25 Years After: Die Hard, A Degenerative Retrospective

John McTiernan’s Die Hard opened twenty-five years ago to a mixed reception, receiving both popular praise and critical loathing. Most critics enjoyed the film’s production design but dismissed the film’s excessive qualities, particularly its cheerful stupidity. However, the film did go on to earn four Academy Award nominations and garner several technical awards, serving as a template for many other films, including four sequels.

Die Hard feet poster

Revised Revisionism: an Alternative Poster

Over the years, revisionist critics, industry insiders, and popular audiences have lauded the film as one of the best American-made action films. Because of this sanctifying context, the film neither needs defending from the critical dismissives nor rescuing from revisionist valentines, but there are a few thematic points that Die Hard raises that are worth exploring as a basis for examining its value as a comic (at times, mock), heroic narrative.

To its credit, Die Hard has but a few motives and tasks. Because the narrative generates easy comprehension, there wasn’t a viewer who didn’t notice the conflictual differences between the film’s hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), and the sartorial leader of the robbers cum “terrorists,” Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). On its surface, the film gleefully pits two identities that are antithetical in every aspect—the extraordinary, extemporaneous quasi-every man and the cultivated heist leader who has lethal resources at-the-ready and a well-made plan.

One could argue that the ensuing cat-and-mouse game was really about the conflictive differences between Americans and Europeans—and that McClane’s triumph over the band of not so merry Euro-thieves helped explain the film’s mass appeal to American audiences.

On one interpretive level, this critical approach seems justified. The story does make contrastive distinctions between Americans and Europeans by using the disparate identity models often associated with these different groups of Westerners—the individual-collective distinction—to craft a bloody scrimmage. However, using this distinction alone to interpret Die Hard would be unsatisfying because merely filtering the film through these ideas would obscure many of the film’s ironic statements about these identity models, statements that mock the very individual-collective distinctions the film works to create.

Interestingly, Die Hard argues that the individual-collective taxonomies are categorically too narrow to be serious because they obscure the simple truths about actual human relationships. Die Hard does this? Really. It does.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

West Meets West: Trapped in a Bipolarized Squeeze

Looking for sociological analysis and thematic irony in a meta-action film may seem unpromising, particularly because Die Hard seems to shun nuance in favor of illustrating mere contrasts. The film does engage these identity models, but it does so by mocking its artificial boundaries and by undercutting the mythologizing of heroes and villains. More importantly, the narrative both uses and satirizes the Old-New World binary embodied in the Degeneracy Thesis to comic effect.

On a sun-burnished Christmas Eve, an armed gang crashes a Christmas party thrown by the Nakatomi Corporation in its nearly completed high rise. The gang, led by Gruber, corrals their corporate captives in the conveniently large lobby and works to crack the vault holding hundreds of millions of dollars in Barrow Bonds (shouldn’t bondholders put $640 million worth of bonds in a real bank?). Soon, Gruber discovers that one person is on the prowl, and what follows is an extended and confined chase, one in which the criminals pursue the evasive lawman through the high rise. The film focuses on this obvious irony, and McTiernan and writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (based on a novel by Roderick Thorp) build a trap to see how people act when they are confined, isolated, and squeezed. In a glass tower full of hazards looming around every jagged corner, the hostages, criminals, and cop vie to stay in control of their emotions.

There are several reasons why Die Hard still compels. The individual-collective clash is interesting, and part of the film’s appeal is the verbal jousting between the plain-speaking McClane and the heavily-accented Gruber. Their walkie-talkie dueling is a combat of self-justification, with one trying to outwit the other. But their jousts also function as performative stratagems. Their rhetorical references to their identities are full of misinformation and half-truths, references that willfully mislead, insult, and confuse.

Though these antagonistic exchanges are meant to demonstrate Gruber’s superior intellect and McClane’s practical wisdom, the film’s point is that Gruber’s supremacy is wrongful, and his knowledge of American culture is too superficial for his insults to really hurt, for he’s guilty of the very thing of which he accuses McClane—of being a consumer of pop culture, particularly the mass media, rather than being a true beneficiary of a classical education.[1] In a film textured with ironies, it’s no surprise that the revolutionary Gruber unmasks himself as a bona fide tyrant, a leader who assumes temporary power but has no legitimate claims to authority.

The parry between the cop and heist leader is part of several thematic strands that play on the idea that America, for Europeans, was (is) a place to colonize and plunder.[2] Die Hard fixes itself within the broader European narratives from the 18th-19th centuries that illustrated America as a swamp full of wild natives and lowly immigrants, a place where life degenerates and devolves. Interestingly, these ethnocentric narratives often framed the discovery of the Americas as a disaster for Eurasia.

