Action films and holiday films have always been considered separate entities, with the former categorised by everything from Bond to Dirty Harry to Lethal Weapon features, and the latter recalling the sentiment of Miracle on 34th St or the family fare of The Santa Clause. However, in 1988 one movie dared to combine fights and frenetic chases with the spirit of the season: John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Although the title doesn’t dare give away its festive setting, the first film in the four-strong series to date (with a fifth slated for 2013) has perpetuated a Christmas cult following. A staple of many end-of-year viewing line-ups, the feature celebrates the holidays with blood, guts and more than a few bangs.
For those – such as myself until a recent December viewing – unaware of the film’s narrative, Die Hard introduces no-nonsense New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis, best known for television series Moonlighting at the time). Arriving in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, The Prince of Pennsylvania) and children Lucy (debutant Taylor Fry) and John Jr (Noah Land, in his first and only role), he finds more than a family reunion on his hands. An appearance at Holly’s company Christmas party turns to chaos when a group of armed terrorists– led by the fiendish Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, Truly Madly Deeply)– seize control of the building. Intent on teaching the corporation about greed by appropriating their assets, Gruber and his gang wreak havoc, with McClane the only man capable of ceasing the commotion.
Adapted by screenwriters Jeb Stuart (The Fugitive) and Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man) from Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, Die Hard is the epitome of a 1980s action film. The third feature from Nomads and Predator helmer McTiernan, it introduces an enterprising hero in an inopportune situation, with death and destruction the only method of resolution. Raising the stakes is the lack of assistance afforded the protagonist, courtesy of largely uncooperative local law enforcement and an unbalanced good to bad guys ratio. And then there’s his role as a saviour of his family, with his wife in the firing line and his children used for bargaining power. As a result, across 131 energetic minutes the film chronicles one man’s ordeal to restore order against a clever and complex nemesis.
However, there’s more to the feature that spawned sequels Die Hard 2 in 1990, Die Hard with a Vengeance in 1995, and Live Free or Die Hard in 2007 than relentless gunfire and explosions. Amidst the many impressive special effects sequences that see foes slain, objects blown up and the roof literally raised sits a sense of character and adventure, with the former an archetype of a family man emphasised by the holiday timing (and Willis’ common-man demeanour), and the latter a quest of righteousness and reunification. In addition, the good versus evil dynamic is explored beyond the exchange of fiery shots, heightened by the confident prowess of Rickman as the arrogant arch villain. Accordingly, although embracing its cartoonish genre confines – and instigating the spate of similar single-setting efforts to follow (Speed and The Rock, for example) – Die Hard offers a convincing combination of action and intrigue, as well as an alternative to the usual Christmas viewing.