131 min., 1988
Directed by John McTiernan
My rating: ★★★★
Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Of course. But it’s also a horror movie. [steps back and waits for the arguments to begin]
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It’s picture perfect: a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in California. Everyone’s happy and having a good time. Holly Genaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is getting ready to see her ex-husband, John McClane (Bruce Willis) for the first time in a long time, so the vibe is good. Enter Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his group of business associates. They’re here for a friendly corporate takeover with a healthy interest in sitting on the beach, earning twenty-percent. That’s a pretty good deal.
There is, unfortunately, one thing that Holly didn’t plan on: New York changed John McClane for the worst. Something’s not right about him. He has murderous impulses that he can’t control, and for some reason in his head he has fixated on Holly. He thinks she’s in danger from Hans and his friends, and thanks to military training he has the means and the knowledge of taking them on.
Thankfully Hans and company have taken advantage of the Second Amendment. They’re the good guys with a gun that the Republicans are always talking about. As John stalks among them, almost Jason-like, picking them off one by one, they have the power to fight back against him.
But their chances are not good. John is a one-man army. Not even the cops and FBI who arrive to arrest him stand a chance. Al Powell (played wonderfully by Reginald VelJohnson) is the only one who seems interested in negotiating with John. He tries his best because he’s been there before. A while back he shot a kid dead. He felt lousy about it, but he knows what it’s like to take someone’s life, so he’s the only “in” the cops have with John.
There’s a particularly gruesome scene near the beginning of the carnage when John kills a dude, straps him to a chair, writes NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN, HO-HO-HO on his shirt and sends him down the elevator so his friends could see their dead companion and know how far John will go. The guy’s brother, Karl (Alexander Godunov), is horrified by this, and he bravely pledges to get revenge for this. Who among us wouldn’t do so? Karl is a very relatable character.
The acting is very good in this. Willis is very believable as a violent lunatic. One has to wonder if he was so dedicated to the role that he actually walked barefoot over glass. Bedelia is wonderful as the victim of John’s violent attentions. She has the fear down pat, but her resolve to move forward in the face of certain death is great. Rickman has a boyish charm despite the German accent. He’s a great, tragic hero. Rickman has a background in Shakespeare, so I’m sure he drew inspiration from the Bard’s work. And then there’s Hart Bochner as Harry Ellis. No one ever suspected that the guy trying to get into Holly’s pants would betray them all. How could he have sided with John? Hans had to make a tough decision, but judging by how dangerous John is, he made the right choice in shooting Ellis dead.
The setting is wonderful. McTiernan’s choice to have this stalker movie take place in a city skyscraper, as opposed to the woods or suburbia, is very telling. (They don’t call him a Master of Horror for nothing.) This is very much a white collar world, and it makes John a bit more sympathetic. He’s a blue collar guy, and he has to negotiate the office in order to get what he wants.
And then there’s the ending. Tread with caution. What follows are spoilers.
It takes a lot of balls to go with a negative ending. When Hans feels relief to see an unarmed John McClane in sight, he does the merciful thing. He doesn’t kill John. His heart is bigger than his brain. John pulls the dirtiest trick ever when he reveals that he’s taped a gun to his back within easy reach. He shoots our hero and then drops him down the entire length of the skyscraper. That’s pretty dark and over the top. He even has a catchy quip, much like Freddy and Chucky, when he does this: “Yippie kie ay, motherfucker.” At least he’s got a sense of humor, unlike other slashers (*ahem* Jason).
McTiernan plays a trick on his viewers, too. Just when you think John is going to be peacefully taken into custody, Karl, who we thought was killed earlier when he was hung by his neck from a chain, makes a sudden reappearance. Maybe John wasn’t going to get away with this after all. Heroically, Karl moved forward with his gun, ready to save the day . . . and Al Powell guns him down?! What the fuck? Maybe John got too far into his head, or maybe he wanted to kill someone again after shooting that poor child. Is he going to be taken into custody, too? Just like John?
That’s one of the darker statements about this movie. Neither Al Powell nor John McClane are arrested for their crimes. It’s suggested that they’re not arrested because they’re cops, and the boys in blue always watch each others’ backs. It’s disgusting. Not only that, but they leave Holly in the murderous hands of her tormentor! It’s too real, folks. Too real.
This is a harrowing film, and it seems like it could happen in the real world. That’s what makes this movie so scary. If you work in an office building, this could very well happen to you.
And no, the world is not done with John McClane. Just like his slasher kin, he comes back for a few sequels in which he gets to kill again. And again. And again.
Merry fuckin’ Christmas.Have You Read...?