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'Die Hard' 30th Anniversary Of The Internet's Favorite R-rated Christmas Movie

By Brian Richards | Film | July 16, 2018 |

By Brian Richards | Film | July 16, 2018 |


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There are certain things you can expect to see and deal with every holiday season: Struggle Plates. Ugly Christmas sweaters. Ugly Christmas sweaters that people actually want to wear because they’ve been made to look awesome. Year-end lists made by White people telling everyone what slang terms we all need to stop using because they’re no longer cool, despite the fact that they’re the ones responsible for using said slang terms too damn much and making them uncool in the first place. Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel that have as much diversity as all of Mindy Kaling’s boyfriends on The Mindy Project. And online articles/Twitter debates as to whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

This is not going to be an article about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. So for those of you who are not interested in reading another long list of reasons as to why it is, feel free to breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, this is just going to be about Die Hard, which opened in theaters on July 15, 1988, and its thirtieth anniversary as a film that forever revolutionized the action-film genre, made Bruce Willis into a household name, and made everyone in Hollywood attempt and keep attempting to replicate its success ever since.

Die Hard tells the story of John McClane (Bruce Willis), an eleven-year veteran of the New York Police Department who has flown down to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his two children, Lucy and John Jr. (who would go on to grow up and appear in future sequels in the forms of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jai Courtney) and his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who didn’t receive nearly enough support from John for her increasing success in the corporate workforce with the Nakatomi Corporation and has been living in Los Angeles for the last six months. John agrees to meet Holly at her office located at Nakatomi Plaza, a forty-story skyscraper where her company holiday party is being held, and before they can make any attempts at patching things up between the two of them, the holiday party is rudely interrupted by a highly-trained, heavily-armed group of terrorists led by the ruthless and charismatic Hans Gruber (who opposes being referred to as a terrorist and is played by the late, great Alan Rickman). Their plan: take everyone at the party hostage, break into the Nakatomi Corporation’s vault, steal $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds that are kept inside the vault, and then destroy the building with lots and lots and lots of C-4 plastic explosive in order to distract anyone and everyone as they escape to Gangsta’s Paradise with their ill-gotten gains. And the plan starts off very smoothly, with Hans and his crew holding everyone captive: Holly, her boss Joe Takagi (James Shigeta), her obnoxious, cocaine-addicted colleague, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), and everyone else who works for the Nakatomi Corporation. The only person who’s not being held captive along with everyone else: John McClane, who finds himself springing into action, barefoot and partially undressed, armed with only his pistol, and doing everything possible to keep himself, Holly, and every other hostage alive while trying to figure out how to take down twelve dangerous terrorists all by himself.

As expected with any novel that is adapted into a film, there are some notable differences between Die Hard and the novel that inspired it, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. For one thing, the novel’s protagonist is named Joe Leland and not John McClane, is older and a World War II vet who is trying to repair his relationship with his daughter and not his wife, and Hans Gruber is actually Anton “Little Tony The Red” Gruber. Hell, we almost got John McClane/Joe Leland being played by Frank Sinatra, as the original novel was a sequel to The Detective, which Sinatra starred in and who was contracted to receive and review any offer by 20th Century Fox for any planned sequels. (Seeing as how he was seventy years old when Die Hard was being developed, he naturally turned the film down) As for any other similarities and differences, the good people at Wikipedia have that covered:

Some of its memorable scenes, characters, and dialogue are taken directly from the novel. The story was altered to be a stand-alone film with no connections to Thorp’s novel The Detective. Other changes included the older hero of the novel becoming younger, his name changed from Joe Leland to John McClane, his daughter becoming his wife, and the American Klaxon Oil Corporation becoming the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation. The “terrorists” are actually professional thieves that are after $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds kept in the building’s vault and are posing as terrorists to draw attention away from the robbery. In the film, they are also not only German, but of varying ethnicities, although most remain European. The tone of the novel is far darker with underlying themes of guilt, alcoholism and the complexity of the disturbed human mind. The novel also features women among the terrorists. The ending of the novel is also different from the film in that it suggests that Joe could possibly succumb to his wounds and die.

