December 21, 2018
Brian Donohue

Die Hard Offers a Refreshing Perspective on the Stale Holiday Genre

Editor’s Note: The following article has absolutely nothing to do with security. This is what happens when everyone goes on vacation and leaves the new guy in charge. Hopefully it’s an entertaining read for all. We’ll resume your regularly scheduled security content in 2019. Ho, ho, ho!

I am sick and tired of people telling me that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie. In the next 1000 words or so, I plan to not only prove that it IS a Christmas movie, but that it’s one of the genre’s timeless classics.

So what makes a movie a Christmas movie? This is a tough question to answer, and one that puts Die Hard at something of a disadvantage because it’s not overtly about Christmas. There are no presents; there is no Santa Claus. Beyond setting a movie around Christmas, which Die Hard is, or making a movie primarily about Christmas, which Die Hard is not, there’s basically a list of tropes that, in part or full, every Christmas movie includes. So cliche are these tropes, that even the most casual observer of Christmas movies is probably aware of them.

In order to make my case for why Die Hard is in fact a Christmas movie (and a great one at that), I’m going to examine it against a list of popular tropes, several of which feature prominently in the movie—often in refreshing ways that deviate from the expected.

*Asterisks denote Christmas movie cliches.

Christmas Saves Family

At the onset of Die Hard, the McClane family is in disarray. Our protagonist, John McClane, arrives at Nakatomi Tower in Los Angeles after a long plane ride from New York City only to learn from the building directory that his wife, Holly, who’s been living with the kids in LA, has been going by her maiden name, Gennero. She makes up some flimsy excuse about how it’s customary in Japan for women to keep their maiden name, but any child of a divorce can see what’s really going on here: mom changed her name and dad is living 3,000 miles away and that’s a de facto separation no matter how you spin it. The family, to put it succinctly, is not okay, and they need a Christmas miracle* to save them.

Unlike most family-saving Christmas miracles, Die Hard isn’t awash with gross sentimentalities. To the contrary, the McClane family’s redemption is a trial by fire that plays out over a hostage situation at the Nakatomi Corporation company Christmas party.

The broad plot arc for John and Holly is one that goes from estrangement to reunion*, and I don’t think it’s up for debate whether or not this reunion resulted from a grand miracle or, at the very least, several minor miracles.

Christmas Miracles Abound

Regarding the grand miracle: John McClane—armed only with his street-cop guile and the service pistol he carried on to his flight from New York City—systematically hunts down and vanquishes 12 machine-gun toting German terrorists as they attempt to steal $640M in bearer bonds from the company vault.

The minor miracles are numerous, and I’m going to briefly list some of them:

  • John McClane survives countless hails of gunfire and explosions.
  • Sleazy, cocaine sniffing Nakatomi executive Harry Ellis gets his comeuppance (I imagine people applauded in the theater at this point).
  • Plot twist (this miracle is for the bad guys): the FBI demands that the energy utility cut power to Nakatomi tower, thereby enabling non-German terrorist and hacker Theo to open the vault.
  • Officer Al (the dad from Family Matters), after responding to a dispatch call and determining that nothing fishy was going on at Nakatomi Plaza, is just about to leave when John hurls a terrorist body out the window and on to the hood of his squad car.
  • John McClane even walks on glass at one point.

Christmas Song

Another important element of nearly any Christmas movie is the Christmas song*, and Die Hard has the best Christmas song. An original, no less—not just some Bing Crosby remake. While driving from the airport to Nakatomi Tower, limo driver (and fan favorite) Argyle slides a cassette into the tape deck of his limousine, and as the beat to Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis starts, John McClane asks, “Isn’t there any Christmas music?” To which Argyle exclaims, “This IS Christmas music!”

A Christmas Grinch

What is Alan Rickman’s character if not some interpretation of the classic Charles Dickens miser, Ebenezer Scrooge*? Of course, unlike Scrooge, who is redeemed after a trio of ghosts convince him that he’s an unlovable, monstrous hypocrite, Hans Gruber is irredeemable. And also unlike Scrooge, who merrily (and unbelievably) joins the Cratchit family, whose beloved, sickly son he had earlier condemned to certain death, for Christmas dinner, Hans Gruber must die by trickery, bullets, and falling.

Other Miscellaneous Christmas Things

After John kills (I believe) his first terrorist, he sticks his body in the elevator, puts a Santa hat* on his head, writes “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho”* on his crewneck sweatshirt, and sends the elevator down to floor where the rest of his terrorist friends are holding their hostages. There’s also hacker Theo’s exclamation of “Merry Christmas!”* when, at long last, the vault door swings open.

A Christmas Comparative

The only real contenders, to my mind, are It’s a Wonderful Life, which, contrary to the title, is a subversive film about financial ruin, suffering, and death (not in that order), and A Christmas Story, which is 94 minutes of Christmas-inspired comedy genius. Both are great, and I would entertain arguments for either as the greatest Christmas movie ever made. Beyond these, though, nearly every other Christmas movie is sappy to the point of nausea. Don’t get me started on Love Actually (which also starred Alan Rickman, interestingly).

In most Christmas movies, the nebulous spirit of Christmas finally transforms some morally ambiguous, antagonistic, and ultimately unlikable character into something benign and friendly. We the audience typically feel cheated, because we secretly hoped all along that the Christmas grinch would meet some fate far more terrible. Die Hard plays no such games, the characters we dislike get exactly what they deserve: death for each of the terrorists and Ellis and humiliation for the deputy police chief, FBI special agent, and TV reporter. And, of course, redemption for our hero and his family—just in time for Christmas Day.

Conclusion

Die Hard offers us a break from the repressive monotony of Christmas movies by flipping various Christmas movie cliches on their head in a 132 minute thrill-ride that will make you laugh and cry (maybe). It’s also a great reminder of a lesson that those of us in InfoSec know well; just because it’s Christmas, don’t let your guard down. The bad guys are always looking to take advantage of situations. (Marketing made me work that in.)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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