talking about. And this is due in large part to a discernible lack of cheese, at least of the yellow-sludge variety. The characters are richly drawn, the set-pieces exciting without being so over-the-top that they generate giggles. And, unlike the heroes of the cookie-cutter action films released during the same period [let’s be honest, most of them being released today, too], we actually care about John McClane. We’ll get in to why in a minute. But first…

Story Structure Breakdown


Act One: The Set-Up

John McClane, a New York cop, arrives in L.A. and takes a limo to the Nakatomi headquarters. We learn that he’s here to see his estranged wife, one of the company’s high mucky-mucks. Inside, he discovers that his wife has gone back to using her maiden name. Nevetheless, he’s directed to an elevator which takes him to

Inciting Incident (Ii) : the Nakatomi Christmas party. John finds Holly; they argue [she left him behind to follow her career in L.A.; he’s not exactly happy about that]. She goes to rejoin the party while he gets cleaned up.

The bad guys arrive, kill the downstairs security crew, and seal off the building. They crash the Christmas party, taking everybody hostage except John [who’s removed his shoes and socks in order to “make fists with his toes,” as suggested by his seat-mate on the plane earlier]. He escapes, barefoot, to a deserted floor, but returns downstairs and eavesdrops as

Plot Point I (PPI) — The leader of the “terrorists,” Hans Gruber, demands that executive Joseph Takagi give them the codes to the vault — they are not terrorists at all, and the hostage situation is merely a cover for a robbery. Takagi insists he doesn’t know the code, and Gruber shoots him. John accidentally reveals his presence, and escapes once more to the upper floor, where he pulls a fire alarm to alert the authorities.

 Act Two: Conflict and Confrontation

In the first half of Act II (AIIa), John tries to handle the situation like a cop. When a gang member finds him, he tries to subdue him; a tumble down a flight of stairs breaks the bad guy’s neck. John sends his body down the elevator in a seasonally appropriate manner and takes the dead man’s machine gun and backpack. Contents: a two-way radio, some C4 explosives, and some detonators. He uses the radio to contact the police, who dismiss his call as a crank but send an officer — hereafter known as Al — to investigate anyway.

The bad guys proceed to break into the vault and try to track down John and retrieve the detonators. He manages to kill two more of them. Al arrives, takes a cursory look around, and leaves.

Mid-point (MP) — Realizing Al is leaving, John hurls a dead criminal out the window and onto Al’s cruiser. John shoots the cruiser repeatedly, forcing Al over an embankment. Al radios for backup. LAPD show up in full-force.

In the second half of Act II (IIb), John accepts that he has to handle this himself. The LAPD attempts to retake the building, but the criminals’ superior firepower sends them back. The news gets involved after a reporter overhears Al calling for backup. John uses the C4 to blow up more of the criminals. The FBI arrives, and treats this as a standard terrorist attack. Gruber goes upstairs to check on something, but runs into John. He pretends to be an escaped hostage, and John gives him a hand-gun. The gun is empty, however; Gruber reveals himself and the criminals arrive.

Plot Point II (PPII): John is pinned down by gunfire. Gruber orders his men to shoot out the plate glass windows in the room surrounding John, cutting off his escape. John runs away through the glass, leaving the bag of detonators behind.

Act Three: Resolution

The news crew interviews the McClane’s children, inadvertently revealing Holly’s identity to Gruber, who takes her hostage as the other “hostages” are herded onto the roof to await FBI helicopters. The FBI agents cut the electricity to the building. This turns out to have been Gruber’s plan all along; with the power down, the last of the vault’s defenses are disabled.

John and Al bond over their radios. John realizes how much he screwed up his marriage; Al explains how ended up riding a desk. John realizes that the roof is wired to explode when the helicopters land. He chases the hostages back downstairs [the FBI mistake him for a terrorist and start shooting], and dives off the roof just as Gruber detonates the explosives. The helicopter is destroyed, including the agents.

