Yes, there are more bullets in Die Hard than you’ll find at a convention center gun show, so you’d have to qualify it as an action film first; but, thereafter, it has much more in common with An Officer and a Gentleman or The Princess Bride than Elf or A Christmas Story. The story of New York City police officer John McClane (a young, wildly handsome Bruce Willis) battling a group of murderous villains in a skyscraper seems like an action film if you conveniently forget why he’s doing any of it in the first place. He does it all for love.
Let’s just get this out of the way - yes, you might spot a Christmas tree in a scene or two. True, one of the dispatched baddies wears a Santa’s hat atop his mangled, broken body. Sure, there are strains of Christmas music here and there – though the most prominent song of the film is Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons,” which Argyle the limo driver must really love. He’s listening to it in at least two scenes during events which would have occurred over some breadth of time. This suggests he’s sitting there listening to the song on repeat. I mean, it’s not a terrible Stevie Wonder song, but why not “Living for the City” or “As”? Those are loop-worthy choices.
Argyle’s music sensibilities and all digressions aside, the point is Die Hard is no more a Christmas movie than The Godfather is about oranges (but, seriously, go back and watch how the unassuming fruit plays an eerie role in Don Vito’s mortality). Just because Janet Leigh’s greatest film scene is in the shower doesn’t mean Psycho is about bathrooms. So please, stop already with the Christmas movie stuff. Because doing that keeps you from seeing Die Hard for what it really is, a great romance film about someone who has sadly ruined an otherwise perfect relationship with petty jealousy and inflated ego and is willing to face death to get it back.
Bring me the detonators and let’s start with the things that hit you like a ton of plastic explosives. McClane has flown from NYC to L.A. to try to patch up things with his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). He stumbles into a bloody heist of $640 million worth of bearer bonds. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what bearer bonds are because they’re merely a symbol for McClane’s last remaining hope for reconciliation, tucked away in a seemingly impenetrable vault. The villains are coming to steal that hope away. They embody his doubts and anxieties that Holly will ever give him another chance.
McClane literally dodges bullets and barefoots over broken glass to win back his sweetheart. He scales a tall building like King Kong, another of the cinema’s forlorn romantic leads. He leaps from the roof of a skyscraper and tosses a dead body onto a police car as penance for his marital sins. These acts are much more impressive than sending a 1-800-Flowers bouquet arranged in a decorative doghouse.
Those acts overtly show a man facing down every hazard to return to the good graces of his separated spouse, but there are some subtle hints you might have missed. When the ultimate bad guy, Hans Gruber (the late Alan Rickman) chides McClane for watching too many John Wayne movies, McClane says he was “always kind of partial to Roy Rogers, actually.” That’s because Roy Rogers had Dale Evans by his side, his spouse, a sidekick and good-hearted woman.
And then there’s Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the L.A. cop McClane bonds with via radio communication throughout the ordeal. Powell seems like a nice guy, but he’s really just McClane’s alter-ego, one who champions McClane’s efforts and encourages him in his improbable quest. He tells McClane “the guys” are rooting for him and even slays a demon on McClane’s behalf (hopefully not a spoiler). Tellingly, when McClane is at his lowest, he asks Powell to tell Holly he’s sorry.
“She's heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times. She never heard me say ‘I'm sorry.’ I want you to tell her that, Al. Tell her that John said that he was sorry.”
Powell’s response is the little voice inside McClane’s head.
“You can tell her that yourself,” he assures.
Just as Powell (and to a lesser degree, the “Skeletons”-loving Argyle) is there to comfort and rally McClane, there are characters who represent obstacles to the reunion. Meddling friends and family, the ones who believe they know the best way to make amends, are represented by the bumbling LAPD and even more inept FBI. Characters like Ellis and Takagi represent Holly’s career promise and success, the very things McClane’s male ego couldn’t handle. True, they both have their brains blown out, which doesn’t really suggest McClane supports her career advancements. In his defense, he does kind of, sort of try to save them.
This might seem like a lot of allegory for what many consider a simple action film, albeit arguably the greatest in movie history. Die Hard’s enduring legacy suggests it’s more than just an action blockbuster. The movie made hundreds of millions of dollars, spawned too many sequels, was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. That’s because Die Hard is about something deeper than wrangling bad guys and uttering cool catchphrases (yippee-ki-yay, mofos!). It's about the human heart and how it must sometimes pump with adrenaline and courage against the worst odds, especially when we are to blame for the heartbreak we cause to our most cherished loved ones. That hurt requires more than a mumbled, “I’m sorry.” Die Hard stands as tall as the Nakatomi Plaza as an example of how action speaks louder than words.
Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and Twentieth Century Fox present the 30th anniversary of Die Hard at theaters nationwide today. The showings include specially-produced commentary from Turner Classic Movies.