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A Countercultural Christmas: Die Hard

09 December 2021

In the run-up to Christmas, LUMI programmer Fionntán Macdonald examines what is Christmassy about a film featuring vests, violence and volatile villains.

A Countercultural Christmas Die Hard

Let’s just get this out of the way: YES, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. In fact, it holds an honoured position in the archives of Christmas cinema. Those hallowed halls are decked yearly with such feel-good fodder, but something sits at the shadowy end of the hall. There, lighting a blood-stained cigarette on a smouldering wreath and muttering bad words is their surly festive cousin, John McTiernan’s incomparable action milestone Die Hard.

This film’s status as a holiday classic is almost an inside joke among cinephiles. “How can a Christmas movie contain such violence, cursing and even nudity!?” exclaim certain members of the public as they clutch their pearls and faint in a fit of the vapours (I can only assume). This aghast enquiry is left unanswered annually, as all the cool kids are too busy watching Die Hard again. If this all seems a little vitriolic to you: get used to it. Die Hard inspires an immense passion in its fans matched by very few entries in the cinematic cannon, so prepare to follow the bloody footprints up Nakatomi Tower, tie a fire hose around your waist and leap from the heights as you plunge into joyous freefall.

To modern audiences this film may seem formulaic at first glance. We open on Bruce Willis, yet to become a blockbuster leading man and far from his decline into bored fading star who is trotted out to reprise his most seminal role in inferior sequels to this great film. He stars as John McClane, the archetypal everyman action hero in a role that would transform him from TV actor and blues singer (yes that’s real, my dad owns the vinyl) to a fully-fledged but unexpectant idol.

Willis was not the first choice for this film as, in an overlooked piece of cinema history, Ol’ Blue Eyes himself Frank Sinatra (then 70) was the first person offered the role. Sinatra had starred in the much earlier film The Detective which shares source material with McTiernan’s film and due to contractual stipulations, the famed crooner was offered the role. Willis was not actually offered the role until Sinatra and at least 12 other established stars had turned it down, Schwarzenegger and Stallone prominent among them. This seemingly insignificant detail illustrates the appeal of McClane as a character.

John McClane is not a musclebound superman or chiselled Adonis. He is fallible, flawed, and vulnerable. From the moment he is introduced, flying to Los Angeles despite his phobia of air travel to attempt to save his failing marriage, he is explicitly human, relatable, and perpetually set at a disadvantage. The writers have expertly crafted the structure and stakes of the story to leave him always punching up, and each of his corresponding actions speaks volumes to his character.

When he runs towards screams and gunfire barefoot, we gain insight into his impulsive nature while this action expertly sets up one of the film’s most heartfelt scenes as he pulls shattered glass from his feet and seeks distraction from his only friendly point of contact: a fellow cop on the end of a radio. In this moment of pain and isolation this character is rendered with a compassionate humanity expertly portrayed by Willis in a career highpoint that brings the bombastic action into stark reality.

McClane may now be archetypal, but he was the genesis of his archetype. To bring balance to this action movie equation an essential element is the villain: the deliciously duplicitous Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). His rogue’s gallery of criminals are essential obstacles to McClane and Rickman presides over them as the architect of the conflict and the perfect foil to Willis’ brash everyman. Gruber is the beguiling mastermind with composed confidence and all the best lines whose machinations are endlessly enthralling. He cements this film as a star making venture, as Rickman stuns in his first ever film performance. Much has been made of Rickman as a debutante revelation since, however we are truly treated to an already mature performer coming delightfully into his own and delivering a tour de force debut. So much is derived from the interplay between these two robustly defined figures in a film that does so much with so little.

This film may be formulaic, but it perfected the formula. So, this year come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs, and relive an undisputable Christmas Classic.

- Fionntán Macdonald, LUMI programmer

Die Hard screens at Queen's Film Theatre from Friday 10 - Sun 12 December.