Some of the most famous action sequences from the film are taken from the book, like:

McClane jumping off an exploding roof with a fire hose attached to his waist and then shooting through a window to gain re-entry.
Dropping a C-4 bomb down an elevator shaft.
McClane taping his gun to his back at the climax.
McClane crawling through elevator shafts.

One of the many things that makes Die Hard so memorable and made it stand out from every other action film that came before is that John McClane is not a one-man army. He never acts like one, and the film never treats him like he is one. McClane doesn’t run into the Nakatomi Plaza conference room to single-handedly take down Hans after seeing him shoot Takagi point-blank in the head because, as McClane says to himself later on: “Why the fuck didn’t you stop them, John? ‘Cause then you’d be dead too, asshole.” He immediately sets off a fire alarm after Takagi’s death and later uses a walkie-talkie to call the police for help and bring them to the building so that he doesn’t have to fight these terrorists alone. And when that doesn’t work, he fights them out of necessity.

It’s also why throughout the entire film, McClane makes very few attempts to go on the offensive and seek out Hans and his people. (He only does this three times, once when he drops an entire block of stolen C-4 plastic explosive down an elevator shaft and detonates it to keep Hans and company from killing the SWAT team trying to enter the building, again when he is trying to get the hostages off the roof before Hans uses all of the C-4 to blow them all up and disappear with the stolen loot, and finally when he realizes that Holly is being held captive by Hans.) Instead, he spends most of the film in hiding and doing everything he can to avoid confronting them directly unless they confront him first, especially since much like Socrates Fortnow, he’s outnumbered and outgunned, and McClane is smart enough to know that his pistol and stolen assault rifle can only do so much against a dozen men armed with pistols, assault rifles, flash bombs, RPGs, and C-4 plastic explosive with detonators.

And it’s this approach to McClane vs. Hans Gruber & Company that makes the action scenes so exciting, suspenseful, and downright effective to watch. With every burst of gunfire exchanged, it’s clear that McClane isn’t trying to look cool or be cool as if he’s invulnerable and not scared of getting hurt or killed. He’s merely trying his hardest to survive and also hold them off until the cavalry comes and does the heavy lifting so that he no longer has to do it. Even when he finds himself ambushed by sniper-rifle fire from a helicopter occupied by FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation) and he realizes that the only way to escape is by literally jumping off of the roof and somehow using a fire hose tied around his waist to swing back into the building, McClane is not even sure that it will actually work. He’s too busy praying to every deity in existence that this does work and that he doesn’t end up falling forty stories to his death.

Along with the exceptional directing by John McTiernan (who directed Die Hard right after he made Predator and before he made The Hunt For Red October) and clever screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. DeSouza, there are many performances that helped contribute to the greatness of this film that shares its name with a car battery, so let’s start with William Atherton as Richard ‘Dick’ Thornberg, the ambitious and ruthless TV news reporter who is hell-bent on covering the hostage situation at Nakatomi Plaza, and getting all of the glory that comes with it.

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Even if it involves threatening Paulina, Holly’s nanny/housekeeper, with deportation by the I.N.S. in order to secure an interview with Lucy and John Jr. on camera, endangering their lives and Holly’s as well. Thornburg clearly has no shame about behaving like an asshole to his colleagues or the subjects of his news stories, and when Holly meets him in person and punches him in the face like Ken from Street Fighter 2, one can’t help but smile from ear to ear at seeing him get exactly what he deserves.

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Speaking of assholes who you just love to hate, we now come to LAPD Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, played by the late, great Paul Gleason. Despite his somewhat understandable reluctance to believe that McClane is who he says he is and that he’s an ally who’s actually helping them against the terrorists, he still insists on being as annoying and bossy as possible, and not doing anything that could be considered useful as he spends every possible second competing by himself in a dick-measuring contest that no one else is interested in being a part of.

