You hear it every year, the refrain of the party poopers who want to ruin everyone’s fun: “Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie.” While no Christmas Season is ever short of Grinches, this year in particular seems to be bringing the wassail Nazis out of the woodwork, and Die Hard is their target, as always; they say it only happens to take place at Christmas but could just as easily be set at any time of the year. I imagine they mean all non-traditional Christmas movies; Die Hard is where they focus, likely because it’s the one most often mentioned, and it’s got the highest status, being universally recognized as one of the greatest action movies of all time, if not the greatest.
Of course, there’s no reason anyone can’t love both Die Hard and It’s a Wonderful Life, and all Christmas movies in between, but that’s never enough for some people. They can’t be a winner if someone else isn’t a loser, and all the off-beat Christmas movies have to go. I’ve been writing about some of the off-kilter Christmas movies this year (as I have in the past), but those were mostly just for fun. Now I’m sick and tired of being lectured by snobs who look down on action movies as a matter of course, calling them dumb and empty spectacles; it’s an easy criticism, devoid of any kind of thought or analysis – in fact, it comes precisely because people refuse to even bother to think about these movies beyond the ‘splodies.
Die Hard is a Christmas movie. In fact, so is Die Hard 2. They both take place at Christmas, but they also have themes, subtext and settings that function as analogies for the trappings of the Christmas season. And here’s why…
(Part of me would prefer to just raise the finger twixt index and ring and say, “That’s why,” but I’ll endeavor to put my aggravation aside and be more thoughtful.)
*Spoilers for Die Hard and Die Hard 2*
I want to start off with a quote from Shane Black, the king of Christmas action movies (who, incidentally, has nothing to do with Die Hard, although I’ll bet he watches it every Christmas), taken from an interview he did for Iron Man 3. When asked why he sets his movies at Christmas, part of his answer is:
“I think there’s a universal sense at Christmas of a potential for possibilities; everyone stops and takes stock at Christmas of where their lives are, where they’ve come, and where they’ve been. That to me seems appropriate for people who are about to encounter the most climactic event in their lives.”
Is this not true of John McClane in Die Hard? He comes to California – which, like any good New Yorker, he hates – because it’s Christmas and he wants to see if there’s a chance he can put his family back together. His wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, who doesn’t get enough credit for her great work in these movies; Holly is one of the most authentically New York characters I’ve ever seen, possibly in part because Bedelia herself is from NYC) took a huge job in L.A. during the summer, they had a big fight because he didn’t want to move, they – as McClane will once again say in Die Hard with a Vengeance (which is not a Christmas movie, but still amazing and the last Die Hard movie ever made; your life will be much happier if you trust me on this) – “sort of separated,” and McClane hasn’t seen his wife or kids in months. But, as Shane Black suggests, Christmas is a time for self-reflection and McClane decides to set his pride aside and come visit his family.
But McClane’s pride is wounded when he sees that Holly is using her maiden name as opposed to her married one, and they have a repeat of their fight from earlier in the year. McClane immediately regrets it, even though he’s kind of right, and that’s important: Holly, too, is at fault, maybe not as much as John is, but she’s also guilty of petty power plays like denying his name. Underneath these walls of pride they’ve erected, they still love each other and want to rebuild their family; they just have to get over themselves long enough to reconcile.
That’s where Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, in his first film role!) comes in. Hans, in addition to being one of the greatest villains in movie history, is the catalyst that forces John and Holly to let go of their animosity and see what’s really important. A squabble at a Christmas party is now a life or death hostage situation, and they may never get another chance to say “I love you,” which is what they should’ve said the second they saw each other again. When he’s at his weakest point, bleeding from his feet after barely escaping Hans and his second-in-command Karl (Alexander Godunov) with his life, McClane asks Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to find Holly if he doesn’t make it and tell her that he loves her, a desperate plea to give her in death what he was too stubborn to give her when he had the chance. John McClane isn’t just fighting to save his wife; he’s fighting to save his marriage, his family.
But he’s not the only one with regrets. Holly fights for that same thing; she doesn’t trade bullets with the bad guys like John does, but she uses her own kind of subterfuge to protect him while he tries to rescue her. She tells Hans that her last name is Gennaro – “Ms. Gennaro” – using what was once a weapon against John as a shield to keep him safe from his nemesis. When Ellis (Hart Bochner, the perfect corporate creep) derides McClane for fighting the terrorists (“What does he think he’s doing!?”) Holly defends the man she’s spent the past several months insulting. (“His job.”) Even more importantly, Ellis suggests that John belongs in New York – away from Holly and the kids – and she once more defends his presence, in doing so citing the failure of her boss at the company to protect them (“Tell that to Takagi”), effectively declaring her family, including John, more valuable than her work.
