There is a lot of talk about what film is the greatest ever made. There’s some poll or something every year from a bunch of snooty film critics where they all vote on what the best film ever made is, I think it’s the American Film Institute. Usually it’s “Citizen Kane” or “Gone With the Wind” or some such (personally I hate “Gone With the Wind” but that is a discussion for another time), and most recently it was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
With all due to respect to these films (except “Gone With the Wind” which I hate), none of these is the greatest film of all time.
No. There is only one film worthy of being dubbed The Greatest Film of All Time.
That film was not made by Orson Welles.
Or Alfred Hitchcock.
That film, my friends, is DIE HARD.
That the Greatest Film of All Time also happens to be the Greatest Christmas Film of All Time is a coincidence, but a well-timed one since today is Christmas Eve.
I am serious when I say this, by the way. I have yet to see a movie that is a better combination of action, drama, heart, great acting, writing, and filmmaking. I heaped a lot of praise on Lethal Weapon last week, and I do dearly love that film, but there is no film I love more than Die Hard. If someone told me that I could only have one movie to watch for the rest of my life, that movie would be Die Hard, hands down. I would take my DVD of Die Hard with me if I had to go on the run from the zombie horde. If the world ended tomorrow (like it was supposed to last week) I would defend my DVD of Die Hard from the roving packs of Mad Max-style bandits.
But let’s start at the beginning. Die Hard opens with a plane landing at an airport. A man’s hand uncomfortably grips an armrest, and it’s clear he doesn’t like flying very much. “You don’t like flying much, do you?” the man seated next to him asks. “What would give you that idea?” the first man replies.
And right away we have learned some things. We have learned that A) the main character (John McClane, played of course by Bruce Willis) doesn’t like flying, which would imply that maybe he doesn’t do so well with heights, and B) he’s sarcastic. He’s a wise-ass. Both of these elements of his personality will appear again later. In only two lines of dialogue and about one minute into the film, we have already learned some things. And the great thing is, we don’t even necessarily realize it at the time. The significance of these little pieces of characterization doesn’t really sink in until later.
And to top it all off, it is a relatable situation. Lots of people out there don’t like flying, and even more don’t like heights (I would be one of those). I’ve gotten used to flying, but it always helps to not think about the fact that you’re in a metal tube several miles up in the air, far higher than even the tallest building in the world. It is an understandable and relatable fear.
This is also a conversation that real people could actually have. I’m all about dialogue that people would actually have, and these two lines are funny and realistic.
Die Hard is also very much a portrait of its time. When McClane stands up to get his luggage out of the overhead compartment, his fellow passenger sees that he has a gun in a shoulder holster. “It’s okay, I’m a cop,” McClane assures him. “Trust me, I’ve been doing this for eleven years.” He takes an oversized teddy bear out of the overhead compartment and eyes the attractive flight attendant as he makes his way off the plane. He then lights up a cigarette pretty much as soon as he enters the terminal.
We all know that these days, there is no way in hell you could just bring a loaded gun on a plane, and there is also no way in hell you could just light up a cigarette at the baggage claim without an airport attendant politely but firmly asking you to take it outside (I assume, at least, since I don’t smoke). But back in 1988, you could get away with a lot of stuff that are big no-nos nowadays.
So in about five minutes, we have learned that our main character is a cop, and has been for a while, he’s a smartass, he smokes, he doesn’t like flying, and the teddy bear implies that he has kids. If the bear is a present, we can also guess that it is either Christmas or his kids’ birthday. This is more characterization in one fraction of the movie’s 130-minute running time than other protagonists get in entire movies. By way of comparison, I wrote a while ago about the remake of “Total Recall,” and can you name one single aspect of Colin Farrell’s character’s personality? Me neither, because there really wasn’t any (personality, that is). Before the movie has even really started, before we even know the main character’s name, we see him as a human being. He has personality, he has vices, he has fears, and the look at the pretty flight attendant tells us that he’s human like the rest of us (especially if we noticed the wedding ring on his finger).
Whew. I promise I won’t go that in-depth into every scene in the movie, because if I did we would be here all day. I just really want to express how much this movie conveys in the opening scene, since it really encapsulates the style of the film.
Wow, nearly a thousand words and we’re not out of the opening credits. I’m going to have to rein myself in a bit. I do so love this film.