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When you think of the Eighties, you think of Saturday-morning cartoons that weren’t all that great and only existed to make your parents buy toys from Toys ‘R Us (rest in peace, Geoffrey) but you still love them anyway, cocaine (and lots of it), and White men obsessed with making lots of money and acting as if they’re masters of the universe. And if there’s anyone who embodies those last two things, it’s Hart Bochner as Harry Ellis. Despite the fact that he can barely convince Holly to kick John to the curb and jump into his bed to become a notch or his expensive leather belt, he convinces himself that instead of relying on McClane or the LAPD to rescue him and his colleagues , he can charm Hans and convince him that he can get McClane to surrender himself to Hans by pretending that the two of them are close friends (despite the fact that they barely know or like each other) and that his life is in danger. And despite his coke-fueled idiocy that ends up sealing his fate, the look on his face when the walkie-talkie falls silent on the other end and he realizes that McClane is not coming to his rescue, and that he is in way over his head, you can’t help but shake your own head as that off-screen gunshot is heard.

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Before he was Sgt. Carl Winslow on Family Matters, and before he became the Nineties version of John Amos on Good Times, in that he saw his traditional sitcom about a Black family become a centerpiece for its breakout character with an addictive catchphrase that swept the nation, Reginald VelJohnson was Sgt. Al Powell, a police officer who ends up becoming McClane’s ride-or-die as the two of them talk to each other via walkie-talkie as they keep each other informed on what’s happening inside and outside of Nakatomi Plaza while also getting to know one another as they each discuss their regrets as the hostage situation seemingly gets bleaker (McClane on his failure to be a supportive husband to Holly and him asking Powell to give her a final message in case he doesn’t survive, and Powell living with the fact that he accidentally shot and killed a 12-year-old boy armed with a toy gun, a mistake which haunts him in a way that doesn’t seem to haunt too many other police officers in real life who don’t consider such conduct to be a mistake, but that’s another topic for another day), and when the two of them finally meet in person for the first time and exchange a hug filled with tears of joy and relief, it’s truly one of the film’s most heartwarming moments.

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It would’ve been easy for Holly Gennaro-McClane to be portrayed as just the worried wife who does nothing but sit on the sidelines and hope that her man comes through to rescue her and save her from harm. And as much as Holly is worried for John and hoping that he’ll do just that, Bonnie Bedelia does a superb job of making it clear that sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing while being dependent on her man to get things done is clearly not her style. Even before we see John and Holly interact with each other for the first time in six months, it is made clear that Holly wanted more respect from John than he was willing to give when it came to her work. And when she realizes that John would rather stay in New York and be a cop rather than support her acceptance of a promotion that would bring them to Los Angeles and be a cop out there, she packed up her children and her things, and left. (And even resorted to using her maiden name). And when Takagi is killed by Hans and no one else is willing and able to look after her colleagues, she steps up and takes on that responsibility, even if it involves telling Hans to his face that she doesn’t fear him and that she isn’t about to take any of his shit. (Which Hans himself can’t help but admire and respect, even if only a little) Especially when his master plan reveals Hans to be, in her eyes, nothing more than a common thief. (Which once again causes Hans to demand that you put some respeck on his name)

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In any story like this where it’s good vs. evil, a hero is only as good and interesting as its villain, and as much as we cheer for John McClane to earn his happy ending, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if we weren’t invested in who he’s going up against, and Hans Gruber is pretty much one of the best and most memorable screen villains in years, largely thanks to Alan Rickman in his feature film debut. From the moment he arrives on the thirtieth floor of Nakatomi Plaza to view all of the people that he’s about to terrify and intimidate as they are all taken hostage, Hans views these people with a smirk on his face the same way that Harry Lime in The Third Man views other human beings: as tiny dots that wouldn’t affect him in any way, shape, or form if any of them were to stop moving for any reason. Even when they’re all screaming in terror and confusing as they’re rounded up, Hans is looking at them all like a schoolteacher waiting for them to stop talking and behave themselves in an orderly manner so he can say what needs to be said. That same approach and demeanor is how he deals with everyone crossing his path, including McClane and his cohorts, as they all run around, complain, and give him nothing but grief as he remains focused and calm, and trying to get everyone to stop getting on his damn nerves so that he can do his thing. He’s a German version of Lex Luthor, in that he prides himself on being the alpha dog as well as the smartest man in the room, and the fact that his status is being challenged by an ordinary cop like John McClane only frustrates and infuriates him with each passing minute. And one of the ways he was able to convey his charm, his frustration, and his malevolence was with his voice, which was once described by Helen Mirren as “a voice that could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade.” It’s just one of the reasons why Rickman helped elevate Die Hard (and every other film he appeared in, from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves to Dogma to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy to the Harry Potter films) with every scene he appeared in, and just one of the reasons why he is still so deeply missed by those who knew him and by those who admired his work.

