The debate over whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie has long ago been rendered moot – it’s absolutely a Christmas movie, and in my family’s house, it’s our favorite Christmas movie. Now, there are others to enjoy (Elf, Trading Places, Jingle All The Way), but this is the one we watch every year. In my opinion, it’s also the greatest action movie ever made.
Released in 1988, the movie was based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp – which itself was a sequel to his 1966 novel, The Detective. The Detective was actually made into a 1968 hit movie starring Frank Sinatra.
Joe Leland was the private detective introduced in that story, who then in the sequel “Nothing Lasts Forever” visited the forty-story office headquarters of the Klaxon Oil Corporation in L.A. on Christmas Eve where his daughter Stephanie Gennaro worked. While there, German terrorists take over the skyscraper, and Leland he has to take them out one at a time to rescue his daughter and the other employees. Barefoot and aided only by LAPD Sergeant Al Powell, he fights off the terrorists.
In the movie, on Christmas Eve, New York police officer John McClane arrives in Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his wife and kids. His wife has moved out to L.A. months prior, having been offered a great job at the Nakatomi Corporation in their brand-new still-being-constructed skyscraper headquarters. This move caused them to be slightly estranged, and they are both hoping they can reconcile some of their differences while he’s visiting.
McClane is picked up at the hotel by limo-driver Argyle, who gives him some quick information about the company, and agrees to wait in the building parking garage until McClane lets him know if he’ll need a hotel or not. McClane goes up to one of the top floors - where the company is holding their Christmas party – they are the only people left in the building. McClane freshens up in Holly’s office after meeting her boss Joseph Takagi, and her co-worker Harry Ellis – one of the most 80s douche-iest guys ever put to film. Holly goes to give a speech to the coworkers, leaving John alone in her office. While there, German terrorists, led by the frightening Hans Gruber, break into the building and take everyone in the party hostage. McClane escapes, and heads to a different floor in the building, attempting to build a plan.
After he pulls a fire alarm, he defeats one of the terrorists, and begins to build a tally of how many of them there are. He steals a walkie-talkie, and uses it to call for help. After at first believing McClane to be a Christmas Eve prankster, the police send Sergeant Al Powell to the scene. He realizes the threat is real and so calls for additional backup.
Eventually, the area outside the building fills up with LAPD, and SWAT – while McClane goes through the building, attempting to take out one terrorist at a time to rescue Holly and the other hostages. We learn from Hans Gruber, the head of the terrorists, that their true plan is to distract the law enforcement with the hostages while they steal the millions of dollars in bearer bonds that are in the company safe.
Eventually, McClane takes out just about everyone, while the majority of the law enforcement outside proves to be somewhat useless – including FBI Special Agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation). Watch again for the one storming SWAT officer who runs into a difficult rose bush.
In fact, they play right into Gruber’s hands as the shut down the power and send in armed helicopters. Only Sergeant Powell is really there to support McClane and keep him appraised of what is happening outside.
It’s a very simple story – regular guy versus big time bad guys to save his lady, but for some reason – it works. The climax is unbelievably satisfying when (spoiler alert) Gruber falls to his death from the skyscraper, McClane rescues Holly, Powell defends them from Karl, and Argyle shows up just in time to drive Holly and John home for Christmas.
Because Christmas features so heavily into the plot (it’s the reason he’s there in L.A., it’s the reason the holiday party is happening, it’s the reason Hans and crew choose to rob Nakatomi at that time) it makes sense to consider this a Christmas movie. Directed by action specialist John McTiernan (who also did 80s action spectacle Predator) the movie is fast-paced, easy to follow, and action heavy. And of course, since it’s from 1988, it has one PTS. What I really love about it is the care taken in crafting the movie. Nothing is wasted – every moment of exposition and ‘set-up’ in the beginning of the movie comes back into play later on. From McClane being told by the guy on the plane to make “fists with your toes” when you arrive to Argyle dragging relationship details out of McClane, to Takagi mentioning how the top floors of the building are not yet done – everything comes back into use. Even the story Powell tells McClane about being given a desk job plays into the final sequence. A lot of movies can be described as exposition heavy, but this is one that will teach you how to use every single moment –exposition or otherwise - to enhance the story.
The cast is absolute action movie perfection
- Bruce Willis was still shooting the TV comedy Moonlighting when production began. He shot Die Hard at night and Moonlighting during the day. His exhaustion actually resulted in the script being adjusted to give some of the supporting characters more screen time – which is part of what makes this movie a classic. Willis is better in this movie than he is in almost anything else (except for maybe Fifth Element, which is really just future McClane) and he does have an ‘everyman’ quality that makes this movie more fun than if it had been one of the other larger than life action stars of the day. He’s quotable and relatable as a cop who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and tries to do the right thing.
