Deconstructing Die Hard – A Christmas Classic

Deconstructing Die Hard – A Christmas Classic

There are certain things, certain traditions which we all have to get the seasonal festivities underway. For me, there’s the usual decking the halls, putting up the tree, munching upon my first mince pie of the season (mince pie season begins on December 1st – it’s the law!) and settling, in the warm twinkle of the fairy lights, to indulge in some seasonal cheer with the annual viewing of Die Hard.

DIE hard

A Very 80s Christmas Classic


Action movies with a blood soaked body count as high as the profanity levels are not necessarily viewed as traditional Christmas fare – the violence and swearing is kept to a minimum in Miracle on 34th Street, for example. But, dig beneath the surface of John McTiernan’s high octane genre defining thriller and you will discover a film laden in seasonal festivity.

The film clearly seems to be aware of itself as a Christmas movie both in nods to tradition and indeed theme. There is a history of watching films at Christmas which deal in disaster and peril, thrills and spills.
EarthquakeThe Towering Inferno

Die Hard was following very much in the footsteps of films that had long since become standard Christmas viewing – from The Great Escape to the disaster movies of the 70s such as Earthquake or, and here the comparison is at its most explicit, The Towering Inferno. Having the story unfold at Christmas merely reinforcing the fact that, among the holly, ivy and sentiment, many enjoy nothing more than some escapist fantasy at this time of the year.

The fact that the film takes place on Christmas Eve is a plot device that instantaneously allows for the subversive juxtaposition of traditional Christmas imagery and symbols with the growing threat of impending violence.

All in the Music

This is brilliantly conveyed throughout the movie by Michael Kamen’s music score which sets both mood and tempo, fusing the sorts of heavy booming orchestral sounds found in contemporary actioners from Commando to Robocop or even McTiernan’s previous film Predator, with the softening jingle of traditional Christmas music. The effect of this wonderful mix is that we are constantly being kept ‘in season’ and offered reassuring reminders that, for all the violence and peril, we shouldn’t really be taking all this too seriously. See for instance the sudden shift from threatening boom to upbeat and light-hearted upon the arrival of the villains, music that’s as redolent of Wile E Coyote or Tom & Jerry as it is to your standard action flick – an indication that, for all the blood and language, we’re really in the realm of a playful cat & mouse story.


Die Hard – In Keeping With Tradition?

There is also, thematically, something of a traditional Christmas tale taking place beneath the surface – associations to the season that crop up in many guises throughout the age of cinema. The film’s hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) may appear to be a million miles away from, for example, George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, and in many ways of course, he is.

However, there are parallels which exist. Both find themselves somewhat alone, desperate and very much on the edge on Christmas Eve and, while personalities and circumstances are very different, both will ultimately prove heroic to the community in which they exist in the film and, more so, both find the familial reconciliation they were seeking throughout.

Christmas stories have always played upon the idea that it’s a time for reconciliation and reunion – a time to appreciate what you have and maybe, a time of new beginnings. This is true of George Bailey, of Ebeneezer Scrooge and it’s true of both John McClane and indeed, his CB radio talking side-kick Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). McClane is estranged from his wife, Al is the father-to-be who’s lost his way (and his masculinity?) following a shooting in the line of duty – a man looking for, and indeed finding, a sense of redemption or re-birth amid the chaos of the film. Again, the leap back towards Dickens or Wonderful Life grows apparent.

One could even argue, in a more subversive way, that this is true of the villians – specfically of uber-villain Hans Gruber (the wonderful Alan Rickman).

Portrayed throughout as a sinister band of global terrorists it’s revealed to us {SPOILER} mid-way through the movie that they are in fact simply thieves out to steal a fortune. A revelation which seems to disgust McClane – the greed for money clearly a less noble pursuit than their mis-guided political activism. And isn’t Christmas always perceived as a little bit tainted when it becomes all about the money?


A Classic Christmas Comedy?

I’ve always seen DIE HARD as an action-comedy.

Never does the film take itself too seriously, never does it allow us the opportunity to do so – even when the violence is ramping up a notch.

Indeed, whenever the plot looks to be taking a more serious turn (McClane’s desperation, the killing of Takagi, Al’s monologue about shooting the boy) there is always an adjacent moment or set-piece which pierces the mood, reminding us that the director is keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout.

Take for instance the moment the SWAT team arrive on the scene, armed to the teeth and hard as nails in their black, super-macho uniforms. SWAT teams, like those special forces boys and other ‘elite’ units, were a staple of those no-nonsense action films of the 80s. When they arrive, they mean business and are not taking any prisoners.

