It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… and with that in mind Throwback Thursday is going to look at the greatest Christmas film ever made. A film that teaches the real message of Christmas. It’s about the importance of spending time with family, and why the best present is a machine gun (ho ho ho). It is of course – Die Hard.
To this day, Die Hard is a core text in any serious study of action films, and this is for a variety of reasons. Firstly, because it is one of the most perfect examples of its genre: the particular kind of wise-ass action cinema that the ’80s spawned, Die Hard perfected, and the ’90s tried (and mostly failed) to replicate. Secondly, however, it is studied because it has one of the most perfectly constructed scripts ever written: There is not a scene, not a moment wasted in the entirety of Die Hard’s 132-minute run-time.
In the opening scene, a tense Detective McClane is told to take off his shoes to release anxiety as his plane lands. In the most subtle way imaginable we are shown that McClane is out of his environment; traveling and his fear of heights is set up, as is the foreshadowing to the removal of his shoes later in the script. There are similar examples throughout the film, where the necessity of plot, character and theme are seamlessly and entertainingly entwined.
Die Hard transcends its genre. Even people who don’t like actioners like Die Hard. This is largely down to McClane’s humanity: unlike the musclebound Stallones or Schwarzaneggers of the era, Bruce Willis is never made to seem invincible. He cracks dumb jokes, has a flawed marriage, and we’d never mistake him for James Bond but we might mistake him for us.
We see him beaten and battered, and all the more relatable for when we see him bleed. In the iconic sequence where he staggers his bare feet across glass; it’s an effective moment for our hero because we understand how much it hurts him. One of the progressive failings of the Die Hard sequels was moving away from this humanism and vulnerability.
Although it is a well-made action film, with explosions and gunfire and the lot, Die Hard doesn’t rely on explosions in lieu of other aspects. It is nearly half an hour before the terrorists even appear on screen and from that point, McClane only kills eight of them. For comparisons sake, Rambo in the most recent entry in that series kills 83. Aside from the action, there is the comedy of McClane’s snarky commentary throughout as well as just general comedy throughout (“I’m Special Agent Johnson, this is Special Agent Johnson. No relation.”), not to mention the friendship via radio between McClane and Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).
And all of that is not to mention the refined masterclass in hammy acting that is Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. There may be objectively better performances in cinematic history, but very, very few are as enjoyable to watch as Rickman’s suave, be-suited mastermind thief.
All in all, Die Hard is great because it as an action film that does more than rely on the tropes of its form – it is also great cinema. It is perfect populist viewing being eminently accessible and should be enjoyed in true popcorn chewing manner. Action films are still one of cinema’s most popular genres; strange to think then, that the genre was perfected in 1988 and has not been bettered since.