“Die Hard is not a Christmas movie.” —Bruce Willis, at his own roast
When it comes to fun but ultimately pointless debates about ’80s movies, the question of whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie is right up there with whether or not Deckard is a replicant. (For the record, it is my opinion that it is, in fact, a Christmas movie, but also my opinion that you didn’t come here to read more about why that is.)
People have called it the perfect action movie, simultaneously the beginning of and one of the glorious peaks of Alan Rickman’s villainous Hollywood career, and a reminder that no amount of stealing resources from oil-rich nations we’ve invaded has done a thing to lower gas prices. It is all of those things (and a Christmas movie). It also, strangely, heralded what I think of as the very beginning of the end of the ’roided out ’80s actioner.
The Studio Wrangling that Made Bruce Willis an Action Star
The story surrounding Die Hard’s production is odd in several ways, notably beginning with the fact the thing is based on a book that only partly resembles the film. Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever is a sequel to an earlier novel featuring protagonist Joe Leland, on whom protagonist John McClane was loosely modeled. The differences aren’t worth going into in depth, but what absolutely is worth going into is that because the earlier novel, The Detective was made into a 1968 film starring Frank Sinatra, the part of John McClane had to be offered to Sinatra first per a clause in his contract. Sinatra—then about 73 years old—turned down the part, ensuring we wouldn’t see action films starring senior citizens until Liam Neeson’s late career.
He wasn’t the only one, either. The list of leading men who declined to take their chance on Fox’s actioner is pretty impressive. Schwarzenegger turned down the role to attempt a foray into comedy with Twins (a move that oddly enough turned out to be the smart one, as it beat Die Hard at the box office). Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Clint Eastwood, and more turned the project down. Rumors at the time circulated that the studio was desperate to find somebody to give top billing to, an assertion it’s hard to disprove when you consider they got Willis—at that time a guy who had been in precisely one movie and who was known primarily for his back-and-forth with Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting—partly by paying him an eye-popping-at-the-time $5 million.
The studio must have worried, and it isn’t too hard to see why. Action movies, back then, meant impossibly ripped macho men like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, or on the low-rent end of the spectrum, Seagal. Though he’s by no means a lightweight, compared to these slabs of Reagan-era man meat, Bruce Willis looks like a palooka. Fortunately for the studio’s bottom line, that was the kind of hero the movie set out to portray. Die Hard ended 1988 as the 9th highest-grossing films behind competition that included Rain Man, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and yes, Twins.
A Celebration of Character
We’re in the midst of a particular moment in action films that separate the genre into low-rent fare centered around one charismatic older man (see Equalizer and the vast subgenre of Liam Neeson-esque actioners modeled on Taken) or massive blockbusters that either are superhero films or transparently want to be them. Die Hard kicked off its own moment, in which seemingly every action movie was all about a lone hero up against absurd odds, trapped in some kind of discreet space (a boat in Under Siege, a school in Toy Soldiers, Air Force One in Air Force One).
It’s understandable why the studio money men thought these elements made for a compelling movie. Imposing limitations and disadvantages on a hero gives you more reason to root for them, but you also need to ground the action in some kind of realism: This is why Under Siege, in which Steven Seagal is basically unstoppable from start to finish, seems to get less impressive the more you watch it while Air Force One, with a vulnerable and desperate President Harrison Ford, is still pretty taut even today.
Die Hard codified that in Willis’ John McClane, a guy who is acutely aware that he’s in over his head. The film clues us in on this literally in the opening, as we see him tensely waiting for his airplane to touch down in Los Angeles. He’s going to see his estranged wife. He’s having a lousy time of it. He’s sort of embarrassed to be hauling around a giant stuffed bear. He bonds a bit with the limo driver sent to pick him up. He’s a human being.
We’re reminded of this over and over again as he is dealt punishing damage, becoming more hobbled by it throughout the picture, all culminating in his final staggering toward the last confrontation. Willis gives these late scenes an exhausted, manic kind of energy. You get the sense McClane could get done in at any moment, that he’s remaining vertical out of sheer stubbornness, and that he’ll collapse the moment somebody else has the wheel.
He’s also not the only character we follow throughout the film, a major strength it honestly feels as if nearly all movies, not just action flicks, have left by the wayside of late. People who have watched Die Hard a couple times can probably list off nearly every character in it: McClane’s wife Holly, who could have been characterized as a shrew but comes off sympathetic and tough even though she spends the film kidnapped; the terrified but resolute Mr. Takagi who the film even mentions was imprisoned by his own country in an internment camp; Dwayne Robinson (who, as McClane memorably puts it, just got buttf%^ed on live television); the Johnsons, two FBI agents who die inside of ten minutes of screen time but nonetheless leave an impression; Argyle the limo driver and Theo the motormouth safecracker and even the asshole reporter Robert Thornburg, to say nothing of the major characters like Reginald VelJohnson’s immortal Al Powell and Alan Rickman’s unforgettable Hans Gruber. Did I mention Ellis, the sleazy jerk whose arrogance gets him killed?
Every one of those characters has a personality, some manner of motivation, some agenda. The very minor ones get maybe two or three scenes, but those scenes are not wasted. As a result, the movie feels clever, the dialogue feels sharp, the action scenes and the killings have weight behind them, even those of the bad guys (all of whom are recognizable, even if it’s just because they give in to the impulse to swipe a candy bar in the moments before a shootout because hey, you only hang once).
But Why Is It (so Fun to Insist that It’s) a Christmas Movie?
Look: This is a movie about coping with assholes. And for my money, nothing in the good old U.S. of A. brings out the asshole in our collective culture like the holidays. Everybody is rushing to buy, rushing to get off work, rushing to travel, thinking about their family and their tree and their perfect little Christmas card photo. If you happen to be on the bottom rungs of the country’s social pecking order—shuttling around the rich for pennies like Argyle, or dragging your feet into work as the youngest person in your office while all the old folks get their fifth week of vacation, or when you’re in some fuzzy not-quite-divorced estranged state of affairs like McClane when the whole world is visiting family—then Lord help you during this time of year.
Die Hard is an action film where the bad guys are cynical jerks out to get in everybody’s way on Christmas Eve, but the feckless people charged with stopping them are somehow even worse. They don’t at all care if a few innocents get mowed down in the crossfire, if exposing McClane’s family is going to endanger him, if McClane gets sold out. They are, all of them (except Al), assholes. But McClane is a bigger asshole than all of them, and he rips and tears his way through them to get out the other end, where he can have a merry f***ing Christmas at their painful expense.
Professing that McClane’s methods for dealing with the parade of toxic entitlement that is the holiday season are at all relatable is a surefire way to raise the hackles of your staid old aunt (who clucks her tongue when you bring your gay boyfriend home to meet the family) or that ex-girlfriend you had (who sends you diabetes-inducing Christmas cards every year).
Which is to say, it’s exactly the kind of asshole move to pull on Christmas.
Kenneth Lowe will be of good cheer and call you when he hits the last lock. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.