John confronts Gruber, who uses Holly as a shield. John manages to dispatch him anyway; Gruber falls out the window, nearly taking Holly with him. John frees her wrist from Gruber’s grasp, and the villain falls to his death.

Outside, one of the supposedly dead criminals re-appears, but is dispatched by Al. The limo arrives, and John and Holly leave, reconciled in time for Christmas.

Tango of The Two Johns: Heroes and Villains

Die Hard‘s success is due in no small measure to its rich characterization. Where so many of its contemporaries feature cardboard He-men battling faceless (often even nameless) bad guys with no personality, Die Hard presents both a likable, complicated hero and a fascinating, multi-layered villain. Studied individually, each could serve as a model for anyone trying to craft memorable characters. Taken together, they form a symbiotic partnership, locked into a dance that comes close to storytelling and artistic perfection.

Let’s first consider John McClane. We first meet our hero on a descending airplane, white knuckles gripping the armrest. He hates flying. His seatmate offers some advice for recovering from the ordeal — when you arrive at your destination, take off your shoes and socks and make fists with your toes on the carpet. “Trust me,” he says, “I’ve been doing it for nine years.” Once the plane has landed, he grabs his carry-on from the overhead bin — an enormous teddy bear, a gift for his two children. The other man notices the gun holstered inside John’s coat. McClane gives him a sardonic smile and reveals that he’s a cop. “Trust me,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for eleven years.” Moving up the aisle, he locks eyes with the attractive flight attendant, and they exchange what might be flirtatious glances.

Before John arrives at the airport, then, we learn a number of things. He’s a man of common, everyday fears, like air travel [and, as we learn later, heights]. He’s a cop. He has a sly sense of humor, tossing the other man’s words back at him. He loves his kids. And, even though he’s married [as we learn in the next scene], he’s a typical man. He still likes to look.

McClane struggles at times with almost crippling self-loathing. Alone again after his fight with Holly, John berates himself in the executive bathroom — “That was great, John. Good job. Very mature.” Later, after witnessing Takagi’s murder and narrowly escaping, he rebukes himself again, shouting, “Why the fuck didn’t you stop ’em, John? Because then you’d be dead too, asshole!” To some extent, this disgust may be justified; throughout the first act, his instincts are to run away, to save himself even though his wife is among the hostages.

But he’s also a man of strong ideals. He tries hard, in the film’s first half, to deal with the situation in the proper way. He pulls the fire alarm to alert the police. He radios in a distress call [or tries to]. When he winds up fighting hand-to-hand with the first of Gruber’s henchman, his intention is to merely subdue him. It’s only after an accidental fall down the stairs that the man’s neck breaks, killing him. Note also the scene where the LAPD attempts to take back the building using an armored vehicle, only to discover that the criminals are packing a rocket launcher. Via walkie talkie, he pleads with Gruber not to launch a second rocket at the already burning car — “You made your point, let them pull back!” Even this late in the process, he thinks he can reason with Hans Gruber.

He has a definite vulnerable side, too. He loves his kids, and he loves his wife. At the top of act three, he’s huddled in a bathroom, pulling shards of glass out of his bare feet [how’s that for vulnerability — the man spends nearly the entire movie with no shoes or socks!] and talking to Al over the radio. He realizes he was partly responsible for his rocky marriage, and that he never apologized to Holly for his behavior. Afraid he might not make it out alive, he asks Al to “tell her John said he was sorry.” Faced with the very real possibility of death, he lets his guard down, revealing a depth of emotion we might never have suspected.

There’s a lot going on there. There’s a lot we can admire in John — his sense of humor, his resourcefulness, his love for his family. There’s also a lot that’s less than heroic, but which we probably [and sheepishly] recognize in ourselves. As many, many people have pointed out elsewhere, he’s the perfect everyman, dragged reluctantly into playing the hero by a ruthless criminal mastermind.