Die Hard plays on these attitudes in a more modern context (anti-Americanism vs. Euro-trash binaries) when Gruber mocks American culture in comic fashion and manipulates American law enforcement with practiced ease. As Gruber’s Euro-centric gang holds the corporate crowd captive while trying to plunder its wealth, the film frames the European loathing of America as part of its criminal attitudes. This juxtaposition is, perhaps, one reason why Die Hard resonated with Americans in the late 1980s, but, I argue, the film’s implicit and explicit ironies are far more appealing and substantive as an explanation for the film’s rather long legs.

The film purposely composes the individual-collective identity models in a less delineated manner. For example, although Gruber’s phalanx is overwhelmingly European, his gang has American allies. In fact, the chief safe cracker is, by accent and cultural references, an African-American. The security guard who stations the entrance is, again, by accent, an American. And what do we make of Al Leong’s character? Hard to say, but his presence probably is meant to contrast with the captive Asian executives. No doubt, this varied group has its American allies, but we learn quickly that Gruber’s revolutionary ethos is a cover for his criminal activities, for this gang is composed for deceptive purposes, one in which Gruber forsakes social revolution for personal profit.[3] 

In a broader context, this thematic distinction between individualism and collectivism has played an important role in American narratives. Whether the conflict be the gentleman confronting the mob or an individual opposing the conformist will of the majority, American films often illustrate the relentless struggle of the individual to define and perpetuate him or herself. This struggle is often for survival but, more importantly, this struggle is an expression of the individual’s moral identity, an identity often formed in opposition to the hegemony of the group (Stalag 17High Noon, 12 Angry Men, Norma Rae, for instance). But, as this film makes clear, McClane, although separated from the hostages, isn’t totally alone.

His identity, as well, isn’t conceived absent of group formations. The film makes clear that McClane is part of the fraternal order of police, and he is married with two kids. When the heist is enacted, he is, for the most part, cut-off from both.[4] Though Gruber’s gang is governed by greed and martial stratagems, McClane fights neither for country nor his own city; rather, he is staying alive to rescue his wife. Despite their separation, McClane’s loyalties are to his family, and, secondarily, his job. This kind of fidelity, the film argues, one built on love and respect (despite their marital discord), is stronger than a social unit composed by political, corporate, or criminal alliances. After all, Nakatomi is executed. Gruber’s gang is destroyed. McClane and his wife survive.

The story digs deeper into the individual-collective distinction to illustrate the American pre-occupation with how people are connected yet disconnected from each other. This duality is seen in McClane’s relationship with his wife, Holly Generro (Bonnie Bedelia). At the beginning of the film, they spend their reunion rekindling their feelings, feelings that devolve quickly into acrimony. We can tell that each is important to the other, but different ambitions keep them apart. Clearly, this relationship has suffered the consequences of this together-apart duality. This motif is further illustrated by the empathic relationship developed between McClane and Sgt. Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), the officer who strives to assist McClane with information and guidance from the outside.

One interpretation of Powell is that he is McClane’s unsolicited aide-de-camp, but this reading alone doesn’t suffice. Powell maintains a self-contradictory view of the relationship between servitude (as a police officer) and distrust for higher authority (contempt for his inept superiors, too). Powell, as an exemplar of instinct, engages in his own sparring with the bull-headed Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (yes, Paul Gleason, who willfully mocks this caricature). Robinson eventually relieves Powell, but the officer stays put because he understands that he must work within the chain of command to properly help McClane. His fraternal union with McClane illustrates their strong bond despite their spatial separation. In this respect, the film argues that a responsible individual has strong loyalties beyond the self because individuals have responsibilities to each other.

The Powell-McClane relationship also forces the audience to understand that McClane’s success is based on the help of others. This thematic point becomes clearer when the police and FBI inadvertently help McClane when Gruber has to spend resources rebuffing their attempt to penetrate the Nakatomi building.[5] As the film concludes, McClane reunites with his wife, meets Powell in a cathartic embrace, and watches Powell kill the gang’s final member. Die Hard idolizes the American desire to rescue innocence from evil, where the flawed but righteous individual dissembles the evil found in groups and punishes (with great consequence) those who warrant punishment.[6]

Clearly, the film is not in love with evil, but it is in love with movie heroes and villains. At the time, Gruber represented a fresher kind of villain—one who uses his intellect and wit to gain power and money, one who defends neither borders nor bloodlines.[7] The perfect literary antithesis may have been the character of Takagi (James Shigeta), but, for all of his academic and corporate brilliance, he misreads Gruber and pays dearly for his gamble.

Takagi in Die Hard

Corporate Heroes? Heroes fail when they fail to act.

