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“Die Hard,” John McTiernan’s 1988 film considered by some to be the best Christmas movie of all time, sees Bruce Willis’ John McClane square up against a fanciful collection of stylish terrorists lead by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in a game of cat and mouse that flips between the two as they try to outplay the other. At the same time, a by-the-book police siege attempts to dislodge Gruber from an office complex where thirty hostages, McClane’s estranged wife included, are held up.
But besides being a Christmas movie, “Die Hard” is also an appraisal of the Average Joe, and it is brimming with characters and themes that reflect that.
John McClane is the first such character and always will be a more relatable protagonist than most of his counterparts. Bruce Willis was (and is to an extent) a rather average-looking guy, strong, but not a walking mass of muscle like Rambo or the Terminator. He’s a New York cop — not a former commando or machine — a street-smart man with a very grounded set of morals but who can crack a joke when needed, and ready to bend the rules if he needs to adapt to resolve a situation, and unlike most action heroes of the time that mowed down dozens upon dozens of gangsters and soldiers, McClane is only facing thirteen men, all competent in their own right, thus making McClane’s struggle more relatable. He’s not Superman, but the Average Joe thrust into a situation outside of his usual zone that he has to confront head-on.
Ironically, a great deal of McClane’s struggles come not just from the terrorists he faces but from the very people supposed to help him in the form of the Los Angeles Police Department and FBI as they try to solve the situation on their own terms: the well-dressed, arrogant, egotistical-yet-mediocre-willed LAPD commissioner Dwayne Robinson constantly disbelieves McClane’s reports and even tries to have him stay put so the police department can handle the job. However, even Robinson cannot take the hard-charging, almost cartoonishly suave-yet-macho FBI agents, Johnson & Johnson, who follow the anti-terror rulebook to a predictable degree that Gruber counts on, and whose plans involve helicopter gunships and a willingness to sacrifice some lives if they can bag all the terrorists. Here, figures of authority, especially those who aren’t part of the Average Joe parts of law enforcement, such as the aforementioned commissioner and FBI agents, are depicted not as competent, all-seeing and adaptive men but simply glory-hounds trying to get a medal. Robinson lets his pride in the LAPD’s response cloud his judgment, and the FBI is too busy trying to blow up terrorists without any regard for other consequences.
In contrast, one of the only police characters depicted with an ounce of competence is the similarly down-to-earth Al Powell, a rather mellow man with a darker past. He’s much like McClane himself — albeit less physically capable — but still competent, more perceptive and adaptive to how the hostage situation plays out. He answers the situation like his fellow officers but goes above and beyond to both encourage McClane and to try to help when needed: a selfless man willing to put himself on the line to ensure the threat is stopped.
McClane’s wife, Holly, is a rather well-rounded, independent female character who isn’t some sought-after woman at the end of the journey, but rather a wife reconciling with her husband after the two have gone through a rather violent Christmas Eve. Both build off each other’s strengths, John trying to outplay the terrorists physically, Holly trying to stall Gruber from doing harm to herself or her coworkers. Holly steps up where her husband physically cannot, managing to keep her fellow hostages mostly calm while even standing up to Gruber, defying stereotypes around female characters, who often tend to be simply helpless, or cartoonishly macho themselves. Compared to Holly, her coworker Harry Ellis is the complete opposite, a sleazy yuppie whose weak will and constant cocaine snorting cause him to quickly develop Stockholm Syndrome. He tries to collaborate with Gruber, only to be unceremoniously killed once his usefulness runs out. Yes, he may have been rich, fast-talking and a good businessman, but the film shows that men without any ground under their shoes, like Ellis, are doomed when crisis arises. The two’s moral and social differences are foreshadowed in the beginning, when Holly talks about her idea of Christmas: “chestnuts, stockings, Rudolph and Frosty”, indicating her love of her family, while Ellis’ idea is “mulled wine, a nice aged brie and a roaring fireplace”, signs of the more individualist, self-focused yuppie culture during the era.
And in a literal sense of “groundedness,” Gruber’s end is very reflective of this in a literal and metaphorical sense: at the climax, he is dangling from the skyscraper he has just blown up, clinging on to Holly’s new wristwatch, threatening to take both down. John rushes to release Gruber from his wife, and in doing so he unclasps her watch, a sign of her office life, of people like Ellis, from her wrist, letting the well-suited Gruber fall to his death.
“Die Hard” is a Christmas movie, but it’s also a social film, one that cheers on the Average Joes of the world while mocking those of higher position, out of touch with the realities of the ground. It’s endearing in a way, and I believe that helps with its lasting popularity and legacy.