“Die Hard” is more than just the best Christmas movie ever made. It is more than just a recurring piece of LA trivia that tourists share when cruising past the FOX building on Olympic Boulevard. This film, with all its explosions and f-bombs, its barrels of blood and barrage broken glass, is a marvelously tight story, knitted by compelling characters who swap out their needles for nine millimeters to our cinematic delight.
At the center of it all is John McClane (Bruce Willis) a brash New York cop with a Ph.D in street smarts but in need of after-school tutoring in his husbandry studies. John’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedalia) left the Big Apple for La La Land, with McClane opting to stay back with his familiar cold winters and dollar hot dogs in NYC. But McClane wants to reconcile with Holly and on Christmas ventures westward to Nakatomi Plaza, a state-of-the-art skyscraper, her place of work, and 492 eventual vertical feet of hell for McClane to climb.
Crashing Nakatomi’s Christmas party is a terrorist organization lead by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). With his trimmed beard and $10,000 suit, Gruber is less infidel and more luxury Infiniti owner. His henchmen wield guns but Han is armed with a silver tongue, calm and collected to predict and outmaneuver any police or FBI interference with his multi-million dollar thievery. Of course, in his hours of prep and pre-planning, examining his inevitable riches to the cent, Gruber never once accounted for McClane.
The script is fraught with action and always moves at a brisk pace, with no characters as constants, their strong personalities always acting as variables that thwart each other’s best laid plans. LAPD Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) serves as a dutiful ground aide while McClane crawls and climbs through Nakatomi barefoot, and sleazeball journo Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) inadvertently compromises McClane and his wife’s safety when his station airs footage of their distressed daughter.
The characters who attempt to control the carnage and mayhem find themselves cause the most harm, like a scumbag businessman Ellis (Hart Bochner) and clueless Deputy Police Chief Robinson (Paul Gleason). Those who adopt a reactionary mindset, like Hans, McClane, and sadly Thornburg, profit the most from the night’s disastrous events. Set in the 1980s, there’s also a strong anti-greed mentality present in the film, expressed through Gruber’s faux terrorist attack: Gruber, so consumed by money, doesn’t actually care if the global prisoners and rebel groups he requested to be let go gain their freedom. He also knows that one the dust has settled, the feds would only care about retrieving the stolen cash, not caging the supposedly criminal souls Gruber helped release. And when Ellis, a Wall Street carbon copy with a west coast address, gets murdered by the bad guy Gruber, our schadenfreude is unquenchable.
Beneath its action movie facade,”Die Hard” also serves as an inverted rebirth of the Western. While plenty of iconic action films like “Lethal Weapon” and “Beverly Hills Cop” were set in LA in the 1980s, “Die Hard” is the first to take place in primarily one location in the westernmost city. Instead of thinking of heroes and villains trotting from right to left across vast open landscapes, they’re now climbing up and down a vast building that literally scrapes the sky. Ranches and saloons are swapped for lobbies and break rooms, horses and carriages for stairs and elevators. While there are sheriffs and deputies, they’re stuck on the ground floor while blood-soaked bandits shoot it out inside. Gruber even proclaims McClane as a cowboy, a title the half-naked NYC cop is more than happy to wear.
Even with its blown-out perms and Members Only fashion,”Die Hard” remains relevant today for its compelling central themes and characters with strong moral convictions and internal motivations. The first 20 minutes or so of the film is explicitly spent on carefully building exposition for all the events to occur, almost like we’re having a pre-show Q&A to get to know McClane and crew before they embark on their play of merry Christmas mayhem. Some may proclaim those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, but director John McTiernan and writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza would expertly argue that it’s better to use bullets instead.