12 Ways of Christmas: #3 ‘Die Hard’

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Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing?

With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Long a popular hipster’s pick for a Christmas movie, Die Hard is undoubtedly one of the tightest, well-conceived action films from the last 25 years — if not the best among those qualities. But hipsters can suck it; to what degree is Die Hard actually a holiday movie?

Well it’s framed around Christmas. Bruce Willis’ John McClane travels to Los Angeles to rekindle a rocky marriage with Bonnie Bedelia. Mrs. McClane — sorry, Gennaro — up and left with the fam for a higher paying position atop Nakatomi Plaza, and judging from the turned over picture frames and the name change, things haven’t been going well. Maybe Willis can rekindle the magic with a stuffed teddy bear and a surprise visit?

Let’s not forget the music here. Holiday carols and radio hits are turned down in favor of variations on Beethoven’s final movement from his Ninth Symphony. “Ode to Joy” covers this film, and Michael Kamen’s score finds interesting ways to explore a familiar melody, like an booming, ominous iteration when the baddies first show up. The juxtaposition between beauitful and terrifying make for an awe-inspiring final product (and apparently one that remains iconic, if a bit played out today). It’s an exemplar of Die Hard’s thorough qualities, a devotion to exploring the little details. Evil Beethoven is like twisting Handel’s “Messiah” into a minor key.

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And what better way to steep Classical antiquity even further than with an enigmatic mastermind in Alan Rickman’s ruthless charmer, Hans Gruber? Die Hard’s excellent script succeeds in part because the audience never learns more than it needs to know, and it’s a continuously changing status quo. Sure, some LAPD big wigs will show up; and when they do, let’s start ’em on a wild goose chase for our terrorist brethren. And when the feds come? Don’t worry about a helicopter assault. That’s why God invented C-4.

Just as Gruber adapts to the film, the film does likewise. In a fantastic showcase of Rickman’s mimicry, McClane stumbles upon the terrorist leader, thinking he’s another piece of Euro trash to punch out. Thinking quickly, Gruber adapts with an altered American drone. Clay. Bill Clay. Their rooftop showdown is a battle of wits, more memorable and elegant than repeating yet another bare-knuckled fight fight or board meeting shootout. Those are best left for the Karls and the Ulis of the world.

Now, some of the moments between Willis and Reginald VelJohnson’s beat cop are flat out ridiculous, impressive considering this is a two-hour plus mega setpiece inside of a skyscraper. The two bonding over police radio adds humanity to the violence and ‘splosions, but dissecting a Twinkie by its ingredients? Sentiments on having your first child? Come on. There’s no way an annoyed dispatcher isn’t telling these two to shut the hell up.

So maybe Die Hard is only a Christmas film in its trappings — McClane’s wrapping paper’d pistol; the office holiday party a la Takagi; a decked out and very dead henchman. But it commits to its holiday aesthetic through and through, right down to a final snowfall and a credits time “Let It Snow” as McClane and Holly drive off with feisty chauffeur Argyle. Together. After all, if Christmas isn’t about strengthening the bonds of love and family, then I’m Roy Rogers. “Wrong place, wrong time” turns to “right guy, Christmas time.” And yes, I did just invent that saying.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

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