We see the unit, big guns at the ready, creeping through the hedgerows outside the building, like deadly ninjas moving in the shadows ready to launch their strike and ‘kick some serious ass’. As one of the faceless warriors moves through the hedgerow he catches his finger on a thorn – jumping and shaking his hand in pain.

And thus, all the machismo of the moment evaporates.

This is the beauty of Die Hard in one brief, easily missed, moment.Consistently it mocks the genre in which it is set, whilst simultaneously upholding the conventions. It’s mainstream film with an anti-establishment core. Authority figures gleefully ridiculed; we’re encouraged to laugh at FBI Agents Johnson & Johnson (no relation!) and their out-of-step sense of superiority, at the Police Captain who clearly doesn’t have a clue what’s going on or the slimy journalist who gets his comeuppance at the end.


New Action Hero

Let’s not also forget that this was the breakout movie for lead actor BRUCE WILLIS. Up until this point Willis was most famous for playing David Addison in the comedy detective TV show Moonlighting. And director McTiernan is clearly keen to let the spirit of Addison permeate through the movie as a device for both the character but, again, to allow the audience to go with the more self-mocking theme.

McClane is a tougher, more street-wise version of Addison and it is through him that we knowlingly wink at some of the more explicitly eyebrow raising conventions. We see this through his mocking self-commentary, the film’s version of addressing the camera which Addison used to do in Moonlighting.

Also however, in McClane we’re presented with a new style of hero versus others of the time. McClane is a reluctant hero, who doesn’t want to be fighting the bad guys and, while we see his undeniable bravery and heroism, we also see that he is vulnerable and far from indestructible. When he is hit or cut or bashed into a wall, he is hurt and we see this clearly. And rarely do we get the feeling that he is in full control – moreover that he is constantly having to think on his feet just to stay alive. Compare this to Lethal Weapon’s Riggs or the films of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, where you know they always have the upper-hand. In McClane you have the throw back to those heroes of the disaster movies of the 70s – of McQueen and Newman, Heston and Hackman.


Re-Defining its Genre

As much as I think it stands up as a comedy and indeed as a Christmas movie, it still has to be said that the film can be regarded as a quintessential film in the action genre.

As alluded to already, the film, through subtle parody, knowing winks to its heritage and characterisation, alters the direction that action films will take moving into the 90s.

Whilst the film takes something of an iconoclastic view of its contemporaries, it nevertheless reaches back into the pantheon of movie history, drawing on the traditions of old westerns. Gruber and his gang are as bandits from the ‘old west’ even if operating in the ‘new west’ while McClane is the lone gunslinger defending the isolated town (in this case the Nakatomi Building). The reference is, of course, explicit in the film – McClane calling himself Roy (as in Rogers) and as he shouts “Yippe kay-Ay Mother F@@ker” he is, essentially, melding the language of the old with that of the new (in Hollywood terms).

But, as fresh and as fun as the movie plays out, the genre conventions remain:

  • The slaying of the old leader (sheriff?) in Takagi creating a power vacuum that villain and hero fight over.
  • The main villain’s henchmen are ruthless but ultimately fodder for the hero, picked off one by one until the final shoot out.
  • The only other ‘innocent’ killed is the smarmy exec who, true to the in-built morality of these types of films, is punished for his sins. Before he pops off we see him snort cocaine, flirt with McClane’s wife, ultimately betray McClane and, in case we missed the drug thing earlier, is seen drinking COKE just before his demise. Not to mention the garishness of his minor wealth – the watch, fancy suit and general yuppiness, all of which were on the way to detestation by the late 80s.


Game Changing or One Off?

Undeniably, Die Hard represented a sea change in action films. And, through its success followed a succession of films that would use its blueprint – a trend that continues to this day.

Road House would follow shortly afterwards, another film about a reluctant hero and an even more explicit return to the spirit of an old western. Most obviously came Under Siege, the vastly inferior Segal film on a similar premise to Die Hard but ultimately fall flat because of the near indestructible nature of the hero.

Indeed, such was the epic qualities of the film, the fusing of its Christmas theme with the self effacing action heritage that little has come along in the 25 years since that has really compared. And that includes the numerous, ever deteriorating sequels that have come along.

Which is why, when considering the ideal film with which to get the festive cheer a fizzing, then by all means look at the beauty of Wonderful Life, the fun of Scrooged or A Christmas Carol, the warmth of White Christmas or the fun of Gremlins – but, for plenty of box ticking festivity, don’t discount Die Hard.

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