Sunday, December 27, 2009

Die Hard (1988)

Here's why Die Hard is one of the best Christmas movies ever.

Die Hard
tells a Capra-esque story about a lonely man in a foreign land who just wants to get to his family for Christmas. Not only does the holiday serve as inciting incident (it's what finally uproots our hero from New York City and drags him to California), it's also worth looking into Hans Gruber's selection of the date for his big heist.

Getting off a plane at LAX, John McClane mutters a bemused "California..." under his breath at various points, once upon seeing a blonde bimbo jumping into the arms of her beloved. He's a stranger in a strange land - this provides much of the movie's pathos. McClane doesn't like even setting foot in Los Angeles (I can get behind him on this). When his limo driver Argyle is pressing for his life story, he explains that his wife abandoned him ("She had a good job that turned into a great career", he says) and took the kids to the other side of the country. Why didn't he go with them? He tells Argyle: "I got a six-month backlog of New York scumbags I'm still trying to put behind bars. I can't just pack up and leave that easy."

Obviously, there's more to it than that. A deep rift at least a continent wide has been keeping John from his wife. When he shows up at the Nakatomi tower to meet her at her company's holiday party, he discovers that she has been operating under her maiden name. The film is never explicit about what exactly the company does, and this is key. The closest we get to the inner workings at Nakatomi are when Gruber takes Takagi up to his executive office to shoot him in the head. Here we see some models of various infrastructural projects, and Takagi pledges that his company has always acted altruistically.

But the thing is: Gruber isn't even interested in the company. He's just there for the money. The entire scheme hinges on Gruber's particularly brilliant idea to disguise an extraordinary smash-and-grab as global terrorism. His plan is calculated to a tee and based around a number of circumstantial factors: on Christmas Eve, people are going to be well-lubricated and with their guards down, and the building, still partially under construction anyway, will be mostly empty.

Nakatomi is rich and some theives want to steal their millions of dollars in bonds. That this action can be so easily construed as terrorism - especially post-9/11 - is an essentially American perspective. Gruber is counting on the dumb Americans to get their panties all in a bunch (and most of them do) - it's the misdirection in his great magic trick. He orders the release of political prisoners he read about in a magazine just to confuse the police and buy time.

Of course, Gruber didn't count on John McClane. This is his great failure, and it's one we can fault him for. As Michael Scott so eloquently explained, what makes McClane such a compelling hero (at least in this installment of the franchise) is that he is, in fact, an everyman. He may be a New York City cop, but that doesn't count for much in Los Angeles (even to the LAPD). As one officer says, he might as well be a bartender up there. What counts from McClane is his resolve. Gruber assumed he would be busting up a party full of drunken, coked-up capitalists who would cower in the corner and wait for him to finish his plot. But it's Christmas, man, and John McClane has a family to reunite. Were Gruber not so cynical about Americans at Christmastime, he might've seen this coming.

Christmas is when the magic happens. It's when daddies come home to their daughters and spirits are raised in happy memories and optimism. The Nakatomi company may be Japanese, but Takagi moved to San Diego when he was two years old and built a global corporation. The Tower is built of money that the foreign bad guys want to run off with. Hans Gruber is attacking America the same way Osama Bin Laden did - he may only be a thief, but if you scare somebody you are, effectively, a terrorist. Gruber just has a different motive. He expects that Christmas will be when he can catch us at our most vulnerable (a notion shared by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) but it's also when we are going to fight for our families.

John McClane is cast here as the perfect American hero. He's a cowboy. The Nakatomi company is filled with globe-hopping traders, but this New York City cop is purebred. He's a die hard, and if he didn't have his police training he'd still be resourceful and willing to stand and fight to the death. Lucy McClane, his young daughter, appears twice in the film to ask when her daddy is coming home. Terrorist or no terrorist, you get home to that girl for Christmas.

McClane does suspect he might die. He knows he's mortal but he's willing to make the sacrifice if it means saving the day. At his lowest, after Hans tells his henchmen to "shoot the glass!" and he gets his feet all cut up, he radios his brother-in-arms down on the ground to deliver a message to his wife.

"I want you to tell her something," he says. He's not even sure what it is yet. This is a great soliloquy: within this beat, McClane realizes that he is sorry. "I want you to tell her that, um ... tell her it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I've been. But, um, that ... that when things started to pan out for her I shoulda been more supportive and I just shoulda been behind her more. Ah, shit. Tell her that ... that she's the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She's heard me saying 'I love you' a thousand times. She never heard me say 'I'm sorry.' I want you to tell her that, Al. I want you to tell her that John said that he was sorry. Okay? You got that, man?"

When the battle is won, John introduces his wife to his compatriot Sgt. Al and he refers to her as "Holly Gennaro", displaying a newfound acceptance of his wife as an independent woman on a career path. When she corrects him - "Holly McClane" - the arc of their relationship is complete. The credits are rolling two minutes later, in which time Al, Argyle, and William Atherton's sniveling Action News reporter Richard Thornburg all get wrap-ups (Al fires his gun again, Argyle busts out of the locked-down parking garage and Thornburg gets one right in the kisser from Mrs. McClane), but the reconciliation of the McClane family is what Die Hard is all about. And what's better for a Christmas story than a man and woman who love each other working out their issues and going home to give Lucy a big stuffed bear?

No comments:

Post a Comment