While they don’t have big parts in the narrative, the McClane children are all over this movie. In the beginning, daughter Lucy asks Holly if John will be “coming home,” as opposed to “visiting,” indicating that the kids still believe they’re a family, and Holly’s response seem to confirm she does too. (“We’ll see what Santa and Mommy can do.”) Later, John asks Powell if he has any kids, then says he hopes to see his own children “swinging on a jungle gym with Al Jr. someday.” John says this while looking at pictures of his family in his wallet; both of these pictures have the kids in them, because they are ever present in John’s mind, along with Holly. The children are also in the picture Holly slams down in frustration in the beginning of the movie, the same picture she desperately wants to keep hidden from Hans, lest he find out it’s her husband who’s been killing off his henchmen (and the same picture as one of the ones in John’s wallet); John and Holly are not the only ones in Hans Gruber’s crosshairs, should he get out of Nakatomi alive and decide he wants revenge on the McClane family. The kids are then exploited by fame-hungry newsman Richard Thornburg (80s jerkface extraordinaire William Atherton) and put all over TV as the human face of the hostage crisis; this newscast is also what gives Holly away to Hans. And when Holly, as is established in the next movie, knocks Thornburg’s teeth out at the end, it’s in defense of her children, while holding onto her husband; this is an important moment, because it’s John doing what he refused to do months back, letting Holly take a position of strength while he supports her, and it’s done in the service of their kids, to protect the whole McClane family as opposed to just John and Holly as a couple.
Die Hard has to be set at Christmas; none of this would mean as much if McClane were coming for Labor Day or some such. What else would fit? One of his kids’ birthdays? That would be about the kids, not Holly. Holly’s birthday? That would be about her and not the kids. John and Holly’s anniversary? Again, this would leave out the kids. The only other holiday that even comes close to making sense is Thanksgiving, but the characters aren’t thankful for what they have; they’re regretful for what they’ve lost and determined to get it back. That kind of gumption comes at Christmas (or possibly New Year’s, but again, that’s not so much a family holiday and would leave out the kids). And people who want to tug at this string invite questions like, “Why couldn’t George Bailey see what a wonderful life he’s led on Arbor Day?”
There would also be no Christmas party at Nakatomi, and while terrorists could seize a building pretty much anytime they want, the party invites the lax security that makes it easier for them. It also allows for John McClane to be in the building, as significant others attend their spouse’s office Christmas parties all the time, and are often as uncomfortable among their romantic partner’s coworkers as John is here; this adds to his alienation, both from Holly and from being in California. She’s a part of this whole new world now, a world that doesn’t involve him, and he doesn’t like it; that makes his risking his life to protect it all the more poignant.
Then there are the instances of Christmas Spirit throughout the movie. When Holly tells Lucy “We’ll see what Santa and Mommy can do,” she’s invoking the idea of a Christmas miracle bringing the McClane family together again, something she clearly wants as much as her kids but won’t allow herself to get her hopes up in achieving, which is why she slams the picture down. It isn’t coincidence that Hans is the one to pick the picture back up; aside from being the villain of the movie, Hans is the one whose actions bring them back together, who makes them take stock of their lives and decide their family is what’s important. Hans, funnily enough, also invokes Christmas miracles when telling his computer expert lackey Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) not to worry about the final lock on the Nakatomi vault; even the bad guy has the Christmas Spirit, and he brings that Spirit out in McClane, who puts a Santa hat and the phrase “Ho-Ho-Ho” on the first terrorist he kills. Powell hums Christmas carols in his opening scenes (by the way, rarely is a character introduced as perfectly as Al Powell is in Die Hard); the way he does so reminds me of my dad, forgetting the lines and making up his own as the song goes on (“But nobody has no place to go…”). Even Holly’s name brings to mind something indelibly linked with Christmas. A lot of these things may not be strictly necessary to the plot, but they add much of the humanity to the film and help bring the characters to life. Die Hard is completely wrapped in Christmas, like a present under the tree, or a dead terrorist who’s been relieved of his machine gun.
