‘Die Hard’ (1988) Review: McClane’s Merry Christmas is Still a Classic
By Daniel Rester
Merry Christmas! Happy holidays!
For some reason there has been a debate the last couple of decades on whether Die Hard (1988) is a Christmas movie or not. There’s no denying it’s an action classic that helped cement Bruce Willis as a movie star. But on the other side of things, people like to argue about its “Christmas season viewing” merits. Stop arguing. Die Hard is 100% a Christmas movie.
Based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard follows New York City cop John McClane (Willis) as he travels to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife and kids. Why? Because it is almost Christmas and he wants to reconnect with his family. Classic Christmas setup.
McClane arrives at the Nakatomi Corporation, where his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) accepted a high-level job. The company is throwing an office party on Christmas Eve. That is until they are interrupted by a group of German robbers/terrorists led by a radical named Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).
After slipping into hiding, McClane soon begins picking off the gun-toting bad guys as they move about the building. Eventually the local police and the FBI get involved with the situation, with McClane receiving help over a radio frequency from a street cop named Al (Reginald VelJohnson). Things get more explosive as Gruber becomes irritated with McClane’s actions that are ruining his plans.
Die Hard fires on all cylinders with its sharp writing, an ace cast, and John McTiernan’s lively direction. The script gives us an everyman hero in McClane, with his uncertainty and bravery brought to life perfectly by Willis. The character isn’t a muscly giant like many of the ‘80s action heroes, but rather a relatable guy stuck in a bad situation who just so happens to have some skills to possibly do something about it. And he talks to himself a lot, which is hilarious.
A lot of the supporting characters have moments to shine too. Some of the cop characters outside of the building are annoying (minor flaw), but the players in the building are interesting. From Bedelia as Holly the wife to De’voreaux White as clever limo driver Argyle to Hart Bochner as sleazy Nakatomi employee Harry, the cast is full of fun members. The only one who can steal scenes from Willis though is Rickman. He expertly paints Gruber as a sly and ruthless villain.
Screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza insert a lot of playful dialogue and idea references for the characters to explore too. McClane is more than once referred to as a cowboy, and he has a mouth like a creative sailor. There are bits involving a watch, “fists with toes,” and other small things that could have been throwaway dialogue in lesser hands but actually have payoff here. That an action film with this much energy and violence also asks the audience to pay attention to little story details is impressive. Die Hard has brains as well as brawn.
Speaking of brawn, the physical action scenes are plentiful. As are the shootouts. All of them are cut and paced exceptionally as the bullets, blood, and glass fly. McTiernan (coming off of making the equally awesome Predator (1987)), aided by a great technical team, finds just the right rhythms in laying out the suspense and mayhem of each set piece. There are plenty of standout scenes, but the helicopter and roof explosion scene in particular is masterful. Such artistry helped the film to land four Oscar nominations (editing, visual effects, sound, and sound effects editing).
All of the character conflicts and witty banter and action situations are made even better by the inclusion of the Christmas time setting. Because let’s not forget the part that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. How? Let’s get into it.
The film takes place entirely on Christmas Eve at a holiday party setting (not just a small section of the script), which is important because Gruber chooses that time because less people are at the building. And again, McClane is going to LA to be with his family on Christmas. So both of the main characters have Christmas involved with their motivations.
Christmas characters and songs are referenced throughout the film, while the various offices of the building are decorated too. A sub-villain is killed and then dressed with a Santa hat for a joke. Gift wrapping tape plays a key role in McClane being able to take down bad guys in the climax. The resolution even has paper flying in the air like snow while “Let It Snow” plays in the background and the heroes warmly embrace each other.
So stop the arguing. Let’s all agree that Die Hard is a landmark action film as well as a festive Christmas classic. Because as the Internet saying goes, “It’s not Christmas until Hans Gruber falls from the Nakatomi Tower.”
P.S. Die Hard 2 (1990) is a Christmas film too.
My Grade: 9.8/10 (letter grade equivalent: A+)
Running Time: 2h 12min