Okay. Turns out our friend John McClane is a New York cop, and he’s in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife at her office Christmas party. She’s a high-ranking executive at the Nakatomi Corporation, a decidedly white-collar sort of establishment. It’s clear that they’ve had a bit of a falling-out and haven’t seen each other for several months. She took the kids and moved to LA to pursue her career, while he stayed in New York because “I had a six-month backlog of New York scumbags, can’t just pack up and go that easy,” as he tells Argyle, his talkative limo driver. Argyle sees through this and calls him out, saying that he (McClane) didn’t think his wife’s job would pan out, so why bother to move across the country? McClane does not confirm this or deny it, he simply says, “Like I said, Argyle, you’re very fast.”
So he is having some marital issues, but there is clearly still affection between him and his wife Holly, shown when they meet up at her office Christmas party. The way she pauses and simply says “John,” conveys a lot about their relationship. They’ve missed each other but there are still clearly some issues between them. This is seen when he becomes angry with her for using her maiden name instead of her married name, and it’s apparent that there is still quite a ways to go for both of them.
He chastises himself for his outburst after Holly leaves the room, knowing that his short temper got the better of him again. He’s a wiseass to be sure, and sometimes that comes back around to bite him. The viewer gets the impression that this sort of thing has happened before. All of this continues to be relatable, and grounded in reality. There are lots of people with marital issues. It happens. John McClane is a character firmly grounded in reality. Some of the Die Hard sequels drifted away from this a bit as the plots grew more outlandish, but the original never forgets its protagonist’s humanity.
And all of this is before the bad guys even show up. And what a bad guy it is. Hans Gruber, as played wonderfully by the great British actor Alan Rickman (best known to American audiences as Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies), is everything John McClane is not: he is cool, calm, and collected where McClane is headstrong and quick to anger. Thinking about Hans Gruber, I am reminded of that one line from “My Fair Lady” where someone is described as “oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor.” That perfectly sums up Hans Gruber. In contrast to some of the more skuzzy-looking members of his crew, Hans is immaculately dressed in suit and tie. He is clearly the brains of the operation: smart, confident, and always in control.
When Hans and his pals crash the party, everyone is taken captive except for good old John McClane, who eludes the bad guys and begins a game of cat and mouse, picking them off one by one, sort of like a reverse slasher movie. The rest of the film follows him as he first tries to get the cops involved, and then has to deal with the monumentally stupid Deputy Chief of Police and two brainless FBI agents. The movie doesn’t skimp on the action either. Director John McTiernan (who also directed “Predator,” one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films) fills it chock-full of shootouts, explosions, and good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat.
Through it all, the tension is palpable, the action intense, and the acting excellent. Willis and Rickman play off each other wonderfully, their characters’ disparate personalities making them perfect adversaries. Hans is cool and collected, John is brash and sarcastic, they are both able to get under each other’s skin. It is also noteworthy that they spend much of the film communicating via radio, and much of the tension builds between them before they have actually met, since they don’t physically meet until late in the film.
It is also surprisingly poignant. The scene where John tells Al the police Sergeant (and only intelligent law enforcement officer in the film) to find his wife and tell her John says he’s sorry always makes me a bit misty. At this point in the film, John has every reason to expect that he won’t make it out of the building alive, and he wants his wife to know that he realizes his mistake in not being more supportive of her. It’s a textbook example of not knowing what you’ve got until you’re afraid you might lose it.
A while ago I wrote about ONE MAN movies, where ONLY ONE MAN can save the day. John McClane is the ultimate ONE MAN. He has only himself to rely on for most of the film (excepting Al the police sergeant, of course) but he’s not Superman. He gets hurt, he bleeds, he is visibly afraid on more than one occasion. All of this adds to the viewer’s liking him, since he gets hurt but he keeps on going. His vulnerability adds to his appeal, making him easy to root for because he seems more like a real person and less like an unstoppable killing machine. He’s a badass, and as a cop it’s safe to say he probably has a few skills most folks on the street would not have, but none of this makes him any less relatable. He is also a textbook everyman, since he really could be just about anybody.
Feel free to disagree with me about this being the best movie ever made. It is my personal best movie ever made at least. I have yet to see a movie that tops this one. It is certainly one of the finest action movies ever made and, like Lethal Weapon, has been often imitated but never equaled. It’s got a relatively simple setup which works to its advantage, it has memorable characters, zippy dialogue, great acting, intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense, lots of heart, and to top it all off, a generous dose of Christmas cheer.
It is, simply put, cinematic Nirvana.
Merry Christmas, everyone.