The following Alan Rickman quote appears in the text commentary on one of the many DVD versions for John McTiernan’s Die Hard: “People get involved here, and that’s the thing. If people are patronized, if a film is geared toward a short attention span, then it’ll have a short shelf life. Films that involve that audience and embrace that ’once upon a time’ principle have a chance of lasting…We’re storytellers and we forget that at our peril.” When Die Hard exploded into theaters in the summer of 1988, I didn’t rush to see it. The reviews were mostly mixed to negative, and the action films of that era were low on my priority list (especially since, back then, I had to pay to see movies). When I finally ventured out to see it, it had moved to a dollar theater and a group of my bored friends and I decided to check it out for lack of better options. We arrived late, so it wasn’t until seeing the film again on video that I caught the foreshadowing of the airplane passenger advising John McClane (Bruce Willis), as they’re arriving in L.A., that the best way to readjust to Earth after a long flight involves removing your shoes and socks and making fists with your toes in carpeting. It takes more than one viewing of Die Hard to truly appreciate how much work and thought went into its construction and composition and to catch all the allusions (not just the obvious ones) to classic films.
Much of Die Hard’s criticism focused on how the film turns those who should be in a position to help McClane from the outside (the LAPD, the F.B.I., etc.), once they become aware that Hans Gruber (Rickman) and his gang have seized the building, into a hindrance for the New York cop trying to stop “the terrorists” from the inside. However, a great deal of the film’s appeal lies in watching an isolated McClane battle the bad guys, while the minor characters on the outside behave as imbeciles. In fact, their behavior makes the audience root for McClane, and part of the film’s subversive nature even makes the viewer unconsciously cheer for Hans when he succeeds in his quest to open the vault. While Gruber might be the villain of the piece, he also happens to be more charming and more fascinating than anyone on screen.
As co-writer Steven DeSouza says in the text commentary, people often confuse the terms protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain, and in the case of Die Hard, Gruber fills the true role of protagonist to McClane’s antagonist or, as McClane puts it, “the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench.” DeSouza says, “The protagonist is the person who starts the ball rolling so the protagonist of Die Hard is Hans Gruber when he decides to rob the building.” Obviously, any film with a story such as Die Hard’s requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part, but thanks to Rickman’s grounding of Hans and Willis’s portrayal of McClane, Die Hard seems plausible enough while you’re enraptured by it. The film’s biggest cheat escaped my notice until the various people on my DVD’s commentary tracks gave it away: When Hans and his crew arrive at the beginning of the film in the parking garage, see if you spot any room for an ambulance to be hidden in the back of the truck for computer expert Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) to drive it out of at the end.
Everything gets switched from the usual action formula in Die Hard. McClane isn’t a Rambo-like superhero, but an everyman who gets injured and looks like hell by the end of the film. He doesn’t immediately try to take matters into his own hands; he pulls a fire alarm (enjoy McClane’s giddy dance as he watches the fire trucks approach). When that plan gets thwarted and he’s acquired a walkie talkie, he heads to the roof and tries to contact the police, encountering his first example of the lack of cooperation from the outside as the dispatcher (Shelley Pogoda) tells him he’s on a restricted line and must call 911 on a phone or she’ll report him to the FCC. McClane’s few allies all suffer from some form of impotence: estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) as a hostage, limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White) trapped in the garage, and Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) at the mercy of his bosses and his own past tragedy.
In contrast, Hans dresses well and speaks with sophistication while the “terrorists” who work for him mostly look like European fashion models. Of the non-bad guys slain in Die Hard, only one, Nakatomi head Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta), gets enough development for the audience to feel bad about his murder. Most of the other victims are either anonymous or hail from Asshole Central Casting, such as Holly’s coke-sniffing, obnoxious co-worker, Ellis (Hart Bochner), or the F.B.I. Special Agents Big Johnson (Robert Davi) and Little Johnson (Grand L. Bush), “no relation,” who don’t feel that losing 25% of the hostages if they kill all the terrorists would be that big a loss. Not all the assholes die, of course. Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson (the late, great Paul Gleason) makes it to the end, still complaining about the damage “McClane caused” to the building, as does obnoxious TV reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton), who even returns in the god-awful sequel Die Hard 2.
Beneath the surface, though, Hans and McClane share similarities. Both try to make up for inferiority complexes; only McClane lets his show at moments of weakness or when alone, as when he hits his head against the wall repeatedly after needlessly causing another fight with Holly. Hans overcompensates by trying to impress with his knowledge and education, particularly when he takes Takagi up to the floor with the vault in an attempt to get the first password and spouts, “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer,” though few historians believe that Alexander the Great uttered anything similar. We also get some of Rickman’s fine dry wit as Hans in this scene as he talks various subjects before getting down to business about the code and telling Takagi, “I could talk industrialization and men’s fashions all day…” After killing Takagi, he engages in some prop comedy as well, calmly munching on party snacks as he addresses the hostages and informs them that Takagi “won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.”
What ultimately makes Die Hard such a great, re-watchable experience (and a Christmas staple, in my book) is that, while Willis and Rickman carry us through the film, all the good guys—Argyle, Al, and Holly—get a worthy payoff in the final moments. In 1988, though Willis had become a star through Moonlighting, he had no proven box-office record, and Rickman, while a respected stage actor, never had appeared in a film before. Twentieth Century Fox took a helluva chance entrusting such an expensive project on the backs of these two men, but the gamble reaped huge dividends. The subsequent sequels have diminished the John McClane character to some extent, but they don’t weaken what a masterpiece Die Hard remains. With Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman created one of the greatest screen villains of all time, though I imagine more people know him now as Professor Severus Snape. Oh, well. Yippie-ki-yay, Voldemort.
Edward Copeland runs his own blog Edward Copeland’s Tangents (formerly Edward Copeland on Film), and in addition to The House Next Door, has written for RogerEbert.com, Press Play, Movies Without Pity, and Awards Daily. You can follow him on Twitter here.