Hans Gruber is just as compelling a villain as John McClane is a hero. He’s a gentleman, articulate, educated, cultured. More than once, he bemoans the lack of true culture in modern American society. He may also be a genius. When he and his thugs separate Takagi from the other hostages, seeking the access codes for the vault, he goes from humming “Ode To Joy” [which the orchestra at the party had been playing moments before] to commenting on Takagi’s suit [“I have two {by the same designer} myself. Rumor has it that Arafat buys his there.”] to exclaiming over the quality of the scale models of Nakatomi projects on display outside Takagi’s office before declaring, somewhat ruefully, that “work must intrude.” His mind’s frenetic ping-ponging calls to mind a darker, more diabolical version of Agent Dale Cooper from the TV series Twin Peaks.

For Gruber is diabolical — ruthless, meticulous. He knows the FBI’s anti-terrorism playbook, and easily manipulates them into using it for his own ends [the vault heist]. Gruber comes prepared for everything law enforcement can throw at him. What he isn’t prepared for is a loose cannon like John McClane. John’s “the fly in the ointment…the monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass,” forcing him to continually adapt the details of his plans and face new challenges.

Of course, the same can be said in the other direction. A great antagonist continually pushes the hero, hitting him at his weakest points, forcing him to make choices that ultimately reveal his true heroic nature. Hans exploits John’s weaknesses in a variety of ways. He orders a second rocket strike on the armored car in part because John tries to stop it. When smarmy executive Ellis pretends to be an old friend of John’s, and attempts to talk him into standing down, Hans shoots him in an attempt to further pressure him into submission. Noticing John’s bare feet when they meet face to face, Hans attempts to cut off his escape by shooting out the windows of an office in which John is hiding, forcing him to run through the shards of glass. When he realizes that Holly is John’s wife, he takes her hostage for real, leading to the climactic showdown.

Notice the effect these actions have on John. He begins as a good cop, trying to call in the authorities and take prisoners. By the second half of the film, mounting pressure from Hans & Co., combined with the inaction of L.A. law enforcement forces him to take a more active role in the solution, killing his assailants and shooting up a police car. When the thugs launch a second rocket attack on the armored car, McClane realizes he’s truly on his own. He straps C4 explosives to a computer monitor and tosses it down the elevator shaft, destroying the remaining explosives and killing more bad guys. He’s turned a corner; from here on, he sees the LAPD and the FBI as part of the problem. By the third act, he ceases radio communication with Al, realizing that he alone can save the hostages and stop Hans’s crew. Hans forces him to become the hero he always could have been.*

Like the best dance partners, they complement each other, strength for strength, weakness for weakness. Hans is painstaking where John is sloppy, cerebral where John runs on instinct. John’s rough-hewn, good-old-boy personality clashes with Hans’s reserved dignity. And where John suffers bouts of self-doubt and fear, Hans moves along with arrogant self-assurance. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship between light and shadow, heads and tails. It’s no coincidence that the names John and Hans derive from the same root.**

Die Hard is a classic of American cinema. Its fully-realized characters and snappy dialogue put it a head above other films in the action genre. It’s not a bad flick to watch beside a glowing Christmas tree, either. Happy holidays, folks. See you in two weeks!


*The third act sees our focus really narrow down to three people: John, Hans, and Holly. The FBI is in charge on the ground, but their agents are all dead. The LAPD can only watch and wait. Almost all of Hans’s crew is dead. The other hostages are simply waiting, unguarded. The outside world falls away, leaving only hero, villain, and the final prize [Holly].

** This puts the final showdown in a whole new perspective. Seemingly unarmed, John listens as Hans quotes his earlier line — “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker” — and then bursts into laughter. Hans joins in. It’s a moment reminiscent of the climactic three-way gun battle from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, wherein the three men watch each, toying with gun belts and jackets, seeking an opening, not ready to reach for their pistols. The tension ratchets in the same way here, but it’s not fingers creeping toward triggers that stretches out the moment, it’s genuine amusement between two men who have struggled mightily and perhaps grown to respect each other. Holly watches the exchange in confusion; the same look appears on her face later, when John meets Al for the first time. A strange sort of male bonding is at work here.


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