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When Bruce Willis was first hired to play John McClane, he wasn’t exactly anyone’s first, second, or third choice to star as the lead in a big-budget action film, especially when he was best known for comedic films such as Blind Date and Sunset, comedy music videos such as The Return Of Bruno and Bruce Willis: Respect Yourself (look, it was the Eighties, when many an actor on television were also given record deals whether they deserved those record deals or not, and considering that both Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas was allowed to drop an album, I’m not all that surprised by any of this), and his starring role as David Addison opposite Cybill Shepherd on the ABC series Moonlighting (and FYI, almost everything that has been said about the so-called Moonlighting Curse and how this show has long proven that television shows immediately become worse when the will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension ends and the two lead characters finally get together and start a relationship, has always been some bullshit), and also when Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and other actors of their ilk reigned supreme on movie screens in the Eighties when it came to fighting bad guys and dodging bullets and explosions on movie screens.

McClane is a character who, as tough and scared and resilient as he was, was also someone willing to look and be scared about what he was facing. Every gunfight he finds himself involved with is one that causes him to worry and wonder as to whether he’ll make it out alive. And after it becomes even more clear (courtesy of another ambush by Hans and company that leaves him having to pull broken glass out of his bare feet) that his survival isn’t guaranteed, he contacts Powell with his message to Holly in which he apologizes for everything he put her through that endangered their marriage, and also letting her know how much she means to him. It’s that moment leading into the final act that further humanizes McClane in a way that most other action heroes couldn’t or wouldn’t experience or allow. Instead of running into the final confrontation with a lock-and-load montage leading to guns blazing and no fucks being given whatsoever, we were being reminded of what this was all about: McClane realizing that he needed to apologize to Holly for not believing in her and supporting her when she needed it most.

Despite how scared McClane is, it doesn’t stop him from relying on his sense of humor to not only help him keep a cool head, but also to annoy the shit out of Hans and his crew. After killing Tony and taking his sub-machine gun, ammo, and cigarettes, does he really need to send Tony’s corpse back down to the thirtieth floor wearing a Santa hat with “NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN! HO, HO, HO!” written on his sweater in blood?

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Yes, it’s juvenile. Yes, it’s unnecessary. Yes, it reveals to Hans that someone is in the building trying to fuck up whatever his plans are, as if Tony going missing wouldn’t have already clued him in on that. But John McClane is pretty much the Spider-Man to Hans Gruber’s Doctor Octopus, and every insult and wisecrack he sends in Hans’s direction only annoys him further and gets under his skin enough to make him trip up and slightly tip the scales a little more in his favor. It also gave us one of the most recognizable quotes in action-movie history:

(Sorry to those of you who have only ever watched Die Hard in edited, sanitized-for-your-protection form on network television, and spent all this time thinking that it was “Yippee-ki-yay, monkey sucker”/”Yippee-ki-yay, motherlover”/”Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon,” but there it is.)