- The movie really does belong to Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. Slickly charming and brilliantly evil, he steals every single scene he is in and set the bar exceptionally high for every other action villain to come after. No one comes close – except maybe for Jeremy Irons in Die Hard 3. He’s so polished and suave, you can understand why someone so regular and blue collar as McClane drives him a bit crazy. And yes – he did a short fall onto a mat for the fall at the end, and they dropped him on “two” after telling him they would drop him on “three” – so that iconic look he gives is, in fact, genuine surprise.
- Reginald VelJohnson plays Sergeant Al Powell, in a long line of his career of comforting cops. He’s the only one who is one McClane’s side, who believes in him and tries to support him – all while only communicating with him via walkie-talkie. They connect so completely due to the fantastic performance by VelJohnson, that the moment at the end of the movie where McClane finally gets to meet Powell in person will often bring me to tears. Also – check out the price of gas at the station when Powell is first introduced buying twinkies (yes, this movie is the reason you know the ingredients of Twinkies “Yellow dye no. 5!”) - $.74.
- Paul Gleason plays Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson – and basically is the same role that he perfected in Breakfast Club and Trading Places. He’s a government stooge, there to try to steal the glory. His ineptitude, which is pointed out perfectly by VelJohnson, is the source of much of the humor in this movie. “I think they’re shooting at the lights!”
- Bonnie Bedelia plays Holly Gennaro McClane. She’s pretty great for a 80s action movie lady – she’s not nearly as helpless as some of them, and she tries her best to stand up to Hans and his crew when they shoot her boss. Once she realizes that John is loose in the building and trying to eliminate the hostages, she hides that he is her husband, so as to not be turned into a weapon to be used against him. However, once the tool of a news reporter reveals her family – Hans swiftly collects her as his own private hostage.
- Speaking of the tool of a news reporter, William Atherton plays Richard Thornburg, the pompous 80s tool that he perfected in Ghostbusters and other movies. He will do anything to get a big story, including threatening Holly’s nanny with deportation to get the kids on the news and reveal that she and John are married. Her final encounter with him where she punches him in the face is very satisfying!
- Hart Bochner plays the epitome of 80s excess (“hookers and blow!”) in this movie, Harry Ellis. He’s just the absolute worst from his first appearance, doing cocaine in Holly’s office, then bragging about the Rolex they gave her (the payoff on that is huge), then deciding he can negotiate with the terrorists. Cocaine is a hell of a drug. He’s the reason Hans finds out John’s name, but either through delusion or intelligence (I’m going with delusion), he doesn’t reveal Holly’s connection to John – Thornburg takes care of that.
- James Shigeta plays Joseph Takagi who welcomes McClane to the party, and then attempts to refuse to give Hans the password to the vault, so Hans kills him. He’s not around very long, but the scene where Hans goes through the crowd looking for him, listing off his various accomplishments is such a tense sequence enhanced by Shigeta’s stillness and quietly contained panic.
- Defected Russian ballet dancer Alexander Godunov plays Karl – the number two terrorist. He’s quickly established as a bit of a hot-head and brother to one of the other terrorists. After learning McClane killed his brother, he starts to push back against Hans’s leadership, caring more about his own personal vendetta than Hans’s goal. He’s an exceptional counterpoint to McClane – all European efficiency to McClane’s American reckless enthusiasm.
- De’voreaux White, who was also on Head of The Class, plays limo driver Argyle. He basically spends the night partying in the limo in the parking garage, but then begins monitoring the situation on the CB radio once he becomes aware of what is happening. This allows him to have a huge hero moment at the end of the movie to eliminate Theo.
- Clarence Gilyard Jr. – from Walker, Texas Ranger – plays Theo, easily the most annoying member of Hans’s crew. But, like he says, they didn’t bring him along for his sparkling personality. He’s basically the hacker of the crew, before hackers on the crew were a thing.
- All the terrorists are pretty fun - but special shout out to actor/stuntman Al Leong (Genghis from Bill&Ted) who has a moment with a Crunch bar that really enhances the comedy in a tense scene.
Overall, the movie is just wonderful, simple, straightforward, fun, and action-packed. It's probably the best use of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. It’s so iconic that it promptly became the way to describe the countless rip-offs that came afterwards (“it’s Die Hard on a boat!” “It’s Die Hard on a train!” – and those are just the Under Siege movies!). And, since the Nakatomi Plaza Building is actually the Fox Plaza Building, be sure to visit it the next time you are in L.A; 2121 Avenue of the Stars. When they shot the movie, the top floors were still under construction so that they could use real explosions on the top few floors. This Christmas, gather your family around (okay, not little ones – it is rated R), and enjoy the best Christmas movie ever.
10 out of 10 – perfection. Quotable perfection. “This is Agent Johnson…no, the other one.” “If this is what Christmas is like, I got to be around for New Years!”
Bonus - ScreenJunkies Honest Trailer -
Bonus - Making Of Special!