• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

I don’t often weigh in on cinema classics. It’s not often I feel like I’ve got something to say that hasn’t already been said and examined and debated by umpteen millions of people who actually went to film school. But in light of the upcoming holiday season, there’s one ongoing debate that I feel compelled to weigh in on.

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

Well, the obvious place to start is in asking what a Christmas movie is. Is it a movie that comes out between Thanksgiving and New Year’s? Well, Die Hard was released in mid-July of 1988, so that logic would classify it as a summer blockbuster. But it doesn’t track. That logic does not in any way account for the multitude of awards contenders that come out at the end of every year without any kind of pretense as part of the holiday canon.

Is a Christmas movie a family picture? That feels reductive. Christmas has come to be a massively complicated subject involving a great many conflicting emotions. There should be room in cinema to discuss these issues in a mature way. (For instance, as with Violent Night, Anna and the Apocalypse, Carol, and other latter-day alternative Christmas classics.) For the same reason, I’d dismiss the notion that a Christmas movie needs to have Santa, snowmen, the nativity, or any other symbols in the mercurial poly-cultural mishmash of festive iconography.

Is it a movie that takes place around Christmastime? That’s a loaded question. To paraphrase Lewis Black, Christmas is a beast that cannot be fed. It’s such a cultural juggernaut, such an all-consuming force of nature that it’s hopelessly inescapable throughout the last two months of the year. In real life and in fiction, literally nothing takes place on or around Christmas that isn’t affected by it in some way. The freaking Gavle goat is a tradition that makes no sense, but put it up every year around Christmas and it still makes no fucking sense, but we all pretend it has something to do with the Yuletide anyway. As such, I’m not sure that’s a reliable metric.

Instead, I prefer to think that a Christmas movie is any film in which the holiday setting is inextricably hardwired into the film itself. It’s a film in which the plot, the themes, the characters, the most iconic moments, and other such intrinsic factors are so closely associated with Christmas that it couldn’t take place at any other time of year and remain the same movie.

Does that fit Die Hard?

Well, the film takes place at Christmas, but it also takes place in Los Angeles. The City of Angels is so famously sunny year-round that there’s no snow or warm clothes or much of any sign that it takes place in winter. I need hardly add that John McClane is an action hero for all seasons (as proven in the sequels) and Hans Gruber would be just as much a stone-cold criminal mastermind badass any day of the week.

And of course we can’t forget the most glaring factor: It’s an action movie. This is a movie about people blowing up buildings and killing each other with guns, and its most iconic line is an F-bomb. On the surface, there’s not much here in the festive spirit of peace on earth and goodwill toward all.

Perhaps more importantly, what makes Die Hard such a great action movie doesn’t really have much of anything to do with Christmas. What makes Die Hard such a great action movie is in how deceptively intelligent it is. Contrary to first impressions, John McClane is not Stallone or Schwarzenegger or any other action movie hero who goes in shooting and asks questions never. If anything, it’s the LAPD Deputy Chief fuckwit and the two asshole federal agents who charge in without thinking and consistently get their asses kicked because of it.

By contrast, while McClane is not a genius by any stretch, he’s street-smart enough to accurately read the situation and problem-solve in ways so foreign to the criminal mastermind that Gruber can’t account for him. Time and again, McClane repeatedly wins out because he’s savvy enough to know when to fight, when to hide, when to assess the situation, and when to bait Gruber and his goons into making a mistake. McClane is at his most cinematic when he’s swinging from an exploding rooftop at the end of a fire hose, but he’s at his best when he thinks on his (bare, bloody) feet. That kind of intelligence is timeless, and it’s enough to elevate any decent action film into a great one, regardless of setting.

There’s a lot about Die Hard that doesn’t necessarily require the Christmas setting to work quite as well. But let’s look closer, shall we?

Easily the most vital holiday factor is the plot. It’s been argued many times and many ways that Die Hard is a Christmas movie because it takes place during an office Christmas party. That’s only half the point. By far the more important point is that Die Hard could only have taken place during an office Christmas party.

An indispensably crucial element of Hans Gruber’s heist was to get all the Nakatomi staff in one room and off their guard. When else could he have done that? During a retirement party or some similar office function? Maybe, but then Holly wouldn’t have invited her estranged husband to be at the party, he wouldn’t have been welcomed to a corporate function, and he wouldn’t have wanted to come anyway. Remember, we’re talking about a husband/wife couple who had such a disastrous falling-out, both of whom are so devoted to their respective careers, that they remain on opposite ends of the goddamn country. It’s hard enough to believe that she would invite him to fly across the continent to join her for an office party full of people he doesn’t know and has nothing in common with, and harder still to believe he’d take up that invitation. Only during Christmas — a time of making merry with family and new friends alike — could this be remotely plausible.