There are also so many small-but-wonderful moments that are both funny and give Die Hard more character than most other films: Uli looking from side to side and being somewhat hesitant about stealing some chocolate bars for himself from the newsstand as he’s preparing to shoot at the approaching SWAT team. A tough-as-nails member of that same SWAT team crying out in pain as he pricks his hand on the thorns of a rose bush outside of Nakatomi Plaza. The unspoken bet between Karl and Theo as to whether or not Takagi will give up the codes for the vault so Hans doesn’t kill him and how they’re taunting each other enough that Hans looks at them with confusion and annoyance before focusing back on Takagi. Karl: “Asian Dawn movement?”/Hans: “I read about them in Time magazine.” Agent Johnson: “This is Agent Johnson. No, the other one,” and also this exchange between Agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation): “YEE-HAW! Just like fucking Saigon, eh, Slick?”/”I was in junior high, dickhead.” Thornberg’s fellow news reporters Harvey Johnson (who can’t help but Death Glare at him after being insulted) and Gail Wallens (who can’t help but suppress her laughter at seeing this happen right before they go on air together) interviewing an author about terrorists and their hostages, and neither Harvey nor the author having any idea what they’re talking about. And for many of those moments, we can thank the supporting performances by Alexander Godunov as Karl, Hans’s equally ruthless right-hand man hell-bent on vengeance after McClane kills his brother, Clarence Gilyard Jr. as Theo, the brilliant and egotistical computer hacker, Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush as FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation), whose only concern in winning their own imaginary dick-measuring contest against the entire LAPD and anyone else who tries to keep them from doing their job and getting all the glory that comes with it, and De’Voreaux White as Argyle, McClane’s friendly and fun-loving limousine driver who also finds himself trapped in Nakatomi Plaza and finds a way to make himself useful.

The box-office success of Die Hard had a monumental impact on Hollywood and on nearly every action film that followed in the months and years to come, in that many of them imitated its plot structure so much that they could easily be described as “Die Hard on a ________,” from Speed (Die Hard on a bus), Under Siege (Die Hard on a Navy battleship), Sudden Death (Die Hard in a hockey arena), both White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen (Die Hard in the White House), Passenger 57 (Die Hard on an airplane, which not only gave us Wesley Snipes as action hero, but also gave us one of the coolest lines to ever come out of his mouth…)

(Whether that’s cooler than Wesley Snipes-as-Blade saying, “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill,” that’s for you to decide)

Air Force One (Die Hard on…well, Air Force One), and even Skyscraper, (Die Hard in a…well, another skyscraper).

20th Century Fox and Bruce Willis also attempted to repeat their success with Die Hard by, of course, making sequels. Starting with Die Hard 2: Die Harder (McClane fighting terrorists who take over Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.), followed by Die Hard With A Vengeance (McClane teaming up with Samuel L. Jackson to fight terrorists, led by Hans Gruber’s brother Simon, who are threatening to blow up New York City. And by New York City, I actually mean Manhattan because it’s the only borough that matters in action movies), and then Live Free Or Die Hard (McClane fighting a group of cyberterrorists/computer hackers for reasons I really can’t remember), and finally A Good Day To Die Hard (McClane teams up with his son to fight terrorists in Russia, also for reasons I really can’t remember largely because I never bothered watching this one). By the time the last two films arrived in theaters, McClane went from being an ordinary guy in the wrong place at the wrong time and having to fight insurmountable odds just to stay alive to being a near-invulnerable superhero doing near-impossible stunts while bouncing from one ridiculous action scene to the next.

Granted, none of this changes the fact that Die Hard is the all-time favorite film of Detective Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine-Nine (so much so that he geeks out when he meets Reginald VelJohnson and realizes that he was going to appear at his bachelor party, which Jake unfortunately failed to attend for reasons that require you to go watch the episode for yourself), but it still needed to be said.

As to whether or not Die Hard actually is a Christmas movie…like I said earlier, this post isn’t going to be about that particular topic, so I’ll just leave it to CNN reporter Jake Tapper to share his thoughts on why Die Hard is a Christmas movie, thanks to this neat poem that he posted on Twitter last year:


Regardless of whether or not Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie, and whether it deserves all of the mansplaining/nerdsplaining that occurs every holiday season in an attempt to prove that it is (Dear men/nerds: please stop. Nobody cares whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and you’re just embarrassing yourselves right before you end up being added to yet another person’s list of muted and blocked Twitter accounts), its quality and its influence are truly undeniable, and it’s why people will still be watching and talking about Die Hard (minus all of the mansplaining and nerdsplaining, hopefully) for another thirty years.



Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



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