Thus, Die Hard doesn’t embrace the social supremacy of male power, for bosses like Takagi represent the failures of corporate leadership to properly control their mission (note the excesses of his “deal-making” employees), so he is executed trying to protect Nakatomi’s wealth. Rather, the narrative infuses heroism with a kind of vulnerability where the hero isn’t just involved in action. In a Henry Miller-esque sense, the hero acts. And McClane acts to defend others because he embodies older American values, the kind that embraces brotherhood and communion—not just individuality.[8]

No doubt, not every literary hero is an offspring of Achilles, but there is a bit of Achilles in every masculine hero who picks up a weapon and confronts his enemies. Western life gravitates toward this literary figure, the flawed figure who not only tries to resolve issues but often does so by using violence, and when he does, he puts himself at great risk. Like Achilles, McClane is vulnerable, but his Achilles’ heel isn’t his bloodied feet. Rather, his vulnerability is his love for his wife. Die Hard uses simple sociological models to frame its story, but the film’s ironic comments about the pluralism related to individualism offers some reality underneath its semi-caricaturized portraits of heroes and villains. For the film, the individual possesses a pluralistic nature rather than a single definition because individuals, in reality, have composite identities.

In casting the relatively unknown (at the time) Rickman, the film played on the traditional filmic conceit of British actors playing German villains. Because Gruber is a masterwork of profit-mongering, Rickman plays this catalytic, carefully stitched fabulist major as an alloyed killer who is comfortable only in tailor-made suits and working within his criminal plans. In Willis, McTiernan found a serviceable blend of youth and experience for McClane, a character who is both loving and violent, calculating and swift, a smart ass and a knight. Unlike Achilles and more like Odysseus, McClane is a family man who wants to reunite his family, so his improvised heroism isn’t to glorify war or battle; rather, his glory is in rescuing innocence from criminality.

Die Hard’s persistent moral argument is that the real work of men is using their powers to protect innocence–not merely accumulating material wealth. This story does well enough by embracing the vitality of the hero, one whose character is nurtured by the Achillean desire for personal righteousness but whose more modern purpose is to safeguard the innocent. What makes McClane more American than Hellenic is his desire to alter the circumstances to benefit others, a man who cares more about commitment than consensus, a man who willingly risks his safety for the sake of others.

This kind of morality still resonates with American audiences, for literary figures who warn against the mob, fight the demagogues, and protect the innocent are important moral voices in our democratic culture because these characters act on our behalf by proxy. And, if these figures fail, we all feel jeopardized, but when they succeed, we earn a catharsis.


End Notes

1. Gruber’s characterization of McClane as “John Wayne” is, of course, pejorative. In another brief comic moment, Gruber concedes that his knowledge of one terrorist group is gleaned from a Time article. The film argues that Gruber’s Romanesque classicism is far more merciless than the traditional education Nakatomi earns because his boldness is no match for Gruber’s greedy gamesmanship. Interestingly, the meeting between the men poses a problem. As Gruber walks among the corralled hostages searching for the executive while rattling off his biography, Gruber doesn’t know what this high-powered, highly-profiled corporate executive looks like. Really?

2. One could argue that Europe has been plundering the Americas ever since America’s discovery. But since the film’s debut twenty-five years ago, there have been political critiques and sociological studies about Euro-American distinctions, some of which contrast decaying European social models with America’s pursuit of wealth. Others have compared the lengthy vacations brokered by European unions to America’s quasi-puritanical work ethic.

3. It might be convenient to overlook the Americans in this criminal group because their Americanization contradicts the neatly defined crookery of European villainy. We know that Gruber isn’t very interested in supporting his revolutionary brothers despite his demands that governments free some of its terrorist captives. On the surface, his ruse makes some thematic sense because the Nakatomi Corporation is portrayed with some excess. We glimpse their immense and costly project in Indonesia, but the film focuses on what takes place at the party: an amalgam of sex, drinking, and drug-taking amid the high-priced decor adorning their offices. The film portrays corporate culture as a diversity of reckless pleasures and industrial hegemony—the enemy of proletarian revolutionaries.

4. There is a moment when Karl (Alexander Godunov) wants to break off and kill McClane for killing his brother, but Gruber compels him to seek vengeance later and stick with the plan. Here, group cohesion is more important than individual justice. On another note, contributing to the mock heroic-ness of the film is its linguistic problems (intentional?) with German.

5. The film seems to argue that relationships based on mutual experiences and beliefs—the kind of relationships that have great personal and social value—are ones based on choice. When people are forced to form alliances based on a common political enterprise (such as sharing power), these group formations tend to be less successful. Thus, alliances (be they criminal or civic) often fail to meet their intended goals. However, those relationships based on admiration, trust, love and respect (however chaotic they may seem) have a better chance of enduring because such relationships are more authentic, resilient.

6. Other critics have made this point about American films.

7. If McClane, for all of his Irish-Americaness, is Greek in his inheritance, then one can see the German Gruber as an offspring of a corrupt class of Roman officers who sold off or plundered part of the empire for personal profit.

8. Embedded within the narrative are several references to Christian symbolism, from gift-giving, holiday consumerism, prayer and to Vaughn Monroe’s version of “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”; then, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy closes the film (a piece that also serves as the frame for the Christian hymn, “Hymn to Joy”).

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