9th December: Die Hard

Image: 20th Century Studios

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 1988

Director: John McTiernan

Writers: Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza

Starring: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman

May contain spoilers.

Short answer: yes, it is a Christmas movie. Long answer: it’s quite complicated really, and I’m not fully sure if it is or not. To assess whether something ‘is a Christmas film’ we first need to decide how we define that genre. There are three criteria that immediately come to mind for how we could define what makes a film Christmas-certified and not just a film that unfolds near Christmas.

  1. The plot is directly impacted by the fact that it is Christmas.
  2. When the Christmas setting is taken away, the film would cease to exist.
  3. The film instils that nebulous ‘Christmassy feeling’ in the audience that is often roughly defined as loving, optimistic, heartwarming and family-oriented.

In my book, if the film does not pass the first one, then it is completely out of contention. You’ve Got Mail or The Godfather, for instance, are great films with scenes that take place over Christmas, but there is nothing especially related to the holidays about the plot or the film in general so they are out. Die Hard does pass this, however, as the fact it is Christmas Eve does impact the film’s plot. New York cop John McClane has gone to see his family for the holidays; his estranged wife Holly is in the middle of a Christmas party; McClane’s achievement is not just to save his wife and many others, but to restore order to the world in time for turkey.

Then we come down to the two trickier criteria. I would say that a film has to fulfil at least one of these two to be really called ‘a Christmas film’. Die Hard undoubtedly fails Number 2. Without the Christmas Eve set-up, the film would still be pretty much the same. All the famous lines, all the action, all the plot mechanics – it would all work just the same if the Christmas party was a charity fundraiser or something similar instead. 

So the big decision comes down to this: is Die Hard ‘Christmassy’? The title, the blood-splattering kneecaps and a not insignificant amount of explosives, say ’No’. The Christmas songs, the focus on family, the happy ending and the underlying importance of selflessness and loving others, say ‘Yes’. Sure, it might not be a conventional festive tale, but John McTiernan’s film does have a warmth and charm come the end of it. Forgetting the death toll, its ending does leave you with the comforting reassurance that everything is alright because Bruce Willis saved the day, so now let’s enjoy Christmas. 

Whether it is a Christmas film or not, one thing is clear about Die Hard: it is near-peerless as an action film. Admittedly, my knowledge of the genre is poor, but this seems to be to be one of the very best examples of it. The key here is how little action there is for a lot of the film. We don’t open with an overblown set-piece, but with little character details about our lead. John McClane is not a superhero who can withstand anything. Instead he is just a tougher version of the average man in the street. He is vulnerable and flawed and therefore we can relate to him and invest in him as a character.

The film’s technique is therefore simple, yet effective. To give us a hero we can quickly latch onto and then put him through all manner of gruelling tasks, all with the end goal of saving the day. Many of us wish we were John McClane a little bit, because when he runs over glass it hurts him just like it hurts everyone else, but he powers on anyway. The action builds and builds to a genuinely thrilling climax, with every moment well-shot, well-scored and well-acted. It’s also perfectly paced and admirably lean. No scene is without importance or entertainment value, a feat most films struggle to replicate.

The reveal that the lovable Sgt. Al Powell is desk-bound having previously accidentally shot a child hasn’t aged well, granted. But it feels like a case of emotional character background designed to elicit sympathy that hasn’t been that well thought through, as opposed to a deliberate statement on police brutality in the United States. The intended effect is for us to feel sympathy for an otherwise heroic, pained and remorseful man, which just falls apart when you stop to question why on Earth he was shooting at a 13-year-old in light so poor he couldn’t see.

This slightly jarring moment aside, Die Hard is so brilliant because of how smoothly it runs. There are so many moving parts to Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay, but they are all juggled impeccably. There’s the relationship between Powell and McClane; the interference of the LAPD; Bonnie’s role as lead hostage; the light relief of Argyle waiting in the car; the tense, almost respectful, back-and-forth between McClane and head baddie Hans Gruber. None of this pulls us away from any other part of the story, the tension never slips, and nothing ever becomes tiresome.

Whether it’s a Christmas film or not, Die Hard is a bloody good watch. Before this my only knowledge of Bruce Willis thumping bad guys was via Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but now I finally get what all the fuss was about. As an action film, Die Hard is almost flawless, so maybe I will watch it every Christmas, whether you lot like it or not.

Where it Ranks

So like I’ve said, whether you actually count Die Hard as ‘A Christmas Film’ is a matter of endlessly debatable opinion. Even I’m not sure where I stand on it, really. However, I have watched it as part of my Christmas Movie Advent Calendar and therefore it needs to be ranked with the rest. With that in mind, there is nowhere else to put Die Hard than at the top. It’s action filmmaking done right, and the best film on this list.

  1. Die Hard
  2. Arthur Christmas
  3. Elf
  4. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  5. Gremlins
  6. Home Alone
  7. Nativity!
  8. The Holiday
  9. The Santa Clause

Andrew Young

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