Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Ralphie Parker. Buddy the Elf. These are just a few characters we often think of when it comes to the holidays.
And then there's John McClane. Okay, maybe not the first name that immediately comes to mind for yuletide splendor and cheer, but definitely with cinematic action and mayhem. Nevertheless, and interestingly, many film buffs consider the 1988 action movie Die Hard a "Christmas classic." Sure, it's set around Christmas time (other movies that have done so include Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, and Batman Returns), as our hero (an NYPD cop) goes to visit his family in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. The real plot, however, gets going when McClane's estranged wife's office building is suddenly taken hostage by a group of German terrorists, while McClane himself slips out unnoticed and becomes the only hope they have.
It's a pretty straightforward and simple story, but in retrospect, Die Hard has a surprisingly strong narrative, along with cast of archetype characters from the hero McClane (Bruce Willis' most iconic role) to the villain Hans Gruber (the late Alan Rickman, in his unforgettable film debut) to the "bride" Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, now also famous for NBC's "Parenthood") to the supportive cop Al (a pre-"Family Matters" Reginald VelJohnson). It also happens to be one of the best structured movies ever written, with excellent examples of a setup, confrontation, and resolution (read Syd Field's book "Screenplay").
|Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman)|
|Holly Gennero McClane (Bonnie Bedelia)|
|Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson)|
What makes John McClane an engrossing and interesting (yet flawed) character is not just the way Bruce Willis portrayed him--as a cocky, smart-alecky everyman in a situation he didn't ask for--but also the fact that this character is a direct contrast to the macho characters of the 1980s (from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Predator hunter to Sylvester Stallone's Rambo to Peter Weller's Robocop). All McClane has are the clothes on his back (pants, undershirt), his gun, and (surprise!) his bare feet. In fact, director John McTiernan insisted that McClane be portrayed as "an everyday, flawed man that rises to the occasion in dire circumstances" (IMDb), even over the holidays. In the series' sequels, however, the character would become more unbelievable and cartoony. Nevertheless, McClane represents the modern-day cowboy, as well as the unconventional hero (or antihero, if you prefer), who does what nobody else will do. Hans Gruber even says to McClane, "So you're just another American who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?" McClane responds by comparing himself to classic western star Roy Rogers.
To be sure, as exhilarating of a movie as it is, Die Hard is also a very violent and profane one (obviously not for everybody), what with it's many pre-9/11 set pieces "with enough explosives and gunfire to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger" (remember the scene with McClane's bare feet and the broken glass?), very brief images of nudity, and, of course, Willis' infamous one-liner. On the other hand, those who are wise and discerning when and if they choose to see/watch it will arguably find some strong narrative and thematic components that counter the typical consumerism of the holidays, and may instead find a flawed character who's more determined than anybody else and tries to restore things, including his relationship with own family. Yippee ki-yay, indeed.