Die Hard 2
Where is the story to go now that the McClanes are a family again? Die Hard 2 once more has John McClane fighting to save his wife, among many other innocent people being held hostage, but this time it’s the perils of holiday travel that get the focus. The action takes place at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C., as John is waiting for Holly’s plane to land so they can spend Christmas with her parents. Before the plot begins in earnest, John recounts the difficulties of coordinating a holiday, as he’s staying with a pair of in-laws who don’t particularly care for him. (In an extended cameo, Powell relates to John’s in-law troubles, highlighting the universality of that contention, even if he limits it to cops while talking to his brother-in-blue.) Making matters worse, John has borrowed his in-laws’ car to pick up Holly and, as the movie is opening, the car is towed. He also tells Holly that the kids “are about to lose their minds from all the sugar your parents are giving them,” so the rambunctiousness of children at Christmas is another headache. John’s solution to this is for Holly and him to check into a hotel for the night once she lands, leaving the hyper-active kids with her parents and having a romantic evening before tackling Christmas together.
Then, amidst a blizzard, Colonel Stuart (William Sadler, underrated because he had the unenviable task of following a villain like Hans Gruber) hijacks all the planes flying into Dulles and threatens to crash them one by one unless his demands are met. Take the danger and machine guns out of this and what we’re left with is an interminable flight delay on Christmas Eve. There’s even a snowstorm, so the reality is not too hard to imagine. McClane spends most of the movie feeling powerless to help Holly, which is exactly how he would feel if it were simply a mundane delay (albeit without the crippling fear that he’ll never see her again). The airport staff are useless, rude or just plain nuts, and the massive crowds make everything that much more stressful, something to which we can all relate; when McClane takes charge and tries to stop Stuart and land the planes himself, he’s living out our fantasy of doing the same when we have to just twiddle our thumbs and wait.
Colonel Stuart is in a similar boat to McClane, in that he’s also waiting for a flight to land. In his case, the passenger he’s there to meet, General Esperanza (Franco Nero), is under arrest and about to be transferred to the U.S. Marshals waiting in the terminal; he, too, is being inconvenienced by air travel. Stuart’s real life avatar is that unruly person who doesn’t know how to wait and starts causing trouble, to everyone’s disdain; he argues with the staff, he insists on being attended to immediately, he necessitates security’s involvement and he makes the entire ordeal even more painful for everyone. Stuart takes control of the planes in an effort to make sure his travel needs come first, even if it means no else gets where they’re going.
Again, this story had to take place on Christmas. The day before Thanksgiving is technically the busiest travel day of the year, as opposed to Christmas Eve, but Thanksgiving wouldn’t have been able to provide the snowstorm. Also, having the McClanes travel across the country to spend a holiday with the Gennaros makes a lot more sense for Christmas than Thanksgiving. And, as with Die Hard, Christmas is used to add a little sparkle to the characters, though admittedly not as much as in the first one. Colonel Stuart’s henchmen disguise their guns and equipment as Christmas gifts and Carmine (Dennis Franz, who is hysterical) is so stressed because of the sheer amount of special arrangements for different groups Christmas brings, like the petting zoo transporting reindeer. The horror of Stuart’s crashing the British plane is felt even more because of the setting; all these children, couples, grandparents and everyone else on the plane won’t be spending Christmas with their families thanks to him. The camaraderie and spirit of fellowship people feel at Christmas is also important, as it eventually cuts through the frustration of the travel difficulties and gets everyone to work together (which, in a Die Hard movie, means everyone finally listens to McClane); Carmine, who has been at odds with McClane for the entire film, finally tearing up McClane’s parking ticket and saying, “What the hell? It’s Christmas!” is the perfect payoff to their contention, and it wouldn’t work nearly as well without the Christmas angle. Like its predecessor, Die Hard 2 is a Christmas movie, through and through.
Die Hard and Christmas go together like Santa and reindeer, eggnog and nutmeg, and action movies and squibs. I’ve already had my Die Hard night this year, although I may try to watch them again if I get a chance. I know many others have either watched them already or plan to before the season is over. And if you’re not one of those folks, that’s fine; but don’t try to ruin other people’s fun just because it’s not your preferred way to celebrate the Season. It’s not very Christmassy; and if that’s not enough, ask Hans Gruber if it’s a good idea to mess with John McClane at Christmas.