As per Christmas tradition, I always watch Die Hard this time of the year every year. But even when it isn’t the holiday season, the fact we can still watch Die Hard and it holds up spectacularly is what makes it the best sort of Christmas film, but it still remains one of the defining action films of the 1980’s decade and for good reason at that. My own appreciation for action cinema has strengthened over the years after only coming to realize what more could come out of the genre and films like Die Hard represent the best qualities that such films could display. Christmas is never complete without Hans Gruber taking over the Nakatomi Plaza and John McClane saving the day.
Die Hard stars Bruce Willis as the iconic detective John McClane, effectively setting the actor’s future career as an action star. Everyone knows what was coming for him afterward, he’s in Los Angeles so that he can make amends with his wife at the Nakatomi Plaza only to find that it is being taken over by a group of German terrorists led by Hans Gruber who intend to pull off a heist. At incredible odds, John McClane comes by and he must save the day – a recognizable catalyst for the action genre to follow. But if we are to talk of Die Hard, where shall one begin when describing what it does better than the countless films that it inspired and the sequels that had come along, too?
Everything starts already from the pitch-perfect setup for Die Hard, one that perfectly racks up enough tension in order to heighten the stakes coming by within its action sequences – some of the best that can ever come out of American cinema at the time. John McTiernan allows for only the very best when handling every movement coming by, going from the stunts to the gunplay, yet for how much these moments present for Die Hard‘s own gain, they are not the peak of interest when talking about what truly makes such a film one of the definitive American action films, but it arises from the circumstances that its premise and set pieces breathe for its own leading characters.
Before going down to talk of the characters, the setting and visuals in turn also help in creating the most memorable aspects to Die Hard. The setting over at Nakatomi Plaza is in fact a part of why we have come to recognize Die Hard over the years for it also allows for McTiernan to keep a great attention to detail especially within moments that seem so small. It helps within heightening a sense of tension for what appears in front of our eyes as our heroes breaking through glass in order to show how unstoppable they have become, McTiernan still captures the pain that it has brought upon John McClane, because McClane is never painted the whole way through as the “unstoppable action hero” we may perceive him to be. He is an ordinary man at odds with an entire army, but he never lets this halt him.
For every great one-liner coming up on behalf of a script provided by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, there comes a great character who becomes rooted in our memory after watching the film. It isn’t limited only to Bruce Willis’s iconic John McClane, but also a standout is Sir Alan Rickman as the film’s antagonistic force in Hans Gruber. Both forces always create a great presence to define what sort of stakes John McTiernan wishes to create in favour of Die Hard but we also have so much being offered in supporting characters. Sure, it cannot be denied the ineptitude of Reginald VelJohnson’s Sgt. Al Powell but there’s a reason we remember him just as well as we do McClane and Gruber, it would be from how McTiernan paints every character as ordinary human beings placing themselves at great heights. Willis of course we know as the action hero coming in to save the day, but there’s Rickman always placing an intimidating demeanor into his delivery and even if he may not be involved nearly as much with the action the power lies in the presence that he creates all throughout.
I’ve realized that I’ve barely even talked about Christmas yet and how Die Hard even ties in with the season, but it would only be all the more evident when we look upon how the film is set during said time, and maybe in a way it adds more to the tension that it creates on its own part. McTiernan did not just set the film at Christmas for the sake of having it remembered as a holiday tradition (the film came out during the summer rather than during the festive season), but it helps that on Die Hard‘s part, the fact it was set during this time of the year adds more to the atmosphere and how it is able to take oneself out of surprise. During the season, one would only expect nothing but good things coming in the way but with Die Hard all bets are off for Nakatomi Plaza soon enough may be no more.
It’s easy to see why Die Hard has grown to become a holiday tradition after all these years. But we can still watch it anytime of the year and we still can get something out of it, which is a part of why it is the best sort of Christmas film. Outside of that festive status, Die Hard truly is one of the finest action films ever made, for it always knows how to create something grand out of what seems to be so little with the image it presents. Die Hard is a gift-wrapped present for every action movie lover for it provides what one could ever want most out of the best action films: from its memorable characters to the witty script and the stakes it evokes from its action sequences, down to the presence of its forces. For the many sequels and countless films it has inspired, Die Hard still tops all.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox.
Directed by John McTiernan
Screenplay by Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza, from the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman
Release Year: 1988
Running Time: 132 minutes