Every December, there are certain things you can rely on. It’s A Wonderful Life. Sappy TV ads by retailers and brands that will pull on your heart-strings. The festive double edition of Radio Times (which I will religiously trawl through with a highlighter pen). And the debate to end all debates: is Die Hard a Christmas film?
The argument has raged on for years. Bruce Willis, the movie’s leading man, says it isn’t. Steven E de Souza, who co-wrote the screenplay, says it is.
It almost doesn’t matter which side of the fence you sit on.* Die Hard is a great film and it’s one that I watch pretty much every Christmas. It’s on one of Sky’s movie channels pretty much every other day at the moment. I’ve managed to catch it twice already over the past two weeks.
The golden age of action films
It’s hard to believe Die Hard turned 30 this year. The 1980s was arguably the golden age of blockbuster action movies. The decade created action megastars out of Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, The Running Man, so many others), Sylvester Stallone (the Rambo series), Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon, Mad Max), Sigourney Weaver (Alien) and some chap named Harrison Ford, who added the iconic Indiana Jones to some character he played in an obscure space opera about a rebellion against an evil empire. The technology was advanced enough to create genuine spectacle but not so advanced that all the magic is created via CGI rather than practical effects.
In the middle of it all came a Christmas-based movie – released in the height of summer – about an ordinary New York cop caught up in extraordinary circumstances, starring an actor known at the time only for the comedy detective show Moonlighting. Indeed, the studio had so many doubts about Willis’s box office bankability – the role of John McClane was originally turned down by a slew of actors including Schwarzenegger, Gibson, Ford, Richard Gere and Nick Nolte – that he wasn’t even featured on early promotional posters when the film was released.
The rest, as they say, is history. Die Hard was a huge hit, spawning four sequels and launching Willis’s career as a box-office star, including such notable entries as The Sixth Sense, Armageddon, 12 Monkeys and
Hudson Hawk Pulp Fiction.
Die Hard was also the first film appearance of the late Alan Rickman, who played terrorist leader Hans Gruber. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary film casting a balding TV comic actor and a complete unknown as its hero and villain. But that’s what happened here – and it all turned out rather well in the end.
As an action movie, once it gets going Die Hard doesn’t let up for a second, piling on one big action scene after another as McClane – the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time – overcomes overwhelming odds to foil Gruber and his gang’s audacious robbery attempt.
Ask someone to name a scene from the film and odds are they will name one of two. There is the first appearance of McClane’s catchphrase, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf****r”:
And then there is the climactic death of Gruber as he falls in slow-motion from a window ledge of the Nakatomi building – the scene which launched a thousand memes.
As Christmas films go, Die Hard is certainly not Elf. It’s about as far removed from PG-rated family entertainment as Piers Morgan is from middle-of-the-road opinions. But it’s still an all-time Christmas classic and one that forms a key part of my (and many others’) holiday season. Yippee-ki-yay …
* By the way, just to be clear: Die Hard is most definitely a Christmas movie, despite its less than festive plot. It takes place on Christmas Eve. It features the seasonal classics Winter Wonderland and Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, plus Run-DMC’s Christmas In Hollis. And you will even hear sleigh bells in some of the musical cues. Ignore what Bruce Willis says – would you trust the word of someone who sees dead people? **
** Sorry, I couldn’t resist The Sixth Sense reference.