Then we have the iconography. The giant stuffed bear. The holiday-themed packing tape that made the climactic reversal possible. “Now I have a machine gun, HO HO HO.” Yes, the movie would’ve worked without these moments. Yes, the film has plenty of iconic lines and moments that have nothing to do with festive imagery (crawling in the vent with a lighter, the Nakatomi rooftop explosion, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”, etc.). But even so, there’s something about that bit of eggnog flavoring that makes those moments into something truly memorable and unique.

Yes, the climax would’ve been every bit as awesome if McClane had strapped the pistol to his back with plain old packing tape. But literally any other action movie could do that. Only freaking Die Hard would turn a “Seasons Greetings” message into a killshot.

Then there’s the “Ode to Joy” leitmotif that follows our villains throughout the movie. Is “Ode to Joy” a Christmas song? No, not necessarily. But the song was specifically built around finding euphoria in the Christian divine, well in keeping with many other Christmas carols. Even without translating the lyrics, that sentiment still somehow carries over with an impact that isn’t quite felt any other time of year.

Put simply, if Die Hard had taken place in mid-July, would the filmmakers still have used the “Ode to Joy” leitmoif? Would that music have hit the same way if they had? I don’t think so.

And then we have the themes of the film. Hans Gruber could talk about miracles any other time of the year, but he’d have no good reason to without the Christmas setting. John, Holly, and Powell all want to get home to their families, and that would be more than enough motivation for any time of year. But getting back home to their families for Christmas is another deal entirely.

But even more than all of that, there’s the factor of socioeconomic class. Consider that the entire freaking movie is set in the opulent Nakatomi Plaza, though almost all of the film’s action takes place in the floors that are still barren, ugly, and under construction. Thus the beautiful tower is repeatedly shown to be a hollow facade. I need hardly add that Nakatomi Plaza is gradually destroyed for our enjoyment from start to finish. There’s an argument to be made that in the defacing and destruction of Nakatomi Plaza, the film is effectively burning corporate wealth and excess in effigy.

Moreover, it’s important to pay attention to the emphasis that the film places on wardrobe and costuming. It means a lot that blue-collar hero John McClane goes through the entire movie in an undershirt with no shoes on. Especially in contrast with Hans Gruber, who makes a point of showing off how much he knows and likes about men’s fashion.

As a general rule, anyone in this movie who wears a suit is inherently untrustworthy. The one major exception is Holly herself, but she’s the only noteworthy female character in this whole movie and she’s in a class of her own. Holly proves herself to be a remarkably independent woman who uses her wits and authority as best anyone could reasonably hope for in this scenario. Even so, we can’t forget that Holly’s crowning achievement, the action that directly landed the final killing blow against Gruber, was Holly giving up her expensive shiny Rolex.

I suppose an exception could also be made for Mr. Takagi, but he gets killed off in virtually no time and his martyrdom didn’t really accomplish much aside from putting Holly in charge.

Those exceptions aside, we’ve got Hans Gruber, Dwayne T. Robinson of the LAPD, Agents Johnson and Johnson of the FBI, Richard Thornburg, and of course Harry Ellis. All men in suits, all of whom are only out for their own personal wealth and glory. These are men who think only of themselves, to whom everyone else is only a disposable pawn to suit their interests, fundamentally incapable of recognizing their own errors and flaws, all ultimately defeated in humiliating fashion because of their own hubris.

Repeatedly, the filmmakers show much more respect toward the blue-collar grunts. Yes, the obvious examples are John McClane and Al Powell, to say nothing of the plucky novice chauffeur Argyle. But even at the level of anonymous background extras, the filmmakers consistently show more respect toward the hard-working cutthroat burglars than the drunken worthless Nakatomi employees. Consider how much we know about Theo (the computer ace with a snarky sense of humor) and the Karl/Tony pair of brothers, as opposed to literally of the SWAT agents sent in to breach Nakatomi. And even then, McClane goes out of his way to save the hapless SWAT team from getting killed when he probably wouldn’t lift a finger to save the Deputy Chief.

In short, what we’ve got here is a clear class divide between the haves and have-notes. What does that have to do with Christmas? On the one hand, not much. Class disparity is an evergreen topic that’s relevant regardless of time period. On the other hand, class disparity has been inextricably tied to Christmas since goddamn Charles Dickens. The traditional holiday canon is loaded to the rafters with stories about coming home for Christmas and railing against the capitalist pressures of the season. (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation comes immediately to mind.) In its own twisted and demented way, this is just an action movie variation on the same theme.

Put simply, you can take Die Hard out of Christmas, but you can’t take Christmas out of Die Hard. Without the holiday trappings, Die Hard is a perfectly fun and intelligent action movie. But it’s those same holiday trappings that elevate the plot, themes, and iconography into something unforgettably unique. I expect that Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman still would’ve had long and prosperous careers if this movie had taken place at any other time of year, but Die Hard wouldn’t have remained one of either actor’s most beloved films over 35 years later.

Sorry, Mr. Willis, but with all due respect, Die Hard is absolutely a Christmas movie.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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