directed by john mctiernan ; starring bruce willis, alan rickman, bonnie bedalia
3 out of 5 white halls decked with red terrorist blood
When dickens wrote a christmas carol, did he know he was creating a legacy? That he was laying down a standard so stifling that all subsequent christmas stories would be forced to follow the scrooge foxtrot step for step? Did it occur to him as he penned the ghost of christmas present that he was a building an archetype to define christmas charity and transformation? That, henceforth, all christmas orphans’ pathetic appeal would be judged against tiny tim’s abject, sniffling persona? Or did he simply round out the manuscript with a grunt and think to himself, ‘ten thousand copies at a quid each...yeah, should do.’?
I like to think that could dickens see us now, with our myriad mutations of his book, he would feel a small pang of kinship. Whether jimmy stewart’s suicide attempt, jack skellington’s hostile holiday takeover, or robert downey jr making out with val kilmer, christmas stories are recognizable by their commonality to dickens’ scrooge scared straight (original working title). Glancing over the canon, a few necessary and sufficient conditions---i.e. christmas tale pro forma [adjusts bowtie pretentiously]---emerge: takes place at christmastime, has a christmasy soundtrack, and---crucially---the protagonist experiences a transformation on the order of miserly to charitable. So armed, let’s strike out to answer the question dickens scholars have debated for decades: is die hard a christmas movie?
Christmastime? Check. It has plenty of tinsel. John mcclane (bruce willis) decks the halls amid christmas trees, santa hats, and good cheer. His wisecracks (squeezing through an air vent and remarking to no one, ‘now I know how a tv dinner feels’) give a merry, cheesy tone to what might otherwise have been just a gameface action movie. For a story about german terrorists holding thirty debauched office workers hostage at their holiday party, it’s surprisingly upbeat. There’s a death toll, but, hey, it’s christmas. Lighten up. And in fact, even though its script is watertight, there may not be a single moment of actual drama aside from the final standoff---resolved by a makeshift, candystriped, packing tape holster. How festive is that?
What’s perhaps unique to die hard is how mcclane weaponizes the christmas spirit to wage psychological warfare against hans (alan rickman) and co. Other movies have anthropomorphized the holiday (kiss kiss bang bang, for instance, harnesses the giving spirit to highlight robert downey jr’s general shmuckitude), but only die hard uses santa as an active knight on the battlefield. Memorably, see mcclane’s communiqué to the terrorists, written on the body of his first casualty, ‘now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.’ The first step to defeating your enemies is ensuring they have a holly, jolly day.
Soundtrack? Well, allow me to echo the limo driver, argyle (dev’voreaux white). When mcclane asks him if he could play some christmas music in the limo, argyle replies, ‘man, this is christmas music.’ Cue run dmc, christmas in hollis. Double check.
Transformation? An academic named paul davis, in literary history: retelling a christmas carol: text and countertext (no, I did not read it), describes scrooge as, ‘a protean figure always in the process of transformation.’ There’s an element of repentance in his change from penny-pinching to turkey-giving. In his vision of the future, the ghost of christmas yet to come reveals his own funeral, barren of mourners except for a few businessmen there for the free lunch. Mcclane receives no such dose of existential terror. Maybe if a ghost had seen fit to show him the deadly tedium and eye-gouging predictability of a good day to die hard, he might’ve retired his badge and devoted himself to a life of nonviolent resistance. Hippie ki yay, motherfucker.
In the mythology of die hard, the core tenet is that john mcclane doesn’t start the fight. He’s the man who beats his enemies on their turf, after they drag him onto it. A die hard movie isn’t about a protagonist reframing the rules of engagement. He’s not james bond, slicker and more resourceful than dr no. He’s not dumbledore, exploiting voldemort’s disdain for touchyfeely magic. He is john mcclane, who prevails by an alchemical combination of grit and luck. Always a step behind, always inflicted upon, winning anyway. This endurance, this talent for finding himself in the heart of the storm, precludes change. To paraphrase led zepplin, this movie remains the same. Throughout the series, mcclane is stubbornly anti-protean, which is precisely why we love him.
In the end, ebenezer scrooge learned the importance of goodwill and that tightfisted assholery gets you an indifferent death. In die hard’s denouement, what did john mcclane learn? Sometimes bad things happen.